Lameiras 51, Craig og 75
Bristol Rovers 2
Ckarke-Harris 72, Reilly 90
JAMAICAN politician Marcus Garvey once prophesised that judgment day would fall on July 7, 1977, when “two sevens clash”, a forecast immortalised in roots reggae band Culture’s seminal song of the same era.
It is doubtful whether Garvey also foresaw the 2018-19 Sky Bet League One tussle to avoid relegation, and certain that Culture never penned a tune about a Westcountry derby. Neither was Saturday’s clash between Argyle, defending a seven-game unbeaten home run, and Rovers, who arrived at Home Park seven unbeaten on the road, remotely cataclysmic, but it was a cracking contest between two sides playing way better than their mid-table position.
All the goals came in the second half, Ruben Lameiras breaching one of the stiffest defences in the division before Jonson Clarke-Harris levelled with a worldy. Argyle thought they had the game won when Tony Craig’s own goal saw them reach injury-time ahead, but Rovers substitute Gavin Reilly levelled matters for a point apiece.
Argyle went into the game without talismanic midfielder Graham Carey, who failed to pass muster after suffering from a problem in the lower back/hamstring area. Jamie Ness was his chosen replacement, starting a game for the first time since New Year’s Day.
Rovers, seeking to extend a long unbeaten away run that began on Boxing Day, made two changes, both to a back-four that had kept four successive clean sheets: Tom Lockyer was on international duty with Wales and replaced by Alfie Kilgour, while former Pilgrim Tareiq Holmes-Dennis came in for Michael Kelly.
Carey’s misfortune saw a re-alignment to the Pilgrims’ shape. For the second time in three home games, they employed three centre-backs, with Yann Songo’o lining up between Ryan Edwards and Niall Canavan a fortnight after the trio shut out Luton Town, the division’s most potent attack.
Any thoughts that might be a negative move were dispelled from the kick-off. The switch of formation allowed Argyle’s full-backs, Joe Riley, on the right, and captain Gary Sawyer, to wander into forward areas, and Lameiras played off the shoulder of Freddie Ladapo. Ness, not averse to a midfield dogfight, was also noticeably more advanced.
Argyle looked lively from the off – although, arguably, they missed Carey’s delivery – and none looked livelier than Ladapo, who weaved his way into space for the game’s first shot on target. Weak as it was, it nearly deceived Jack Bonham in the Rovers goal and was tipped aside.
The Pilgrims’ leading scorer then showed a couple of nice touches in the box to send in a cross that Rovers were grateful to clear. They remained under the cosh and again were obliged to execute a late intervention to keep out Ness’s shot.
Rovers were quiet, patient, and took half an hour to exert any meaningful pressure on the Argyle goal, when James Clarke’s cross to the near-post was headed wide by former Exeter City man Tom Nichols, under pressure from Canavan.
Argyle will feel they should have turned their own pressure into something tangible moments later, when a Riley raid down the right ended with a low drive that zipped across the face of the Rovers goal to the far post, where a well-positioned and unmarked Ladapo failed to find the necessary touch.
Rovers defended their lines well, though – as you might expect, given that a pig-headed cussedness to be beaten is in their manager’s DNA – and they had to, with Argyle threatening from all angles.
However, the Pilgrims reached the interval on terms only thanks to a magnificent save from Matt Macey. Nichols found space, sneaking in unimpeded at the back stick to propel the ball goalwards from no range at all; Macey was the only one of the Argyle defensive line in complete tune with Nichol’s intentions and somehow managed to keep the ball out, with half his body behind the goal-line.
It has been a mild concern, of late, that Argyle have, not only failed to build on good first-half work, but actually slightly fallen away after the break. Within seven minutes of the restart, those concerns were alleviated.
Ness had already power-driven the ball from long range, with Bonham just getting enough on the ball to turn it into the Devonport end before Fox and Lameiras switched passes inside the right-hand side of the Rovers’ penalty area.
Fox’s pass invited Lameiras to shimmy into a wee bit of space that allowed him to curl a shot around Bonham and into the far corner. It was the first goal conceded by Rovers’ defence in 446 minutes of football.
Rovers responded through another of their former St James’ Park brigade, Liam Sercombe, who controlled well at the far post and brought the ball down for a shot that Macey was smartly behind.
Tiredness, and Rovers’ search for an equaliser, ensured that the game opened up, and increased in urgency.
The equaliser was a bolt from the blue half of Bristol, with Clarke-Harris, the Mem’s Freddie Ladapo, smashing the ball home from 25-plus yards. So perfect was his technique and placement, that Macey did not – could not – move.
Back came the Pilgrims and, three minutes later, were back in front. Ironically, given how much they missed Carey’s deliveries, the goal came from a corner, Craig trying to head Lameiras’s inswinger to the back post away for another corner but misjudging slightly. Cue an embarrassed Lameiras being congratulated by delighted team-mates for his unwitting assist.
Bristol were not going to let their impressive record on the road peter out, and Argyle’s defence, supplemented by the addition from the bench of Lloyd Jones, needed to be on their toes as substitute Alex Jakubiak and Sercombe both tested the green wall.
In the first minute of four added on to the 90, they broke through, Reilly glancing home a delivery from the left four minutes after coming on, and the ball sneaking just inside the post.
Argyle (3-5-2): 1 Matt Macey; 5 Ryan Edwards, 4 Yann Songo’o, 14 Niall Canavan; 2 Joe Riley (26 Oscar Threlkeld 62), 8 David Fox (20 Lloyd Jones 86), 7 Antoni Sarcevic, 6 Jamie Ness; 3 Gary Sawyer (capt); 11 Ruben Lameiras, 19 Freddie Ladapo. Substitutes (not used): 9 Ryan Taylor, 13 Paul Anderson, 21 Kyle Letheren (gk), 23 Ashley Smith-Brown, 29 Alex Fletcher.
Booked: Ness 88.
Bristol Rovers (4-4-2): 13 Jack Bonham; 15 James Clarke, 30 Alfie Kilgour, 5 Tony Craig, 3 Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; 8 Ollie Clarke (capt), 6 Ed Upson, 25 Abu Ogogo (20 Gavin Reilly 86), 7 Liam Sercombe, 19 Jonson Clarke-Harris, 10 Tom Nichols (17 Alex Jakubiak 67). Substitutes (not used): 14 Chris Lines, 21 Adam Smith (gk), 22 Joe Partington, 24 Stuart Sinclair, 28 Michael Kelly.
Booked: Ollie Clarke 90.
Referee: Roger East.
Attendance: 12,003 (1,214 away).