Great Football League Teams 47: Plymouth Argyle 1993-4
It may be that we’ve all had to endure the same set piece at least once in our lives.
‘What could you least live without’ — your partner offers suggestively — ‘me, or football?’
More rounded individuals than myself will have had little trouble in clearing that one up, gazing dotingly into their loved one’s eyes to volley home the necessary response without a moment’s hesitation.
Yet for the group of earnests to whom I belong this exchange is always prone to cause upset given our inability to question our love of football, even hypothetically.
More precisely, it’s Plymouth Argyle who tend to dominate my thoughts every seven seconds; who have the casting vote on the level to which I’ll enjoy my Tuesday and Saturday evenings; who I like to organise my autumn, winter and spring around.
It’s been this way for as long as I can remember, although in truth my commitment to the club has – and continues to be – tested by the current state of affairs at Home Park. Sadder still, my dad’s has been virtually wiped out through a combination of the depression that lingers over PL2 and a move away from Plymouth to another part of Devon. If anything, that’s been the hardest knock to endure, for it was my dad who first took me to Home Park; whose money paid for my first kit; whose petrol took me to my first away game; whose Saturday routine cultivated the most enduring allegiance — loved ones aside — possible.
It’s a story often told but, in the classical way, dad and I hadn’t really hit it off before Fulham at home on 28th December 1994. There was very little going on in Plymouth at the time and the options for father-son bonding were impoverished: the parks were littered with dog mess and worse; there was no shopping mall; no multiplex cinema; no ice rink; no bowling alley; no River bloody Cafà©; little in the way of arts. Just one massive dockyard, slowly losing its grip on the city.
For that reason dad had to work away a lot — usually shop fitting in London or Birmingham — so the opportunity to spend a whole day with him at the football, bookended by pints of cheap coke in the Britannia and his local — the Wellington in North Hill — was deeply thrilling.
Those who know those two pubs from the early-mid 90s might question whether they were entirely appropriate settings for an eight year old boy but I wouldn’t want the wool-dying experience of my first few seasons at Argyle to have been any different. I felt something like fear at points — not least the time a Reading fan inadvertently showed his colours in a Britannia brimming with wrong’uns and pool cues — but 90 minutes in a vacuum was not what I was after; if dad was taking me to the football, then I wanted to experience everything that went with it.
I was told to savour the times. ‘It won’t last’, my dad said in reference to our free-scoring side one day, as we drove down Mutley Plain towards the ground anticipating another win. I had nothing by the way of comparison but even I, with my almost non-existent knowledge of the game, could tell that the 1993-94 side was special.
In what was to be his only managerial appointment, Peter Shilton had created — for a brief period at least — a team so wonderful that it almost hurts to recall it. I hadn’t realised at the time what had come before under England’s most capped player — an unsuccessful fight against relegation from the second division followed by a middling season in the third tier — and I didn’t have a clue about our manager’s playing pedigree or the type of chairman he was working under in Dan McCauley. But I did appreciate that the side seemed capable of scoring at any moment; possessed three of the division’s best attacking players in Steve Castle, Paul Dalton and Dwight Marshall; and was backed noisily by big, jostling crowds made up of very happy supporters.
First-hand memories of the team have been cross-fertilised with what must be hundreds of viewings of the season review on VHS (I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve kept my parents’ old player solely for the purposes of playing it), and I’m sure my love for the club — and the game — has developed through this roll of tape as much as the actual experiences of going to the matches.
So, although my season only started on the last game of 1993, I can recall from something like direct experience that Argyle were already in a strong position by the turn of the year. Despite a dodgy start, losing 3-2 to a Kevin Francis-endowed Stockport on the opening day and going out of the League Cup to Birmingham — a tie which featured betrousered Blues ‘keeper Kevin Miller performing the most pencil rolls you’re ever likely to see after one decent stop — we gradually picked up some form and were winning more than we were losing by September.
Form on the road continued to hamper progress though. Early wins at Swansea and Cardiff were glorious — particularly the former given Dalton’s exquisite solo goal which saw the master dribbler slalom through Swansea’s left side with ease before drilling home — but Argyle found it harder to nab points on their travels.
Indeed, it was through football that my place of birth’s faraway location first dawned on me; the discrepancy between our home and away form was nothing to do with our squad’s ability, more to do with tired legs and minds you see. The odds were stacked against us, the Football League’s westernmost garrison in a land more accustomed to exporting clotted cream and matelots than half-decent football teams.
Things would come crashing down in dramatic fashion the following season but, starting with a 2-0 win at Marlow in the first round of the Cup, Argyle would — for about four months — maintain a form so pure that trips to Bradford, Stockport and Rotherham were made to look like midsummer evening strolls on Plymouth Hoe. Granted, the odd slip up did occur but by mid-March we were looking fair-set and I — already about 9 or 10 games down as a real spectator — was getting a bit cocky.
