Bristol Rovers 2 Argyle 1
Bristol Rovers 2
Gaffney 22, Bodin 62
"I can take the despair; it's the hope I cant stand."
Stop me if you have heard it. Argyle fall behind in the first half, then rally, equalise and get in the ascendency, only for a breakway goal and a red card to scupper everything.
Bristol Rovers won a topsy-turvy affair at the Memorial Ground, and over the 90 minutes, deserved to. They led midway through the first half thanks to Rory Gaffney's merited opener, but Argyle finished the hald strongly, and powered back at Rovers after the interval. Nathan Blissett equalised, and the Pilgrims looked poised to challenge for all three points.
Billy Bodin though, fired home what would ultimately be the winning goal just two minutes before Gary Miller was sent off for a two-footed tackle.
From there, Rovers took over, inexplicably failing to add to their tally of goals, then allowing a late chance to level. Alas, they could not, and can take the relatively short distance home as the day's only real consolation.
Derek Adams' response to a Tuesday night injury to right-winger Lionel Ainsworth was to bring back fit-again Jake Jervis into the starting line-up. On the other flank Gregg Wylde, who had replaced Lionel in midweek, started the game at the expense of Joel Grant, who dropped to the bench.
Rovers began the game with a variant on a 4-4-2 that saw a pair of midfielders formerly of Devon rivals set-up to inflict damage from the flanks. Billy Bodin, once of Torquay United, began on the right, with former Exeter City man Liam Sercombe operating from the left. Both men, with protection from central duo Ollie Clarke and Chris Lines, would continually drift from their starting positions to look for space.
Sercombe was the first to find it, admittedly 15 minutes into a slow-starting game. His curling effort from 20 yards was well pushed round by Kyle Letheren, as Argyle looked to keep Rovers at arms reach.
The Pilgrims first real prolonged foray into Pirate territory saw several crosses repelled before Graham Carey picked out Jervis at the far post. Jake's knock-down looked well set for a Jamie Ness effort from the edge of the area, but Lines nipped in there first to pilfer the chance.
Rovers' front two of Ellis Harrison and Rory Gaffney showed signs of being a strike partnership with a strong understanding, and set about combining to hurt Argyle. First Gaffner fed Harrison, who had a shot blocked, before Harrison repaid the compliment, only to see Gaffney shoot wide from an acute angle.
At the third attempt, though, they got it right. Harrison burst down the right channel and centred low to Gaffney, who controlled the ball, took his time, then drove low into the net.
Argyle's first chances to respond came via former Rovers man Nathan Blissett. Firstly, a backpass to home goalkeeper Sam Slocombe was rather underhit, giving Blissett a chance to close down. He was extremely close to blocking Slocombe's hurried clearance. Then, Wylde picked a pocket in midfield and set away down the left. His chipped cross was behind Blissett, but the forward twisted his body to head on goal, only to see it fly over.
Adams, possibly with half an eye on a similar switch when behind at Southend, altered his midfield to bring Carey to the right flank and push Jervis up front with Blissett. Some movement between Carey and Jervis teed up Ness to drive over the bar, as Argyle began to remind everyone that they were taking part in this game.
Carey was next to try his luck from range, wriggling into space following a Jervis flick-on, only to shoot wide. Then Wylde, after Carey's free-kick was partially headed away, did not quite catch a volley. Slocombe was hardly being tested, but the frequency in which Argyle were approaching his goal was an encouraging sign.
Following a Rovers corner in which Argyle hearts fluttered as it took several attempts to block and clear inside the box, they created their best chance of the half. A crossfield ball found Blissett having pulled onto the full-back, and his header down nearly fell perfectly for the arrival of Sarcevic. Somehow, a blue and white toe met the ball first, cannoned the ball against Sarcevic, and out for a goal-kick.
Within the opening four minutes of the second half, Argyle could have been level, two behind, or level again. How none of a trio of chances, at alternating ends, did not go in is a mystery.
The first would have been some story, and some goal. Wylde's cross - a good one, too - was headed out as far as Nathan Blissett, who caught a hip-high volley as sweetly as could be. It was destined for the top corner before Slocombe launched himself headlong to turn it away.
