CHRIS Groves takes an alternative look at a fantastic Derby Day, as Argyle beat Exeter 3-1 at St James Park...
Rivalries between opponents is one of the key, intangible facets of sport that make it so great to be a part of.
We love spending the week before a game verbally sparring harmlessly with fans the other side of the fence before seeing footballers, a breed of human criticised often for being out of touch with us mere mortals, raise their levels of intensity and wear the club colours with more pride than ever.
The desire to succeed over an adversary can often mean that the usual worries of a football club – promotion, survival, form or fitness – pale into insignificance for 90 minutes. Many a football fan will tell you that it does not matter when, where or in what context you face your nearby rivals; a local derby is a local derby, and all the matters is winning. That being said, throwing in an extra, longer-term objective to win never does any harm to a derby’s sense of occasion, and when both teams enter into battle with a common goal, tension and fervour can reach even greater heights.
Perhaps, then, that makes this confrontation between Plymouth Argyle and Exeter City the most important Devon Expressway Derby of the 21st century.
When looking for a true, season-defining moment that took place in this fixture, eyes often turn to the early stages of Argyle’s title-winning 2001-02 campaign, on a famous evening at St James Park, when Argyle won 3-2.
That season, City, managed by John Cornforth, were unable to push beyond mid-table obscurity like their nearby adversaries. Heading into the final quarter of the2014-15 season, both Devon clubs are well within their rights to believe that promotion from Sky Bet League 2 is achievable, so a win for either team would not only give them local bragging rights, but also the chance to strengthen their aspirations of going up whilst weakening their opponents.
This latest meeting, then, had an additional something about it – not that these games ever need it - exemplified by the outstanding support of both sets of supporters on the day. A rowdy St James Park faithful were often matched decibel for decibel by an Argyle following that usurped the entire attendance for Accrington Stanley’s home game against Cheltenham Town the night before by some 400 people.
Peter Hartley and Tareiq Homes-Dennis were the first to emit the sort of blood and thunder that the Green Army admire. Attributes like that are key to succeeding in situations such as this – but it is always nice to have luck on your side, too.
After 27 minutes of rather forceful sparring, Bobby Reid attempted to volley home a looped clearance from outside the box, but instead succeeded in scuffing a pass between Exeter’s defences to the feet of Reuben Reid, who placed home his 15th goal of the season. The substantial slice of the ground draped in Green rose and roared in jubilation. Most of them would have told you at the time that their joy was predominantly due to Exeter’s demise, but the bigger picture of promotion just a little bit closer once Argyle forged ahead.
The local derby tropes continued: Luke McCormick acquired a battle scar to his head that needed to be bandaged up, but the stoppage allowed the hosts to collect themselves and reassess their strategy. The delay also broke the stride of Argyle, who were previously channelling their catalysed adrenaline into a near-dominant display. Perhaps a mental glimpse of the Sky Bet League 2 table caused Sheridan’s team to allow their foes to gain a foothold in the match. A spell of Exeter pressure concluded near the end of the first half as Jordan Moore-Taylor’s low cross trickled all the way across the area for Arron Davies to tap home.
Whilst narrowly before the break is the classic ‘good time to score’, the hosts probably would have fancied staying on the pitch to take advantage of their momentum. It was now Argyle’s time to re-evaluate, and maybe 15 minutes of time too cool off for both teams would let them consider the opinion that a point from this game would not be the end of the world.
Far from it.
Sheridan had appeared to rejuvenate his lads, and the ever-confident Bobby Reid once again played a teammate through on goal – this time Lewis Alessandra, who after easily outpacing makeshift centre back Matt Oakley, was pulled down by the veteran inside the box. Reuben stepped up to smash his team back in front and overcome a tricky spell, but it was nowhere the worst of the adversity they would have to hurdle.
Goals, bandages, aggression: all this local derby needed was a sending off and a spot of handbags complete the set. A loose ball rolled all too ominously between the middle of Olly Lee and Tom Nichols, and the diminutive (and impressive) Exeter forward came off second best in what seemed to be a fairly contested challenge. Referee Graham Scott disagreed, sending off Lee and threatening to sway the momentum back in Exeter’s favour once more. Of course, a more positive way of thinking would be to consider the decrease in numbers as just another obstacle you can take pride in defeating. Thankfully, the Greens opted for the latter school of thought.
On 71 minutes, Reid was at again, giving City defenders a lesson in using athleticism to your advantage and rounding shot-stopper Christy Pym. Reuben still had to stop in his tracks at a tight angle and find a way past two defenders to net his third, but he ruthlessly fired home to become the first ever Argyle player to score a hat-trick in this fixture away from Home Park; a nice piece of history to give this match even more prestige than its peers. Reid injured his foot as he scored the final goal, leading to him having to limp off the field amidst a green sea of adulation. Yes, extremely unfortunate – but, my word, was it poetic.
Despite the disadvantage in numbers, Sheridan’s team had already shown the capability to defy this difficulty, so the victory never really seemed in doubt for the 19 minutes after the third goal. Sometimes, occasions like this can deprive you of what you deserve, due to rushes of blood or circumstances out of your hands playing a bigger part in the result than purely performances. Argyle’s 3-1 win over Exeter was down in no small part to a determination to simply not let that happen.
So let us turn our eyes back toward that aforementioned, special day in 2002. It was the last time we beat Exeter City away from the safety of Home Park, in the last season that we achieved promotion from the fourth tier of English football…
Tell me you do not believe in omens now. I dare you