by James Bennett
I actually got to see some live football this weekend – for the first time since Torquay United’s pre-season friendly against Stoke, I made the long(-ish) trek from South Wales to Plainmoor to see the first of six Devon derbies that will be taking place during this Football League season.
There is an interesting context to this season, as it is the first since 2001-02 that all three Devon Football League clubs are in the same division. All three clubs have had their share of success and failure since then. That season, Plymouth Argyle won Division Three (as it was then known) with a record-equalling 102 points. This was the start of a very successful period for the club, as they eventually reached the second tier before the financial collapse that led to them being relegated all the way back to the fourth tier for last season.
Torquay followed Argyle out of the division with promotion in 2003-04, with a helping hand from a few former Plymouth players. However, they were immediately relegated back to League Two, after which followed two seasons of struggle which included the disastrous takeover of the club by Chris Roberts, and culminated in relegation to the Conference in 2007. The current owners, a consortium of wealthy fans and local businessmen, took over shortly after, leading the Gulls to promotion back into the FL in 2009. Torquay have reached the play-offs in four out of the five seasons the consortium has owned the club, including reaching the play-off final at Old Trafford in 2011.
Last season, Torquay did the double over Plymouth for the first time in over 40 years and fans were hopeful that they could make it three league wins in a row over the Pilgrims on Saturday. But this Argyle side was more experienced and more resolute than the one they defeated last year. The match proved to be a scrappy affair, not helped by a particularly pedantic Roger East officiating the match. Torquay lacked the creativity to find a way through the green wall, while at the other end Warren Feeney couldn’t find a way of beating orange-clad keeper Michael Poke.
Torquay will be disappointed not to beat a side that they were capable of beating. They remain unbeaten but are already falling behind the leading group that Martin Ling wants to be amongst. Argyle, meanwhile, will take confidence from this result as they bid to establish themselves as a mid-table side this season.
Elsewhere, top faced bottom at Underhill as Gillingham dispatched relegation favourites Barnet 3-1, with yet more goals from Danny Kedwell and veteran Deon Burton. The Gills were expected to do well under Martin Allen, but even so, this is a particularly impressive start for them, not only taking 13 points from a possible 15 but also because they have drawn clear of many of their predicted promotion rivals. Exeter, though, remain in touching distance, keeping up their good form with an impressive 4-2 win at fancied Oxford United.
But the sensational result of the day came at Vale Park where Port Vale found themselves 4-0 up within half an hour against Rotherham. Steve Evans’ side managed to retrieve the situation somewhat over the next half an hour of play by scoring 2, but a further 2 from Tom Pope, who scored 4 in total, secured a 6-2 win for the Burslem side, putting them 3rd on 10 points, and leaving one of the title favourites with another poor result away from home. Alongside Vale on the same total are Fleetwood, who defeated local rivals Morecambe 4-0 at the Globe Arena, and Accrington Stanley, who were held at home by Bradford.
Meanwhile, Bristol Rovers’ winless start continued after they drew 2-2 at home to Aldershot. It could have been worse, though, but for a 90th minute equaliser from young German winger Fabian Broghammer, who I’m sure knows all about schadenfreude. The Pirates are now 23rd, above only Barnet and on the same points as Dagenham & Redbridge, who were beaten 3-1 by Southend.
My reaction to hearing that Crawley and Portsmouth were battling it out on the television today was ‘a plague on both their houses’. On the one hand, you have a club that has financially doped its way from non-league obscurity to League One without ever really making it clear where the money was coming from, formerly managed by the foremost villain of the lower leagues. On the other, you have a team at the opposite end of the financial spectrum that is still in administration and yet can afford to outbid League One heavyweights for players like Lee Williamson and Izale McLeod. Nonetheless, a 3-0 win for Pompey with Crawley having Hope Akpan and Josh Simpson sent off is a relatively satisfactory conclusion. (Hey, I didn’t say I was going to be neutral, did I?)
In the other Sunday game, Stevenage moved up to 3rd by winning at a deserted Ricoh Arena, where only 9,000 turned up to watch Coventry slide further down the table – still no wins for Cov, and I can’t say I’m surprised. Fellow strugglers Leyton Orient did get a win this time, though, as they beat Swindon 1-0 at the County Ground, a first home defeat for the Robins for just over a year but one that made it 3 defeats in a week after losing to Oxford in the Football League Trophy midweek.
At the top, it’s Keith Curle’s Notts County that now head the table after a 3-2 win over Shrewsbury, the late winner coming from the ever-popular Lee Hughes. In contrast, previous table-toppers Tranmere and Yeovil stuttered against local rivals, as Rovers were held at Crewe and Yeovil lost at home at Bournemouth.
Bournemouth’s win was their first of the season, and it came at an opportune moment, with newly-appointed ‘advisor’ Harry Redknapp watching on from the stands as his former player at Portsmouth, Richard Hughes, scored the only goal of the game. Redknapp’s position is strictly voluntary at this stage, but it is indeed convenient that the former Bournemouth manager should turn up after their winless start to a season which has seen significant investment in the playing squad, courtesy of the club’s Russian backer Maxim Demin. For now, though, the pressure on Paul Groves has eased – and at least this time it’s Redknapp and the not previous ‘advisor’, Maxim Demin’s wife.