Monday, December 19, 2005

Dead Cat Bounce?

Our Lowest Ever Point?

One of the undoubted benefits of following a team like Argyle is the familiarity it brings to both ends of the emotional scale. Joy and despair are dispensed in roughly equal measure (if you are lucky). Over a period of time. Perhaps.

Not for the likes of us is there, or has there ever been, unremitting joy as our gallant representatives in the hallowed Green stylishly wallop multi-hued XIs of hapless losers from the length and breadth of the country week after week. Not for us national or international adulation. Indeed it’s quite an achievement to even be noticed within our own Fair City.

No. Mediocrity and worse. That’s our lot. It’s what we’re used to and it’s what we’ve known for nearly all of our 100+ years of manly toil and endeavour. Inevitably there are peaks and troughs and it’s the troughiest of the troughs that I’d like to recall here.

For many years there was a football trivia question to which the answer was “Plymouth Argyle and Bristol Rovers”. The question? “Which 2 teams have never played in the 1st or 4th divisions” (using sensible language and calling the divisions what they are).

When we had periods of success the ceiling was quite low. Failure never really amounted to more than a few bad results and the odd, mostly, successful relegation battle. Early exits in cup competitions. That was what would have us gnashing our teeth in anguish, tearing our hair out and wailing in woe.

That all changed under the ownership of Dan McCauley (who will get his own entry one day). Suffice it to say that he was in overall control during the period that saw us sink as low as we ever did.

At the time we were all doom and gloom. Our manager (playing legend Kevin Hodges) had been sacked and replaced by Paul Sturrock to widespread indifference. “Who?” We were soon to find out. We were 91st out of 92 in the football pyramid. Fate conspired against us and we were drawn away to Chester in the 1st round of the FA Cup.

I didn’t go. I rarely did in those days. Time and expense have always made me an occasional away fan and the inspiration to travel for hours to distant corners of the country had all but died due to the inevitable sorry defeat encompassing an abject performance before we surrendered horribly to the inevitable thrashing in some grim northern shithole. Instead I listened to the commentary on Radio Devon.

It was, as expected a sorry performance. Captain Craig Taylor was sent off in the first half. Chester scored and were good value, according to the commentary on Radio Devon, at the end for their lead. The home fans were celebrating ahead of a giant-killing win that was surely going to feature prominently in the following day’s papers. Until… Relief. Joy. A little bit of the buzz returned. Echoes of heroic deeds from days of yore. Jason Peake curled a late free-kick up, over and around the wall. The ‘keeper stood no chance. 1-1. A replay to follow.

Sturrock had been a good player in an exceptional Dundee United side who experienced glory in European competition. He had starred in a famous 2-0 win over Barcelona in the Nou Camp back in ‘87. He had played for Scotland when they were stronger than they are these days. He played in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico. He was highly rated as a coach in Scotland so they said (don’t they always?). Paul Sturrock was a 24-carat Dundee United legend. This was the man to turn us around.

Following Sturrock’s appointment it just poured with rain for day after day. Days turned into, first, weeks and then months. Training sessions were restricted to indoor stuff. He had never seen any of the side in a match other than that sorry display at Chester

Fans of the mundane and uneventful would have loved the replay. 3264 made the effort to go. It was cold and wet. Not much happened. There were few chances. Passing was poor. Tackling was enthusiastic and as the minutes ticked by any resemblance to The Beautiful Game was purely coincidental. Non-league (part-time?) hoofers were easily a match for our seasoned pros. They scored. We equalised. The game slipped agonisingly into extra time to nobody’s great excitement or pleasure before the unthinkable happened. Chester won the game. We were out of The Cup beaten by a non-league team. We were 91st in all 4 Divisions. Our Chairman was a megalomaniacal autocrat on the biggest ego-trip in history and for the first time I uttered the words “never again”.

The guilty men:

Hodges, Fleming, Beswetherick, Taylor, Wotton, Phillips, Barlow (Gritton 109), Ledbitter, Peake (Stonebridge 69), Guinan (Wills 81), McGregor (who scored – for what it’s worth). Unused subs: Sheffield, Barrett.

I went home cursing all the way and so fed-up words just can’t convey. This was not the normal pessimism and gloom following a disappointing defeat. I’d known that feeling all too often. This was something very much more profound. “Never again”. It started to feel good. It was a relief. I could join the ranks of those who have lapsed and offer cynical wisecracks sheltered from response by a veneer of disinterest. I wallowed miserably in my own self-pity and disillusionment.

Later it was my wife who snapped me out of it. “Nonsense. Don’t be stupid. You can’t stop going. It’s been a part of your life for too long. It’s a part of what and who you are. You’ve got to go to the next game. It’s like riding a bike – if you fall off you just have to get back on again.”

I did.

The very next game? Exeter away. Won 2-0. Next home game? York. Won 1-0. 3830 turned up this time.

We had teetered on the very edge of the abyss. We had looked down and felt that queasy ebbing and flowing feeling in the pit of our collective stomachs.

When you hit the bottom the only way is up. And this was not a dead cat bouncing.


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