Never Was a Story of More Woe

TWO cities, both alike in dignity...

In fair Devon, where we lay our scene.
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny
Where civil support makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fanatic loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d teams take to the field,
Whose misadventured League 2 escapades
Aim with their play to return to glory.
The fearful passage of the Devon Expressway
And the continuance of their shirt-striped love,
Which, but their favourite team’s end, nought could remove,
Is now the 90 minutes’ traffic of our stage;
The which if you with patient ears attend,
What here shall miss, Reuben Reid shall strive to mend.

Whilst the Devon Expressway Derby may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of similarities to the works of William Shakespeare, if you look hard enough, there are some parallels with his immortal work, ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Sure, Devon is not quite Verona but, just like the Montagues and Capulets, from the outside in, it would appear that Argyle and Exeter fight for very similar causes, with similar mentalities: two football clubs with their own histories, peaks, troughs, champagne moments, flirtations with glory and close shaves with despair. 

Those more embedded in the scene, though, augmented with a dash of mandatory bias, well tell you a very different story. Despite all the shared interests and ambitions, followers of the Pilgrims and Grecians will often tell you the two clubs have nothing in common - that their chosen team is more deserving of the crown. Making amends and becoming friends is, quite simply, not an option.

It also helps that Argyle and Exeter are part of a sport that tends to attract the dramatic and poetic, at times creating the sort of events that even Shakespeare himself could have found thrown back in his face from Queen Elizabeth I because it was a little too fantastical. Events such as the 100th Devon Derby - still the most entertaining game I have ever seen in person - which had the backdrop of history setting the stage for the drama of four goals, a red card and a penalty, capped off by the poetry of Reuben Reid choosing that occasion to net Argyle’s first ever hat-trick in the backyard of their oldest rivals.

If anything was capable of topping that, it surely would be the same fixture one year on, in which both teams were fighting for even more than before. Argyle have a habit of visiting St James Park during a time where it really, really matters: we were in the box-seat of the automatic promotion places, whilst the Grecians were aiming to string together one final push for a place in the play-offs. Unsurprisingly, the narrative of the 103rd Devon Derby once again delivered and, much like many of old Bill’s best works, it took the form of a tragedy.

Much like last season’s meeting here – and like any good story – both sides had their moments in the ascendancy. The pendulum of momentum was repeatedly swung back and forth by the odd catalysing moment, like a strong challenge or eye-catching piece of skill. The first half ended goalless, but whilst Exeter’s insistence on playing out from defence created some nice build-up play without a shot on target, the questions created by Argyle’s more direct approach were a touch more imposing. Sharp closing down from Reid led to a bouncing ball in front of Exeter’s goal that caused plenty of panic, before a headed lay-off by Reid allowed Jamille Matt to call a typically unorthodox Bobby Olejnik into action.

Act II kicked off in much the same fashion as Act I before  the tension created by Argyle’s ever-increasing pressure built to a glorious crescendo in the 57th minute. An act of defiance by Reid, out-muscling a pair of Exeter defenders, allowed Matt to wind up his right foot and smash a strike past Olejnik, right in front of almost 1,700 delirious supporters. Think of the goal as the death of Tybalt in R&J; the tipping point of the narrative that sparked the rest of the performance into a frenzy. 

Argyle had a couple of key chances to put the game to bed as Exeter’s substitutions only served to make them more disjointed and open at the back. However, in any tragedy, there is always, always a twist at the very end, and this one was something that no-one would have seen coming.

After spending much of the performance in the shadows, Ollie Watkins took centre stage. With ten minutes to play, a rather innocuous-looking effort from the corner of the box found its way past Luke McCormick and the sides were suddenly level. Argyle’s dominance counted for nothing, and their opponents had all the momentum as the grand finale commenced. 

The crowd grew more feverous, the tension reached new heights, and the final blow came with seconds to spare, as Watkins’ stretching shot from all of 30 yards seemed to take an age to find the far corner. Nevertheless, it did, hitting everyone of a green persuasion in the ground like a shot of poison to the heart. As the curtains closed, it was the side out-performed and overshadowed for much of the show that was standing tall.

Watkins was simply the instigator of this tragedy, and certainly not the villain – a young, local player who was not only head and shoulders above the quality of his team-mates, but was also capable of using that talent to drag his side, kicking and screaming, to a victory. Save the role of villain for Clinton Morrison, who, despite doing nothing more than watching on from the wings all afternoon, felt the need to goad, antagonise and gloat towards the Argyle fans after the warm-up and final whistle. After all, the world needs bad guys as well as good guys, otherwise the latter would be out of a job.

On the way home, I saw a terrific picture from the game, taken at the final whistle. It features Exeter’s Jayden Stockley, open-mouthed, wide-eyed and with his hand on his forehead. It tells the entire story: until the 80th minute, Exeter looked dead and buried, yet just over ten minutes later, they were celebrating a win over their nearest and not so dearest rivals. 

The story of this tragedy was so dramatic, not even their players could believe it.