Argyle were, for once, involved in a game rich in entertainment when league leaders Wigan Athletic came to town at the weekend. And, in winning it, Argyle’s table-topping opponents pulled off a feat we have been so used to seeing from the Greens themselves over the last few seasons.
See, things looked rosy for all of two minutes as Argyle followed up a good start to the encounter with a goal from the penalty spot, fantastically earned and emphatically scored by talisman Graham Carey. But Will Grigg ignited on the half-hour mark to level the scores, and a collected finish by Gavin Massey in first-half stoppage time gave the visitors an arguably undeserved lead at the break. Argyle kept fighting in the second half, with Carey forcing ex-Argyle youngster Christian Walton into a smart save from a free kick, and Antoni Sarcevic ballooning a decent opening over Walton’s crossbar. At the other end, Gary Sawyer was within inches of scoring what would surely have been the most hilarious own goal of all time. The game was eventually settled from a set-piece; Dan Burn burying a header into the net with the help of an unfortunate deflection off the imperfect but promising Zak Vyner. And that was that – 3-1, with Wigan extending their lead at the top to five points.
The overriding feeling after the game was of course one of disappointment. After all, Argyle’s unbeaten run in League One stretching back to November had come to an abrupt end in front of the biggest crowd in the division that day. But very few in the ground, even those of a Latics persuasion, could claim that Argyle were outplayed, and few would argue with the idea that Argyle were unlucky in defeat. Some basic match stats also back up this view – Argyle had more possession, shots and corners than their opposition, and came away with nothing to show for their efforts.
Perhaps Argyle were unlucky to be defeated at the weekend. Or, perhaps Wigan’s victory showed exactly why they are looking like promotion certainties this season, as they got over the winning line comfortably without playing particularly well. We have seen what Wigan can do – their domination of Argyle in the reverse fixture back in September made the 1-0 scoreline seem almost laughable, but at the weekend they demonstrated their steel. It’s incredibly cliched, but the ability of a side to win games whilst not at their best really is the stuff of champions.
It’s also something we’ve seen an awful lot from Argyle since Derek Adams took charge in the summer of 2015. Honestly, how many managers can we remember from last season absolutely seething as Adams’ side ‘undeservedly’ stole three points from under their noses. Steve Evans’ rage was a particular highlight of 2017 for many. And even this year, with Argyle perhaps not so successful, we’ve had some managers cursing their luck against the Greens, with Darren Ferguson suggesting a massacre of referees after his Doncaster Rovers side could only manage a draw against Adams’ men. The fact is, if a performance like Wigan’s on Saturday gets a result once, it may be lucky. If it happens many times in a season, there’s a little more to it than luck. Wigan may well have gotten ‘lucky’ many times this season, but make no mistake, they deserve to be exactly where they are in the league.
That also puts Argyle’s promotion last season into perspective. To many, Argyle were very fortunate to go up, and the promotion season itself was even considered boring by some. But whilst those watching Argyle intermittently, or those coming across Argyle whilst following their own teams, may see it that way, the simple truth is that Argyle were able to execute their plans time and time again. There surely cannot be anybody seriously suggesting that Argyle were lucky consistently across the entire season, can there?
And that’s enough to provide comfort. Argyle perhaps didn’t get what they deserved on Saturday, but they lost to a side top of the table on merit, and as this sort of result would have been a near certainty had the teams met a few months ago, there is no shame in that.
Now, in doing so, Argyle also lost to a side managed by Paul Cook, and that is a different matter entirely.