Never has a victory been so poorly received at Home Park. Plymouth Argyle went into Saturday’s encounter with Scunthorpe knowing that only a win would do. They knew if they got that win, the odds of staying in League One would be in their favour. And they got that win. And it still wasn’t enough. Argyle hearts were broken over 250 miles away from Home Park in the end, as a late Southend goal against Sunderland lifted them above the Greens. It was a heart-breaking end to a highly disappointing season, as Argyle were relegated back to League Two.
Argyle and Scunthorpe’s game itself wasn’t exactly high on quality, with the sort of defensive mistakes and scrappy goals one would expect from a game between relegation rivals. But Argyle’s best players delivered at key moments. They showed why, as a squad, they were better man-for-man than their opponents. There was, of course, more than the average dose of controversy in the game. For Argyle, it was a glorious failure. Their visitors were relegated in disgrace.
State of play
Following Derek Adams’ sacking last week, Kevin Nancekivell was left in charge of the first team for this crunch clash. As expected though, Argyle’s former first team coach had no real surprises in store with his team selection. He stuck with Adams’ preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, with the tried and found wanting midfield duo of Yann Songo’o and David Fox retained.
Up front, however, there was better news. Ruben Lameiras was recalled to the side after inexplicably being left on the bench for the first half against Accrington last week. He was, as expected, part of an attacking trio with Graham Carey and Freddie Ladapo. Whilst Argyle’s creative duo are known to work better when Ryan Taylor is in the central striker role alongside Ladapo, having Argyle’s top scorer in place for this game wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. As evidence from the season suggested, this was always the sort of game he was likely to score in. And so it proved.
This game was also perhaps a demonstration of how consistency in team selection isn’t necessarily a good thing. Indeed, aside from an enforced change to the goalkeeper, this was exactly the same team that was played off the pitch by Barnsley just two weeks ago. Derek Adams’ refusal to play his best team all season was damning, but his inability to prepare to fight threats from specific opponents was also part of his, and Argyle’s, downfall.
We knew from experience that this Argyle lineup was easy for a good team to pick apart. Luckily, Scunthorpe did not fall into this category. It meant that neither side were able to take control of the game for any significant period of time. The ‘legitimate’ goals, when they arrived, could either be described as good finishes, defensive errors, or a mixture of the two.
The opening goal was a complete mess. If Argyle conceded it, many questions would justifiably be asked about the defending.
First of all, Ladapo really ought to have given Argyle the lead before the ball eventually hit the net, somehow fluffing his lines from four yards when a deflected cross was missed in the air by the Scunthorpe defence. From there the ball fell to Ryan Edwards, and he would surely have been awarded a penalty had the ball not gone in as Cameron Borthwick-Jackson took him down from behind. Sarcevic then hit a shot against Borthwick-Jackson, on the ground at that point, and from there it’s very difficult on replay to see how the ball looped up to hit the bar, but it did. It led to a battle between Lloyd Jones and Lee Novak effectively on the goalline. Novak strangely decided to go for the ball with his foot rather than his head, and with Jones powering in, it was no contest.
This was a horrendous goal for the visitors to concede. It wasn’t a situation where they had numerous opportunities to ‘clear’ the ball, but getting into situation as they did was nonetheless avoidable. With defending like that, it’s no surprise that Scunthorpe have struggled to pick up points in recent weeks.
That being said, Argyle weren’t exactly squeaky clean with their defending either. On 42 minutes, Kyle Wootton scored for Scunthorpe to get his side back in the game.
Again, this was an example of how not to defend. When Josh Morris crossed the ball from this situation, the defence were overloaded and outnumbered at the back post. Fox had tracked across to prevent Morris from being played in behind Sawyer, while Songo’o was walking around the penalty area as though a spectator had encroached on the pitch. With the penalty-box overloaded, Scunthorpe eventually forced the ball in the net.
Matthew Lund was allowed an overhead kick unchallenged in the middle of the box (Songo’o still stationary). From there, Scunthorpe were able to force the ball in from the goalmouth scramble, despite a great initial save from Macey to deny Novak. It was a goal that, with better defensive protection from the midfield, would have been totally avoidable.
We can say the same of so many goals Argyle conceded this year.
In all honesty, Argyle’s second goal of the afternoon could easily have been placed in the previous section.
