I have always quite liked Plymouth Argyle, perhaps because I associate Plymouth with my earliest memories of a family holiday, back in 1966. My father was in the Royal Navy and had been drafted to HMS Tiger a 9,500 ton cruiser, and when the ship was in Devonport dockyard (Guz as the Navy call it) we stayed with the family of one of his crew mates who lived in Plymouth. I remember it raining a lot of the time and there being lots of slugs on the street outside the house, although we did spend a sunny day on Dartmoor, travelling there in our hosts’ grey Wolseley 1500, which seemed and was very different to my father’s maroon mark one Ford Cortina. I was also taken to see The Sound of Music at a cinema in Plymouth, probably because it was another wet day and there was nothing else to do, and I recall being bought a blue Dinky Toys Vauxhall Viva in a department store in the city and being impressed by Plymouth’s modern buildings and wide streets, the result of its planned re-building by architect Patrick Abercrombie, the city having been heavily bombed during World War Two.
In keeping with those early memories of a soggy Plymouth, there is a minor monsoon occurring as I set off in my trusty Citroen C3 to witness today’s visit of Plymouth Argyle to Portman Road. Fortunately, the rain desists as I park up and head across a muddy, slippery Gippeswyk Park for Portman Road and ‘The Arb’ beyond. The bridge over the river is guarded by pairs of policemen and women in day-glo tabards looking down on the Plymouth fans enjoying the delights of the beer garden to the Station Hotel. One policeman wears an orange baseball hat and has a video camera. I like to imagine that the police have their own equivalent of the BAFTAs, or that on a quiet afternoon some time on the future they will all sit in their canteen and watch their old films and reminisce. “Do you remember when all those lads came up from Plymouth back in ’23?”. “Ooh, yes, what larks we had”. “Look, there’s you in your day-glo tabard, happy days”.
In Portman Road I stop to buy a programme (£3.50) queuing briefly behind a couple of Plymouth supporters who pay by card. “Are you taking cash?” I ask the young woman in the blue programme booth; in her face I see a flash of recognition that I am the idiot who guessed the price of the programme for last weeks FA Cup tie. Spotting the re-purposed ice cream tub containing pound coins and fifty pence pieces I hand over my own coins and clutching my programme turn away, trying not to get the overhanging branches of a tree, which is inconveniently close to the booth, tangled in my hair.
As I head down Little Gipping Street a man calls from the window of a parked car “What’s the score gonna be today?”. “Three-one” I say, “To Town of course”. I wonder to myself what this obsession about predicting football scores is all about. Approaching ‘The Arb’ rain drops begin to fall once more and I hurry the last few metres. ‘The Arb’ is busy, busier than usual. I buy a pint of Mauldon’s Chestnut Amber Ale (£3.80) and go out into the beer garden where all the tables in the shelter are occupied. Two blokes sit at the one table that is beneath a large canopy or umbrella, I ask if I can join them out of the rain and they consent. “What’s the score going to be today” asks one of the blokes. “3-1 to Town” I say. He predicts 3-2 to Town, the other bloke is sensible enough to keep his counsel. It’s not quite twenty to two and I text Mick to tell him I’m here already, because it’s unlike me to be early, but I left home early expecting there to be lots of Devon registered vehicles clogging up the A12. I sup my beer, which tastes very good indeed, so I sup a bit more.
Mick soon arrives, pint of Chestnut Amber Ale and a packet of Fairfield Farms cheese and onion crisps in hand, or hands. After talking a little about the forthcoming match, and how good it is to be part of big crowds at Portman Road we move on to our usual obsession with death and illness. ”This is a cheery conversation” says the bloke who didn’t predict today’s result; the trouble is Mick and I probably think it is . On a lighter note Mick has resolved to knock on doors for the Labour party at the next general election, feeling compelled to do something to help prevent yet another four years of government for the benefit of the already wealthy to the detriment of those who have little. The Chestnut Ale is so good I get another one and when the bloke beside me at the bar gets his Camra membership card out as he pays for his beer, I discover that there is a 10% discount on proper beer for Camra members, so I get out my Camra card too. At between twenty -five and twenty to three we leave ‘The Arb’ for Portman Road, the rain has stopped and there are even a few gaps in the cloud through which watery light shines.
