THE first Devon derby of a season full of south-west flavour ended in a 0-0 draw between United and Argyle on a sunny September afternoon at Plainmoor.
In the end, it was a fair result, with both sides creating enough chances to justify victory but a combination of wayward finishing and good goalkeeping would keep the scores blank.
United will look back on a powerful first-half performance when the Pilgrims possibly could have been out of the game but the Greens can rightly point to a number of decent openings after the break.
United boss Martin Ling made two changes from the 1-1 draw at Port Vale last weekend and it was a rest for his two young starlets, Niall Thompson and Kirtys MacKenzie, who dropped back to the bench after superbly stepping into the breach.
Fit-again Danny Stevens took Thompson’s place on the wing for his first appearance of the season after a thigh strain. Aaron Downes returned from suspension to relieve MacKenzie of the centre-back berth. As a consequence, the apprentice duo of Daniel Sullivan and Jake Hutchings were bumped out of the squad.
Argyle manager Carl Fletcher also made a double switch from seven days ago, when the Pilgrims recorded their first win of the season with a 3-2 victory over Northampton. Paris Cowan-Hall and Onismor Bhasera vacated the wings, to be replaced by Joe Lennox and Alex MacDonald. The visiting bench included Guy Madjo, signed on loan from Aldershot just in time to be eligible.
As expected for the opening minutes of a Devon derby, the tackles were fierce and full of fire, but one Yellow emerged as the calm head in midfield. Nathan Craig was excellent on his debut last week and his calmness on the ball was enough for Argyle’s Conor Hourihane to give him a whack and earn the first booking of the afternoon...surely not the last.
Stevens was equally keen to impress and the Pilgrims were struggling when his cross found Billy Bodin for a shot on the turn, which was deflected inches past Jake Cole’s far post. The subsequent corner almost found the deep run of Downes but the ball was diverted beyond the Australian by Rene Howe’s fringe.
United’s leading scorer was then involved in an unfortunate collision with veteran Darren Purse, who looked in considerable pain before hobbling to the sidelines for treatment.
Moments later, a pre-planned corner routine from Plymouth saw Paul Wotton fire in a low cross for MacDonald, who, unlike Rochdale’s Andrew Tutte a fortnight ago, fired high into the Family Stand. It was, however, slack from the Yellows to fall for the same trick.
Yellow impetus returned with a stunning 40-yard pass from Joe Oastler to Stevens, who twisted the full-back’s blood before a low cross was met first time by Ian Morris. Cole’s save fell perfectly for Lee Mansell to smash home but Robbie Williams produced an astonishing block-tackle to keep the scores level.
The Gulls were starting to fizz and a fabulous move involving Craig, Morris, Stevens and Bodin ended with Mansell attempting a worldy half-volley from 25 yards, and the skipper only fractionally missed the top corner with his effort.
The action returned to the other end when a swift Plymouth break from United’s corner allowed Warren Feeney a skidding shot on goal but Michael Poke was positioned nicely to make a decent low save.
Perhaps understandably, the game dipped in intensity around the half-hour mark, as both sides caught their collective breath. The better football was coming from Yellow boots but Green hearts were made of sterner stuff than the team swept aside at Plainmoor last November.
Stevens sparked life back into proceeding on 42 minutes, when he danced past two challenges from the left and drilled in a low shot that was only turned wide by the entire Plymouth defence launching their bodies at the ball.
The half ended with Poke at full stretch to turn wide a delightful free-kick from the left-foot of Williams after Craig had been judged guilty of a foul just 22 yards from goal.
Argyle emerged for the second period with a storming run down the right by full-back Durrell Berry and the Gulls were left to breath a welcome sigh when the final shot was weak and skewed wide.
Stevens, a real livewire, then tested Berry’s defensive prowess with yet another weaving run and the dodgy thigh held up sufficiently for a clipped cross to the onrushing Mansell, but his long-range header was deflected safely into the arms of Cole.
United had the ball in the net on 55 minutes when a looping cross from Kevin Nicholson prompted a Cole, Purse and Howe sandwich. The Plymouth ‘keeper subsequently dropped the ball and Howe stabbed into the empty net, but the officials referred to page one of the refereeing manual to award a generous foul on a lucky Cole.
Fletcher was the first manager to twist, removing Luke Young for Matt Lecointe and Plymouth took encouragement from the switch, as a deep cross by Williams was met by the head of Feeney, and the Gulls were grateful to Poke for a fabulous one-handed save to his left.
Yellow anger, meanwhile, was turning against referee Roger East, who was generous in the extreme to Argyle in a number of 50-50 decisions. There was no time for Poke to feel sorry for his team-mates, as he made another crucial stop, this time with his legs, to deny a thunderous drive from Hourihane.
Both bosses then turned to their bench, Ling introducing the pace of Thompson for the tiring Stevens and Feeney was sacrificed for Argyle, allowing Madjo to make his Green debut.
The Gulls broke free from Argyle’s sharp spell with a Nicholson corner perfectly picking out the run of Morris, but the Irish midfielder could only steer the ball wide of the far post.
Plymouth were next to threaten and the sweet left peg of Hourihane again had the Gulls looking on with anxiety, but his swinging effort drifted inches wide. United’s next change was the withdrawal of Morris for Ryan Jarvis, as the game entered the last ten minutes.
Unfortunately, a decent derby with both sides playing with honesty and determination was slightly soured by a suspect performance from Mr East, and he hardly endeared himself to the Bay public with a bizarre late caution for Howe.
The final chance of an intriguing day fell to Bodin after he was released by a chipped pass from Howe but Berry made up the ground to produce a fine challenge and honours even on the scoreboard and in the bragging rights.
Gulls (4-3-3): 1 Michael Poke; 2 Joe Oastler, 5 Brian Saah, 4 Aaron Downes, 3 Kevin Nicholson; 7 Lee Mansell (capt), 20 Nathan Craig, 11 Ian Morris (8 Ryan Jarvis 78); 15 Billy Bodin, 9 Rene Howe, 19 Danny Stevens (29 Niall Thompson 66). Substitutes (not used): 12 Daniel Leadbitter, 13 Martin Rice (GK), 21 Thomas Cruise, 23 Ashley Yeoman, 30 Kirtys MacKenzie.
Booked: Craig 44, Howe 83
Argyle (4-5-1): 1 Jake Cole; 2 Durell Berry, 4 Maxime Blanchard, 5 Darren Purse (capt), 3 Robbie Williams; 19 Joe Lennox (27 Andres Gurrieri 76), 6 Conor Hourihane, 8 Luke Young (21 Matt Lecointe 57), 15 Paul Wotton, 32 Alex MacDonald; 11 Warren Feeney (18 Guy Madjo 66). Substitutes (not used): 13 Ollie Chenoweth (GK), 17 Curtis Nelson, 25 Jamie Richards, 28 Johnny Gorman.
Booked: Hourihane 8
Referee: Roger East
Attendance: 4,932 (1,514 away).