AS Argyle and Luton get ready to meet at Home Park this Saturday, Rob McNichol looks back on a season in which both clubs will never forget.THERE is something to be said for the siege mentality.
Sir Alex Ferguson famously used it to his advantage when he was manager of Aberdeen. Drumming into his players that the Scottish football authorities, and the media, were staunchly pro-Old Firm, Ferguson propelled Aberdeen to three Premier League titles, four Scottish Cups and a European Cup Winners Cup success, before heading south to create an even greater legacy at Manchester United.
During the 2001-02 Division three season - one of the most memorable seasons ever at Home Park – a figure appeared that seemed to unite anyone with an Argyle persuasion – Joseph Patrick Kinnear.
Let us start with a very important note – Joe Kinnear has a good record as a football manager, and did an excellent job at Luton. There is little disputing that fact, and Hatters would have every right to look on his tenure as manager with fondness.
However, he failed to endear himself to the Green Army. With just cause, he was nicknamed ‘The Luton Lip’, and made numerous disparaging remarks about Argyle, and Plymouth in general, over the course of the season.
By the end of the season, Luton were promoted, having amassed an astonishing 97 points. They did so winning 15 away games during the campaign, and at one point setting a club record of 12 consecutive victories.
But they did not win the league.
Argyle’s 102 points tally smashed almost every record going, as the Pilgrims won the league title under the stewardship of manager Paul Sturrock in his first full season as Argyle manager.
His management team included Kevin Summerfield, John Blackley and Geoff Crudgington, but Luton boss Kinnear may well have been as big a motivator to the Argyle squad as anyone.
On September 29, 2001, Luton came to Home Park as the league leaders. Argyle were seventh, and in good nick – after losing two of the first three games, the Pilgrims were unbeaten in seven, having been victorious on five of those occasions.
The league though, according to Kinnear, was virtually sewn up. “We’re well clear of anybody in the league,” he said, before the trip to the south west. It would not prove to be so.
Home Park was an odd sight – and, indeed, an odd site – at this juncture. After three sides of the ground had been levelled, the Devonport end resembled the foot of a pyramid, as the structure of the steps was still a skeleton; the Barn Park end looked like part of the assault course on the Krypton Factor; and the Lyndhurst stand was still laying unassembled in Barr Construction’s warehouses.
Still, almost 6,000 fans packed into the what remained of Home Park, and the mood was electric. “I have never heard our supporters shout and bawl and support a team like they did that day. It was unbelievable,” said Paul Sturrock, who led the Greens at the time.
The sense of annoyance at the words of Kinnear were further enflamed by referee Andy Hall’s decision to send off Michael Evans in the first half for what essentially amounted to jumping for a header. Mr Hall believed that Evans had elbowed his marker – a panel disagreed, and later rescinded the red card – and it reduced Argyle to ten men with the scores level at 1-1.
Luton had in fact taken the lead through Dean Crowe, who could lay claim to one of the shortest Argyle careers ever. Crowe joined Argyle, on loan from Stoke City, on the eve of the season, and played 24 minutes as a substitute on the opening day of the campaign.
He then promptly left, citing family reasons, only to pitch up Luton, where he starting banging in goals with some regularity – including at Home Park against those he called team-mates for a cup of coffee.
Martin Phillips equalised for Argyle before Evans was dismissed, but Argyle were superb on the day. David Friio scored just before half-time, with what proved to be the winning goal, and the Pilgrims produced a display as full of hard work and discipline as you will ever see.
Ian Stonebridge was magnificent playing as a lone striker; Jason Bent made his debut and became an instant hero; and the back-four and goalkeeper unit – David Worrell, Brian McGlinchey, Paul Wotton, Graham Coughlan and Romain Larrieu were impenetrable.
In fact they were all heroes – and so were the Green Army. There have been three times more inside the Theatre of Greens and less racket has been made.
It may seem a little strange, if you do not recall the events of that season, that so much time and webspace be devoted to one little game in the September of a season, but this was a huge moment, and a microcosm of what was to occur throughout the campaign.
A Luton side with undoubted ability was ultimately not quite good enough to topple a resolute Argyle on that afternoon – nor over 46 games. And through it all, everyone in Green, from chairman and managers, through the players and into the stands, stood united.
The outbursts from Kinnear continued. Most were unwarranted, some had more standing in truth. His description of Luton’s 2-0 victory at Kenilworth Road over Argyle in February 2002 as “a massacre” was somewhat vulgar, but he had a point when he said: “We had more will to win and created the better opportunities. We were the better side.”
Luton were on that occasion, but by then Argyle were clear. This victory brought Luton closer, but the Pilgrims held on to their lead. Promotion was sealed with six games remaining, but the Hatters were only seen off in the penultimate game of the season, as Argyle won 4-1 on a memorable night at Darlington.
Darlington vacated their director’s box after the game to allow Argyle’s players to celebrate facing the supporters, who had invaded the pitches. “Are You Watching Joe Kinnear?” sang the Green Army – and the players joined in!
Kinnear’s comments touched nerves but they inspired one of the most thrilling seasons in the history of our football club, and it should always be remembered what an excellent Luton side Kinnear assembled and inspired.
Argyle meet Luton this Saturday, January 17, at Home Park, at 3pm. To get your tickets for the game, call 0845 872 3335 or visit www.eticketing.co.uk/pafc