Mick and I part in Sir Alf Ramsey Way and as a parting gesture I tell him I will get him an FA Cup ticket. I walk between the supporters coaches driven in from the countryside and find a queue at the turnstiles off Constantine Road, but it quickly melts away as turnstile 62, my favourite turnstile because it matches the year Town were Premier League Champion, is opened. Out in the lower tier of the Sir Alf Ramsey stand everyone is here already, from ever-present Phil who never misses a game and his young son Elwood to Pat from Clacton, Fiona and the man from Stowmarket. Stadium announcer Stephen Foster is in his element with the big crowd fuelling his radio-DJ style enthusiasm and bonhomie; he reads out the Town team and I shout out their surnames like a Frenchman would if this was Ligue 1 rather than League One.
The game begins beneath leaden skies and sparkling floodlights and Town get first go with the ball kicking it mostly towards me, Pat, Fiona, Phil and Elwood when not patiently kicking it sideways. Town are very correctly in blue shirts and white shorts whilst Plymouth wear an away kit which is an unsuccessful arrangement of green, white and black diagonal bands across the front, and at the back is completely white; it looks like it might have been designed by the club chairman and screams ‘lower division’.
“We’re top of the league” chant the Plymouth supporters rather mournfully to the tune of “Sloop John B” and the noise and atmosphere inside Portman Road is almost thrilling, aided no doubt by the banners of Fortuna Dusseldorf fans in the corner and visiting Town supporting Vikings from Norway and Denmark, It only takes four minutes however for our Devonian guests to go all operatic on us, a la Guiseppe Verdi and enquire “Is this a library?” and I can only think the club has still not yet papered the walls of the away section of the Cobbold Stand with pictures of bookcases, as I suggested to them by e-mail several months ago.
The game is messy, played too fast for Town to mesmerise the opposition with their hypnotic, patient passing. Eleven minutes have faded into history and as Plymouth’s Macauley Gillesphey jumps, Wes Burns challenges. The extravagantly spelt Gillesphey looks for sympathy and referee Mr Woolmer, a small bald-headed man with obvious motive for bitterness and envy, shows his yellow card to the hirsute and 1.73m tall Wes Burns, even though 1.73 m isn’t really very tall.
The match is still a mess with possession swapping between the teams too regularly for either side to build up any sort of passing let alone attacking rhythm. Aurally the same applies as competing songs and chants from the Cobbold Stand and the corner of the Sir Bobby Robson Stand merge somewhere between my ears in a gruff cacophony. From the Cobbold Stand the na-na-nas of KC and Sunshine Band’ Baby Give It Up are followed by something indecipherable whilst in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand people are walking in a wonderland but it’s not clear what sort.
Marcus Harness goes down under a robust Plymouth challenge and no free-kick is given “Every fucking week” says the bloke behind me even more exasperated than usual. A couple of passages of play consist entirely of opposing players leaping together from a standing start to head the ball, it’s like watching migrating salmon. “Shall we sing, shall we sing, shall we sing a song for you?” sing the Plymouth fan, singing the tune of Cwm Rhondda. The silence of the Town fans is its own answer and for a short while the Plymouth fans take the hint, but not for long.
It’s the twenty-first minute and Town unveil their first shot at goal, a weaker than hoped for effort from Freddie Ladapo, which rolls comfortably into the Argyle goalkeeper’s welcoming arms. Christian Walton boots the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and into the arms of the Plymouth goal-keeper . Lee Evans volleys optimistically and high over the Plymouth cross-bar. Christian Walton boots the ball from one end of the pitch to the other and into the arms of the Plymouth goalkeeper. “ How many more times?” asks the bloke behind me still as exasperated as before; the answer, although we don’t know it yet is ‘several’.
