Inconsistent Plymouth Argyle find response to Fletcher's call
MANAGER Carl Fletcher got the response he wanted from his players as Argyle came close to upsetting League Two leaders Gillingham on Saturday.
Fletcher had seen the Pilgrims beaten in all four of their previous matches, including an FA Cup first round defeat by part-timers Dorchester Town.
He insisted, though, he had talented players at his disposal and called on them to show it against high-flying Gillingham.
They did that with a much-improved performance, although it also only confirmed the inconsistency of Argyle as well.
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You simply never know what to expect from them from one match to another.
The Pilgrims are capable of playing fluent, attacking football but are also vulnerable defensively, and especially from deep crosses.
Only one clean sheet in their last 14 matches is one of the stats that will worry Fletcher the most.
No matter who plays in defence for Argyle, they always seem susceptible to conceding poor goals.
Both of Gillingham's goals were easily preventable and caused by simple lapses in concentration.
It is important the Pilgrims take confidence from their overall display against Gillingham, however, into the next two, testing away games.
Argyle visit fifth-placed Fleetwood Town this Saturday before playing at Bradford City, who are in fourth position, next Tuesday.
They will need performances of the same level as against Gillingham to get any reward from those matches.
The League Two pacesetters arrived at Home Park on Saturday as firm favourites to beat the Pilgrims.
They had the best away record in the division, with six wins and a draw from eight games on their travels.
Argyle, meanwhile, were coming off a demoralising 2-1 home defeat by Burton Albion last Wednesday.
With the Pilgrims playing their third game in only seven days it was no surprise Fletcher shook up his side against Gillingham.
Darren Purse returned to captain Argyle after being sidelined for three matches by a toe injury.
The 35-year-old centre-back had been struggling for form before his lay-off, but was much more like his usual commanding self on Saturday.
It was the type of no-nonsense, lead by example performance that Argyle need from him.
Curtis Nelson stayed in the side after his recent impressive displays so it was Maxime Blanchard who made way for Purse.
Blanchard, the 2011/12 player-of-the-year and an ever present in League Two this term, was an unused substitute.
There was also a change in goal, with Jake Cole being replaced by Rene Gilmartin, the free agent summer signing from Watford.
It was 6ft 5in Gilmartin's third appearance for the Pilgrims and his league debut.
Midfielder Conor Hourihane returned from a one-match suspension after his controversial red card against Dorchester.
There were also recalls for winger Paris Cowan-Hall and striker Rhys Griffiths.
Andres Gurrieri and Joe Lennox both dropped down to the substitutes' bench while Alex MacDonald was not picked on compassionate grounds after a family bereavement.
Hourihane was quietly effective in the centre of midfield, linking up the play well at times.
He also worked hard when not in possession, which was important as Argyle were outnumbered in that area of the pitch by Gillingham's 4-1-3-2 formation.
Encouragingly, Jamie Lowry had his best game yet for the Pilgrims, playing alongside Hourihane.
Lowry has started the last four matches after recovering from a long-term ankle ligament injury and looked much sharper on Saturday.
Instead of receiving the ball and then moving it on almost immediately, he carried it forward before trying to pick out a team-mate.
It was a more purposeful performance than the previous ones and suggested Lowry is nearing full match fitness.
Full-backs Durrell Berry and Onismor Bhasera provided a lot of energy while 19-year-old midfielder Luke Young continues to develop his all-round game.
He would have had the winning goal against Gillingham had it not been for former Argyle centre-back Adam Barrett's 89th-minute equaliser.
There was not much goalmouth action in the opening half-an-hour but gradually the Pilgrims started to assert themselves.
Their reward came in the 33rd minute when Nelson, another 19-year-old prospect, put them into the lead.
Striker Warren Feeney had a header from Lowry's corner blocked on the line, but the ball broke to Nelson and, from a tight angle, he shot into the net from inside the six-yard box.
Argyle's advantage lasted only five minutes, however, as poor marking allowed Gills striker Ben Strevens to equalise.
It came after midfielder Chris Whelpdale hit a weak shot as he ran away from goal.
No-one had picked up Strevens and when the ball fortuitously found him, he swivelled and shot low into the bottom left corner of the net.
It was an opportunist goal from Gillingham's perspective. From Argyle's point of view it was too cheap.
There was not much to choose between two hard-working teams until the Pilgrims sent on Gurrieri for Feeney in the 60th minute.
Gurrieri played on the left of midfield, which allowed Young to switch to the right side, while the lively Cowan-Hall moved into a central attacking role.
The substitution was soon followed by that of Nick Chadwick for Griffiths and Argyle began to build up some attacking momentum.
Gurrieri had a far post header blocked behind for a corner after an excellent cross from Young.
There was more balance about Argyle now and they deservedly took a 2-1 lead in the 80th minute.
Hourihane headed the ball forward and Chadwick touched the ball into the path of Young.
The Plymothian took one touch, set his sights on goal and then crashed a shot past keeper Stuart Nelson from 18 yards.
It was a fine, emphatic finish from Young and only Argyle's third home league win of the season seemed on the cards.
The tension increased as the clock ticked down, a good example of which came when the Pilgrims thought they should have been awarded a corner.
Fletcher, assistant boss Romain Larrieu and first team coach Kevin Nancekivell all angrily remonstrated with the fourth official, almost in unison.
Then, in the 89th minute, Argyle failed to clear their lines properly and Gillingham midfielder Jack Payne picked up possession, wide on the right.
Cowan-Hall tracked back but could not stop Payne from crossing deep to the far post.
Gillingham substitute Myles Weston found space in between Berry and Bhasera and headed the ball inside.
Barrett threw himself forward and he powerfully headed high into the net from six yards.
It was particularly hard to take for the Pilgrims as they had seemed in control, but it also showed why Gillingham have emerged as title contenders.
They refused to accept defeat and ended up returning to Kent with a hard-earned point to show for their endeavours.