Only One Focus

OUR regular contributor Charlie Hempstead came to Argyle v Exeter on Saturday, and while he loved the 3-0 win, it mattered little to him against whom it came...

IN the run-up to the Wales v England rugby match on Saturday, the results of a survey were published suggesting that the majority of Wales fans would prefer to finish bottom of the 6 Nations table but beat England, than to win the tournament but lose to the old enemy along the way.

In a season of mid-table obscurity, that same sentiment might well have pervaded the 105th instalment of the Devon Derby at Home Park on the same day, but with Argyle and Exeter both firmly in the running for promotion, neither set of fans would readily have swapped victory over their biggest rival for a top-three finish. 

That said, there was much evidence among the 14,600 attendance to suggest that a lot more was at stake than just the three points against another leading contender. It is not every week that the crowd in the grandstand starts up a chant, still less one that includes two different four-letter words, performed at 100+ decibels, and aimed squarely at the fans in the Barn Park End.

Equally, an Argyle goal does not normally precipitate a surge of away fans towards pitchside, requiring the intervention of dozens of security staff to keep them off the field of play.

But actually, factually, there is nothing more at stake than the three points. The prize for beating Exeter is no more or less than it is for beating Accrington or Hartlepool, Portsmouth or Blackpool. Each time the players cross the fabled white line, it is with a single goal in mind – to win the match and move on. 

So far, so rational, but here’s the thing. While I came late to Argyle, only starting to follow the team when I was in my 40s, my 19-year-old son Joe has never supported anyone else. And he HATES Exeter. 

He has only ever lived in Bedford, and despite spending a lot of time with family in Devon and Cornwall, he has scarcely ever visited Plymouth except to go to Home Park. He has been to the city of Exeter precisely once, and actually rather liked it.

But when Argyle blew a 1-0 lead in the last 10 minutes at St James’ Park last season, I feared for every breakable object in the house as Joe totally lost the plot. When the team had done the exact same thing at Accrington three weeks earlier, he had been annoyed, but no family heirlooms were in danger. 

The difference between the two situations, which in terms of their impact on Argyle’s season were exactly the same, was tribalism. 

The tribalism of a local derby is learned behaviour. Being born in Plymouth does not of itself make you hate someone who was born in Exeter, any more than having played for Exeter bars you from signing for Argyle. For professionals plying their trade, crossing the line is no big deal, because in reality, there is no line. There are just two football clubs that happen to be moderately close to one another. In a more populous part of the country, there could be dozens of clubs within a 45-mile radius. It just so happens that for Plymouth, there is only Exeter, and for Exeter, only Plymouth, which by definition makes them each other’s biggest rival. 

If proof were needed, Johnny Hore not only played hundreds of games for both clubs, but he managed them both too, and is rightly held in huge esteem on all sides. 

On Saturday, three of Argyle’s line-up had previously donned the red and white, while two of the Grecians’ squad were ex-Greens. 

One of them, should anyone need reminding, was Reuben Reid. 

By any measure, Reuben was one of Argyle’s best players of the last five years. Yet his return to Home Park could scarcely be termed a triumphant homecoming, with his name when the teams were announced being greeted with resounding boos, as was his every touch in the course of the match. 

One lone voice in the grandstand could be heard shouting “Judas!” whenever he was in possession, conveniently ignoring the fact that Reid did not join Exeter straight after leaving Argyle, but signed for them many months later as a free agent. 

How different to the crowd’s reaction to Zak Ansah when he came on as a substitute for Newport County at Home Park last season. The greeting for a young man who played only a bit part in the Pilgrims’ history, even if his cameo role did include a memorable goal against Wycombe Wanderers in the play-off semi-final, was genuinely warm. Had Reuben Reid returned to Home Park as a Newport player, he would surely have enjoyed the reception that anyone of his stature in Argyle’s history warranted.

Instead, the colour of the shirt that he now wears (a rather lurid fluorescent green on this occasion) far outweighed the size of his contribution to Argyle over the years, and that is rather sad. 

So, sorry everyone, I just can’t bring myself to hate Exeter.

But please do not think for a moment that that diminishes my love for Argyle, it just means that I was no more elated by the victory and the performance than if it had been against a different team that happened to be occupying fourth place in the table. 

But elated I most certainly was, and went to bed - in traditional Enid Blyton style - tired but happy...

… and wearing my Argyle shirt.