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Plymouth 1 Wolverhampton 2

A team on the slide with a glorious football past visits a city with a glorious maritime past whose club are on the up – at least until the 77th minute, as Cameron Carter describes

The six stages of grief following a home defeat are well known: shock, disbelief, anger, homicidal anger, blame, and resignation while watching Cas­ualty. Plymouth fans should never have had to go through these on this weekend, but in the last 20 min­utes Wolves snatched this game from them like the Childcatcher figure they had come to represent during the course of 90 minutes.

Plymouth are riding the crest of a wave at the moment, having been promoted last season and beginning this one unbeaten in their first four games, in­c­luding two away victories. They reached their high­est ever position in the Football League on August 21, when they beat Sunderland to go second in the Coca-Cola Championship, or old First Division, or the original Second Division. Before this historic peak, the club spent their existence mainly bumbling around the lower divisions and have been dining out on their unlikely Cup run to the semi-final, as a proper Third Division team, since 1984. Paul Sturrock, the manager who had taken them to certain promotion last season, left for an ill-fated stab at the Premiership with Southampton, leaving new boss Bobby Williamson to sta­bilise the team.

The town itself never truly recovered from the drubbing it received from the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and now stands as voluptuous Devon’s one concession to urban squalor. Fighting our way through the characterless grey drab on matchday afternoon, my associate and I discovered a characterless grey pub on the corner and wandered past a few leaning police into the public bar. Inside were a few friendly Wolves fans in replica shirts and a smattering of amiable Ply­mouth fans in same. When I requested two drinks, I was informed that I couldn’t be served until the football fans had left. Not even a soft drink then? Apparently not. One look at the mingling family fans of both clubs could tell you that the most likely thing to break out here was a discussion of house prices yet we were forc­ed to vacate this non-oasis for another burst of bleak. We trudged towards the ground past occasional copses of police officers (one of whom was heard to ask for in­structions, to which his sergeant replied: “We just stand here and look menacing”) until Home Park was sud­denly before us in a modest agricultural glow.

They go in for understatement a lot round here. The manager’s programme notes – under the muttered headline We Deserved Something – seemed about as far from a war-cry as Countryfile is from the boudoir scene in Mata Hari. Williamson dealt mildly with the home loss to Leeds in midweek before building to a finale with how he had “popped down to Marsh Mills on Wednesday to visit Ocean BMW”. Apparently they provide Mr Williamson with a Series 5 saloon and are well worth a visit if you need a car. If that didn’t succeed in getting the fans right behind the team at three o’clock, then there was always the placing of “Green Army” at number 12 on the teamsheet. We were Plymouth’s 12th player, you see.

A few pages in, the team physio’s column was a bit of a struggle for him because there were no injuries to report at all. Consequently, Paul “Maxi” Maxwell ran out of steam with a quarter of A5 still to fill and resorted to a short, fun list of squad mem­bers. This included a Willie Thorne lookalike (Marino Keith, vaguely receding hair), the player with the big­gest hat (Eric Gilbert) and, mysteriously, the “Most Compact”, David Norris. If you’re ever dining out with Maxi Maxwell in a restaurant and he starts off on a fun list of players, you’ll know he’s run out of things to say about physiotherapy and it’s probably time to pick up the bill.

The teams ran on to the pitch just as The Boys are Back in Town faded back to yesteryear. I had a bad moment when the Wolves team were called as I was remarkably the only person in my part of the standing enclosure to boo Paul Ince’s name. Initially I was em­barrassed, of course, and then it occurred to me maybe everyone thought I was booing Ince because he was black and I’d be the first liberal armchair-socialist to be frogmarched from the ground for inciting racial hat­red. Except I was only responding to some half-forgotten human instinct to barrack Ince wherever he plies his trade. He looked a little smaller than I remembered, as if his self-donated nickname had been downgraded from “The Guvnor” in the Premiership to “Team Leader”, perhaps, in the Champion­ship. But, as it turned out, he still knew how to alienate a large crowd.

The first half was played out in a flurry of closing down and misplaced passes. Both teams seemed to employ a system of zonal passing. This is like zonal marking, but with zonal passing the ball is played into an area that would be dangerous or progressive if a team-mate had in fact been there or, indeed, in the vicinity. Plymouth looked nervous and despite a lot of possession didn’t unduly bother Wolves, who, if any­thing, had fewer ideas up front. Five people to my right, a woman in a very thin jacket was pleading something to a man with a Mohican. It wasn’t top-quality pleading and her partner pushed her away moodily before de­scending to a position three steps beneath her and squaring his shoulders to any further intervention. She responded by ebbing back to a position so near the tunnel fencing she could only see one half of the pitch and, immersed in the tragedy of her situation, looked right through young Paul Connolly when he came to take a throw-in.