Oscar Threlkeld powered into a header to get the move going, and from there Graham Carey attempted a hopeful ball over the top. It’s another one the Scunthorpe defence ought to have dealt with, but again they made a mess of it. Rory McArdle’s attempted header was frankly painful, and once he miscontrolled the ball he was always likely to come out second best when pressed by Sarcevic. It was more abject defending in a game littered with errors.
However, whilst we can condemn the visitors’ leakiness at the back, praise must go to Ladapo for finishing the chance when it came his way. It was a chance he wouldn’t have expected to develop, but once it did, the 26-year-old had the presence of mind to loop the ball over Jak Alnwick and into the back of the net. It’s the sort of finish we’ve become so used to seeing from Ladapo this year, and continued his record of bizarre inconsistency. He missed a sitter in the build up to the opener, something we’ve seen a lot this year, and then pulled out a superb finish later in the game. It was Ladapo’s 19th goal of the season – in second half stoppage time he would be the width of a post away from a 20th.
Ladapo’s goal wasn’t the only excellent finish we saw on Saturday. Argyle’s eventual winner came via a thunderous strike from Carey.
Particularly when the angle of the strike is considered, this was a superb finish from the Irishman. He was the one player Argyle wanted on the ball in this situation – with any other player in Argyle’s side, a shot from there would be surprising. With Carey, however, there was always a chance he’d catch it sweetly on his left foot and hit the net. It’s why keeping hold of him, however unlikely, would be so important for Argyle’s quest to make an immediate return from League Two.
It wasn’t even the only goal of that style Carey has scored this season.
This was another season-long trend we saw demonstrated in one game on Saturday. Argyle have been poor defensively throughout the campaign, but have generally won games in which they have managed to take half-chances that come their way.
We can’t end this piece without a look at what must surely be one of the most disgraceful acts of football Home Park has ever witnessed.
Argyle were incensed when Scunthorpe scored their second goal. They had every right to be. Argyle goalkeeper Macey had clearly been injured, and rolled the ball out of play. Only, that was the plan. Josh Morris kept the ball in and looped the ball over the stricken Macey and into the net. Despite the situation bearing a striking resemblance to Leeds’ goal against Aston Villa last week, when Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa allowed Villa to score an uncontested goal directly afterwards, Scunthorpe refused to do the same.
Recently, Scunthorpe released a statement trying to explain this shameful conduct. In it, they first stated that manager Andy Dawson was disadvantaged by “not seeing exactly what happened” which is clearly ridiculous – if the manager has spent the season missing goals no wonder Scunthorpe were relegated. Dawson also said he fell victim to “not knowing the full circumstances with the goalkeeper [Macey]”. This is either another incredible act of ignorance – Macey signalled four times that he was injured and hardly rolled the ball out to the sideline for no reason – or simply a lie.
Dawson mentioned in the statement that he apologised to Argyle caretaker manager Kevin Nancekivell after the game, which seems very odd considering at the time he “didn’t see exactly what went on” and “didn’t know the full circumstances” with Macey. Why the sudden need to apologise when it turned out Scunthorpe lost the game anyway?
Perhaps the biggest farce in the statement, however, was the reference to all of this being in the “heat of the moment”. If we are being incredibly kind to Scunthorpe, we could argue that they believed Macey was not injured and simply wasting time, and in that sense perhaps Morris was justified in refusing to let the ball go out of play. Even in that unlikely circumstance, why on earth did Scunthorpe claim they still didn’t know what was happening with Macey when he had to be carried off the field? It took many minutes for play to finally restart, so why in that time did nobody of a Scunthorpe persuasion think they ought to be dealing with the situation differently? Why has it only taken until now? The truth is, this was hardly a “heat of the moment” incident. It was a calculated decision to deliberately play in an unsportsmanlike manner.
Ultimately, this statement has all the hallmarks of a team and manager caught playing in an unfair way – or cheating, to be direct about it – and trying to save face. Macey is not to blame for the goal. The referee is not to blame for the goal. Blame lies entirely with Josh Morris and Scunthorpe United. None of the excuses in their statement justify their actions.
Thank goodness it wasn’t as a result of that goal that Argyle went down.
So, there we have it. After six years trying to escape the EFL’s basement division, Argyle are back there again after just two. League One was a rollercoaster ride, with the Greens starting both seasons terribly, and nearly recovering to achieve an unthinkable promotion in one of them.
Unfortunately, Argyle hadn’t done enough to turn their 2018/19 campaign around before this remarkable encounter at Home Park. But the Pilgrims are in a much better position than when they were last relegated to League Two, and will be back. And games with Scunthorpe next season may well have an added edge.