Fun in the Sun

A FEW days after an entertaining draw at Bristol Rovers, we look back on an intriguing weekend through the lens of Argyle fan and occasional reporter Charlie Hempstead.

Two hours before kick-off on a cold, bright, sunny Bristol afternoon, the stewards in the away end at the Memorial Ground were being briefed. It went something like this: “There’ll be loads of them, and they’ll all be in green.”

And there were. And they were.

There’s something about a match on a Sunday anyway, but when it’s in the FA Cup, at the home of a local(ish) rival, in front of 1,800 travelling fans, then it has just that bit extra.

With so much talk of the Cup having lost some of its lustre, it was refreshing to see that neither manager was taking the competition lightly, with the prospect of landing a big fish in the third-round draw only 90 minutes away.

Argyle boss Ryan Lowe named the same line-up for the fourth match in succession, with no thoughts of resting players or giving game time to those who are a bit short of it. And with no fewer than five strikers on the bench, it’s fair to say that the gaffer wasn’t taking a safety-first approach.

In the opposing dugout, Argyle legend Graham Coughlan was similarly keen to see his side progress, making just the one change from the feisty victory at Shrewsbury last time out, that saw seven goals and an FA charge for both clubs. Given that the change was to bring back top scorer Jonson Clarke-Harris, it could hardly be viewed as squad rotation.

Recent competitive meetings between the two sides have ended honours even, with both fixtures in League One last season being drawn, as was the Trophy encounter at Home Park in September.

Those who believe in the immutable law that ex-players always score against their former clubs would have been mightily reassured to see that Argyle’s squad boasted no fewer than four players (Gary Sawyer, Joel Grant, Byron Moore and Dom Telford) who had previously turned out for The Gas, making the result a mere formality.

The way that Argyle set about their task suggested they fancied their chances of banging in at least four against their hosts. The telepathic Danny Mayor and Callum McFadzean, the most potent left-wing axis since the fall of the Soviet bloc, were opening up the Rovers defence with a regularity that was causing much consternation around three sides of the stadium.

Only some committed defending kept the home side’s rearguard from being breached, with Rollin Menayese not just rollin’, but rockin’, blockin’ and tacklin’, too. Alfie Kilgour and Tony Craig, the other two centre backs, were similarly kept at full stretch, while Anssi Jaakkola – a man with more double letters than a Scrabble board – was by far the busier of the two goalkeepers.

The other prominent protagonist in the early exchanges was young referee, Will Finnie. In quick succession he penalised the home side’s Abu Ogogo for a foul on Josh Grant, when in the eyes of everyone else in the ground it was the Argyle man who was the guilty party; ignored a clear foul on Antoni Sarcevic as he burst through the middle of the park in the way he has been doing week after week all season; failed to spot Mayor being caught late on the back of the head after winning an aerial duel; and stopped play for a free-kick when Argyle had a 3-on-3 break.

In truth, after his shaky start, the young official then settled into the game pretty well. However, in refereeing, as in life, you never get a second chance to make a first impression, and it was clear that his early decisions had set the tone, such that he seemed quickly to lose the confidence of players and management alike.

His biggest impact on the game was still to come though.

Despite Argyle’s first-half dominance – acknowledged with typical candour by Coughlan after the match – it was the home side who took the lead with a little over quarter of an hour remaining.

If the law about ex-players scoring against their former employers was not working, the other law – the one that says certain players keep returning to haunt a particular club (think Paddy Madden) – was proven once more. Liam Sercombe’s composed finish from Liam Leahy’s cutback following a Mayor/McFadzean-type interchange with Clarke-Harris, must have been at least the twentieth he has scored against Argyle, whether in the colours of Exeter, Oxford or Rovers. Even if it isn’t quite that many, the midfielder certainly delights in being a thorn in Argyle’s side.

With the clock ticking down and an unlikely and undeserved home victory looking to be on the cards, Mayor set off on one of those mesmeric runs when the ball seems to be superglued to his feet. He swerved, jinked and glided his way past three defenders, the last of whom, Ogogo, was so bemused that he was completely Ogonegone by the time Mayor had finished with him, and shoved the Argyle No.10 to the ground.

The home side’s timid remonstrations as Mr Finnie pointed to the spot lacked conviction. Sarcevic’s penalty emphatically did not.

Ten minutes later, in the fourth of five minutes added on for stoppages, Mr Finnie adjudged that Moore, put in the clear by Telford’s reverse pass, had been illegally halted by Menayese. The penalty decision, described by Coughlan with perhaps a hint of hyperbole as “catastrophic”, was compounded by the defender’s dismissal. Replays suggest that the red card will soon be rescinded.

It was inevitable that Sarcevic would one day make a mistake, having not made one for about three months. Unfortunately, this was that moment.

Taking two penalties in a match is always tricky. Will the keeper expect you to do something different? Do you bluff him by going the same way as last time? Or double-bluff him by making him think you’ll go the same way as last time but actually going the other way? Or triple-bluff him, by making him think you’re double-bluffing, but actually you’re only single-bluffing? Or do you go for the quadruple bluff? You get the idea.

Maybe because of such thoughts running through his head, or quite probably for some other reason entirely, Sarcevic’s second spot-kick went down the middle, allowing Jaakkola’s left boot to steal the glory and ensure that the run of stalemates between the two sides was extended to four.

It probably saved young Mr Finnie’s blushes, too.

The replay will be at Home Park on Tuesday, December 17 and broadcast live on BT Sport.