“We just didn’t have that little bit of luck”. Heard that one before, haven’t you? It’s an all too familiar phrase that has emerged from Carl Fletcher’s post-match interviews of late. As we all know, luck does play a part in football, but it’s no surprise that after just one win in nine, the bad luck cliché was starting to get on some Pilgrims’ last nerve. So it was refreshing to see Fletcher keep some consistency following today’s Devon derby and admitting the shoe was on the other foot.
“We rode our luck a little bit,” said Fletch. “Jamie Cureton didn’t have his finishing-boots on today, which we’re delighted about.”
Yes Fletch, we certainly did ride our luck. Jamie Cureton, with 14 goals to his name this term, lost all his usual composure in front of goal much to the relief of Fletcher, the team and the 1226 travelling fans. On another day, the scoreline could have made depressing reading.
With today being my first away Devon Derby against Exeter, I was in good spirits as I hopped on the 8.52 from Plymouth station with hundreds of other Argyle fans. We made the short journey to Exeter St Davids where we left the train and made for the designated away fan pub – The Imperial (Also known as the nicest Wetherspoons I have ever seen!). With the game being moved forward for policing reasons, the police presence was bound to be heavy, but it seemed to be over the top. We were greeted by a blockade of police waiting to search us and check for a valid match ticket to allow entry to the pub. All Argyle fans were then asked to leave at 11 for a police escort to the ground. It seemed unnecessary but it made for a great pre-match atmosphere as the travelling fans found their singing voices en route to the ground. On arrival, St James’ Park is quite an eye-opening site. A shambolic terrace to house the away fans, compared to ‘The Big Bank’ opposite, one of the better terraces I have seen on my Argyle travels. As the rain held out, we made our way into the ground as kick off approached.
As the teams came out the home fans were in good voice, with the Green Army struggling to make much noise in the open-air and as the first half went on, the atmosphere did not improve.
In what was expected to be a high tempo affair, the game got off to a slow start with both teams struggling to keep possession. The first real chance came after 12 minutes. A foul from Conor Hourihane handed the home side a free kick on the edge of the area. Liam Sercombe stepped up, but saw his curled effort tipped over fantastically by Rene Gilmartin. Hourihane’s tackle was one of a number of fouls from both sides as the game quickly turned scrappy. As a result, Maxime Blanchard found himself in the book shortly after for a challenge on former-Pilgrim Alan Gow.
Argyle had done reasonably well to contain City for the opening period but had failed to create chances at the other end, with Rhys Griffiths finding himself isolated in the lone striker role. The Pilgrims first chance didn’t come until the half hour mark when Griffiths got on the end of a Conor Hourihane free kick, but glanced his header wide.
This immediately sparked the home side into life. After sloppily losing possession in midfield, Exeter picked up the ball on half way and found Liam Sercombe in acres of space out wide. Sercombe drove a fierce shot across goal which deflected off an Argyle defender to give Gilmartin little chance of stopping it from nestling in the bottom corner. The goal had come slightly against the run of play, but in truth neither side deserved to be on the score sheet at this point. Things got worse for the travelling fans as the rain began to pour down and with no roof to keep them dry it felt as though it could be a long afternoon.
The Pilgrims had one last chance as the half drew to a close, with Joe Lennox striking a half volley from the edge of the area straight into the keepers arms.
It had been a cagey first half, with very few chances all round and no risks being taken by either team. Argyle had struggled to threaten the City goal, lacking any penetration in the final third, with Gurrieri being largely ineffectual in the hole and Griffiths struggling to get into the game due to a lack of service. This saw Fletcher mix it up at the break, as Robbie Williams was introduced at left back in place of Gurrieri, as Bhasera moved forward onto the left wing and Young into the hole behind Griffiths.
As the second half started, City should have immediately doubled there lead. Substitute Robbie Williams’ header back to Gilmartin was intercepted by Jamie Cureton, who found himself 1-on-1 with all the time in the world. But the usually reliable striker curled his shot wide of the left post. It was a serious let off for Argyle as Cureton uncharacteristically spurned a glorious opportunity.
The miss seemed to be the wake up call Argyle needed, as they got the ball down and started to keep possession. Molesley’s driving runs were causing trouble through the middle and Bhasera was proving more dangerous in an advanced role on the left but like in the first half, not enough chances were being created, with the only opportunity a wayward shot on the left from Bhasera.
Fletcher then looked to the bench again as he brought on Warren Feeney and Nick Chadwick for Rhys Griffiths and Conor Hourihane, switching from 4-4-1-1 to a 4-4-2. This proved to be the change Argyle needed as Feeney almost had an immediate impact. After winning the initial long ball, he fed Lennox on the right, whose cross eventually pinballed back to the unmarked Feeney whose outstretched leg turned the ball over the bar. For the first time in the game Argyle looked like they could get back on level terms and that was proven just minutes later. After Exeter gifted Argyle possession on the half way line, the visitors broke as Molesely found Joe Lennox on the right. The winger cut inside and struck a left footed effort which took a wicked deflection and looped over the helpless Krysiak to deflect in off the post. The goal was deserved for the away side, who had been in the ascendency.
