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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 05/04/05, 7.45pm
Plymouth Argyle
Football is rubbish
By Pete Bradshaw

Plymouth? Away? On a Tuesday night? How rubbish is that?

A long time ago, I was talking to a professional footballer who was, at the time, on the books at Burnley. He was, and is, married to a family friend. At that time, Burnley were in the fourth division ­ in the days when the fourth division was also League Division Four. The next week, Burnley were to play away at Torquay. On a Tuesday night. The footballer was far from impressed with the prospect. And no doubt the hardened Turf Moor supporters weren't either. This particular footballer was, and is (for he is still involved as a coach), the thorough professional. For him, football was a job of work, and one that he was very good at. He distanced himself from football as a spectator sport and had little interest in discussing it at home. Eliciting his thoughts about a midweek trip to Devon was as much as I ever got from him. He did provide me with a minor claim to fame, though, when, at his wedding, I was able to stand next to the Blackpool goalkeeper in the gents. To me, the circle of people he mixed with had a certain celebrity. To him, they were just workmates. For him, I suspect, the blind faith that football clubs invoke in their supporters was a mystery. He may not have considered the adulation that was heaped on as rubbish, but he didn't seem to value it much. But he was in no doubt that travelling to the deepest South West and arriving back home at 4am certainly was rubbish.

Some years later, I moved to Dorset. Plymouth was my local game as we strived to back into the first division at the first attempt. It may have been a "local game" for me but it was still two hours plus by car. I never did quite get to grips with the scale of that part of the world. Long distances and rubbish roads. The game at Home Park that season was a dour affair as we ground out what looked likely to be a goalless draw to collect a much needed point as we entered the last few weeks of the season catching second place and automatic promotion. Unfortunately, Argyle had other ideas and nicked a goal in the last quarter of an hour and we came away with nothing. I had a two hour drive back to Dorset with very little to savour about the day. When, at the end of the season, we missed promotion by one point and then got knocked out of the playoffs by Blackburn Rovers, I did allow myself a thought of how the afternoon at Plymouth may have cost us that second spot. It was a fine dividing line and but for that solitary spark of quality in a rubbish game we would have gone back up.

And so here we are. Just a few days (and a few hours on the training ground) after trekking up to Burnley, "the football club"* is faced with an equally arduous trip down the M4 and M5. Following on from a blank Easter and at the start of a hectic run in to the end of the season, I can only marvel at the terrible design of the program that produces football fixtures nowadays. It's rubbish, that's what it is. Of course, someone has to play Plymouth away on a Tuesday, but how comes we get two away games in four days and they get two home games? And how comes we have to travel miles and miles in those four days while they have home advantage against two relegation rivals? Rubbish!

Bobby Williamson, or Bobby who? As Argyle supporters probably said on his appointment, is belly aching about this fixture congestion. And, like your correspondent, he has a splendid belly to ache with. At least Adrian who? hasn't descended to that level ­ and I hope that he doesn't trot it out as an excuse when we come back up the motorways in the small hours of Wednesday morning if we haven't managed to gain first win.

(There now follows an interlude in the carping and sniping as I turn to the traditional run down of the opponents ­ when I say "run down", I mean discuss, not criticise as I seem to have done enough of that lately.)

Plymouth drew 1-1 with Cardiff in the first of their six pointers this month. By all accounts they were unlucky not to get all three points and a shot tally of seventeen would tend to back that up. Cardiff's goal was considered to be slightly fortuitous by some, although that it came from a Neal Ardley corner is hardly surprising. Mind you, the game featured thirty-seven fouls so it was hardly a spectacle of football, one suspects. Two thirds of these were committed by our friends from Ninian Park, though, so there is no need to fear a repeat.

Unbeaten at home since February 22, Plymouth are capable of turning teams over ­ beating Sheffield United and Crewe 3-0 and Brighton 5-1 in recent games. They have also been on the wrong end of five-goal scorelines at Sunderland and West Ham and lost 3-0 at Millwall, but the Home Park home form is impressive for a team in their position. Ironically, in a very small way, the last home defeat was a 0-2 reverse against Preston North End and was the third home defeat in a row. Bobby Williamson kept his job.

