The Most Significant Moment in Argyle's History...
... seems to be largely forgotten and is rarely, if ever, talked about. Until now.
For something to qualify as TMSMIAH it has to be crucial in context and pivotal in consequence; my nominated event qualifies on both counts. It was also a pleasingly mundane event in as much as it happened on the pitch and not in a board room or a court room which given Argyle's recent history must seem incredible to any casual observers. So what could be more significant than the recent financial shambles at Argyle? What could be more important than entering administration, agreeing a CVA during administration or exiting administration? What could be more important than the sale of the club, appointment of a manager or the signing of a star player? What could it possibly be? A goal? A disallowed goal? A sending off? A refereeing decision?
No. None of the above. It was tackle. Only a tackle. But what a tackle! It was fair tackle; no free kick was awarded and no player got injured; there are no complaints about it whatsoever and the tackle wasn't even made by one of our players!
So it is all down to context and consequence and to reveal the context firstly the time and place of The Tackle need to be established: it was during the second half of a game against Port Vale, played at Vale Park on 19th February 1994 and at the time the significance of The Tackle passed largely unnoticed. In fact I have rarely heard it mentioned since but looking back nearly 20 years later with the wisdom inevitably bestowed by hindsight I contest that nothing more important has ever happend to Plymouth Argle FC in any of its forms at any time.
To begin to paint the wider picture English football was at a turning point and the bad old days of hooliganism were waning in the wake of Gazza's Turin tears; the Hornby Effect was altering the way that football was perceived in the media and the structure of the professional game was splintering as the behemoth that is now known as the Premier League was entering only its second season. Nobody could know, at the time, quite how significant the formation of the Premier League would be to football at every level and nobody had even thought of the Champions' League or the Europa League. All of that was to come. And all of it has resolutely passed Argyle by without so much as a swift glance in our direction. And all as a result of one solitary act of magnificent defending.
The previous year had seen '92-'93 season end in relegation and disaster for Argyle. Just as the PL Gravy Train was rolling into a nearby station Argyle managed to get itself relegated away from its fringes. A season of grim, relentless struggle had ended in a relegation sealed ultimately by Blackburn's David Speedie's Home Park hat-trick in the final game of the season. That Blackburn team was owned by Jack Walker who had torn up the Chairman's Rulebook and who financed an ambitious, and up to that point unheard of, spending spree by manager Kenny Dalglish. It was a Blackburn yet to see the arrival of the superstars Sutton and Shearer and which had had to make do with only Speedie and Mike Newell ~ who had some history with Argyle dating back to his Wigan days and another, different, far happier (for us) but equally tumultous end to a season ('85-'86) that deserves a passing mention. Speedie and Newell were as potent a strike force as any club had ever been able to field outside the top flight and a well-beaten Argyle's demise was confirmed. Blackburn never stopped to glance back or to consider the teams it had left behind as it went on to glory and the desperate last throw of the dice by Argyle's chairman Dan McCauley, who had replaced ex-player and long ball disciple David Kemp as manager near the end of the season, had failed. To this day I still harbour the feeling that Kemp would have kept us up... Another "what if"!
The next season saw an astonishing turn around in approach from Argyle. McCauley, who has frequently featured in the Sunday Times Rich List, loosened the purse strings and Shilton spent money on recruiting new players, proven at the new level to transform the pragmatic playing style. The days of hoofing it up to big Robbie Turner were gone. An exciting batch of seasoned pros donned the green: Gary Poole arrived from Barnet (much to Barry Fry's dismay); Steve Castle and Kevin Nugent from Orient; Dwight Marshall from Grays in the non-league; Paul Dalton from Hartlepoole; Steve McCall from Ipswich... Transfer fees totalling around £1m were invested in those players which was unheard of up to then (and arguably since!). Players who are now revered by those of us fortunate enough to have seen the team play with wit, enthusiasm, swagger and style. The only team in my memory, and I can go back to the early '70s, that comes near to them in terms of approach, ability and entertainment was the Holloway team before it collapsed in such horrible fashion in 2008. Shilton's Argyle was an absolute joy to watch.
So a resurgent, flowing and attack-minded Argyle was reborn between the end of one season and the start of the next. It was crystal clear to everybody that saw them play that Shilton's team was going to be a player come the shakedown at the season's end. Argyle was going to be there all of the way through.This was not a bunch of pretenders. This was the Real Thing.
The 2nd Division, by now the 3rd tier, in that season was a strong divisionand Argyle was not the only expectant team in it. Mark McGhee managed a Reading side, inspired by Shaka Hislop and Jimmy Quinn, to the title. That title meant that Reading became subject to the requirements of the Taylor Report due to being in a higher division. Elm Park, which surely can only be remembered with affection by the most romantic of Reading supporters, was soon to be replaced by the Taylor Report-friendly Madejski Stadium and Reading FC's future was to be be completely and irrevocably divorced from its past. The Uruguayan Danny Bergara managed a brutally effective Stockport County team led by the enormous Kevin Francis, he was 6' 7" tall!, and the slightly smaller (6' 4") Andy Preece. That Stockport side must be amongst the best County sides ever. The final contender was John Rudge's Port Vale which featured Ian Taylor, Robbie Earle and the hero/villain/star of this piece... Peter Swan.
Argyle had already beaten Port Vale at Home Park near the start of the season in a game marred by some disturbances on the terraces. As the season unfolded it was clear that the the two automatic promotion spots were going to be filled by Argyle, Reading, Port Vale or Stockport. By the time the return fixture up at Vale Park arrived it was clear the eagerly awaited Vale game was going to be massive for each side. And it was.
