Tough Going

ARGYLE drew 0-0 at Oxford on Saturday, in what was hardly a classic. Rob McNichol, though, scratches beyond the surface, and gets under starters orders...

So, how did you get on at Cheltenham this week? Did you have a little flutter every day? Maybe you only picked one in the Gold Cup, on Friday. You may even have gone for Coneygree, the winner, as it sounds a little like ‘come on you greens’, if spoken after a couple of glasses of champers in the Golden Miller bar. If you did, jolly well done. 

The brilliant thing about sport is that wonderful stories are told during top class events. They can be sad – such as Annie Power crashing out at the last fence on Tuesday – or genuinely moving. If you watched the build up to the Gold Cup, you may have noticed that a story was set up for virtually any winner. 

There was the trainer without a big winner in years, with the successful owner that has never won the big one (Many Clouds); the class horse going for the win at the third attempt (Silviniaco Conti); the jockey/trainer combo sweeping all before them (Djakadam); the greatest ever jockey in his final race (Carlingford Lough); and numerous other narratives that would make for perfect Saturday morning reading. 

As it was, the winning horse was the first novice to win the big one since Captain Christy in 1974, and represented a small yard. Throw in that the breeder was a former Channel 4 Racing stalwart, and there you have stories aplenty.

I was actually at day one of the Festival, on Tuesday, just the other side of the Cotswolds from where I am beginning this piece, and it was a great experience. The reaction when Douvan, the favourite in the first race, touched down after jumping the last sounded exactly like a football crowd celebrating a last-minute winning penalty. First the hush before the fence, then the elation as the horse touched down, several lengths clear, akin to the ball striking the net from twelve yards. The football touch continued; as winning jockey Ruby Walsh trotted past the packed stand, thousands of punters, happy at winning a few quid, chanted “Ruby, Ruby” at the grinning Irishman. 

Here at the Kassam Stadium, on the Boxing Day before last, we had one of those aforementioned penalties. With the score at 1-1 and over 10,000 in the stadium, Reuben Reid stepped up to the mark and fired Argyle into the lead. Another goal followed from the boot of our thoroughbred number 9, and we ran out 3-2 winners on a memorable day. “Ruby, Ruby”? We prefer “Reuben, Reuben.”

Our last visit also featured the Coneygree-like rookie story. John Sheridan’s quest to find a regular left-back was perhaps his most trying task in his first year in the job, and so turned to untried teenager Ben Purrington to fill the void, still five months shy of his 18th birthday. Young Ben did a fine job, winning a header and a tackle within minutes of the start, and has continued to show that he has potentially a big future. 

To the present day, and another interesting story regarding a left-sided player. Tareiq Holmes-Dennis has played more games for opponents Oxford this season than he has for Argyle, but after United let him return to Charlton after a loan spell, Sheridan stepped in and slotted him straight in as a replacement for Andy Kellett. The gaffer had been impressed with Tareiq when Oxford got the win over Argyle at Home Park in December, and his performances in the green-and-white have justified the acquisition. 

He was not the only Pilgrim lining up against his old team. Luke McCormick got a pleasingly friendly reception from the London Road end of the last ground he called home, and Argyle might have had a couple more former U’s on show, were it not for injuries, short- and long-term respectively, to Lee Cox and Deane Smalley. 

On the other side of the fence, Alex MacDonald, twice an Argyle loanee, started the game for Oxford, having signed for them in January. When he met Argyle earlier in the season, for previous club Burton Albion, he had scored their opening goal. 

It was a notable feature of the first half that MacDonald, being asked to play on the right side of midfield in a 4-4-2, spent much of his time occupied by Holmes-Dennis, bombing forward, and Reuben Reid, drifting left. However, the best chance of the opening stages went clearly to MacDonald’s team-mate Patrick Hoban, who leaped upon Josh Ruffels’ scuffed shot only to skew the ball over the bar from no more than eight yards with the goal gaping. 

Holmes-Dennis was having a mixed afternoon, seemingly having equal amounts of moments of pleasure and pain back on familiar turf. Well, I say turf, but the flank on which he was operating seemed largely devoid of any grass at all. In fairness to the ground-staff, the pitch is shared by other professional sports teams. We wish them luck, and offer a quick word of advice – pick two spinners, as it looks likely to turn on the third day. 

Fittingly, in a motoring town, Argyle looked to have some useful operators working in the engine room. Chief mechanic was Drew Talbot, with pistons constantly pumping, giving him sufficient horsepower to be effective in both halves. There was a five-minute spell where every loose ball seemed to land at Drew’s feet. Including one miscued shot that landed in the car park. 

Alongside Drew Anthony O’Connor was his usual horrible self (I mean that as a huge compliment, incidentally) and Bobby Reid looked in the mood to show off his lightening footwork, as Argyle’s middle three were generally winning the battle for the cherished territory in the centre of the field. 

The last couple of minutes of the half saw the most tension. First, MacDonald made a hefty challenge on Reuben that the latter reacted angrily to. Is it sitting on the fence to say that I can understand why Reuben was a little annoyed, but at the same time it seemed a fair tackle, packed with aggression rather than malice? It was a flashpoint that came and went, but would not be the last time Reuben was at the centre of things. 

A decent spell of Argyle pressure looked like coming to fruition when Kelvin Mellor swept in an excellent right wing cross which Reuben met on the run with a glancing header. He managed to hit the frame of the goal twice; first the ball hit the crossbar, then cannoned against the goal-post before finally being launched away. Reuben span away in the opposite direction, perhaps at first to celebrate, then to plead to the assistant referee that the ball had crossed the line. From my vantage point – a very good one, as it happens – it looked to hit the line, but not wholly cross it. It was mightily close, though. 

At half-time, the PA in the Kassam played Ruby, by the Kaiser Chiefs, although whether in homage to our striker or the jockey is unclear. 

MacDonald may not have been thrilled with his manager’s half-time instructions, as when Oxford lined up for the second half, Alex was on the left. We are sure he is plenty comfortable in playing on that flank, but this left him in the same area of the pitch, with its poor surface quality, as in the first period. Mind you, his curling effort – whether meant as shot or cross - soon after the break very nearly crept inside the far post. 

Midway through the second half, Sheridan was the first manager to change things up. Off came Bobby Reid and Lewis Alessandra, replaced by Olly Lee and Jason Banton. The latter had made a startling impact as a substitute at Stevenage in our previous away game, and Olly had scored in his only replacement appearance, at Hartlepool. 

Both showed endeavour – as did Ryan Brunt, who came on with ten minutes remaining - but it is hard to get away from the fact that this was simply not a good game of football. A sticky pitch and two well-matched sides meant chances were very much at a premium, and the game petered out to its inevitable goalless conclusion. 

After the game, as fans filed away and the stadium clean-up began, the ground staff put a rope in front of the pitch, complete with obligatory sign saying ‘Keep Off The Grass’. That was a little like telling the kids not to mess up granddad’s hair, even though Pops has been bald since about 1978. 

So, like Paul Nicholls trying to explain the favourite’s disappointing display in the Gold Cup, we will blame the ground, put the effort down to experience, and go again. While Silviniaco Conti might have to wait three weeks to race at the Aintree meeting, we are back on the horse on Tuesday night in Dagenham. 

The season is approaching the final furlong, and we do not intend on smiling for the photo finish.