Indeed, highlights were plentiful: the sharp contrast of Fulham’s red and black against our green and white stripes and witnessing the classy Ara Bedrossian for the Cottagers on my debut; deciding on my first Pilgrims hero the second Dwight Marshall levelled classily in the Cup against Barnsley, who’d brought a full terrace of red-clad supporters; taking in a thrilling 3-3 draw against rivals Bristol Rovers after which I shared my first post-match analysis session with rival fans (my best mate’s grand-parents); becoming a fixture — or so I thought at the time — in my dad’s group with little Steve, as quick-witted as my dad was glacial, and Andy, a local petty thief on whose Scouser girlfriend and Wellington barmaid I had the most passionate crush.
We didn’t have it all our own way though. I listened stoically to my sister’s new radio-cassette as Argyle were knocked out of the Cup in the evening replay at Oakwell; future Argyle captain and public enemy Peter Swan denied us a result with a goal-line clearance during a vital game at promotion rivals Port Vale; and talisman Marshall pulled up with a muscle injury against Swansea which would rule him out for weeks, but there always seemed to be a sliver lining. Not least with our first win in an age at Exeter — despite the best efforts of City striker David Adekola (“They call him Pepsi; I wonder if he’s put any fizz back into the Grecians tonight?” — Martyn Dean) — and a 3-1 home win against eventual Champions Reading, during which our rock-hard centre-half Adrian Burrows earned some credit with me for having his bloodied eyebrow sewn up on the side of the pitch.
But then came Cardiff. Fighting against relegation, a pathetic away following reflected how little was expected from the travelling Bluebirds on a marvellously sunny April afternoon. Not that I was there to witness their paltry few myself; because of some long-forgotten misdemeanour — or, more likely, since my dad wanted a Saturday off — I was left at home with my mum and sister, cruelly bringing a proud run of consecutive home games to a close. Like his son, dad had got ahead of himself; without realising it, he’d deprived Argyle of their rabbit’s foot and had unwittingly brought about a 2-1 defeat that would set off two more losses over the next 10 days. Suddenly, Argyle were contemplating the play-offs rather than the top two.
It didn’t take long for the Greens to recover, another win against Exeter setting us on our way but — shortly after I’d made my away bow in a Easter Monday 1-1 draw at Fulham, an occasion marked to my dad’s dismay by the parade of a truly shoddy ‘Come on You Greens’ glitter banner, prepared at our family friends’ home in Hampton shortly before the game — disaster struck again by way of an almost implausible 3-0 home defeat to Cambridge.
We’d go on to win three of our final four games, finishing with an 8-1 win at Hartlepool on the last day, but it wasn’t quite enough. Burnley beckoned.
Hastened to bed on spurious grounds just as the Generation Game’s cuddly toy was passing the TV screen on Saturday 14 May, I somehow made it to sleep against my will. It was light, just, when I was awoken and Steve and Andy were at the door. We, in dad’s Mazda 323, were going to Turf Moor for the first-leg.
Unlike the other games I’d attended up to then, I’m able to flash back to at least half a dozen separate incidents from the trip. Having never before then travelled further than London, it’s perhaps no surprise, but the thrill of being so far away for such a short period — in the company of dad and his pals — was incredible. The outward journey was taken up, at least some of the way, by tests of my ground knowledge. Exeter? That’s St James Park. Brighton? Well they play at the Goldstone. You get the scene. But Coventry? High…. High-something Road… Given a clue (‘it’s outside, it’s GREEN’). I blurted it out. High-TREES-Road! Oh, how we laughed.
I haven’t been back since, but my memory of Burnley itself is resoundingly grey. There were chimneys and fog; it was bitter; the women in the bar were well-bosomed and rosy-cheeked. We seemed to be the only people on rounds of cider (and coke). We were outsiders, but welcome ones.
I remember less of the match, a 0-0 warm-up for the second-leg — remarkable only for having been knocked off my feet by an Argyle fan eager to join dozens of others in jumping up on to the crash barriers in the away end (he said sorry). Back in school the next morning, bleary-eyed, I made out that it was the best game I’d ever seen.
Just a few days later a huge crowd gathered at a sun-drenched Home Park for the second-leg. We were wearing a new kit; a rather dashing green and black striped number and Dwight cut a marvellous figure in it, particularly so once he’d given us the lead with a rising rasper. But something didn’t feel quite right; possibly unsteadied by those home defeats to Cardiff and Cambridge, we were nervous.
To summarise what followed would be too grave a burden on my still-tormented soul. All that needs to be said is that evening would mark our final game of the season. At the time, I blamed Richard Landon, our most recent signing who I deemed useless from the start for not being Dwight Marshall.
It took a while to sink in, so inured was I to success. Love wasn’t quite what I felt for the team at the time; just an insight into the valuable life lesson that sometimes — actually quite a lot of the time — things are simply out of your control. Players moved on that summer and during the following season; we lost both of our first two home games by 5 goals to 1 in 1994-5; Shilton left under a cloud; we started to get really rubbish and I had to resort to being taken to a game by my mum (against Wycombe) once dad got bored.
Looking back on it, it must have been love.
This article is set to appear in Falling for Football, a new anthology edited by Rob MacDonald and Adam Bushby which comprises a selection of pieces on the teams that have shaped our obsession with the game. It’s due to be published by Ockley Books in early 2014.