Extra Time: Diary of a football fan (aged 56 and a half)

A basic principal of writing about football, especially for non-neutrals like us, is to avoid taking to the keyboard right after the final whistle. In general, I agree with that. You don’t always see key incidents clearly when you’re in the stadium and don’t have the stats to confirm what you thought you saw over the 90 minutes. In other words, wait for the perspective and rational thinking that comes 12 or 24 hours later.

Wise words which I am now about to ignore. If football was only about cold analysis, I wouldn’t bother with it. Since it’s as much about raw emotion, I’m going to write about how it felt in the moment itself, watching Argyle lose to Cheltenham on Saturday. Here’s my diary of the day.

Kick-off minus 60’ I see the team selection as we’re parking the car. Happy with that. Relieved to see Edwards back in the pivotal midfield role and it’s about time Cooper got his chance at right wing back. Pleased that Telford’s starting – just hope he’s fully fit (spoiler alert). Same back three as against Cheltenham. Hmmm, could losing Canavan’s aerial ability come back to bite us (spoiler alert number two)?

Kick-off minus 30’ Pick up a match day programme, which is pretty good these days. Still too much ‘filler’ history, though. I’d really like to read up on the players that we’re about to face but instead we have ‘Ten post-war Cheltenham Town classic campaigns’ and a further two pages on ’Ten players who had more than one spell at Cheltenham Town.’ I doubt many Cheltenham fans care very much about that stuff. I certainly don’t.

Kick off minus 10’ Pilgrim Pete picks a kid out of the crowd for the pre-match penalty challenge. The mascot powers a low strike off the inside of the post, past the hapless child ‘keeper, before celebrating with unseemly gusto in front of the Devonport. Hope that’s not going to be the day’s best finish from a man in green (spoiler alert number three).

And we’re off…

2’ Cooper gets the ball on the right and immediately cuts inside like Riley never does. Nice.

3’ Luke Varney clatters Danny Mayor on the left touchline. I think we’ve just seen Cheltenham’s secret plan to deal with Argyle’s biggest threat.

8’ Three good runs and interchanges between McFadzean and Mayor. Lovely stuff – Cheltenham are struggling to deal with them.

10’ Cooper cuts inside and delivers a good angled ball to Telford whose shot is well saved.

11’ Cheltenham win a corner and appear to already be time-wasting with 80 minutes of the game left. That’s novel.

12’ A long through ball from Cooper is well controlled by Joel Grant and a good tackle is all that prevents the Argyle man from getting a shot away. That’s a dimension to our play that we haven’t seen too much this season.

14’ Ball played out of defence to Telford just short of the half way line. He immediately turns and drives into the penalty area before his shot is well saved. That’s something else we’ve been missing up-front. Immediately afterwards, a Mayor shot is almost turned into his own net by a Cheltenham defender. I’m feeling good about this game.

15’ Cooper’s shot looks suspiciously like it hit a Cheltenham defender’s hand in the box. Ref wasn’t even looking. I’m beginning to wonder about the man in black.

17’ Another bad foul on Mayor, this time on the half way line. Again, the ref thinks a couple of words with the Cheltenham man are an adequate response.

19’ Cooper almost bends one in from the left-hand side of the area. He poses so much more of an attacking threat than Riley in the right wing back role.

20’ Mayor intercepts a Cheltenham ball in Argyle’s half and plays it through to Joel Grant whose shot hits the keeper’s fingertips and skips onto the bar. I have the first twinges of concern that once again we’re not turning our numerous chances into goals.

23’ Noooooo! Telford goes down on the half way line with nobody near him – never a good sign. Will we ever get through a game without an injury? We’ve used about six different strikers so far this season and for the first quarter of this game it looked like we might have a winning pairing in Grant and Telford. That’s all blown out of the water as the latter trudges off towards the dressing room with what turns out to be a hamstring injury. Replaced by Ryan Taylor, which, I fear, is not a good thing. The fans around me share my concerns and the mood darkens.

26’ Mayor’s clattered again by a different Cheltenham player. They’re obviously taking turns to foul him to avoid red cards. Effective? Maybe. Sportsmanlike? Er, no.

27’ Cooper plays a good free kick into the far post but there’s nobody there. This is becoming a pattern. Since Cheltenham are apparently going to foul their way through the game, Argyle have to take advantage from the resulting set-pieces. But that’s not happening. More doubts creep in.

30’ Cooper is shoved off the ball again. The ref speaks to Ben Tozer, the Cheltenham captain, presumably asking him to tell his players not to be such naughty boys. Like that has made a difference to any team’s behaviour ever. If only there was a system of, for example, coloured cards that a match official could use to warn players or even send them off the pitch. That might work.

33’ This time Sarcevic is chopped down by Doyle-Hayes who has already been booked. Again, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, the referee declines to punish the offender further.

38’ Cheltenham ‘keeper is wasting time again. The referee has yet another word. This chap does like to talk, doesn’t he?

39’ Anybody seen the film ‘Minority Report’, where Tom Cruise plays a cop with the ‘Pre-crime Unit’ that can see into the future and so arrest people before they commit offences? Argyle fans don’t need a ‘Pre-cross Unit’ to foresee the inevitable goals conceded from wide balls and unchallenged headers this season. The Cheltenham goal comes from a simple ball out to Sean Long, in acres of space on the right and with all the time in the world to measure his cross. Josh Grant, in the vicinity of his man but with his back turned, jumps all of six inches as the octogenarian Luke Varney shuffles in to head past the luckless Alex Palmer at the far post. Cheltenham’s second chance of the game and they’re 1-0 up. The crowd behind the goal in the Devonport is silent, a mixture of disbelief and resignation.

