|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
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.
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]
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]
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:
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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Letters from Wiltshire #35 by wessex_exile
As many were predicting, time finally ran out for Steve Ball mid-week, after the U’s lost 2-1 at home to Exeter City. Although a considerable improvement in score-line compared to the 6-1 thrashing they handed out at St James Park earlier in the season, apart from the first 10-15 minutes and very brief glimpses throughout the remainder of the game, it was a poor performance, leaving Robbie Cowling with no choice. After a brief interlude, Robbie named Wayne Brown as our new Interim Head Coach (that’s caretaker as far as I’m concerned), and after an even briefer interlude, Robbie and Wayne in a joint statement put to rest any lingering concerns about Wayne’s attitude to race. If Wayne can show the same sort of leadership on the training ground and in the dressing room as he used to show for the U’s on the pitch, I am certain he’s going to do very well in the job.
Letters from Wiltshire #34 by wessex_exile
I won’t dwell on Robbie’s latest message to the supporters – we’ve all read it, and we’ve all probably drawn our own conclusions about what it doesn’t say as much as what it does. To me, bottom line, I suspect the clock is now ticking for Steve Ball (at least), turn around this terrible form pretty damn quick, or start clearing out your locker. Regardless of personal opinions on any of the individuals concerned, I would like to think none of us actually wants to see people made redundant in the current climate. But, these are difficult times that require tough decisions. If Steve Ball is up to the job and can turn this around, I’ll be more than happy to support him. If he’s not, he has to go before irreparable harm is done…and we all know what that will look like, we’ve been there before…
Letters from Wiltshire #33 by wessex_exile
Today we face a trip to Crawley, not usually a venue that bears fruit for the U’s it has to be said. In nine visits we’ve only won once in the league, and once in the League Cup. Of course, we’ll all remember that League Cup victory, indeed many of us were probably there to see us progress through to 5th round and the dream fixture against Manchester United at Old Trafford. All of our goal-scorers that night, Luke’s Norris and Gambin, and Cohen Bramall (okay, technically an O.G.), are no longer with us, so let’s hope at the very least that recent departee and subsequent returnee Frank Nouble can bag another like his late equaliser against Mansfield. Steve Ball commented during the week about how tight the league is at the moment, and he’s right that a couple of back to back victories would see us move significantly up the table away from danger – but we’ve got to win them first Steve – something we’ve failed to do since our 1-0 victory at Scunthorpe on December 8th.
Letters from Wiltshire #32 by wessex_exile
Fifty years ago yesterday, Colchester United of the 4th Division pulled off the greatest cup giant-killing ever, beating 1st Division Leeds United 3-2 at Layer Road. Watched by 16,000, and the Match of the Day cameras, Dick Graham’s U’s, a rag-tag band of mostly aging journeymen, defied the odds to defeat arguably the greatest club side in Europe at the time. “The greatest cup giant-killing ever” is a bold claim, and over the years various football magazines and websites have run their own polls of which was the greatest. Whilst that day at Layer Rd always features, as the years have gone by other feats fresher in the memory have been put forward as a candidate – we probably all remember Ronnie Radford’s screamer against Newcastle, Sutton’s exploits, or even Bradford City quite recently at Stamford Bridge – but these pale into insignificance when you pause to reflect on the Don Revie side that we beat that day. Sprake, Cooper, Charlton, Hunter, Lorimer, Giles etc – all full internationals, all household names – the only one missing was Billy Bremner, and that was because he was injured. By comparison, all we had to offer was Ray Crawford – at his peak arguably on a par with some in the Leeds side, but that peak had been ten years earlier playing for Ipswich and England. Eleven heroes didn’t just try and hold out against Leeds United, they took the game to their illustrious opponents with such tenacity, grit and no small amount of flair, and before we knew it, the U’s were 3-0 in the lead. As legs tired, Leeds got back into the game with goals from Hunter and Giles, but we held firm – typified at the death by Graham Smith pulling off an impossible save to ensure the U’s achieved [b][u]the greatest cup giant-killing ever![/b][/u]
Letters from Wiltshire #31 by wessex_exile
And so the dust settles on another transfer window closing, and despite (my) expectations that the possibility of incoming business was going to be remote, we have instead seen a veritable flurry of activity, with no less than three coming in. Big Frank Nouble, making a very welcome return on loan from Plymouth Argyle, of course needs no introduction. Neither really does feisty Brendan Sarpong-Wiredu, here on loan last season, and this time signed full-time from Charlton Athletic for an undisclosed fee. Actually paying hard cash for someone did come as a surprise, presumably offset by the sale of Cohen Bramall to Lincoln for a similarly undisclosed fee. However, the fact that the Addicks have insisted on not only a sell-on clause, but a rarely used buy-back clause too, suggests (a) Wiredu’s signing fee probably wasn’t too high, and (b) Charlton are protecting those finances with these clauses. The last one, which would have been a complete surprise for me were it not for a contact leaking me the news earlier yesterday, is left-back Josh Doherty on loan from Crawley. Josh was only announced once outgoing left-back Bramall was confirmed, and presumably his loan is directly related to part-time fashion model, TV and radio celeb and former left-back Mark Wright signing for Crawley on a non-contract game-by-game basis in December. We have also released seven from the academy, Ollie Kensdale, Miquel Scarlett, Sammie McLeod, Michael Fernandes, Ollie Sims, Danny Collinge and Matt Weaire, and I’m sure we all wish them the best for the future.