OUR unofficial South-East Correspondent CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD was on hand at the Kassam Stadium on Tuesday for Argyle's 1-0 defeat to Oxford. Here is his view...
Top-of-the-table clashes always have that bit of extra spice.
A visit from the leaders is an incentive for the hosts to put on a show, and when they are bang in form – as Oxford are, boasting the only unbeaten home record in the division – they have every right to feel chipper.
That said, the top dogs are in that position for a reason and fear no-one. Argyle travelled to the Kassam Stadium not only as the team with the most points, but also the best goal difference, meanest defence and best current form (four straight wins and no defeat in seven).
A titanic struggle was therefore on the cards, so even the smallest advantage could prove decisive.
Would it be the presence in the Oxford line-up of former Exeter midfielder, Liam Sercombe, who had been quoted in the run-up to the match as saying that he hoped to give the Argyle fans cause to boo him? Actually, by even uttering the words, he had given the Green Army reason enough.
Or perhaps the result would hinge on the fact that the home side contained an ex-Pilgrim in Alex MacDonald, and it is a truism that old boys always score against their former club (MacDonald did just that for Burton last season).
Luckily, Argyle were able to counter the ‘old boys’ argument, as they also had a man in their ranks who had previously turned out for the opposition. The slight fly in the ointment was that the player in question was goalkeeper Luke McCormick. Still, no matter. If Jesse Joronen can score a length-of-the-pitch goal for Stevenage, then the division’s best keeper can surely do the same for Argyle.
In the early exchanges, Oxford’s neat approach play frequently stretched the Pilgrims’ defence, but the hosts undid much of their good work with a tendency to over-elaborate once in shooting range. As a result, McCormick was not called on to remind his former employers of his credentials, despite the home side’s dominance.
Once Oxford decided to be less reticent and began to loose off shots, Argyle’s last line of defence – the goal frame – continued the excellent form it had shown on Saturday for the visit of Accrington, with another two crucial interventions, one of which prevented MacDonald from claiming his old boy’s birthright.
By the time that Oxford did make the breakthrough – and yes, it was Sercombe who scored the goal – McCormick had still not had to make a save.
In truth, the first 45 minutes were a chastening experience for the league leaders, and the half-time interval could not come soon enough. This was where Derek Adams had to earn his corn (number 43 in the pundits’ cliché manual).
One of the characteristics of Adams’ tenure has been his readiness to make changes if Plan A is not working. It is unlikely that any other boss in the professional game has made as many half-time (or even first-half) substitutions this season as Argyle’s gaffer, and you cannot argue with the outcome, given that his charges started the night three points ahead of the field.
It was therefore something of a surprise that the same 11 players reappeared for the second half. However, it was quickly clear that the manager had made one important tactical tweak.
Despite his stature and goalscoring prowess, Jake Jervis had not looked at home as the replacement for the injured Reuben Reid in a central striking role. Adams’ solution was to move Jake into his more accustomed wide position and to ask Graham Carey to try to fill the not inconsiderable boots of the absent number nine.
Carey is not most people’s idea of a typical centre forward, but then Adams is not your typical manager.
Playing as a False Nine (number 28 in the manual), Carey’s ability to kill a ball stone-dead in an instant and to pick a pass that others do not see enabled Argyle to play the game further up the field than had been the case before the interval.
The result was that the balance of play was a total reversal of the first half, with everything taking place at the open end of the stadium.
Open end? Yes, for those who have not visited the Kassam, three quarters of it is superb, as good as anything you will see in the lower leagues. But the other quarter just doesn’t exist. There is a wood panel fence behind the goal, and then a large car park. At the far end of the car park is a venue called Vue, which is rather apt, since its view of the pitch is completely uninterrupted.
With this being the archetypal game of two halves (number 1 in the manual), the near-1000 Argyle contingent, gathered in line with the penalty box, saw almost everything of note in the entire match happen at their end.
Two minutes from time, down the other end, McCormick produced one of those “how did he do that?” moments, displaying astonishing reflexes to divert Pat Hoban’s header. His reliable deputy, the crossbar, did the rest.
The Argyle keeper may not have achieved the unlikely feat of scoring against his old club, but this was the next best thing.
As for the gaffer, he may not quite have earned his corn, but with his team still clear at the top, one suspects he won’t be hungry for long.