WITH five game of the season remaining, Rob McNichol assesses Monday's 2-1 defeat at Portsmouth, and addresses his play-off dream...
THE first season that I started to follow Plymouth Argyle, we got in the play-offs.
Two years later, we got into the play-offs again. As a young supporter, I could probably be forgiven for thinking that getting into football’s post-season knock-outs was to be a regular occurrence throughout my life.
Not so. Twice in the first three years, but not in the next 18. Wembley in May 1996 is still a vivid memory, but it would be nice to adorn it with a new experience, at the new home of English football. With each passing game, that vision gets ever closer, but there is still so much work to do.
It would, of course, be a different experience for me, should we get there again. There is a big difference between a 12-year-old supporter sitting behind the goal as the players emerged from the tunnel at our end, to a 31-year old perched in the press box working for the team he loves. But that is just me – the likelihood is that if you are reading this, then Argyle playing under the famous arch will bring with it your own personal story.
And that does not just go for supporters. Players, management too have got a special cause to be excited. If you think about how we, as bystanders, would feel with a Wembley win to propel us to Sky Bet League 1, it will be amplified in the mind of anyone who takes an active part.
Being on both sides of the experience feels quite unique. I still feel the same when a goal goes in, although I am supposed to suppress the urge to make the same noise as when I sat in seat Y97 in block 4 of the Devonport End (sometimes it is not always possible, as anyone in earshot of me when Reuben’s hat-trick goal went in a few weeks ago will attest.) However, working with players and management affords me a different outlook to when I used to simply rock up at Home Park, or tune into Argyle Player from home at about 2.45pm.
When John Sheridan brought up the subject of fans booing during the Newport game, it tore me up. Not because the fans booed, and not because of what John said. It was the idea of either side thinking bad of the other.
It really was just a miscommunication. I know exactly how amazing our supporters are on the whole, and I know how much John Sheridan wants us to win every week. I felt like I did when I was nine and my mum and dad had fallen out about something trivial. I did not care who was right or wrong, I just knew things were better when we were all on the same page.
That page is the one we were reading from at Cheltenham, and then again against Burton. It was so heartening, even when we were losing, that the Green Army stayed the course, and we got a result.
And so to Portsmouth. No ordinary game, especially in League 2. A crowd well into five figures, and the largest away contingency from our supporters (so far) this season. It was also shirt-sleeve weather, a sure sign that the season is drawing to a close and getting a bit serious, if you are near one end or other of the table.
Last year, we concluded the season here. Both teams were firmly mid-table by then, and there was nothing to play for, yet the crowd was still higher than the play-off final a few weeks later by about 4,000.
That day saw a 3-3 draw in which Danny Hollands scored a hat-trick for the home side, while goals from Reuben Reid and Conor Hourihane (twice) saw Argyle equalise on three occasions. Flash back to present day, and a 0-0 scoreline at half-time in this one suggests that the tale was quite different this time around, but the two duck eggs failed really to tell the story of the first 45.
Matt Tubbs, the top goalscorer in the division, had a chance saved by Luke McCormick inside sixty seconds, and would try to snaffle a couple of half-chances as the half went on, to no avail. In truth, it was Argyle who had by far and away the better chances. Zak Ansah and Dom Blizzard both made Paul Jones work hard, while Jason Banton probably wishes that the chance he dragged wide with his left foot from a glorious position had fallen to him on the other side.
Portsmouth, in truth, had a poor half. They struggled with ball retention from back to front throughout, and Argyle might have capitalised a bit better several times when Pompey’s profligacy looked to be their own undoing.
As the players trudged off at the break, deadlocked, there were a few scattered boos in the home end – not many, but some – and certainly little in the way of rapturous applause. From the away end, total support.
At half-time, some fitting music. “One way, or another,” sang Debbie Harry, “I’m gonna getcha - one way, or another.” I took it to be a sign that Argyle’s persistence in the first half would pay dividends in the second.
Sixty seconds into the second half, Portsmouth took the lead, suggesting that if there are fates guiding our fortunes, they do not care for musical metaphor.
They will have appreciated Jed Wallace’s goal, mind. The midfielder teed the ball up smartly on his left foot and fizzed it into the far corner from twenty yards. Without doubt the smartest piece of individual skill on show to that point.
There followed a fallow period for Argyle, in which nothing seemed to be easy – be that a short pass, or watching the spectacle from the stands. Sheridan made changes – Olly Lee and Lewis Alessandra coming on and looking immediately lively – which looked like it would galvanise us.
And then Portsmouth scored again.
A nice header from Ryan Taylor, who struck me as a very lively, effective and intelligent forward, went past Luke and into the net in front of the rapturous home end. I will not lie: I wanted to fold up the laptop and head for the hills, such that there are in coastal Hampshire. I thought we were in for a depressing and meek end to what was such an important fixture.
Not so. By the time the whistle blew the stark facts remained a depressing sight, but the period between Pompey’s second and the full-time whistle gave me great cause for optimism.
It was not necessarily the football, per se – although Argyle did have their best fifteen minutes of the game by far, as we searched in vain for an equaliser. It was the fact that there just seemed to be that momentum as our lads looked a yard quicker, hit the ball that much more crisper, and were causing panic in the Pompey ranks. At the same time, the volume from 1,780 Argyle fans audibly skyrocketed.
Did the noise level from the Green Army raise the players? Or did the goal and the subsequent play raise the decibel level? Who knows? And, as Barry Davies once eloquently said, who cares? The point is that the two went hand-in-hand. We all wanted the same thing, which was an equaliser, and we very nearly got it. For the conclusion of that game, nothing in the world mattered, save for getting the ball in the Pompey net one more time.
Concluding this piece on Tuesday morning, I am hugely brassed off – that’s the PG, family-friendly term I am forced to use – and I would not blame you for feeling the same way. But it is more a feeling of being cheesed off with circumstances than individuals. Blaming the players, the manager or the fans serves zero purpose to me right now – and that is not a sign of being blind, oblivious and thinking everything will be fine if I shut my eyes and wish upon Jiminy Cricket that we will get some luck. It is a realistic stance.
We need the players to get us results – and they need the fans to have their back. We really can all play our part.
There are five games to go, for sure. I want there to be eight. Nineteen years after Ronnie rose the highest, I am craving another Wembley moment. Let’s make it happen.