At the other end, Bodin and Sercombe strayed off-script again, with the former feeding the latter, who drove inches wide of the post, wit Letheren beaten.
Argyle's turn again, with Wylde once more into a good position, crossing to the far post to find Sarcevic arrving with perfect timing again. His volley, admittedly a tough ask, went not far over the bar, but he probably felt he ought to have hit the target.
Then Argyle got it right. There was a bit of luck involved - how we have craved that - as Carey's low cross ought to have been dealt with by Lockyer, but the Rovers captain scuffed a clearance, the ball fell to Blissett, and he instinctively pushed home past Slocombe's despairing dive.
Suddenly, the game seemed to have turned. Wave after wave of Argyle attack, with Rovers struggling to deal with the wind, raised the noise in the protracted away end. The home ends felt nervous, the belief surging through Argyle seemed telling. But then...
Once again, seemingly in a position where the oft-cruelly weighted pendulum was for once swinging their way, came the one-two punch of goal against, red card.
The goal that Rovers had Argyle rocking with was a swift move that saw Gaffney pull wide to the left, fizz a telling low cross into the middle, and was finished by Bodin with a terrific left-foot strike.
And, if you thought that the goal was a haymaker that landed, what followed was an upper cut that saw Argyle looking at the lights.
The saddest part of Gary Miller's dismissal was probably that he made a magnificent tackle to thwart a very dangerous Rovers attack just one second before reaching for the loose ball. In his haste, though, Miller took two feet off the ground, as Joe Partington challenged too. It was not a nasty, leg-breaker of a tackle, but when two feet leave the ground...you know the rest.
And so do Argyle. A fifth red card of the season - a fourth straight red - meant playing with ten men once again. It is a now-familiar concept, but never an easy one, especially against Rovers, tales up from their second goal, and with some dangerous attacking players.
Chances from Harrison, Bodin, Sercombe and substitute Tom Nichols - another Exeter alumnus - came and went, typically with a defensive block. At one point, Nichols looked clean through the middle, only for a tremendous piece of defending by Songo'o who combined timing, strength and guile to muscle the ball back then stroll away with it.
Twice the ball went into the Argyle net, but the assistant referee's flag curbed the home cheers each time, once for the ball having gone out of play, then from an offside decision.
Adams brought on David Fox for Ness, and the experienced midfielder helped Argyle stem the flow, and get the Pilgrims back into the game. It was not an Argyle onslaught, but they started to get hold of the ball again, and Rovers, a little edgy began to make a mistake or two more than they had been.
Just as the board signalled 90 minutes, Argyle won a free-kick close to the edge of the box. Jervis struck, and as the ball hit the wall, several Argyle players desperately appealed for a handball. Meanwhile, Jervis slammed a deflected ball back into the danger zone, finding Sarcevic, who looked miles offside. No flag arrived, but Sarcevic dragged hit shot about as close as one could to the post without hitting it.
And if you wanted a metaphor for the our season, there you have it.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): 1 Sam Slocombe; 22 Joe Partington, 4 Tom Lockyer (capt), 6 Ryan Sweeney, 3 Lee Brown; 10 Billy Bodin (18 Dominic Telford 90), 14 Chris Lines, 8 Ollie Clarke, 7 Liam Sercombe; 9 Ellis Harrison, 30 Rory Gaffney (11 Tom Nichols 69) Substitutes (not used): 16 Tom Broadbent, 17 Ryan Broom, 20 Marc Bola, 21 Adam Smith (gk), 24 Stuart Sinclair.
Booked: Clarke 40, Harrison 65, Lines 90, Brown 90.
Argyle (4-2-3-1): 25 Kyle Letheren; 2 Gary Miller, 5 Ryan Edwards, 4 Yann Songo’o, 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 6 Jamie Ness (24 David Fox 76); 14 Jake Jervis, 10 Graham Carey (20 Jakub Sokolik 69), 21 Gregg Wylde; 13 Nathan Blissett. Substitutes (not used): 9 Nadir Ciftci, 11 Ruben Lameiras, 16 Joel Grant, 27 Alex Fletcher, 31 Michael Cooper (gk).
Sent off: Miller 64.
Booked: Carey 57, Edwards 90.
Referee: Graham Salisbury.
Attendance: 9,879 (1,291 away).