Dazed and confused
By Matt Rowson
There's something quite idyllic about Devon, even the rather soulless grey of Plymouth. Rolling hills, gentle sunshine... if you don't possess memories of childhood holidays involving beaches and ice cream, you kind of want to invent them. As we amble towards the ground, happily gorging on fabulous pasties served from the back of a van parked at streetside, we hear and then see a funfair adjacent to the stadium in Home Park. An anachronism in some ways, it kind of fits; but we're not going to the funfair today. No.
Today, we're going to the circus.
I know, I know. A new ringmaster is going to take time to get himself used to his new arena, get the hang of his new whip... but you can't help but form judgements based on the evidence that presents itself. So the ingestion of Betty's most recent reflections on Burnley provoked a guilty sigh... "after having a couple of days to think about it, we were a little unlucky not to get something from the match". What? WHAT? I'm all for being positive and certainly there were some grounds for encouragement in our second half at Turf Moor but... there's a thin line between being positive and talking complete bollocks. Actually, it's not all that thin either.
So it wasn't with a clean slate that I tried to take in Betty's second team selection. James Chambers moves to left back, a bit harsh on Jack Smith's committed performance at Burnley - perhaps this is the twenty-first century man management that Simpson gushed about at the weekend? Lloydy in at right back. H back up front for Bouazza and... hold on, who's playing wide? Young dropped to the bench (again, an odd take on events at Burnley) and Blizzard in. And young Dom it is who gets the wide role, out on the left...
Gallows humour is already warming itself up in the away end.
Plymouth's rep as unspectacular but solid battlers seems well founded as they come straight at us and our defence rocks... but it's the Hornets who man the first meaningful assault, Eagles makes the first of countless surges down the right and squares to Dyer who fires in a first time shot from twenty yards that cracks back off the outside of the right-hand post. On the back of the Burnley second half, this is hugely encouraging... Come On!...
Unfortunately, three minutes in, that's about it as far as convincing attempts on target from the visitors are concerned. Jay Demerit has his first attempt at lion-taming with a couple of physical exchanges with a snarling, aggressive Mickey Evans, a confrontation that is to be a feature of the first half with Evans, by and large, the victor. From the back of the stand, a rare and welcome injection of wit into the repartie: "Stand up if you can't sit down", in protest at less than generous leg space which, had Elvis and I not secured three seats between us, might have been a more dominant distraction in this agonising match report.
The home side apply their first pressure, and Boris charges down a dangerous looking shot on the edge of the area. A couple of minutes later from a similar position he clumsily and unnecessarily trips an escaping adversary... Tony Capaldi takes a quick one from a position that could only very generously be described as having been in the vicinity of the offence and we're paying no attention at all. Buzsacky, a lively and irritating influence throughout, has space to plant his shot from precisely the position and with exactly as much time as James O'Connor had to net Burnley's second on Saturday. Perhaps we have a collective blind spot; a little unfortunate that it's inside the penalty area.
Blizz is doing his characteristic best out on the left - I like him, I think he could be a decent midfielder but a winger he most definitely is not. His performance here, whilst committed, serves no purpose other than to, by and large, retain possession. He makes one, positive but unsuccessful attempt to beat his man but otherwise it's a lay off inside and more passing until we lose possession or get the ball out to the right where ninety percent of what attacking threat we have is coming from. If there's a logic for fielding him out there with Young and McNamee on the bench and both Darlington and Ferrell more natural wide players, I can't see it.
We do get a cross in from the left following some neat passing triangles as we try to reassert ourselves... somewhat inevitably, it's Chris Eagles, who's wandered over from the right, who gets the ball in but Dyer is muscled away from the cross.
It's in front of us that another goal still looks more likely, though; Gavin Mahon is harshly penalised on the edge of the area by a fussy referee seemingly intent on eradicating all physical contact. The free kick is deflected wide, heralding a five-minute aerial assault that we survive as much thanks to Plymouth's own rather wayward deliveries as to our own defensive robustness. Someone's WAP helpfully informs us that Danny Webber has scored for Sheffield United, and the comparison is drawn between our evening's entertainment and sadistic Japanese gameshows.
