Pressure Watcher

WE gave CHRIS GROVES the task of looking at Tuesday's game against Dagenham & Redbridge from a different perspective, hoping he would rise to the pressure...

‘Pressure’ [presh-er] ‘the exertion of force upon a surface by an object, fluid etc, in contact with it.’

Hang on, that can’t be right… A-ha! Here we go:

‘Pressure’ [presh-er] ‘In social context: a constraining or compelling force or influence.’

In a sporting context, pressure is perhaps the cruellest mistress of them all. Pressure has no time to hear about your dreams and aspirations. Pressure regularly flies in the face of common sense and youthfully scribbles all over the pages of the form guide. 

As the description above stresses, pressure is a force, and of all the intangible facets of football, many a coach would tell you that it’s the one that they wish they could make tangible. As a matter of fact, it could be argued that some clubs are doing everything in their power to make it tangible. The likes of Liverpool and England’s Steve Peters, as well as our very own John Harbin, endeavour to assist players to be in the correct mental state to perform at their best, in the hope of repelling potential weaknesses – like caving in under pressure.

Due to being of a slightly younger generation than one may expect a sports journalist to reside in, my experiences of watching Argyle fend off the pressure in a season-long slog have been under much different circumstances to this current campaign. Once I surpassed the days of merely taking my seat in the Lyndhurst stand at 2:50pm on a Saturday afternoon and comparing the team’s performance to my own exploits in FIFA ’06, any moments of true analysis of Argyle’s performance or psychological standpoint would usually be staged under the overhanging gloom of relegation. 

I’ve watched as a goalless draw late in a season to Bradford City – in which Nick Chadwick missed a last-gasp scoring opportunity that, despite his commitment to the cause, he seemed to go out of his way to spurn – appeared to doom us to a downwards exit from the Football League. I’ve been a part of many a conversation where fellow fans map out the remainder of the seasons, and statements like “one win in the next seven games should be enough”, or “maybe we can nick a point against Barnet” are genuinely sound hypotheses. 

This season, however, the pressures that our latest Pilgrims must battle against are very different. 

We are no longer in a position where mediocrity will suffice, and the mistakes of one week can be made null and void by a better showing next week. Without meaning to sound too much like a pre-match team talk, every point counts when you are staking a claim for promotion. This season’s Sky Bet League 2 roster happens to hold a number of teams that, in the opinion of many, could more than hold a candle to the sides struggling in League 1, all of which surround Argyle in the table and are pushing for the same prize. The Greens have not found themselves outside a potentially prosperous position (lower than 10th, in this instance) since before they saw off Shrewsbury Town in early October, so one or two nervy showings in these last ten games could prove incredibly costly. You can only hope that seemingly routine fixtures are not scuppered by pressure coming into play…

…routine fixtures like a midweek trip to Dagenham & Redbridge.

In the mid-19th century, an American by the name of Carl B. Frank begun to import a rare, exotic herb known as the ‘Banana’ to New York City, with its taste and low value proving to be a huge hit with the locals. But there was a problem: a dense population mixed with a rather relaxed view on sanitation in the city led to the skins of the exotic food stuff discarded all over the sidewalks of the cities they branched out to. Wild pigs chomping up the litter often provided the only respite from people slipping up, except for in St Louis, where the city council opted to totally forbid the “throwing or casting” of banana skins as countless injuries were recorded. 

Skip forward a couple centuries and a few thousand slapstick sketches and the once-feared act of losing your footing on the herb is now but an overused metaphorical term for sports teams struggling to see off seemingly inferior opposition. It was Dagenham & Redbridge, occupying 18th position in the table, nine points away from the drop and thirteen off the play-offs – a situation far less exciting and, in equal part, terrifying, than Argyle’s. No pressure for the hosts, then, whilst the visitors to the (takes deep breath) London Borough of Barking & Dagenham Stadium would have to deal with the weight of short-term expectation on top of the usual stresses and strains. 

Whilst the Pilgrims’ early energy and work-rate seemed to defy any potential burden that lay upon them, with John Sheridan’s men enjoying a great deal of possession, there was often a certain, heightened fear of losing the ball that made their play pretty rudimentary at times, overlooking runs made by forwards and deciding against those risky but calculated passes that can cut teams open. Dagenham, meanwhile, had a certain freedom about their play – almost a swagger at times – that bore fruit on the half-hour mark. Clever work from Ashley Chambers and Jamie Cureton around Luke McCormick’s box led to the former forcing a save from the keeper, but Abu Ogogo flew in at the far post to poke the rebound home.

Though it had little part to play in Argyle going behind, perhaps pressure played a significant part in them staying behind: after 39 minutes, Lewis Alessandra crossed the ball in low to provide the sort of chance that Reuben Reid will gobble up 99 times out of 100 at Harper’s Park during training – when there’s nothing on the line. For so many footballers who, contrary to the belief of some, are indeed human, safe percentages such as that rapidly diminish in the heat of battle, and Reid’s side-footed effort found its way over the crossbar. Ashley Chambers repeated the feat for the London club early in the second half, spurning the simplest of chances, as a sniff of victory potentially wafted past his nostrils. 

Indeed, the pendulum of pressure tended to swing against the Daggers in the final 20 minutes, as the finish line began to come into sight and Argyle threw on forward players like Jason Banton and Ryan Brunt, but wear-and-tear signs were beginning to show. Players like Olly Lee and Bobby Reid, full of potential and quality, were almost too keen to make things happen. The usual confidence and vigour in Argyle’s play made way far too often for something more rudimentary. Forced. Pressurised. 

The valiant push for an equaliser flirted with pulling something out of the fire right until the end, but Cureton snuffed out the flames in the dying embers of the game with a coolly lofted shot over McCormick and into the net. As the great commentator Warren Larrivee calls out every time the Green Bay Packers punch in a key touchdown or kick the game-winning field goal: “there is your dagger!”

It goes without saying that this Plymouth Argyle team are far better than this particular showing would suggest, but once you accept that, it is time to start trying to identify the potential reasons for their sub-standard performance. Consistency, fatigue and just plain bad luck will have played some small part in the outcome for sure, as they always do, but the inevitable effect of pressure cannot be denied here. 

Still, with nine games left to go, the Greens are very much in the chase for the play-offs, with some favourable fixtures and five matches at Home Park still to contest. Mind-sets may not be too aspirational after a defeat such as this, but there is still a major opportunity for Argyle to clinch their first promotion in over a decade. 

No pressure, then.