TWENTY years after Argyle made their first appearance at Wembley, the Greens are heading back. Wembley now has an arch, not twin towers. But many things are spookily similar...
That is the amount of days separating Argyle’s only two trips to Wembley Stadium, so as you can imagine, much has changed in that time. The set of Pilgrims that took to the field under the Twin Towers in 1996 is a very different beast than the team in green that will walk out under the arch in 2016 but, as we know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Plenty of parallels can be found between the two teams, as well as some borderline-spooky statistics that make Argyle’s pair of trips to the Home of Football two rather similar beasts.
As we have already alluded to, the two play-off finals for Argyle take place almost exactly 20 years apart; just over, actually, as this year’s game takes place on May 30 whilst the boys of ’96 played on May 25. Both finals served as a chance to make up for the heartbreak of recent play-off campaigns – against Burnley in 1994 and Wycombe Wanderers in 2015. The setup and outcome of the semi-finals, however, are eerily alike.
Whether it be Colchester United or Portsmouth, the Greens faced off in the semis against a team that scored six fewer points them in the regular season – 78 to 72 first time around, and 81 to 75 second time around. For Argyle, their final match of those seasons both ended in convincing victories against Hartlepool United – first 3-0, then 5-0.
Both semi-finals ended with Argyle going through 3-2 on aggregate, and both matches were decided by very late headers at Home Park in normal time – Paul Williams in 1996 and Peter Hartley 20 years on. Incredibly, even the antics on the touchline hold some parallels. As fellow Pauls – Cook and Wotton – were sent to the stands in this year’s first leg, some of the Green Army would have been thinking back to 1996’s second leg, when an incensed Neil Warnock was asked to leave the technical area.
Away from Argyle matters, few goings-on in the footballing world in 1996 and 2016 were the same, though Manchester United lifted the FA Cup in each instance, and Leicester City won the league! Well, the Endsleigh First Division, anyway. Just seven of other 23 teams in English football’s fourth tier in 1996 competed at the same level this year, the most successful being Barnet, who finished ninth. Three other teams (Fulham, Wigan Athletic, Cardiff City) would go on to play Premier League football, whilst four clubs (Hereford United, Chester City, Darlington, Scarborough) have been dissolved since then.
Back to the Argyle correlations, which start with some rotation between the sticks. Whilst most teams will aim to use just one or two goalkeepers over the course of a season, the Greens have managed to name a combined nine shot-stoppers in a starting eleven from the 1995-96 and 2015-16 campaigns.
Two decades back, Steve Cherry returned to Home Park for a second spell with the Pilgrims, this time on loan from Watford. After impressing and earning a regular place in the team, Cherry’s loan would end before the play-off final, meaning that for all intents and purposes, the 35-year-old was signed permanently for one game to ensure he could be in goal at Wembley.
Warnock began the season with Nicky Hammond in goal, but indifferent performances led to player-coach Kevin Blackwell replacing him. Another loanee, Andy Petterson from Charlton Athletic, played six games before Cherry’s arrival, whilst youngster James Dungey started an FA Cup tie. As for 2016, Luke McCormick has taken on the bulk of the workload, but an injury in November saw James Bittner make his debut - meaning both the ’96 and ’16 teams saw members of the coaching staff put on the gloves - before Wadebridge boy Christian Walton came back to Argyle to play four times. Vincent Dorel was signed by Derek Adams in March and started the 5-0 win over Hartlepool two months later.
Further up the field, things are a lot more settled. Minus Jamille Matt successfully stepping in for Reuben Reid, the 2016 Argyle side for the semi-finals was the same eleven that began the season against AFC Wimbledon 10 months ago. In 1996, Warnock was able to name seven of the same players that he chose in game number one, with Williams playing in every league game – just like Curtis Nelson this season.
Other cornerstones of the side were captain Mick Heathcote, who missed just two league matches, and Michael Evans, who played a part in all but one. Adams’ squad has been built on similar consistency in a small group of players, with Gary Sawyer, Peter Hartley, Gregg Wylde and Jake Jervis only missing a combined 14 games between them. Even the main coaching setup is built on consistency; Mick Jones was Warnock’s assistant at both Notts County and Huddersfield Town before Argyle, whilst Craig Brewster worked as Adams’ assistant at Ross County before the pair of them headed south.
Of course, there is another member of Argyle’s current coaching staff, and he is the one man in today’s setup at Home Park that played a part at Wembley 20 years previous. Back then, Paul Wotton was a fresh-faced 18-year-old looking to make an impact at his local club. Whilst he did not play in the final, Wotton was part of the first-team squad and made three appearances that season. 488 games later, this year’s final sees Wottsy go full circle, coaching Argyle at the Home of Football, motivating the match-winners and reassuring the exciting young talent who miss out on playing a part, just like he did in 1996. Wotton is the one constant, the one clear line you can draw between Argyle’s two Wembley sides, and proof that more things change, the more they really do stay the same.