Exeter v Argyle - When Dan Dared
A GREAT man once said: "I can take the despair - it's the hope that gets me."It sounds like something uttered by the one of the great thinkers of a bygone age - it wasn't, it was John Cleese in the film Clockwise - but it is so true. Especially when it comes to football.
Twice last season Argyle were in positions of hope when playing against great rivals Exeter City. Firstly, after going a goal down at St James Park, Argyle hit a purple patch following the introduction from the bench of Reuben Reid and Luke Young. Reuben's power and pace was too much for City to handle, and a wonderful, curled free-kick by Luke levelled the game.
Argyle piled forward, forcing goalkeeper Artur Krysiak into numerous important saves, and looked to be in the ascendancy. Yet, just as the Green Army were convincing themselves that Argyle would go on to win, former Pilgrim Alan Gow scored on the break and Argyle were done. A late Scot Bennett goal rubbed salt into deep, annoyingly red, wounds. 3-1 at City. Ouch.
If anything, it felt worse at Home Park. Exeter's first league victory on our patch since 1992-93 came after Argyle had led 1-0 at half-time through a Reid penalty. Liam Sercombe and Eliot Richards, though, scored for City after the interval to put a huge dent in Argyle's play-off aspirations. This was the end of March, and the top seven was still in touching distance. Argyle came into the game with just three defeats in 12 games, but this would signal a steep decline. By the time the season ended we had lost five of the final eight games - a trend starting from the half-time interval in the aforementioned game.
It was Exeter's first 'double' over Argyle since 92-93. There have actually been very few 'doubles' done over the years. That is to say, one team beating the other both times during the league season. The last time Argyle achieved this feat was in 2001-02, in a pair of very memorable games - at least for Pilgrims!
In September 2001, Argyle were beginning what we now know to be the Sturrock renaissance. The fixture at Exeter was the eighth of the Division Three season, and the fourth on the road. After suffering dismal away form the previous season, we had begun the season with some traction away from HP. A draw at Hull, who were quietly fancied that season, was followed by wins at Rushden & Diamonds and Torquay, before pitching up at City.
The Rushden game had been quite the rollercoaster. After picking up just one point in the three opening fixtures, going 2-0 down at Nene Park was not the one. However, a sterling comeback gave Argyle a win and - some will argue - the catalyst to have a successful season. You could even be audacious and say it set us up for progress over the following six or seven years.
There is something about a 3-2 game. Some very memorable games have been 3-2 to Argyle in recent years. A couple of belters at Swindon spring to mind, as do comebacks at Bristol Rovers; Oxford away on Boxing Day last season; an early-season doozy at Sunderland, and others.
Winning 3-2 at Exeter was a special evening, though.
Former Grecian Martin Phillips had plenty of good days in the green and white, but he was a little bit special on that evening. Buster scored the opening goal on the night, sending the Green Army into raptures, but Exeter came fighting back. In a team that boasted ex-Pilgrims Martin Barlow and Sean McCarthy, it was former Argyle centre-back Chris Curran who drew City level, before Christian Roberts made it 2-1.
Manager Paul Sturrock's half-time blast has become stuff of legend. Substitutions and switches were made - and home truths were aired - and a different Argyle emerged. Michael Evans equalised on 65 minutes, before Ian Stonebridge, who had only been on the park 15 minutes, headed home magnificently in the last minute to give Argyle all three points.
Both second half goals came from crosses from the right by Phillips; it might have been his finest hour for Argyle. You know that modern trend where players try not to celebrate against their former club? Buster was not aware of that back in '01. Watch the delight on his face when the winner goes in, then his post-match celebrations, on the video attached below. It still raises a huge smile, some fourteen years on.
Later that season, when City came to Home Park, the entire place had undergone a transformation - in every way. Physically, three sides of the ground were fresh and new, as the Devonport, Lyndhurst and Barn Park stands had risen before our very eyes during the campaign. Spiritually, Sturrock had strapped the club to his back and lit the rocket boosters on his Adidas Copa Mundials. This was a club going places, and everyone knew it.
Exeter, under new boss John Cornforth, were on good form at the time, but Argyle were top of the league and showing the confidence of a team that knew they were destined for promotion. Jon Beswetherick, who had been a victim of Luggy's half-time roasting at St James Park, had a blinder, laying on the first goal in the opening stages. His cross caused panic among the City ranks, and was eventually smashed home with glorious precision and power by Steve Adams...from about 0.7 of a yard.
It ended up being a piece of goal-line poaching that robbed Marino Keith of a Home Park hat-trick. Marino scored a second before half-time - courtesy of a hefty deflection off of Curran - and scored a magnificent goal after the break to put the gloss finish on a glorious night.
Thirteen years on, I can still picture that goal in my mind's eye. I was sitting in block 12, or thereabouts, with a perfect angle to see Marino's precision strike from 30-yards into the top corner and a perfect platform to celebrate with 16,000 or so of the Green Army. Marino scored his goals for fun that night - I know, because I heard some people sing a song about it soon after.
Until that I night I thought we could go up, and I thought we would go up. Leaving the ground, I knew we would go up. That was not a bad Exeter team, but it was a very fine Argyle one, and the cliche of derby games being tight affairs was blown away that wonderful evening. 3-0 was kind to Exeter - we were that good.
It was many years until we met again - and I know where, and when. It was at Home Park, and Exeter enjoyed that night, and deservedly so. After eight-and-a-half years waiting for revenge, City got it with a 2-1 win in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. Argyle, fueled by Bradley Wright-Phillips, hit back with a 2-0 win at home in the league fixture, but the bragging rights were back in East Devon at the end of the season, when City's 1-0 win, to all intents and purposes, relegated Argyle.
City have slightly held the upper hand ever since. Three games at St James since are yet to yield an Argyle win - two 1-1 draws, with one ending with a comprehensive Exeter win on penalties in the JPT, and last years 3-1 scoreline have made for unhappy viewing.
At Home Park, things have been better. Last year's loss still rankles, but Jason Banton's goal against the Grecians was a crucial one in restoring pride and retaining our league status two seasons ago, and earlier this season the 3-0 victory, with goals all scored by players to have represented Argyle in youth football - Tyler Harvey, Reuben Reid and Curtis Nelson - was a wonderful day, too.
From the Wall of Colour that greeted the players on arrival for the first home fixture of this season, to captain Curtis' swivel and shot to round the game off, it was an Green day.
The opponents that day were a sorry-looking City, only one day out of a transfer embargo and giving the air of a side very much feeling sorry for itself. One would be forgiven for assuming that if Argyle's season was to be spent trying to get out of the division via the velux window - or at least the chimney block - then City might be happy to simply stay in it by avoiding the trapdoor through the basement.
However, we line-up on Saturday just three places apart, and though Argyle have a six point advantage and a game in hand over City, it has been a creditable season for Exeter thus far. They are not out of the play-off hunt, and a win would draw them even closer. For Argyle, a fourth straight win that looked so unlikely during the drive home from Hartlepool, which took about 10 weeks. Or at least it felt like it.
Attaining the first double over our biggest rivals since Buster and Trigger and Stoney and Stevie and Dan and Luggy sorted it in 01-02 is not going to be a walk in the park - be it Home or St James.
It will, though, feel as good as any result, this season or any other, and will be laced with plenty of significance.
See you at 1pm. I'll be the one in the green.