We Made It

ON the opening day of the 2011-12 season, freshly relegated Argyle went to Shrewsbury Town. After returning on Saturday, Rick Cowdery turns back the clock to that landmark day...

THE last time we played at Greenhous Meadow, we nearly did not play at Greenhous Meadow.

The circumstances which preceded our only previous match at Shrewsbury Town’s new home, on the opening day of the 2011-12 season, made merely being there a triumph that will never be surpassed as long as an Argyle remains in Plymouth.

It is almost too painful to recall the pitiful build-up to what was infinitely more than just a game, to remember the six months of madness which led to a Shropshire date that we looked less and less capable of fulfilling the nearer it came as the effects of Home Park’s new world financial meltdown threatened to drag the club under. Probably for ever.

A week before that League 2 season started, on August 6, we had no team, no kit, no realistic long-term prospects.  We had done well to get to within a week of the opening day, quite frankly, but, nevertheless, the unstinting, uncomplaining, efforts of the unpaid players and staff, and the life-saving support they received from the Green Taverners and green-bloods, looked like it might have all been in vain.

Then, imperceptibly at first, the summer of despondency gradually ceded to an autumn of hope.

We had foregone our usual pre-season photocall that summer – the traditional media obligation that signals to the world a club’s readiness for the long road ahead, all sharp smiles, slick haircuts and inherent optimism. We did not have enough players to form a decent team group, and even if we did, there was no kit for them to wear. Nothing to smile about; no optimism; some could not even afford to visit the city’s cheapest barber.

However, new players arrived to boost manager Peter Reid’s options, although admittedly not by much; then a strip turned up, courtesy of PUMA. It was not the black-with-emerald-green-slash top which the first Pilgrims had worn in 1886 and which we had wanted to adopt for our 125th anniversary season, but it was a kit. It had a sponsor’s name, too – WH Bond. Come the end of the week, we were alive and kicking off a new campaign.

Of course, these arrivals were not a happy accident. It had taken an extreme effort over a long period of time to get to a position which any other club would regard as hopelessly inadequate as a launching-pad for the new campaign. No-one typified this determination, this slog against the odds, more than Peter Ridsdale, Plymouth Argyle’s unlikely figurehead at a point in its history when it needed leadership of strength and perspicacity.

Many myths have been peddled by more than a few myth-peddlers about who did what for whatever motive during the club’s time in administration but those few of us who were there day in, day out, on the inside, know what they need to know and I am not alone in believing that, without Peter, there would be no Plymouth Argyle today.

Everyone thinks they know Peter. They have read about him and…well, if it is in the papers, it must be true, mustn’t it? Following the death of Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, the other members of the group published an epitaph to him on their Through the Past Darkly LP:

“If this you see, remember me 
And bear me in your mind 
Let all the world say what it may 
Speak of me as you find.”

Hopeless doggerel, really, but not a bad maxim by which to live your life.

He is no saint, Peter, for sure, and he would never claim to be, but he was the right man in the right place at the right time for Argyle. His drive; his knowledge of football and football people; his tenacity; his belief…all these served our club well in its darkest days. Back at Shrewsbury in 2011, just after Carl Fletcher had led Reidy’s Rookies into the arena, I texted Peter to thank him for what we were seeing. His mobile should have been firing out alerts for hours.

What were we seeing? Well, there were nine Argyle debutants at Greenhous Meadow that afternoon – appropriately enough, the largest number of first-time Pilgrims since our first ever game 125 years previously – two of who (Warren Feeney and Ben Gibson) had not previously kicked a ball for Argyle even in a pre-season match. Only the dependable Fletcher and centre-back Stéphane Zubar remained from the already relegated starting 11 that had lost 4-1 at home to Leyton Orient on the final day of the previous campaign. You half-expected to look at the team-sheet and discover the last three names on it were Wragg, Tagg and Bob Tale.

Five of the players in a starting 11 that contained two 18-year-olds, a 19 year-old, two 20-year-olds and a 21-year-old were making their Football League debut. Reidy himself called the substitutes’ bench “a kindergarten”, with 23-year-old Simon Walton babysitting Curtis Nelson, 18, and a trio of 17-year-old youth-teamers: Jared Sims, Jordan Copp and Isaac Vassell. The squad’s average age – even with 30-somethings Fletcher and Feeney in the spine of the team – was a smidgen over 22. 

Amazingly, this callow bunch of largely strangers held firm for more than three-quarters of the game – in the face of forward play centred on one Marvin Morgan, no less – before James Collins broke their resistance. But not their spirit. Driven on by the indefatigable Fletcher, they kept at their hosts until, with the last kick of the match, Fletch himself fired home an equaliser.

The ball might not quite have burst the net, but it did crack open a dam of emotions – pent-up months of unpaid uncertainty – from everyone with Green in their heart that day, on and off the field. There have been better goals from Pilgrims down the years, but not a greater one.

The first person I saw in the players’ tunnel afterwards was Peter Ridsdale. “Not many will come here and get a draw,” he enthused. He was right. Only four other teams nicked a point in Shropshire that season as Shrewsbury racked up 18 home wins on their way to promotion. Indeed it was not until February this year that they next lost a League 2 game at Greenhous Meadow after a 46-game unbeaten home run in the division.

The draw turned out to be not the harbinger of immediate recovery that we hoped it might be – things still had to get worse for Argyle before they got better – but it meant we were alive and that we knew, somehow, we would survive.

When this season’s fixtures were published, eyes of those with a romantic bent alighted upon the final-day fixture at Shrewsbury – would it not be wonderful to win promotion, to finally confirm to the football world our return from the horrors of administration, at the very place where we first sniffed redemption?

We knew a while back that such synchronicity was going to be denied us and that, instead, Shrewsbury would be celebrating what we desire most.

However, we did not know, even when the game kicked off, that we would be thrilled by a performance as good as any by an Argyle team since before the dark days and one that leaves the season still pregnant with the possibility of promotion.

Plymouth Argyle (4-4-2): 23 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 5 Stéphane Zubar, 13 Ladjie Soukouna, 19 Ben Gibson; 7 Luke Daley, 4 Carl Fletcher (capt), 20 Conor Hourihane, 3 Robbie Williams (8 Simon Walton half-time); 11 Warren Feeney, 10 Tom Hitchcock (24 Isaac Vassell 82). Substitutes (not used):6 Curtis Nelson, 17 Jared Sims, 18 Jordan Copp.