Nil By (Ply)Mouth

CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD takes an alternative look at Southend v Argyle on Saturday...

It’s not often that two successive wins guarantee you to improve your league position by two places, but that was the prospect facing Argyle ahead of the fixture against sixth-placed Southend, followed by the visit of fifth-placed Luton to Home Park next week.

However, winning matches involves scoring goals, and the stats in that regard were not unduly promising. There are only two teams in League Two whose matches have yielded an average of under two goals per game, and those teams are, you guessed it, Southend and Argyle. With Argyle being scoreless in five of their last six matches on the road and Southend being the fourth-lowest scorers in the division, the strong feeling was that a single goal would be enough to take the points.

In truth, the first half showed why, with plenty of progressive football being played by both sides and clear chances created, but no entries in the goals column.

For Argyle, Lewis Alessandra failed to beat Daniel Bentley in a one-on-one, and Andy Kellett almost repeated his once-in-a-lifetime goal at Northampton, but that’s the trouble with once-in-a-lifetime events - you can’t repeat them unless you have more than one lifetime, and as far as I know, Kellett is neither a Buddhist nor a cat.

Southend’s response to the fact that you have to go down to Cheltenham Town in 17th place to find a team that has scored fewer league goals was to sign Joe Pigott on loan from Charlton just ahead of the match. The young centre-forward looked a decent player on this evidence, and he would have had a debut goal to savour if he had been playing pretty much anyone else in Sky Bet League 2; because no-one else in League 2 has Luke McCormick between the sticks. Pigott’s header could not have been better, but McCormick’s agility and magnetic gloves enabled him to pull off a remarkable catch as the ball appeared to have already passed him.

Bobby Reid's return to Bristol City at the end of his loan spell opened the door for Jason Banton, who has struggled to impose himself as a substitute when he has only had 15 minutes to make a mark. His first League start since September 16 gave him the opportunity to remind everyone just how good he can be, with his quick feet creating Alessandra’s chance, as well as another for Anthony O’Connor.

Southend’s solution to dealing with Banton’s threat was to man-mark him, with the job going to Gary Deegan, who looks like a man who will act first and ask questions later, if at all. To describe him as hard as nails would be to flatter the nails.

However, looks can be deceptive, as Deegan proved to be the home side’s best player in an all-action performance that displayed considerable footballing nous alongside his physicality. The match-up with Banton was one of the most pleasing aspects of a very watchable first half.

Having the strong wind behind them in the second half encouraged Southend to shoot from distance, with ex-Pilgrim Ryan Leonard keen to try his luck, although his efforts all ended up in the Frank Walton stand behind McCormick’s goal.

The stand is an oddity: two-tier, but with only 7 rows of seats on the top and 6 rows below. And in this instance, below really does mean directly below, as the front of the stand is actually vertical, with no rake at all. You just have to hope that when a goal is scored, the guys on the top level don’t get too excited, otherwise it would be a bit like the Young Ones on University Challenge (apologies to those readers aged under 40, but it is sure to be on YouTube).

It was York revisited in the 55th minute, as an Argyle attack broke down and within 5 seconds McCormick was pulling off a fine save from Shaquille Coulthirst at the other end. The same happened again three minutes later, but this time Coulthirst wasted the chance. Argyle’s ability to turn attack into defence in the blink of an eye really is without parallel.

That said, they are well positioned to repel the rapid counter-attack, with a goalkeeper and defence so resolute that they have now kept a clean sheet in over half their league matches this season.

This resilience was never more in evidence than in the 78th minute, as McCormick and the defence somehow came out on top in an almighty scramble when the odds looked stacked against them. The look of disbelief on the face of home skipper John White as he was twice thwarted at point-blank range said it all.

Moments later, an even more unbelievable scramble unfolded at the other end, as Kellett’s shot was flicked onto the crossbar by Flanagan. From the rebound, Reuben Reid was left with his head in his hands as he too had to give second-best to the woodwork. Argyle 0 Crossbar 2.

The second goalless draw in a week could not have been more different from the first, and the 562 Argyle fans who made the trip would have gladly answered 'Yes' to the question 'Are You Having Fun?' (as compared to a resounding 'No' from the 528 at York seven days earlier).

As for the visit of Luton next week, hold on to your hats.