Sercombe and Circumstances

NINE months after our last trip to the Kassam Stadium, CHRIS GROVES takes a look at the differing circumstances in which we met.

One thing I am learning very, quickly whilst being present for every match and press conference of a football club, is that football is a very cyclical beast. 

The whole process of games, build-ups, travelling and interviews could feel almost monotonous to some, but you have to endeavour to find and assess the differences, then utilise them to your advantage. The devil is in the detail, after all, and the ability to break down an event, evaluate all of its aspects and make lots of small adjustments that add up to a significant change is something that is regularly done in all areas of a football club. 

Now, not for a second am I suggesting that the role of a reporter or journalist fully reflects that of that a professional footballer. They must constantly work on things like that whilst under the public spotlight, with the hopes and dreams of so many rested upon their shoulders – and if you do not manage it, things can become very repetitive as the seasons roll by. For example, as I took my seat in the press box for Argyle’s game against Oxford United, it felt similar in many ways to our last visit to the Kassam Stadium, way back in January.

The structural or atmospheric aspect to United’s ground remains unchanged from that affair nine months previous. Three ends of the ground have more-than-ample seating and facilities for a club on this particular rung of the English football calendar, but the remaining end consists of nothing but a pristine wooden fence that Tommy Walsh would be proud of. As for the atmosphere, plenty of blue seats were once again bereft of buttocks, and the Green Army once again appeared to outnumber the home support up until around half an hour before kick-off. However, the proud patrons that were able to attend certainly made quite the racket. 

Other points of nostalgia include the similarly brisk, cold temperature come kick-off time, and tea and biscuits were still the delicacy on offer at half-time. Back then, both sides had aspirations at the time of extending their 2014-15 season by at least another two games. For Oxford, they hoped to make the play-offs, whilst Argyle’s target of the post-season had more of an expectation to it, due to their better league position.

Whatever club persuasion or colour scheme you were displaying, though, everyone inside the ground must have been hoping for a match in no way similar to that game in January. In fact, it was in that category of football match that was so dull, the 89 minutes of grey painted over the one colourful moment of the goalless affair. Kelvin Mellor’s right-wing cross found the forehead of Reuben Reid, whose header managed to make contact with the crossbar, post and goal-line before bouncing to safety. 

However, if you delve a little deeper, those aforementioned similarities politely take a back seat to the myriad of differences to the situation we find ourselves in this time around. 

Considering the season is now past the quarter-way stage, most of you will know the script by now: the introduction of a number of new individuals, for use both on the pitch and the touchline, have hit the ground running to create something greater than the sum of their parts. A positive mentality, exciting displays and the small matter of the best start to a league season for 86 years have led to a real sense of togetherness around not just the club, but the entire city of Plymouth. The Greens are continuing their upwards trend in quality and results, and made the trip up to Oxford sitting atop the Sky Bet League 2 table. 

United, who were backed by the bookmakers even more than Argyle for promotion before a ball was kicked this season, were also moving along very nicely in division’s top three. It seemed like a tantalising fixture, then, and without as much as a hint of exaggeration, this season’s meeting of the two sides was approximately a gazillion times more fun to watch than its predecessor. 

It was a true punch-and-counter-punch affair in the first 20 minutes, though the opening flurry of attacks from both teams turned into something of an Oxford onslaught. Both posts of Luke McCormick’s goal were bruised, and the back of the net rippled with a disallowed goal, before Oxford took a deserved lead. Former Pilgrim Alex MacDonald was one of the smattering of names still on the team-sheet since the last meeting of the two sides, and he was unfortunate to not break the deadlock after 25 minutes, waking up the foot of the far post with a good effort. Kemar Roofe and Ryan Taylor were then both denied before ex-Exeter boy Liam Sercombe capped off another excellent team move, side-footing a squared ball into the net.

Derek Adams’ side were far from average, though, and were still showing plenty of attacking threat, if slightly lacking he presence of a certain striker rumbling towards the centre backs with his usual pace and guile. Argyle were building from the back, stretching the play, and doing plenty of the things that have torn a number of teams apart in this campaign. Perhaps the biggest difference of all was that in this game, the changed philosophy and personnel on the pitch meant that you always felt as if there was a piece of inspiration or magic just waiting to happen and draw the Greens level. Oxford managed to limit Argyle’s clear-cut chances more than any other team they’ve faced this season, and fully backed up the faith that bookies and punters alike have shown in them. 

Much like you can take a strange feeling of added satisfaction in winning in difficult games like those against Accrington and Notts County, you could still find plenty of reasons to feel positive about Argyle’s performance, despite losing 1-0. I, for one, feel much more confident in our chances of promotion in the aftermath of this loss, than I did after we drew with them in January. 

Football. Funny old game, isn’t it?