The Thursday Preview: Plymouth Argyle Vs West Bromwich Albion
“Are Leeds ever involved in a dull game”, Clive Tyldesley gushed rhetorically during the first half of the Whites’ televised Cup replay against Spurs last night. ITV, who have aired all but one of Leeds’ five Cup ties this season, have been fawning it up for a while now, telling the nation how every neutral in the land wants to see the Yorkshiremen ‘back where they belong’. Surely this is utter tosh, I tell myself, but this rancid sentiment seems to be gaining credence: this morning the Telegraph were equally effusive in their commentary, claiming that Leeds’ heroism had “sent the neutral football fan in to paroxysms of confusion, doubt and discomfort“. Oh, please.
True it may well be that there are a proportion of people who agree and would just love to see a top flight based upon modern history, but there are enough fair-minded fans to render such self-congratulatory nonsense as clichà©d and contrary to the principles that constitute the game. The drawbridge shan’t be pulled just yet. Like at many grounds in the country, a stinker of a result for Leeds will draw a jubilant cheer from the Home Park crowd in West Devon. Besides all the historical stuff and the fact that a trip to Elland Road remains an unpleasant proposition, Plymouth picked up just one point from three Championship seasons spent with the Whites in the noughties. Those early second tier years were halcyon for the Pilgrims in comparison with the sheer misery of the last one and a half, and much of the Green Army expects to be taking their ‘rightful place’ at the end of the season, a league below promotion-bound Leeds.
Unlike those lucky Leeds fans, Plymouth supporters have had to endure many a shocker this year. Seven 1-0 defeats have been recorded and only on four occasions have the Pilgrims managed to score more than one goal. On a par with Swansea as the league’s lowest scorers, the Argyle forwards Rory Fallon and Jamie Mackie should be embarrassed by their goals-games ratio, but the truth is that they have had little to work with. Substance has been preferred to style in the midfield by the two Pauls: current manager Mariner and his predecessor Sturrock opting for runners like Chris Clark over the fleet-footed Craig Noone on the left wing. In the centre, one of the season’s great hopes Carl Fletcher looks ready for the knackers and there’s been little attacking penetration from those parts.
All that said, there has recently been an injection of hope to prolong the torture for those of a Green persuasion. They might not have made it into Ben’s recent post on January’s winners, but Argyle had a positive transfer window. Wantaway winger Jason Puncheon was flogged along the South Coast, the underperforming Scottish trio of Alan Gow, Steven Maclean and Jim Paterson were shipped north of the border and three key signings were made leaving Argyle with a leaner and meaner squad. Incoming were ‘keeper David Stockdale, Baltimore born striker Kenny Cooper and central midfielder Damien Johnson. While only the latter is a permanent signing, the club have fixed up an option to sign Cooper at the season’s end and Stockdale will no doubt stay beyond his initial month-long loan, replacing as he does one of the team’s weak links. What’s telling is that there seems to be a strategy behind Mariner’s decisions. Players who were out of favour have departed, and in their stead are a few hungry pros, ready for a new challenge.
Argyle’s woe at losing to relegation rivals Sheffield Wednesday last weekend was compounded by wins for Reading, Palace, Derby and Scunthorpe, and some fans are now resigning themselves to League One. While most clubs outside the bottom three seem to be managing a win every other week, Reading, Plymouth and Peterborough are being left behind, so it would seem that the fresh impetus brought about by the restructuring of a broken squad needs to be exploited sooner rather than later. A contest against West Brom, who Argyle haven’t beaten since a classy double in 1992/1993, would seem unsuited to the occasion. The Baggies have diligently gone about their business since that Forest horror and are scoring goals for fun.
Three were scored on the road at Blackpool last night as Albion retook second place in what sounded like a typically energy-sapping Championship encounter. That’s no good preparation for Saturday. The Home Park pitch is an absolute mess right now and there will be plenty of talk in regards to how it’ll cut up in the warm-ups. Being a pragmatist, though, Roberto Di Matteo will adapt his plans appropriately and it would be foolish to say that your Roman Bednars and Youssouf Mulumbus won’t be able to go toe-to-toe on a Westcountry mud slick. It’s hard to tell whether a slightly rejigged Argyle will be able to discomfort the Baggies as they did for half an hour at the Hawthorns earlier this season. That day an injury to promising centre-half Reda Johnson put paid to any hopes of a minor Midlands upset, but the circumstances will be different on Saturday. Everyone is available for selection and even the most inconsequential effort for the Greens will be employed to stir up the atmosphere by the home crowd: I’m sure that there are a few places Di Matteo would prefer to take his team after a long midweek haul to the North West. Verdict? Score draw.