For all of Argyle's panache and prowess when they had the ball they were slightly less effective when the other team had it! Shilton's Argyle was just not equipped to shut teams out or stifle a game. It was a good side. Damned good. And it wanted to show the rest of the division just how good it was every time it played.
So on to the game. I remember a heavy pitch and a busy stadium on a grey, dampish day. A crowd of 9093, with a large and vociferous following from Plymouth, packed into Vale Park with some of them hoping to see Alan Nicholls, Mark Patterson, Dominic Naylor, Keith Hill, Andy Comyn, Steve McCall, Wayne Burnett, Steve Castle, Alan McCarthy (in his first and only starting appearance), Dwight Marshall and Paul Dalton with substitutes Mickey Evans and Martin Barlow stroke the ball around and claim yet another majestic victory. The game started according to plan and it wasn't long before Dwight Marshall put us one up and as Argyle strutted and preened and passed the ball to one another with slick, unerring accuracy so the team's collective confidence grew. Half time came and went and the game's pattern was unchanged. Argyle were still one up and somebody, I forget who, maybe Martin Barlow but more likely Dwight Marshall made ground down the right wing. He looked up to see Paul Dalton, unmarked, and steaming in on the back post. The wide man drew the goalie and as he side-footed the ball across the face of the goal a 2 yard tap-in beckoned. As if from absolutely nowhere Vale defender Peter Swan somehow slid in and made a block/tackle that he had no right to expect to make and the "goal" was never scored. The chance was gone and what had seemed certain to be a manic celebration was stopped in its tracks. To this day I don't know exactly how Swan managed it! Some say Bobby Moore's tackling of Pele in the Mexico World Cup was the greatest tackle ever made; I say it was Peter Swan on Paul Dalton at Port Vale in '94!
Needless to say a game that should have been over at 2-0 wasn't yet over. That moment inspired both the home crowd and home team to redouble their effort and the last 20 minutes saw Argyle put under such relentless pressure that the always flaky defence crumbled and the team suffered a gut-wrenching 2-1 defeat.
So what were the consequences? Ultimately Argyle's record win in the last game of the season at Hartlepoole was to no avail. Not even winning 8-1 was enough as a 2-0 Port Vale win at Brighton saw Vale promoted with 88 points. Argyle ended on only 85. If Dalton had scored, if Argyle had won that game, as they surely would have, those tallies would have been reversed., Argyle would have been automatically promoted and bloody Burnley could have done what they did to Port Vale (and Stockport) in the play-offs instead.
The next season saw Argyle sign Peter Swan, a move that I am certain was rooted in that tackle, in a transfer, a club record transfer at that, that must rank amongst the very worst ever made by any club anywhere. Swan didn't settle, his teammates despised him, he hated the area and the fans and didn't like or respect the manager that had signed him. Even his bloody dog died! Swan's arrival, and in particular his appointment in place of the popular Steve Castle as club captain, split the team, morale was ruined and nothing was ever the same again. Shilton's team eventually fell apart in spectacular fashion, hitting a low in a 7-0 defeat at Brentford, and his relationship with Dan McCauley was ruined in even more spectacular fashion in a long-running feud carried out in the pages of the national press for the world to see. Before long Argyle was relegated to the 4th tier for the first time in its history, Shilton's managerial reign was a footnote in club history and Argyle had well and truly not just missed the PL Gravy Train but couldn't even find the bus ticket to get to a nearby station.
Nobody now thinks of Reading as a poxy little club lucky to have Aldershot as a rival but back in '94 they did. If they now think of Reading FC it is the Mad Stad and Premier League football that springs to mind and not the horrors of watching a match at Elm Park. Maybe Reading are not one of the biggest clubs in England but they probably deserve to be seen as a Big, or Biggish anyway, Club. I'm certain that the rest of the football world considers them to be on a completely different level to Argyle but up to the '94 season Argyle was widely considered to be the bigger and better club. What Madejski did for Reading following the '94 season McCauley could easily have done for Argyle ~ had he wanted to. Instead since that fateful year Argyle spent too many years in the doldrums miles adrift from the pools of cash floating around the upper reaches of English football. But for that tackle Swan would not have been signed, Shilton's team may not have disintegrated, McCauley might never have fallen out with Shilton and a successful team with a high profile manager could have been a media favourite with Shilton seen as a local and national hero with Argyle a genuine power in the land.
Much of that is just one huge "what if...", of course, but nobody can say with any certainty just what might have been. But for the events of that day in Burslem I firmly believe that Argyle would have been promoted and promotion would have kept us in the frame for much greater things to follow. We might have a seen generous investment level in the team, ground and infra-structure. Or at least generous compared to the years of under-investment and stagnation that have filled most of the last 20 years or so. Not being promoted in that season amounted to being a body blow with such profound consequences to the club, its infrastructure and expectation that Argyle as a club have never really, truly recovered.
Instead of Shilton's team being depicted in Paul Roberts's excellent book as The Nearly Men they would have been The Men Who Did. Instead of McCauley being the (2nd?) most reviled club chairman in the club's history he just might have laid the foundations for the dynasty he was so obviously hoping to establish and be thought of as glowingly as Jack Walker is at Blackburn or John Madejski is at Reading.
So Argyle's pivotal moment was not a goal, sending off or refereeing decision. It was a moment of excellence from an opposing defender. It almost says it all, really... Even the most significant moment in the club's history comes courtesy of a player in a different team! And the consequences of it are not over yet...