In goal will be Luke McCormick last season's player of the season. Coming in early in 2003/04 following an injury to Frenchman Romain Larrieu, McCormick has made the position his own and clearly is not being blamed for the goals against statistic (except by the fans it seems).

The defence has been strengthened with the arrival of Jason Dodd from Southampton who shares, with Ryan Giggs, the supposed distinction of playing for the same club in every season of the Premiership ­ or as they say on weather forecasts "since records began". Strengthens their defence maybe, but we should remember that he wasn't good enough to get into the team we stuck five past. Dodd replaced Welsh Under-21 Jason Gilbert who had been virtually an ever-present over the two seasons he has spent at the club. Maybe it is he who is being blamed for the goals against statistic ­ although his popularity made him an unlikely suspect to be dropped. I guess it is because Dodd is a left back, and was an available "top flight" defender. Smacks of "something must be done" to me. The other regular defenders are Graham Coughlan, Hasney Aljofree and Paul Connolly ­ all of whom got booked in Saturday's whistle fest with Cardiff. Aljofree scored Plymouth's goal then and has replaced stalwart Paul Wotton in the back four in recent games, with the Argyle skipper moving into midfield. Keith Lasley and Mathias Kouo-Doumbe have been keeping the bench warm. Doumbe came from Hibs following the manager, and is one of five recruits from the Scottish Premier League (not premier, but is a league).

Alongside him there Tony Capaldi replaced Bjarni Gudjonsson on Saturday. The Icelander came back from international duty "free of injury" according to news reports, only to be pronounced unfit due to a thigh strain. Sounds familiar? You can imagine the conversation. Club physio speaks to Icelandic physio. So "Bjarni/Heidar is fit then?". "Oh yes, very fit" (insert own joke about H and his wife here). Clearly there is a different meaning to the word in Reykjavik. Maybe it's like the urban myth about the Innuit language and snow. Or maybe they just can't admit that they're injured, these Icelandic boys. Making up the midfield four is regular David Norris and, recalled on Saturday, Hungarian international Akos Buzsaky ­ a firm favourite with the fans, it seems judging by the protests voiced on his substitution. Buszsaky is on loan from FC Porto and one must pay respect to the club for convincing him to join a second division dog fight rather than battle for a place for honours in Europe this season. Mind you, his playing record of just four first class games before this season makes you wonder why Porto (or FC Prto as the abbreviation-frenzied website has it) signed him in the first place. What's the Hungarian/Portuguese for one "for the future"?

Up front, it is perm any two from Dexter Blacklock, also on loan from Southampton and a key reason why Dodd came apparently, Nick Chadwick, Micky "Trigger" Evans and Scott Taylor brought in this season from Blackpool. Of these, Evans leads the goal scoring charts with a miserly four. Once again it is Paul Wotton, club captain, makeshift midfielder and, one suspects, icon who is the overall leading marksman with twelve. Many of these from free kicks. What price another one on Tuesday? (About 3/1?) Maybe we should look to put Brynjar on him and tell him to stay there.

Plymouth look very lightweight up front but have been successful in getting goals from all over the team. We'll need to have a repeat of the high energy second half at Burnley to keep them out. Either that or we crock the goalkeeper as they don't have a reserve on the bench and, no doubt, action man Wotton would take the gloves.

Really, though I don't care, too much. When this fixture was announced I thought that it was rubbish ­ I'd been looking forward to a trip to Devon but Tuesday night was out of the question. And then there's my feelings towards the way the club is being run at the moment. That's rubbish too ­ no, not you, Betty, dear. I'm sure I'll be following the results as they come in and looking at the league table. It's just as well that Boothroyd is focusing on looking up and not down ­ there's far more to see above us, and only misery below.


*"The football club". How rubbish a phrase is that? It is refreshing to note Betty's ability to talk and talk without using standard clichés, even though I think he may just be making up some of his own ­ the new Ron Atkinson perhaps? Let's hope he is as successful as Big Ron was when he first went into club management.