Ahead of the 46th and final league match of the season on Saturday, where Argyle face off against Hull City, half an eye will very much be on Birmingham City’s clash with Norwich a few hundred miles north of Home Park. Victory will secure safety for the Greens; draw or lose, and we will be reliant on a helping hand from the Canaries.

Dan Ellard looks back at the previous half-dozen occasions where the Green Army have attended the final fixture with the dreaded possibility of relegation still undecided…


1984: Unusual Circumstances

Similar to the events of seven years earlier, a season where Argyle were eventually relegated – a bizarre scenario occurred in 1984, where not every team played their final match on the same day. Of course, this was far from the most noteworthy event of that season. *That* day at Villa Park, *that* George Reilly header, *that* Kevin Hodges shot in the dying seconds that somehow bobbled wide… coming that close to an FA Cup Final.

However, that proud showing was in the middle of a truly shocking run of league form. In truth, the schedule was horrid – Argyle having to cram 30 matches into 14 weeks to close out the season – but either side of the cup semi-final saw them accrue just three points (and no wins) from 11 league fixtures. They had nosedived into the bottom four, having been 10 points clear of it at the start of the run.

Thankfully, the league form crucially picked up, and they headed into their final game against Orient FC three points clear of Scunthorpe. However, the Iron still had two games left to play – meaning if they at least matched Argyle’s result, the Green Army would be left sweating until Tuesday night and Scunthorpe’s curtain-closer away at Rotherham.

It was a nervy opening. Former star of Home Park Barry Silkman set up Andy Sussex to power the O’s ahead, and with United still goalless at Gillingham, it looked to be heading for an “after-final day” showdown. But Argyle rallied, and rallied superbly. Three goals either side of the break, from (not that one) Neville Chamberlain, Lindsay Smith and Kevin Hodges, sealed victory – and with Scunthorpe only managing a point at Priestfield, safety was secured.

It had been a remarkable turnaround. Argyle had plundered 10 points from their final available 12, meaning that having been rooted in the drop zone just a week and half earlier, the Greens ended up finishing five points clear of relegation.

Their season hadn’t even finished there, either. Not settling for one cup run in a season, they had progressed to the Associate Members’ Cup last eight as well, to be played on the Thursday after the Orient game. Sadly – or maybe thankfully, as this was their 64th competitive match of the season – they were edged out by Millwall, who progressed to the Southern Area Final. For (mostly) good and for bad, it was one of the most remarkable seasons in Argyle’s history.


1991: “Typical Argyle”

A 2-0 defeat away at already-down Hull City on the penultimate weekend of the 1990/91 season left the Pilgrims three points clear of the drop zone. However, to be relegated, Leicester City would need not only to win, but to overhaul a goal difference deficit of eight. Just to add to the lengthening odds, West Brom would also need to win.

It was a scenario that bookmakers would barely even consider. But, in the week leading up to the game, the number of times the phrase “Typical Argyle” was doubtless said would have reached a higher count even than the number of pasties consumed on a normal matchday. (“Typical Argyle” isn’t actually a thing by the way, it’s “Typical Football” – affecting every club in the country, apart from maybe Manchester City).

As it transpired, it was an afternoon of relative serenity at Home Park. A goal in each half against Charlton Athletic – a comedy own goal by Darren Pitcher and a Robbie Turner header – resulted in a comfortable win. This left Leicester and West Brom to fight it out to avoid the drop. The victory actually propelled the Greens up three places to the relative nosebleed territory of an 18th placed finish.

This was Argyle’s fifth season in the second tier after being promoted in 1986 under Dave Smith. A promising 7th place in their first year up had now been followed by four consecutive bottom nine finishes, suggesting that unless something changed, the writing would soon be on the wall.


1992: A Speedie Departure

And so it was, following the previous season’s narrow escape, that an uninspiring long-ball style, coupled with poor results, marked the end for manager David Kemp. The Pilgrims turned to Peter Shilton, famous for being England’s record male appearance holder (or famous for being out-jumped by 5′ 5″ Diego Maradona, depending on your perspective), in the hope that he could salvage the season. Results did not improve.

Just seven points from their previous nine matches meant that they were precariously perched just a point above the trapdoor heading into the final day. Victory at home to Blackburn (who needed the win themselves to secure a play-off place) would guarantee survival, whilst a loss would almost certainly be fatal. Oxford, Brighton and Newcastle were in the relegation shake-up too, but all faced tricky away fixtures at Tranmere, Ipswich and Leicester respectively.

With barely an empty seat in the house (a rare sight that season), the Greens started on the front foot, knowing the task in hand. They soon got their reward. Namesake of the promotion-winning manager, David Smith’s rather tame effort squirmed under visiting ‘keeper Bobby Mimms and into the far corner.

Even David Speedie’s pinpoint leveller for Blackburn just before the break wasn’t catastrophic – with Brighton losing and Oxford drawing, safety was still on. Moments later, however, Shilton – who had picked himself in goal – flapped horribly at a cross, and there was Speedie again to steer in his 22nd of the season. Now, Argyle were in trouble.

The second 45 ebbed away. Half an hour before the end, Oxford were still level and Brighton still trailed; just one goal would do it. Almost in unison, though, United went in front at Prenton Park, and Speedie split the Argyle defence to expertly complete his hattrick and cement Rovers in the play-offs. Surely a comeback was beyond the Greens, therefore they were reliant on results elsewhere. With Newcastle pulling off a stunning victory to deny Leicester promotion, but with Brighton succumbing at Ipswich, it was all on Oxford. Two Tranmere goals were required to relegate the U’s and save Argyle.