Argyle continued to press after the goal, with another good spell of possession, but the home side were still a threat and beginning to look more dangerous. Exeter were getting on the ball and having joy down the flanks, yet the final pass – alike there oppositions – was found wanting. But the golden chance did arrive after 82 minutes. Jamie Cureton latched onto a through ball on the right of the Argyle box, but his low effort slid agonisingly wide of the left post, with Gilmartin completely beaten.
Minutes later, Argyle found themselves in trouble again as Maxime Blanchard brought down John O’Flynn and received a second yellow card of the afternoon, meaning Argyle would play the last ten minute a man short. Exeter had another great chance to snatch all three points just minutes later. A Liam Sercombe cross found the unmarked Scott Bennett, who headed just inches wide from six yards out. The last five minutes were a nerve racking affair as the away side dug deep to keep out an Exeter side who were on the front foot, but the home sides attacks fizzled into nothing, as the final whistle brought the game to a close with the points split.
It was a much better second half performance from the Pilgrims, eventually coming away from St James’ Park with a slightly lucky, but hard-fought point. The home side had the best of the chances and should feel hard done by, but they lacked the composure in front of goal to put the game to bed. In truth, asides the two deflected goals the keepers had very little to do.
Gilmartin – 6 – Made one fantastic save from Liam Sercombe, but had little else to do. Needs to command his area better.
Nelson – 7 – A very good performance. Kept O’Flynn quiet on the right and his crossing was very good too.
Purse – 7 – Commanding performance from Purse who looks back to his form of last season. This Purse, we can’t afford to keep, but we can’t afford to lose him either.
Blanchard – 6 – Despite the red card, a good performance from Maxi. One world class clearance in particular denied Cureton a goal.
Bhasera – 6 – Lots of tireless running up and down the wing, but end product was lacking. Better in advanced position.
Young – 6 – Ineffectual. Delivery was poor and despite some good touches and a couple good runs, he didn’t offer much.
Molesley – 7 – Driving runs from midfield caused trouble. Our much needed box-to-box midfielder.
Hourihane – 6 – Another consistent performance. Good defensively and sensible with his passing.
Lennox – 7 – One of Lennox’s best performances as a green. Added some much needed pace and was positive on the ball.
Gurrieri – 5 – Positive and tireless running, but very wasteful. Final ball often found a red shirt.
Griffiths – 5 – Really struggled against Coles in the air and didn’t get many chances. Not a great showing from the Welshman.
Williams – 5 – Considering it’s his return from a long stint out, he did alright, but his lack of pace and positioning is a real concern.
Feeney – 6 – Great cameo. Pain in the backside for the tiring defenders and made things happen for Argyle.
Chadwick – 5 – Lots of effort and held the ball up well, but failed to get into dangerous positions.
Exeter: Krysiak 6, Tully 6, Baldwin 7, Coles 7, Woodman 6, Sercombe 6, Bennett 6, Oakley 5, Gow 6, O’Flynn 5, Cureton 6.
What we learnt:
Deceptive Gurrieri – Gurrieri was withdrawn at half time today, with many Argyle fans exclaiming their surprise at the decision. However in truth, the Argentine flatters to deceive. Whilst it is clear his best position is in the hole behind the striker, his positive runs mask the fact that his final ball can be woeful. Gurrieri showed a lot of intent on the ball, troubling the Exeter back four a couple times in the first half, however he rarely managed to find a pass at the end of it, let alone the right one.
Admiral Nelson – In 2009-10, Nelson made a huge impact when he was first brought into the senior side. Despite his young age, his performances at the heart of the defence were assured and commanding. However last season saw him lose his place to Darren Purse – and rightly so, but it looks as if the 20 year-old is finally starting to re-capture his form of old. Despite having to shift to right back in the absence of Berry last week, Nelson impressed and kept hold of his starting place for today’s game. Once again, he turned in a good performance, keeping Exeter winger John O’Flynn very quiet.
Lack of Pilgrim Penetration – Argyle’s performance in the final third was again a concern. There was a lot of nice build up play in midfield, but the final ball often did not find it’s man. Rhys Griffiths was poor and struggled to make an impact, partially due to a good display from Exeter defender Coles. Feeney and Chadwick made an impact, but neither are the goalscorer Argyle need. Paris Cowan-Hall is a possibility or even Alex MacDonald should he return, but even the latter has proved wasteful. What Argyle need, is a Jamie Cureton.
The corner isn’t turned yet - Last week’s victory against York was a much needed boost for the team and getting a hard earned point in today’s derby will only boost confidence, but their are still worries for the Pilgrims. The lack of cutting edge is a real concern, as is our reluctance to shoot. As proven with the goal, sometimes ‘having a go’ pays off. If we are going to start winning games, we need our back four to stay solid like the last two weeks and our attack to be more creative and mobile.