44’ Still dealing with the gut-punch of the Cheltenham goal when Argyle have the ball in the net. We’re on our feet (standing in excitement and not persistently I should emphasise) but there’s a flag. Aimson’s effort is disallowed for a push on Ben Tozer who went down like a felled tree. It’s tough to see exactly what happened from our end, but if the Argyle man did make contact it didn’t look anywhere near enough to propel the Cheltenham captain to the turf with such drama. Were the officials conned? You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Half Time: The mood on the terraces is turning gloomy. We’ve seen this story too many times already this season.

48’ Mayor cuts inside the Cheltenham box and tumbles to the ground in a tangle of legs. A braver referee might have pointed to the spot, but by this point literally nobody is surprised when he waves play on.

50’ Aimson is sandwiched between two players and Luke Varney sees yellow. Cue sarcastic cheers and applause from the home fans.

51’ Taylor receives the ball twice with his back to the opposition goal in quick succession, and as so often, his instinct is to play it back into his own half rather than turn or look for a forward pass. Can’t help thinking it would be a different story with Telford on the pitch.

52’ Cheltenham ‘keeper time wasting again. This is starting to get quite annoying. Make a mental note to Google him to find out if he’s ever played for Wycombe.

55’ Cheltenham go close as a cross to the far post is headed onto the bar. Argyle’s vulnerability on the break is going to be an ongoing theme I suspect.

56’ Mayor somehow squirms through a mob of defenders to get to the by-line and cut the ball back to McFadzean, whose low shot is blocked by the keeper. The Argyle number 10 is single-handedly trying to haul his team back into the game, which is impressive. Less so is that nobody else is doing much to help him at the moment.

Speaking of which, where is Taylor? I swear, he looks like a man who has just woken from a coma and has no idea who or where he is and what he is supposed to be doing. I reckon he’s touched the ball three or four times at the most in the 30 minutes since he came on.

58’ Mayor brought down again. I’m seriously worried what will happen if he gets injured, as he inevitably will if this carries on. Cheltenham break again and come close to getting a second. My son scowls at me as I grumpily predict that they are more likely to get their second than we are to score an equaliser.

59’ A clever interchange allows Mayor to get a shot in, forcing a good save. Anxiety levels about a match-ending tackle on him reach Defcon One.

60’ A Cheltenham player goes down with a ‘head injury’, miraculously getting to his feet when the trainer comes on. He’s then allowed to walk the long way to the touchline despite several Argyle players pointing to the much shorter route off the pitch and no doubt politely quoting the new FA law relating to the matter. This kind of thing makes me unreasonably angry, probably because the opposition’s gamesmanship is so obvious to everyone but the officials. The chants of ‘sh*t referee’ ringing out around the ground suggest I’m not alone.

62’ Mayor into the box again on the left and puts ball just wide of the post. A minute later, McFadzean does the same.

65’ An Argyle attack down the right side! Is that the first one of this half? The team is still very unbalanced.

70’ Cheltenham give us another scare as a cross-field ball finds Varney who shoots wide.

71’ Randell replaces Joel Grant, Cooper is pushed up to partner Taylor and Edwards moves to right wing back. I’m not at all sure about this. Randell looks awfully young and lightweight to be thrown into this melee.

77’ Sarcevic crosses from the right with nobody on the end of it. Same again two minutes later. Ryan Lowe would have poked that in during his playing days. Has the gaffer got his boots with him?

About 15 minutes to go and Argyle are looking out of ideas. This half, our attacks consist of slow build-ups around a packed Cheltenham box while the visitors threaten on the break, enjoying plenty of empty space. This isn’t going to end well.

84’ Lolos on for Cooper, who looks pretty unhappy about being hooked. And with all due respect, a 3-5-2 fronted by Taylor and Lolos isn’t quite what I hoped for this season.

85’ Cheltenham have 11 players behind the ball now. Mayor runs across the front of the defence but has nowhere to go.

87’ Mayor chopped down again. Yellow for Hussey. How do Cheltenham still have 11 men on the pitch to put behind the ball?

88’ This is getting weird. In the dying minutes, an Argyle corner is taken by a slightly bemused looking Randell. What? He plays a short corner to Mayor, who gives it back to the youngster only for him to sky the cross into the stands. Are we trying to baffle them into conceding?

90’ Five minutes of added time. Yes! There’s still a chance.

91’ Own goal from Aimson. Of course. Came from a break with our defence all over the place. What else did I expect?

92’ My son and I look at each other and without saying a word, do something we never have until now; leave before the final whistle. As we get up there’s a clack-clack machine gun fire of seat bottoms snapping back as hundreds or Argyle fans make the same decision.

95’ Lolos hits outside of the post. Apparently. But by this time we are very nearly back at the car and heading back towards the Tamar Bridge at maximum speed.

Post mortem: How to sum up that game? A cynical opposition who have clearly never heard the phrase ‘the beautiful game’, a referee with only a passing acquaintance with the laws of the game, a barrage of shots with no end product and a league table showing that we are in the bottom half of the basement division. At its best, football produces moments of pure joy that transcend the mundane realities of daily life. At its worst, it generates an impotent rage about the unfairness of the universe. I know that calm reflection will reveal much to be positive about around Argyle this season and that our ‘luck’ will turn. But leaving Home Park at 5pm on Saturday, anybody who had tried to tell me that ‘you don’t get the highs without the lows’ or that ‘the sunshine is all the sweeter after the rain’ would have been propelled through the nearest hedge at high velocity.

Normal service will be resumed next week.

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Colin Bradbury

Colin writes Extra Time, one of our opinion columns, as well as featuring on our Green & White podcast. View all posts by Colin Bradbury