OUR first game against Portsmouth was on September 9, 1903.
On that day, William Leech and Walter Anderson were on target for Argyle as they won 2-1 in their first visit to Fratton Park. That was the first of 97 games the two sides have played against each other in their histories, until Thursday.
The 97th meeting, curiously, ended in the same score, in April this year. An amazing late turnaround saw Argyle prize a 2-1 victory from the fixture, having trailed for the majority of the game.
Football is not played over long series that span 113 years, or 100 games, but if it was, then this contest would still be tense. The aggregate score over 97 games stood at Argyle 133 Portsmouth 134. Not much in it, then.
Let’s do some more number crunching – work, by the way, which we could not do without the peerless Greens on Screen.
Some 369 days prior to this year’s play-offs, Argyle met Wycombe Wanderers in the first leg of a Sky Bet League 2 Play-Off semi-final. It did not go to plan, which I am sure you are aware of.
The 2015-16 season began at AFC Wimbledon on August 8, 278 days before May 12. It ended in a 2-0 victory to Argyle in Derek Adams’ first competitive fixture as Argyle manager. The team featured six players that had been present for the play-off agony – Luke McCormick, Kelvin Mellor, Carl McHugh, Curtis Nelson, Peter Hartley and Reuben Reid. Five new players, brought in by Derek, made their debut – Gary Sawyer, Graham Carey, Jake Jervis, Gregg Wylde and Hiram Boateng.
Fast forward to present day. Argyle lined up in their second end-of-season play-off competition in successive seasons, naming ten of the players that started the opening game of the season. Only Reid was missing, instead having to take a spot on the bench, following a return from injury.
Jamille Matt played in his stead – and had quite the evening. More on that in a jiffy.
The personnel in the Portsmouth team had at least one very unfamiliar name. Not just to us, but to his team-mates. Ryan Allsop, a goalkeeper contracted to Bournemouth who did not sign for Portsmouth until...well, who knows, but we found out not long before his name was included on the official team-sheets. Turns out Pompey’s goalkeeping crisis was sufficient for the Football League to grant them dispensation to bring in a new man to play between the sticks, and Allsop made the trip up the coast, via the A31 and M27, to his new, temporary home.
Inside three minutes, before Allsop had been given anything of note to do defending the goal in front of the Green Army, his new team-mates made a perfect start. Nelson took half a second too long after making an excellent interception, and was robbed by Michael Doyle. It felt to Marc McNulty, who clipped home.
136-134. More importantly, 1-0.
A sense of déjà vu? Wycombe had led very early last season and we, frankly, capitulated. I sense that the thought of a majority of Argyle fans – I know it was mine – was to feel an awful sense of a year wasted, just to go down in the same manner.
I should have more faith.
I cannot profess to know Ryan Allsop’s viewing habits, but there is a fair chance he did not watch the highlights of the last time Argyle visited Fratton Park. That, we may never know, but what is for sure is that Matt, for the second time within four weeks, challenged a goalkeeper in the air at this ground, at the same end, and scored. Again.
Last time out, he headed in a corner. This time, he met Wylde’s headed centre before Allsop to nod Argyle level. Joy unconfined, and parity inside seven minutes of going behind.
It was not the last time Matt’s head would be discussed.
There was a definite consensus – in the home ends at least – that Matt’s head may have instigated contact with Doyle’s, after the pair had a protracted altercation. The referee decided that he had seen no indiscretion, but had to deal more forcefully with warring benches. After a mini-fracas on the touchline, in which it was difficult to tell who was playing peacemaker and who was playing instigator, Pompey boss Paul Cook and Argyle coach Paul Wotton – that’s former Southampton man Paul Wotton, by the way, were dismissed from the sidelines.
Cook later appeared in the stand to warm applause from those around him. Although, if it was sold out, how did he get a seat, one wag in the press box asked?
Then, because football likes to tell stories that seem destined to irk those who feel wrong, there was Jamille to pop up and put Argyle in front. You can choose to critique the defending all you wish; I will simply laud Jamille for the best piece of improvisation I have seen since Ryan Stiles acted out loads of animals on Whose Line Is It Anyway? This time, rather than using his head, he hooked the ball over his – and Allsop’s – and into the net.
At this stage, we cannot know what will occur in the second leg. We could fold and exit the competition; it could be a glorious victory; maybe even the agony (or ecstasy) of penalties. All I know is that scoring two goals inside 20 minutes of going behind will be good for the soul, and evidence of a rock solid Argyle backbone.
Memories of Crawley, Accrington and Exeter will be hard to shift from this season. But should the best happen, and we go up, then we will look at two matches at Fratton Park where we dug in and refused to succumb to pressure.
And pressure there surely was. Since the game, if you look on social media, you can find fans of both teams deriding those that follow the other, insinuating lack of noise. It would be so much better if we went beyond that and simply praised all present, because the noise generated in the ground was incredible. It seemed as though every man, woman and child in Pompey blue was clapping their hands and stomping their feet – yet the Green Army could still be heard. Fans on all four sides of the ground deserve the utmost respect.
A quick note, though. Home fans serenaded us with ‘We own our own club. We’re Portsmouth City, we own our club.’ Yes – you do not appear to know the name of it, though. Insert smiling and winking emoji, here.
Back to the pitch, and an early second half goal brought Portsmouth level, and gave the home side belief. Argyle never lacked belief or confidence of their own, but they certainly lack possession of the ball. The home side claimed it as their own but such was their obsession with keeping it that they did not often offer Luke McCormick the chance to get hold of it. For such a ‘one-sided’ second period, Argyle’s goalkeeper was not greatly called upon. When he was, he was exemplary.
And so the game meandered to a close, and ended 2-2. The lack of away goals rule in this completion actually renders this game totally meaningless, in actuality. If we see a 0-0 or 9-9 on Sunday, we will see extra time, and if either team sneak it by the odd goal or four, they progress. It may as well be a one-off cup tie, now.
But yet the whole occasion on Thursday seems to mean so much. Both teams had enough moments that they could probably talk neutrals into believing that they are favourites. The passion and commitment shown by each squad surely has their fans behind them. And anyone watching in TV-Land cannot possibly have been able to compute that they were watching a fourth-tier encounter, such was the quality of action and incessant dim from the stands.
Like a good meal, the taste of this left one not entirely sated, but wanting more. It will get served up, as a late Sunday dinner, at 6pm on the 15th.
Put on your best bib and tucker, and tuck in. Whether you consider it to be 0-0, 2-2 or 136-135, the next goal is the most important.
After the main course is served, and mints are devoured – After Eight, or just before – then someone if going to raise a glass.
Let us hope it is us. Pass the port…