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01/02: Reports:

Worthington Cup First Round, 21/08/01
Plymouth Argyle
By Matt Rowson

According to my mental clock, time zero is the 1979-80 season, the season that I got my first Panini album and made my first trip to the Vic. Deep down I know that Bristol City hadn't spent eternity in the top flight... they'd only been there four seasons and dropped out that year, never to threaten to return in the next twenty. That John Bond hadn't always been manager of Norwich. That Nigel Callaghan was a new kid on the block. That Watford hadn't always played in red shorts (much as they ought to have).

"Football is changing", apparently. But, in fact, football has always been changing, even before 1979-80, evolving in all sorts of ways. From the abolition of the maximum wage to the emergence of black players in the national game to the hooliganism issue to Hillsborough to Sky to Bosman. Football has always been in a bit of a flux, there has never been such a thing as the Status Quo, nothing constant. Except Grimsby, perhaps.

This is disconcerting in a lot of ways. Football is, to a greater or lesser degree, about escapism. Certainly it's a form of entertainment and supporters of a club will, by definition, have a degree of sentimental attachment to both their club and the matchday experience. There's no point me listing the little details that going to football involves for me... everyone has such a list. But as these changes constantly re-shape football - and often for the better - we have to cope with the unsettling knock-ons to the routine.

So we no longer expect our football on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm, necessarily. Nobody stands underneath the scoreboard anymore (Plymouth fans, with Home Park undergoing redevelopment, will empathise here). In fact, not many supporters stand anywhere. It's over ten years since Shoot! made a decent set of League Ladders, and Panini haven't had the sticker contract since the onset of the Premier League.

Another change this season, not widely heralded or acknowledged, has been the abolition of two legged ties in the early rounds of the Worthington Cup. Whilst this development makes life a lot easier for the preview writers of this world (thinking of something new to say about Plymouth or any club within a week or fortnight is not an easy task), it is in every other way an entirely negative step.

The top clubs play too many games, apparently. So, not only is the much-publicised financial chasm between the Prem and the rest ever-widening, now the snorkels are being plugged with Fergie's chewing gum. What do United, Arsenal, Liverpool and the rest have to gain from a second tie against Carlisle, Hull or (for the sake of argument) Plymouth ? Much better to conserve their poor overworked dears for the Champions League tie against whichever side finished twelfth in the Primera Liga in a demanding group format that the big clubs argued for in the first place. Or for the next PR trip to Malaysia, perhaps. Football's not a charity, after all. So what if a club's resistance of insolvency can be shunted in the right direction by an extra game ?

(The Worthington Cup semi-finals are still two-legged, sensibly. After all, these might be big ties that TV companies will pay for and don't come at a busy stage of the season at all.)

I'm sure gratuitous insults on footie anoraks' web sites are no skin off the noses of David Dein, Ken Bates and the rest, but they make me feel better. So you are wankers, gentlemen, each and every one.

It's hardly surprising that as football spirals ever further away from the beast we think we remember, the odd thing that does stay the same is clung to and valued. Three cheers for Nigel Gibbs. And for Kenny and Luther (oh...). For the fact that Wimbledon play in South London (can't hear you at the back, Mr.Koppel). And for Z-Cars and Chariots of Fire.

And for the fact that Plymouth play in green. Marvellous.

If Chelsea think that they had a disappointing season last year, they really don't know they're born. As recently as four seasons (little over three years) ago, Watford and Plymouth were on a level playing field; now, Argyle are very much in Division Three, flolloping around listlessly and waiting for the Division Two side that is the minimum their cachment area could surely support.

In goal will probably be Frenchman Romain Larrieu, who made a shaky start to the season at home to Shrewsbury on Saturday. His backup is youngster Lee McCormick.

Argyle are struggling in defence, with injuries and abortive recruitment attempts hampering their options. Irishman David Worrell, a right-back signed from manager Sturrock's old club Dundee United, is recovering from an ankle fracture, so the versatile Steve Adams filled in effectively at the weekend. On the left, Jon Beswetherick does not appear to be the most popular member of the squad, although how much of this is down to each of his defensive limitations, his attitude and his haircut is unclear.

In the centre is another Irishman, the imposing Graham Coughlin alongside captain Paul Wotton, who is struggling to live up to early promise that once looked like moving him up the Divisions.

Sturrock has attempted to strengthen his hand this week with the signing of another Dundee United man, David Partridge. Despite a fee having been agreed, however, the two parties were unable to settle terms. With ex-Swindon man Craig Taylor also apparently absent, Argyle have little slack in defensive positions.

In midfield, the playmaker is Frenchman David Friio, who was partnered at the weekend by combative twenty year old Kevin Wills. A more creative alternative would be Portuguese summer signing Miguel Reisinho, whilst former Luton man Sean Evers, who once commanded a 500,000 fee on behalf of Tommy Burns' shopaholic Reading, is another option.

On the right flank Martin Phillips never became England's first 10m player, as once heralded by Alan Ball on his recruitment to the Maine Road staff. Argyle fans would be happy enough if he learned to cross the ball rather than taking on one extra man. On the left, Ulsterman Brian McGlinchey was once highly thought of at Port Vale.

Up front, Argyle have further problems; local icon Mickey Evans, in his second spell at the club following a round trip which included a brief spell in the Premiership with Southampton, has started the new season looking overweight and unmotivated. Alongside him may be a more interesting proposition in Ian Stonebridge, who was Argyle's top scorer last season with eleven goals in only sixteen starts, his campaign disrupted by injury. Stonebridge too, however, looked off the pace at the weekend. Alternatives include Dean Crowe, a diminutive loan signing from Stoke, and the quick Martin Gritton.

The curious numbness of the early rounds of the League Cup is part of the routine too, of course. The season would hardly feel right without it. However, the knowledge that by the law of averages there has to be a season in which we do more than limp pathetically out in the early stages should hold the interest on its own.

For a more fitting definition of boredom, just wait a week or two. Manchester United's latest encounter with Sturm Graz won't be too long...