Seven minutes until half-time and former Town defender and now Plymouth captain, James Wilson is booked by bald little Mr Woolmer for a foul on the industrious Conor Chaplin. James Wilson is 1.88m tall and has hair, although nowhere near as much as fellow Welshman Wes Burns. The rain has returned and is sweeping across the pitch towards the Cobbold Stand, it glistens in the beams of the floodlights. Forty minutes have gone and Town win their first corner. “Come On You Blues” I chant, along with a few others who believe in the power of passionate song. Our passion falls on stony ground. Christian Walton boots the ball aimlessly for a third time; there will be a minute of added on time. Sam Morsy receives the ball in the middle of the Plymouth half and steps goalwards. As if in a peculiar reversal of Biblical events, the Plymouth defence seems to part like the Red Sea in front of the Egyptian as he advances. Morsy gets to the edge of the box and shoots but perhaps having a sense that the waters are closing in around him his shot is weak and not directed away from Michael Cooper the Plymouth keeper who is much too good to let it trouble him in the slightest.
Half-time arrives and I go to speak with Ray, his son Michael and grandson Harrison who admits to feeling very nervous about todays game. I remember feeling the same when I was eighteen like Harrison, but think the ceaseless disappointment of the last twenty years has knocked it out of me, as if by no longer daring to hope for the best, I also no longer fear the worst and simply expect it.
At four minutes past four the match resumes. Four minutes later Marcus Harness find space and rattles the Plymouth cross bar with an angled shot. A previously unheard knot of supporters somewhere off behind me and to my right launch into a rendition of “Hark now hear the Ipswich sing the Norwich ran away” but don’t get past the first line, perhaps suddenly realising that Twelfth Night was last week. Two minutes later and Plymouth’s Niall Ennis whose name reminds me of the brilliant and much lamented Neil Innes, and The Rutles, skips away from Cameron Burgess and into the penalty area with time to pick out Ryan Hardie in the centre of the goal and barely six yards from the target. With the goal ‘at his mercy’ Hardie shows clemency and thankfully proceeds to side foot the ball against the cross bar. Town should be a goal down.
The rain continues to pour, and sweep across the pitch, Plymouth make their first substitution. Sixty- three minutes have passed and then, pretty much out of nothing Wes Burns lashes the ball into the Plymouth goal and Town lead with a remarkable and unexpected goal. I dare to imagine Town might win, but as Plymouth kick off again their fans are chanting their teams name in a manner that Town fans rarely if ever do when going a goal down.
Four minutes after the goal Freddie Ladapo leaves the field to warm applause to be replaced by loanee sign George Hirst, who I like to think is the son of artist Damian but disappointingly is in fact son of former Sheffield Wednesday player David. This afternoon’s attendance is announced by an excited Stephen Foster as a stonking 29,069 including 2,144 from Devon. There’s no guess the crowd competition on the Clacton supporters bus today because everyone guessed 29,000. But when the total is read out Pat curses her luck because she says her guesses always end with sixty-nine; I don’t dare to ask her why. Whilst a Plymouth player receives treatment in the wake of a goalmouth scrambIe, I can see George Hirst stretching his legs by doing something akin to the silly walk performed by John Cleese in Series 2 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, perhaps he’s a fan.
It’s the seventy-first minute and for reasons unknown to me the stands are lit up with the torches from mobile phones, I don’t know whether I’m at a football match or watching Leonard Cohen at the Isle of White Festival in 1970. The Plymouth supporters sing “Stand up if you’re…” but I can’t work out what it is you have to be or be doing to stand up.
It’s the seventy-ninth minute and weirdly it feels like nothing has happened since we scored. Five minutes later and Kane Vincent Young replaces Wes Burns. Pat from Clacton asks if I feel tense. I have to admit that I don’t really; Pat says she feels a bit sick. There will be nine minutes of additional time, mostly down to injured Plymouth players. Two minutes into additional time and Bali Mumba is left in space between Leif Davis and Cameron Burgess inside the penalty area; he has time to shoot, I can’t see that it will go into the net but the ball hits Burgess’s back and is deflected up into the top corner of the goal out of Christian Walton’s reach. It’s almost a repeat of Fleetwood’s equaliser a little over a month ago. It feels like all the ‘fine margins’ are against us, but at least we now have ‘fine margins’.
The remaining minutes float away into nothing as if they never happened and the final whistle arrives like the call to say the dentist will see you now. I thought we were going to win 3-1, but we didn’t come close. Over the course of the whole match I think Plymouth were better than us, but at least my mistaken prediction suggests I do still have hope really, and Harrison and Pat from Clacton clearly do, and heck, I still have fond memories of Plymouth in 1966. I wish Argyle luck for the rest of the season, just not too much of it.