First Past the Post

NOW that all of the runners and riders of the Emirates FA Cup game against Liverpool have weighed in, our man CHARLIE HEMPSTEAD gets under starter's orders for Sky Bet League Two's final furlong...

To National Hunt racegoers, there are two fixtures in the calendar that stand head and shoulders above the rest: Liverpool and Cheltenham. Each has its own claim to being the bigger, with both having their supporters. 

Those favouring Liverpool will argue that there is nothing quite like the sense of occasion generated by the Grand National, while Cheltenham’s backers will point to the fact that the Festival is where the true aficionados are to be found. 

Much the same for Argyle this week. 

On Wednesday, all the talk was of Liverpool, with many people who normally have no interest suddenly sitting up and taking notice. The people who place their annual bet on the National were now focusing on little old Argyle. Even my mother-in-law, for the first time in the 30 years that I have been married to her daughter, sent me an email saying that she hoped I would enjoy the match. 

She was not alone in turning her attention to PL2. 

Never can so many international footballers have descended on Home Park at once, and not just because there were six of them in the Liverpool starting line-up, plus two more on the bench. Former England and Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard was there, as were Welsh stalwarts John Hartson and Danny Gabbidon. Some of the biggest names in what used to be called Fleet Street had also made the long trip west, not to mention the live broadcast teams from national radio and television.

They were joined by an attendance the like of which has not been seen in many a long year. 

In a remarkable show of demonstrating that where there’s a will, there’s a way, the Mayflower Terrace was reopened for the first time in seven years, boosting the capacity by 1,800 and taking the total north of 17,000. To install that amount of temporary seating and obtain safety accreditation in just over a week is some going. It takes many people that long to put together a flat-packed garden furniture set. 

The expectancy and atmosphere generated by the full house made the hairs on the neck stand up, and the roar at kick-off was no less spine-tingling than the one that accompanies the start of the Grand National. 

Any fears that Argyle’s players would fluff their lines on the big stage were swiftly allayed, although their performance ten days earlier at Anfield in front of a crowd three times bigger should have been enough to banish that thought in the first place. 

While Liverpool again dominated the possession stats, there was a genuine feeling throughout that Argyle were right in the game. Whereas the first tie was all about dogged survival, the rematch saw the Pilgrims posing a genuine goal threat.  

There was even one delicious passage of play in the 42nd minute, when, to a resounding chorus of olés,the home side strung together a dozen neat passes, despite the constant pressure that Liverpool always put their opponents under. If possession stats were recorded by the minute, the 42nd was ours, all ours. 

Liverpool may have had the ball for most of the other 44, but by half-time they had only mustered five shots, while Argyle had managed three with their more meagre share. Both had had one on target. The key difference was that theirs had gone in and ours hadn’t.

While the hosts had come close on a couple of occasions before the interval, the real what-might-have-been moment came midway through the second half, when the width of the post prevented Jake Jervis from writing his name into the annals of Argyle history. His acrobatic scissor-kick was deserving of a kinder fate than to rebound off the upright. 

That was as close as Argyle came, and the illustrious visitors duly asserted the natural order. The final whistle sounded, the managers gave their interviews, the crowd dispersed, the huge media cavalcade departed and the circus left town. 

The Grand National is over, but Cheltenham is still to come. 

As Derek Adams has said throughout the campaign, promotion is the only thing that matters. Argyle were never going to win the Emirates FA Cup, enjoyable distraction that it has undoubtedly been. 

In the quest to ensure that Home Park is hosting League One football in 2017-18, the next match is the one that counts more. The prize may be a modest three points rather than a £1 million windfall, but their value may be just as great in the long term.

For certain, the attendance will be a fraction of what it was on Wednesday night, and an even smaller fraction of what it was for the last away game. It is a remarkable thought that the match at Anfield was played in front of over 11,000 more fans than the crowds at all Argyle’s 11 away league matches this season put together. 

The Green Army will travel to the LCI Rail Stadium knowing – like the regular racegoer – that for all the fanfare surrounding Liverpool, Cheltenham is where it’s really at.

And even though this game counts for so much more than the last, I can state with complete confidence that there will be no good luck email from my mother-in-law on Saturday.