Coast to Coast
IN the first part of three, Chris Groves takes an alternative look at our play-off campaign so far, featuring untold stories, personal accounts and plenty of drama...
2016 is an even number, and you know what that means: we get another chance to watch England perform at a major tournament, going through the same set of emotions, beginning way before a ball has even been kicked in anger and finishing when the team are agonisingly eliminated.
Considering I was still exchanging pushchair escaping tips with fellow toddlers in 1994 and 1996, I did not realise until last season just how similar supporting your team in the play-offs feels to watching your national side in a major tournament.
Every other year we tell ourselves we will not put ourselves through the ringer again but, like any good roller-coaster, the emotional journey we experience is just impossible to turn down. Because of the entertainment it creates, we hop out the chair, through the exit and sprint to the back of the line once more. We believe that this time - this time - things will be different. Things will work out better.
Thanks to a little bit of experience last season and plenty of human observation, it is clear to me that the emotional cycles we go through are shared among many of us fans.
Pessimism is rife throughout this process, as much as we try to avoid it. Due to Argyle’s genuine hopes of promotion slipping out of our grasp in the final few games of the season, pessimism at some stage is understandable. Considering the financial clout of some teams ahead of us and the notable absence of any helping hands along the way (just two penalties all season, that Accrington winner, those two Ollie Watkins goals for Exeter), perhaps a comfortable spot in the play-offs was an outcome we should have expected.
Nevertheless, dropping to that spot from the top three places instead of climbing the table towards it is bound to create disappointment and, ergo, pessimism, in the lead-up to the game. Of course, it does not help that once the Greens reached this stage last season, they were cruelly seen off by Wycombe Wanderers. All of these factors mean that an early goal for Portsmouth in the first leg would have had many of us unable to think anything but the worst, despite there being another 188 minutes left in the tie.
Thankfully, the more this play-off journey has gone on, it seems to me that pessimism has mostly given way to optimism. The surge of this emotion can be traced back to a certain moment: the 58th minute of Argyle's 46th Sky Bet League 2 game of the season, where a debuting Pilgrim decided to let fly from 30 yards out.
For me, Louis Rooney's audacious goal to open his account in professional football was the turning point in the perception surrounding Argyle's play-off hopes. That goal, and that 5-0 victory over Hartlepool United, reminded a lot of people why we dedicate so much to this sport and this football club after some results that were hard to swallow. The result may have meant little, but the manner in which we dominated the game was bound to create some much-needed positivity around the football club.
That afternoon had many of us, myself included, on a sudden high as the first leg against Portsmouth approached – and after a rocky start to that match, optimism was back in force as Argyle showed their teeth and turned the game on its head to lead 2-1.
If this journey really is a roller-coaster ride, the opening 45 minutes of the semi-final was where the loop-de-loop was positioned. Argyle reveled the most in the madness and withstood heavy Pompey pressure in the second half (or quarter, if you are feeling facetious) to take a draw back to Home Park, allowing a pair of contrasting emotions to work in tandem as the second leg drew nearer.
We all either fear what we do not understand, or take joy in discovering the unknown. Argyle's days in the sun and tastes of glory have historically been memorable, yet sparse, so a lack of experience with matches as tense and important as a play-off semi-final are alien to some and vague at best to many. For me, the two days between the first and second legs were filled with this combination of excitement and terror - eager to see what this sort of occasion would feel like, whilst noticeably anxious about what the next few hours would hold.
Sunday morning and afternoon seemed to take forever to pass, and I arrived at the ground well before I normally would to try and settle into the occasion as much as possible. It would not surprise me at all if many members of the Green Army spent the day doing housework, shopping or just anything mundane to try and help the nerves subside – but the closer we got to kick-off, the more the nerves seemed to subside, and excitement fully took over.
The atmosphere before kick-off was both inspiring and relieving. One might assume that occasions like this and a raucous atmosphere go hand in hand, but that is not always the case. The other League 2 semi-final between AFC Wimbledon and Accrington Stanley included a first leg with a strangely subdued feel; possibly a by-product of nerves and a lack of belief.
There was nothing of the sort at Home Park, meanwhile, as Portsmouth's own brand of impressive noise was drowned out by the Green Army, who had filled out their home with ease to create the highest attendance in eight years. That atmosphere was maintained throughout the first half and encouraged by catalysing moments on the pitch that will be overlooked years from now – the odd crunching challenge, spell of pressure or ambitious effort from Graham Carey. Still no goals to shout about, though.
The second half of the second leg is something that I am sure many of us will never forget, but it was not just the actions in injury time that contributed to the drama. Portsmouth, a side that had regularly caused us problems in the three previous meetings this season, suddenly seemed powerless to resist an Argyle side that defied fatigue or pressure and edged nearer and nearer to the breakthrough.
Jamille Matt's shot over the bar. Close. Jake Jervis' header onto the post. Closer. All the while the chants grew louder and louder as the tension built – but not a nervous tension, just a collective anticipation as the final turn on this epic roller-coaster ride drew nearer.
We have all witnessed our fair share of matches at Home Park but, on this evening, it almost took on another form, and raised the bar in my eyes for what sort of emotions this club can create. As Carey rushed over to take a corner in the 92nd minute, it all felt very different to my experiences at Home Park, despite so many similarities – one of which being a certain Gordon Sparks in the press box, keeping listeners updated on the action:
"Get the feeling that if nothing happens here, it will be extra time. Carey's corner, deep swing on it..."
COMING SOON: Chapter Two – the celebrations, the calm after the storm, and the beautifully unusual preparation involved in a trip to Wembley...