The Thursday Preview: Exeter Vs Plymouth
The Championship promotion race looks set to run beyond this weekend and with that same league’s relegation places all but sewn up, it seems like an idea to return to League One. That’s not to say that Accrington Vs Barnet a further division down doesn’t have its appeal, but the likes of Swindon, Bristol Rovers, Notts County and Tranmere have all featured in this column over recent weeks, and for continuity’s sake we’ve decided to pitch up at the A38 Devon Expressway derby, which kicks off at midday on Saturday.
With all away tickets sold and the game nearing a sellout, Saturday’s contest, which marks the first time the two clubs have met at St James’ Park in 10 years, should well live up to the spectacle fans hoped for when the fixture was announced back in June. Moreover, with the match deemed worthy of the Category C designation, the presence of around 400 police officers, dogs, horses and a ‘copter or two in Devon’s second city will have the Simons salivating and the locals twitching curtains. A meaningless end-of-season kick about this is not.
However, just as the reverse fixture earlier this season, some might say that this game is arguably more important to the Pilgrims. Back in December, Argyle had just been served another winding-up petition and with a nascent Supporters’ Trust coming together for the first time on the morning of the game, the players knew that three points would be a real shot in the arm for a fanbase preparing for a rocky few months. A 2-0 win was subsequently achieved, courtesy of two strikes from Bradley Wright-Phillips, and after several years of slow decline this result went some way to reminding fans of joys of supporting their team; this good old ship simply had to be kept afloat.
Now, as we go into 2010-11’s endgame, Exeter’s play-off hopes have unravelled after a right thwacking at Tranmere on Easter Monday, and it’s Argyle who really need the points. The Tamarsiders kept up their side of the bargain by overcoming Dagenham and MK Dons over Easter, and will hope that the fist-pumping finale to the latter game carries through to Saturday.
To some extent, the question over whether Argyle will be competing in League One or Two has been displaced by more immediate issues regarding the club’s ownership and, indeed, its future existence. Everything is still very much in the air, with the administrators offering creditors just 0.77p in the pound (which works out at precisely 0.0308p for Swindon’s 4p debt [see page 72 of 90]), but it’s hoped that a benign-sounding takeover proposal from hotelier James Brent will be pushed through ahead of next season.
These positive sparks have been replicated in and around the playing squad, who have started to show a real togetherness over recent weeks. First, senior players Carl Fletcher and Rory Fallon turned down loan moves away from the club, and the whole squad recently opted to defer their wages so that office staff could receive an increased month’s salary. More recently, midfielders Simon Walton, Luke Summerfield and Anton Peterlin have all returned to the fold after extended absences, gifting Peter Reid three more bodies in the run-in.
How they will need them at St James’ Park. Exeter may not have much riding on the game in terms of their own league position, but a positive result for the Grecians will go down a storm with Reds supporters. Personally speaking, I was sorry to see Exeter fall out of the League in 2003, but I don’t pretend to speak for everyone of a green persuasion, many of whom took pleasure in seeing our Devon rivals struggle to regain their place in the 72 while the Greens dined at the top table. Now the boot’s on the other foot, and Plymouth fans don’t expect anything less than a full-blooded battle, with a little bile and vitriol served up on the side.
Ryan Harley, absent with illness back in December, is the player that Argyle will fear most. Playing his last game for Exeter at St James’ ahead of his move to the Mumbles, the form of City’s number 7 will be key one way or another. With Plymouth deploying a narrow 4-3-2-1 of late, it may be that Harley has a clear run at his full-back, but I expect Peter Reid to put a man on the player who made the all-time XI of friend of TTU, Gary Andrews over at two footed tackle.
Jamie Cureton, who’s been enjoying a good spell of goalscoring form in previous weeks, is another that will need to be watched, but more attention will perhaps fall on the shoulders of manager Paul Tisdale. I questioned how long Tisdale would stay patient with Devon life at the beginning of the season, and now that he’s achieved his objective of stabilising Exeter in the third tier, one wonders whether this game might, like Harley, prove to be his last at home. That’s a question for another day, but everything points towards this contest being something of a humdinger. If Plymouth win, then their chances of survival will surely be good but no one expects it to be straightforward. Heart says an away win, head speaks otherwise.