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Letters from Wiltshire #29
Written by wessex_exile on Wednesday, 27th Jan 2021 18:50

Looks like some around the world have started 2021 a bit cross. Never mind the attempted insurrection at the Capitol earlier this month, those normally laid-back Dutch have now been rioting for three nights running about the imposition of a night-time curfew to try and curb the spread of coronavirus. Farmers in Delhi have stormed through police lines and breached the Red Fort in protest against market reforms, and tragic Somalia has just passed the 30th anniversary of their ongoing civil war. In brighter news, President Biden has immediately begun dismantling and/or reversing some of Trump’s more contentious decisions, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord, renewed funding for the World Health Organisation, revoking the ‘Muslim travel ban’, defunding the border wall, rescinding Trump’s report calling for a ‘more patriotic’ syllabus in schools, and overturning the ban on transgender people serving in the military.

[b]Plymouth Argyle v Colchester United
Saturday 29th October 2016
Sky Bet League Two (Tier 4)
Attendance 8,650[/b]

With tonight’s game at Stevenage a 7pm kick-off, this blog may be a bit shorter than usual if I’m going to post ahead of kick-off. Letters from Wiltshire #29 returns for another West Country visit, the eleventh so far (including last season’s Matches of Yesteryear series), but the first to come from Home Park. Not my first visit to Home Park by a long stretch, I think that event was way back in May 1996 for our infamous first leg Play-Off semi-final. Given the 1995/96 season was the first time our paths crossed since I’d moved down from West Yorkshire, I’m fairly certain there wasn’t a previous visit to Home Park. I don’t have a programme for this match, but have managed to hold on to the tickets.

[b]Context please[/b]
Anyway, back to the 2016 match. After a slightly ropey start to the campaign (losing their first matches home to Luton and away on the long trek to Carlisle), Plymouth had embarked on a terrific run of form, and going into this match were not only undefeated in 12 matches, but had won all but two draws in the process. Needless to say, they were top of the league and had been since the first half of September.

The U’s had faired less favourably, and although we’d had an okay start to the season (winning five and drawing one of our first eight matches), a subsequent slump had seen us slip down into lower mid-table ahead of the match. This was John McGreal’s first full season as manager – technically he was appointed ahead of the last game of the previous season, but as he didn’t take up the post until the close season, the current manager Steve Ball stood in as a caretaker.

[b]It’s all about golf balls, spare change and pasties…[/b]
For anyone who visited Home Park back in the day, they will remember Home Park as a crumbling behemoth that had clearly seen better times, and in urgent need of a facelift. Crumbling open terraces, antiquated facilities, much of it rebuilt post-war (after heavy damage during air raids), but not really improved at all beyond that point. The local populace were similarly rather living in the past as well, and with a well-deserved reputation for not really moving on from the tribal football violence of the 70s and 80s – as anyone who was at that ’96 play-off match can testify.

However, the new millennium saw improvements, with the complete replacement of the Devonport End, Lyndhurst Stand, and Barn Park End as one continuous build, as a horseshoe arrangement facing the antiquated Mayflower Grandstand. There were plans to redevelop this into a new 3-tiered grandstand, but these plans had to be shelved as Argyle subsequently flirted with bankruptcy, including going into administration in 2011. As with what happened at Layer Road, Plymouth City Council agreed to buy the freehold for Home Park (for a reported £1.6m) and then lease the ground back to the club. Their fanbase also seemed to relax into the 21st century a tad as well, with Home Park no longer the fearsome venue of old for travelling supporters.

[b]On the road[/b]
Me and Alfie drove down for this match, on what was actually a lovely day given we were at the wrong end of October. Normally, I street-park in the residential area on the opposite side of the A386. However, as places were becoming increasingly harder to find in previous visits, mainly because of a more and more stringent resident parking scheme, this time I availed myself of the luxury of the Home Park stadium car park (normally a park & ride, but utilised for football parking on matchdays). To emphasise the weather, the groundsmen were liberally watering the pitch right up until kick-off, and at half-time too.

Despite the distance from Essex, there was quite a reasonable turnout from the U’s faithful, including the drum to add some oomph to proceedings, the crowd (I think) including both [b]Noah[/b] and [b]Durham[/b] in amongst what must have been 2-300.

John McGreal’s side lined up that day:

1….Sam Walker
2….Richard Brindley
14..Alex Wynter
30..Lloyd Doyley
5….Luke Prosser (captain)
24..Craig Slater (Sammy Szmodics 91’)
28..Kurtis Guthrie
12..Kane Vincent-Young (Tariqe Fosu-Henry 91’)
7….Drey Wright
9….Chris Porter
17..Denny Johnstone (Macauley Bonne 92’)

[b]The match[/b]
When all’s said and done, considering the relative positions of the two sides, this was a very good performance from the U’s, and for most of the game we were more than a match for our high-flying opponents. Drey Wright signalled our intent early on, drilling an angled shot wide of the post, and he was going to indirectly play an unwitting role in what might be construed as Argyle’s controversial opener.