None came, and as the final whistles sounded around the country, relegation back to the third tier was confirmed. But, with one as famous as Shilton at the helm, and the deep pockets of Dan McCauley providing financial backing, surely it wouldn’t be long before a return. Wrong. It was 12 years before the Greens would get back to this level again.


1998: Tears at Turf Moor

The image of club legend Paul Wotton in tears at full-time is one of the most emotive in Argyle’s history. A sickening slide back into the fourth tier, coupled by the jubilation of the opposition, puts this match down as one of the toughest for any fan to ever have to stomach.

A helping hand from the then recently-sacked Neil Warnock saw Burnley throw away a 3-1 lead against Oldham in their penultimate game, setting up a grandstand finale against Argyle. Both the Clarets and the Pilgrims were in the bottom four at the start of the day, but Brentford, themselves travelling to a Bristol Rovers side chasing a play-off berth, were very much in sight for both. An unusual quirk in the rules back in 1998, goals scored dictated league position above goal difference, and hence if Brentford lost, Argyle only needed a draw to survive. Burnley had to win.

A frantic first half saw the prolific Andy Cooke net twice for the hosts, sandwiched by Mark Saunders’ pinpoint header to keep the Pilgrims in the contest. However, they knew that they’d have to find at least one goal in the second half, and chances came and went as the clock began to tick down. Martin Barlow, Carlo Corazzin and Earl Jean all had opportunities, but it all seemed to be slipping away; with Brentford drawing, Argyle needed two.

Then, with just five minutes remaining, future Green Barry Hayles scored to put Rovers into the playoffs, and critically, put Brentford on the brink. Argyle charged at their opponents with renewed vigour, knowing that an equaliser would propel them above both Burnley and Brentford to secure their safety. Agonisingly, though, it never came. The full time whistle sparked a jubilant pitch invasion; Burnley were safe. The Green Army had to endure taunts from the home fans, in the knowledge that just a second season of bottom-division football in the club’s history was forthcoming.

A little over two years later, Burnley were near the top of the second tier of English football, whilst Argyle languished near the bottom of the fourth. That dark day at Turf Moor proved to be a significant turning point for both clubs, in very different ways.


2013: Avoiding the Non-League Trapdoor

Only once in this club’s history has it faced a potential final-day exit from the Football League itself. After securing the club’s future both on and off the pitch the previous season, 2012/13 was meant to mark a new dawn. However, poor signings and poor game management led to the sacking of Carl Fletcher, and expert firefighter John Sheridan was put in charge from January onwards. Results improved, and a run of five wins from eight games looked to have guided the Greens clear of trouble.

However, with the other teams around them picking up points regularly too, it set a quite remarkable picture for the final round of fixtures. Six teams were within two points of each other, fighting to avoid the one remaining relegation spot, with Aldershot already as good as down. It required an unlikely but far from impossible set of permutations to see the Pilgrims relegated. A draw at Rochdale would secure safety, but a loss, combined with wins for Wimbledon and Barnet, plus York and Dagenham drawing with each other, would see Argyle’s 93-year football league stay end. Goal difference was also a consideration, with Barnet and York capable of overhauling them by that metric, too.

A numerous but tense Green Army assembled at Spotland. They saw no goals in the first half, but the tension was hightened further by Max Blanchard’s harsh red card for a professional foul on former Pilgrim George Donnelly. However, it was only for a short period that relegation really loomed large: Gary Alexander’s goal on the hour put Wimbledon ahead, and at that point it would have only taken a Rochdale and Barnet goal apiece (or two Rochdale goals) to drop Argyle below the line. Thankfully, by the time that Joe Bunney guided Dale in front a quarter of an hour later, the Pilgrims were as good as safe. York had gone in front at Dagenham, and crucially, Barnet had slipped two behind in their match at Northampton.

No further changes meant a 21st place finish – the joint-lowest in the club’s history, but critically, the nightmare reality of non-league football had been averted. The near-playoff form shown under Sheridan had been enough to secure safety – just.


2019: Meltdown, Macey, Morris and Misery

Following a meltdown of epic proportions and a losing run which cost Derek Adams his job, what had seemed unthinkable a matter of weeks earlier was now a stark reality. Just the wrong side of the dotted line going into the final game were Argyle and Scunthorpe, who faced off against each other at Home Park in the knowledge that even a win would not guarantee survival. And so it proved.

If the Greens bettered Southend United’s result, they were safe. Also in the equation were Wimbledon, who were two points and four net goals better off at the start of play. The ask was made trickier by Southend hosting a Sunderland side focused far more on the upcoming play-offs, and Wimbledon playing Bradford, who had already guaranteed themselves the League One wooden spoon.

It all started so well. Lloyd Jones and Freddie Ladapo put the home side two up in half an hour, but in the space of a minute, the Iron pulled one back and Southend went ahead – the latter putting Argyle back in the relegation places. Then after the break came one of the most infamous goals ever seen at Home Park. Glovesman Matt Macey, having picked up an injury, rolled the ball out for a throw in – but before it got there, United’s Josh Morris intercepted, looked up, and lobbed the ball over Macey and into the unguarded net. Pandemonium ensued. Surely they would allow Argyle to walk the ball through from kick-off to cancel it out. They did not.

Somehow undeterred, the home side rallied, and Graham Carey smashed past Jak Alnwick to restore the lead. That didn’t take them out of the bottom four, but a Sunderland equaliser soon after, did. For twelve glorious minutes, the Green Army roared; it looked like their team had survived. But disaster struck just moments from injury time, as Southend netted a winner. With Wimbledon’s game still goalless, the Pilgrims now needed a Sunderland equaliser, a Bradford winner, or the unlikely scenario of three more Argyle strikes to overhaul the Dons on goals scored. None happened.

The full-time whistle and the filtering through of other results confirmed their fate – relegation back to the fourth tier just two years after escaping from it.

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