In 2001-02 two clubs battled for promotion
17 January ~ The visit of Luton to Plymouth today brings back memories of the last time these two clubs met in a basement division clash at Home Park. That game in September 2001 turned out to be of the most memorable in Argyle’s recent history and, although we’ve played Luton a handful of times since, the lack of recent meetings has brought that day back into focus.
Like now, both clubs were in the top seven; Argyle had shot up after a sluggish opening month and Luton were seven games unbeaten. For once it was a lower-division game that didn’t require selling. Home Park was in the middle of redevelopment, three sides of the ground were flat earth with only the terrace and the dilapidated grandstand above it open, meaning just short of 6,000 could squeeze in.
Plymouth’s pragmatic manager Paul Sturrock had fostered a spirited side based on solid defending and set pieces, while Joe Kinnear’s Luton were full of flair. In the build-up, Kinnear displayed a tendency to shoot himself in the foot that he would later bring to the fore on Tyneside, describing Devon as place where old people came to die and mocking Argyle defensive hard man Graham Coughlan as an “average Joe Soap” centre-half.
Early on it seemed his taunts had worked as the visitors scored through Dean Crowe – who had begun the season at Home Park before moving to Luton – but Argyle levelled soon after. The home side’s Mickey Evans was then controversially red-carded, but just before half time David Friio flicked in from a corner and Argyle came out 2-1 winners in a rocking atmosphere.
At the end of the season, Argyle topped the table on 102 points, with Luton having run us close on 97. Argyle fans delighted in mocking Kinnear for his earlier insults and for a while a mini-rivalry developed between the fans. Geography, the departure of Kinnear and time have put paid to this acrimony, but with the teams occupying similar league positions today the memory of that day rushes back.
After three years of struggle, Argyle are finally putting up a challenge. However like many lower-league teams we rely on the generosity of higher clubs loaning out untried but bright talent. Of the three loanees at Home Park, winger Bobby Reid has already gone back to Bristol City, while defenders Anthony O’Connor and Andy Kellett will return to Championship employers in the next couple of weeks. Already the sights have been set lower and we’ve gone to the league above for one replacement – defender Tom Flanagan from the club in Buckinghamshire I'd rather not name.
When we beat Luton to the top in 2002 we had spent four seasons in the basement and if promotion isn’t achieved this time we’ll enter an unprecedented fifth consecutive term at this level. Patience with manager John Sheridan is already stretched, though the lack support at boardroom level hampers him. Matters off the field regarding the development of the old grandstand and the areas around Home Park have stalled for two years now and whether chairman James Brent has the motivation and, most importantly, finance to proceed have to be called into question.
More positively crowds hold up and, at home, the team have been hard to score against let alone beat, though away from Devon this record falters somewhat. Finishing in the play-offs is a realistic ambition and the visit of Luton, while bringing a reminder of far happier times, offers the chance to move towards cementing that spot. This time round the best the winners may hope for could be sneaking into third place come seasons end. Steve East