Wright had come off worse in a tackle with midfielder Graham Carey, and was left in a crumpled heap writhing in agony. However, following the mantra ‘play to the whistle’, Carey continued to advance, and whilst some of the U’s gestured wildly for the ball to be put out, slotted it through beautifully for Craig Tanner to drill home the opening goal. This was galling to say the least, but if I’m honest I would have expected the U’s to do exactly the same, so couldn’t really complain. Still though we continued to press Plymouth all across the park, with Denny Johnstone shanking a volley that would have been a certain goal if he’d caught it right shortly after.

Just after the half-hour mark we got the deserved equaliser. Sam Walker saw an opportunity and launched the ball from his area into the path of Wright breaking into the Argyle half. Beating his man, Drey crossed into the path of Porter, who couldn’t get his feet sorted out in time and make decent contact. His fluffed effort was half-cleared back to him on the edge of the box, where he was brought down for a free-kick. Stepping up, Craig Slater curled an absolute peach both sort of over and around the wall and into the bottom corner, giving ‘keeper Gary Miller no chance, and the U’s a well-deserved equaliser before half-time.

The second half continued very much as the first had finished, with the U’s still showing attacking intent. Johnstone and Porter combined virtually from kick-off to fashion a chance for Wright, but he didn’t really trouble Miller. However, Plymouth still carried a significant threat, and reminded us of that shortly after, with that man Jerome Slew keeping Walker on his toes after a smart shot on the turn. As the half wore on, although both sides still carried a threat, and demonstrated attacking intent, they were rather cancelling each other out in a war of attrition midfield battle.

With less than five minutes to go, we come to the really contentious, might I even say controversial and even calamitous, moment of the game. Well within the Plymouth Argyle half, referee Kevin Johnson and Argyle player Jimmy Spencer accidentally collided. Johnson went down, clearly in a lot of discomfort, and the ball out of play of an Argyle player (can’t remember who). Some reports say the referee was unconscious, but there did seem to be some ‘writhing’ going on too, but that could well have been spasms. All in all, he looked in a very bad way, and after 12+ minutes of extended treatment on the pitch, they bought a spine board on to remove the unfortunate Mr Johnson, to be replaced by 4th official Simon Knapp.

This is where things really went wrong. Knapp incorrectly awarded Plymouth Argyle the throw-in, who despite howls and protestations both on and off the pitch launched it forward with attacking intent. However, despite the injustice, everything seemed in control, with Prosser clearing up to tap back to big Sam for a clearance…only he slightly under-hit it, not massively so, but enough to give onrushing Ryan Donaldson an invitation to bear down on Walker. Big Sam swung a leg at the ball, which cannoned straight off Donaldson, ballooned over Walker’s shoulder, and bounce into the empty net.

Technically, with 12 minutes delay for the referee injury, the time was registered as the 87th minute, but in reality there was still at least 15 minutes left to play. We were gutted, and McGreal more or less immediately made a triple substitution, bringing Bonne, Szmodics and Fosu on to try and rescue at least the point we richly deserved. But, despite a number of efforts between then and full-time, we couldn’t fashion another goal. Anyone watching final score, and knowing the relative positions and form of the two teams, would probably reflect on what seemed to be another anticipated regulation home victory for the team top of the table. You would have to have been there to know the truth…

[b]Plymouth Argyle 2 (Craig Tanner 61’; Ryan Donaldson 87’) Colchester United 1 (Craig Slater 31’)[/b]

First and foremost, I should finish by confirming that although Johnson was kept in hospital overnight, he was discharged the following day, with a combination of ligament damage and a little bit of blurred vision.

Curiously, the result was more or less the end of Plymouth Argyle’s run of form, and a mini-slump saw them sacrifice top place at the turn of the year, albeit they never slipped below second, and finished as runners-up with automatic promotion.

Conversely, after a couple more wobbles, and possibly buoyed by that Home Park performance, the U’s went on an undefeated run through November, December and January to propel us right back into the promotion frame. John McGreal was named Manager of the Month for December, the first time a U’s manager had received the award since Paul Lambert back in 2009.

Despite finishing the season strongly, the U’s missed out on the play-offs by one point and one place, and whilst it’s easy to point to any result throughout a season and say ‘that was the moment’, a credible candidate for that moment would be the fallout from the injury to referee Kevin Johnson

Up the U’s

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