The monotony of the game was punctuated in the 15th minute by a polite header at the back post from David Norris. The moment evaporated and it soon looked like being the kind of day when a goalkeeper might see how many words he could make out of PACIFIC RECRUITMENT. Someone behind me said: “They’re crap… and we’re not much better,” which was a pretty fair summary at this point. Wolves took one of the worst free-kicks I have seen, the ball barely rolling up on to the defensive wall’s laces, and more chipping and chasing followed. When Plymouth’s star player, David Friio, shot just wide I turned to see if this had cheered up the pleading woman, but she was looking crumpled, weeping silently into a cigarette with Mohican now nowhere to be seen.

It was 0-0 at half-time and, not used to standing for 45 minutes at a time, I slumped to the terrace stone feel­ing like Paula Radcliffe after a jog in sunshine. The entertainment consisted of a chap called Scott Dann wandering around the touchline with a belt. It was a lovely belt and I think he must have won it boxing. He was wearing brown shoes with a black suit.

The second half was a pick-me-up. The passing became more purposeful and incident was introduced into the game. Marino Keith, the perpetrator of the crucial late own-goal against Leeds, was substituted, just exactly as the fans behind the dug-out had re­quested, and everything started to happen at once. Wolves nearly scored on the hour when Seyi Olofinjana glanced a header just wide of the post and, when the ball swung back into the visitors’ half, Peter Gilbert appeared on the left to cross for the swashbuckling Friio to score with a diving header. Buoyed up by this development, Plymouth went at their opponents like great cats. Wolves failed to clear a corner and David Norris crashed a volley against the post. Mohican re-appeared in the vicinity of pleading woman and then, just as suddenly, disappeared again – possibly returning merely to ponce a cigarette off his grey-faced paramour. My contemplation of eternally dying love was destroyed when the chap with the thick lisp im­mediately behind me embarked on an ill-advised solo chant of “Oh, Shhhtevie Crawford, Shhtevie-Shhtevie-Shhtevie-Shhtevie-Craw-haw-ford”, depositing a cup-load of Devonian spittle on the nape of my neck. This brought me back to the here and now.

With the game all but lost, Wolves manager Dave Jones placed subs Kevin Cooper and Dean Sturridge on the touchline, lit the blue touch-paper and retired. Cooper reacted by forcing a penalty. When a lazy defensive header fell to him 20 yards out, he worked a quick one-two and burst into the box. Here he was immediately flattened by Peter Gilbert, whose testosterone levels had increased significantly since his assist. Carl Cort sent Romain Larrieu the wrong way and the match was level.

About 60 seconds later, with the Plymouth fans still noisily swallowing their bile, Cooper inexplicably launched himself at the deflated Gilbert as the latter was preparing to hoof the ball innocuously down the touchline. Gilbert collapsed like an industrial chimney and, while the stretcher-bearers found their way to his twitching form, Cooper was sent off for violent con­duct. Among the almost uniform linguistic reaction  of “scum” that greeted this development on the  May­flower terrace, there were more refined variations on the theme, including “shocking”, “disgusting” and the semi-coherent “that’s cheating”.

Against ten men, Plymouth pushed forward for the winner but, five minutes from time, Dean Sturridge raced on to a Cort flick-on and belted Wolves in front. A paltry five extra minutes were announced as adequate by the fourth official, despite the fact that Peter Gilbert’s injury scene lasted that time alone, and I heard the word “scum” – and “shhkum” from my rear – approximately 50 times before the final whistle. Ince was the main target by now, which he acknowledged as the players walked off by raising an arm in victory at the Plymouth fans and smiling broadly with his eyes shut tight with pleasure.

On our herded way back through the park there were only the sounds of the police helicopter and oc­casionally someone receiving a text message. One chap, well into the fifth stage of grief by now, mur­mured something about Gilbert’s clumsy chal­lenge on Cooper. The following weekend a late goal from ten-man Ipswich did for Plymouth at Portman Road. That’s the thing about football. What other form of human activity gives you such a complex, perfect sense of loss on a weekly basis?

From WSC 213 November 2004. What was happening this month


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