Eagles continues to be the brittle straw that any optimists' hopes cling to... another piece of positive play on the right sees a cross drop on Helguson's head, but it goes over. We get a free kick on the edge of the box, and Plymouth pull a tactical masterstroke by opting against a wall for Coxy to smash the ball into. Clever, clever. In some confusion, he drops it wide of the left hand post instead.
Neil Cox, increasingly looking like the "World's Oldest Man", is doubling up as corner-kick taker. This provokes some gasps of disbelief, until we look around the team for alternative candidates. With McNamee and Young on the bench and Ardley shipped off to Cardiff (good job too - what a disruptive influence his deliveries were) there just isn't anybody else. Much maligned of late, this is Cox's best showing for a while; admittedly this isn't saying much, and he does manage to give the ball away at a fairly silly stage on one occasion in the second half, but there's evidence of leadership and assuredness here for the first time in a while. Nonetheless... but I'm getting ahead of myself.
It's increasingly evident that Plymouth really aren't much to write home about... solid but limited, and yet that's several paces beyond what we seem to be able to muster. As a Plymouth defender puts a boot through a meaty clearance, someone behind me mumbles, "Why can't we do that...?"
Eagles shimmies his way into space again on the right, his delivery causes panic, an aimless clearing header which Doyley slices into the stand. Plymouth break... slowly and unconvincingly down the left, and yet a decent delivery still finds Dexter Blackstock outjumping two adversaries at the far post to head narrowly wide. The half ends, to blinking silence.
The second half passes in a bit of a daze. I've made some notes, which suggest that we had what attempts there were but I know this isn't true, even when recalling the evening through the three-and-a-half hour drive back to Watford. The only explanation I can offer is that Plymouth attacks at the far end were largely spent gripping my seat, staring at the corner flag in front of me, waiting for the inevitable...
There is some football though. A clearly quite painfully unfit Helguson makes a rare contribution, playing a ball inside the right back for the overlapping Eagles, whose low wicked cross is deflected wide. His frustration is evident, genuine, and heartening. We'll cling to anything right now. Cox sends in his best corner of the game, narrowly avoiding telling contributions from both Demerit and Helguson.
Mickey Evans is booked, finally, and his unwillingness to let it lie briefly suggests an entertaining distraction, but he's substituted instead. As is Neil Cox, for Ashley Young. Oh yes.
The acrobatics that this provokes does at least involve Blizzard moving into the centre, where he's booked immediately for an aggressive attempt to stamp some urgency into our midfield, with Young out on the left and Gunnarsson moving to right back with Doyley inside. So to re-iterate, we now have two right backs in the side and one on the bench, but are playing an international midfielder at right back instead and have subbed our only experienced defender, who has actually been having a reasonable game. No profanity of sufficient gravitas has been invented that adequately describes this moment. Not for the first time, you wonder about the managerial appointment... the board's distrust of Cox's new contract earlier in the season is evident, but only a complete imbecile - or someone instructed by a complete imbecile - would make such a decision at such a time.
Helguson gets up to finally win a header, cushioning down to Young whose first contribution is to be mercilessly brought to ground. Eagles curls a well-placed but gentle shot towards the top corner, comfortable for McCormick. This is our second and final on-target attempt of the evening.
H, never effective when not a hundred percent fit, is now barely able to walk. Young puts him through... clean through on goal, but he shoots wide from twenty-five yards rather than closing in. The offside flag would have rendered this irrelevant anyway, but you know what H is thinking as he looks to the bench for about the twenty-seventh occasion since half time.
Instead, to further disbelief, it's Dyer who makes way for the much needed pace of Hameur Bouazza, with Gunnarsson departing for McNamee. My recollection is that Ashley Young now took his turn at right back; I stand to be corrected, the rest of the game was viewed through fingers and details are sketchy. Bouazza's influence is certainly positive, some persistent skating and harrying sending him clear on the left, only to be brought to ground. This provokes some late pressure in which an unlikely equaliser is briefly dangled before our eyes, never more so than when McNamee, with perhaps his only touch, sends in a free kick but the chaos is fleeting and temporary. The home crowd greet the final whistle with the glee that you would expect.
Leeds next, at home on Saturday - Betty's previous employers. I'm conscious that it's early days for the new man, but still more conscious of the urgency of the situation. All I'll be hoping for at the weekend is some evidence, however small, that the clowns that are running this circus have the faintest clue what they're doing.