This was another desperately, worryingly poor display away from home.
Few Victorian novels fail to include a blushing heroine, good and pure at heart, yet lacking in any experience of the cruel vicissitudes of life and consequently liable to exploited by sinister squires and silver-tongued suitors. She is victim; she cannot plan life on her own terms, but is instead subject to the whims of others. At Home Park, as far too often on our travels this season, we were that tragic maiden. Plymouth ran the game, while we scurried around naively imagining that it might all turn out for the best in the end. Would it? Ask John Eyre, ask Jane Eyre.
Compromising their virtue while wearing the amber-and-black chemise en broderie anglaise were:
So Goodison played the role as organiser of a five-man defence, with the new man Wicks, a powerfully-built young man, slotting it to his left. None of the back five played well, excepting perhaps the tenacious Justin Whittle, whose own foul count was, however, perilously high. Throw in the information that all three midfielders were poor too and the surprise is not that we lost away to the League leaders but only that the reverse wasn't heavier.
Young Wicks came close to setting an unwanted record by conceding a penalty with his first touch, as Holt was left gaping by an attack down the Argyle right and the cross struck Wicks alarmingly close to his arm. The referee looked closely but concluded the ball had in fact bounced off our man's chest. Plymouth's passing was slick from the off, but City quickly countered and pushed play into the home half for the first few minutes, with both Alexander and Dudfield giving every impression of refreshing zest and readiness to combine with the midfield, in particular, the advanced Whitmore.
It was delusion. Plymouth were on top by the tenth minute and spent the remainder of the first half giving us a severe chasing. Petty and Johnsson clumsily tumbled into each other as they tried to defend a cross at the back post, and the ball broke free to not one but two Plyms, deep inside our box. Both strikers seemed surprised at the ease of the opportunity and, as they dithered, we managed to save our skin at the expense of a corner. In fact, corner followed corner, and, with Plymouth alternating cannily between short corners which disrupted our defensive patterns and wicked fast delivery into the six-yard box, it was close-to-inevitable that this would be the source of the opening goal. Simple stuff, really. Near post flick-on; back-post header across the face of the goal; nodded in from four yards out by Stonebridge. Count 'em - one, two, three Argyle headers won easily deep inside our six-yard box. And shortly afterwards a stramash on our goal-line left us horribly close to conceding again, until the referee halted the scrum.
Our defending was ordinary, undermined by blatant mutual irritation transmitted between the Muss and Goodison. I think they will not be inviting each other's families round for a game of Ludo or some poetry-reading in the near future, despite new PFA guidelines on "How to be a Role Model". But Plymouth were good. Their passing was fluent and confident and their movement off the ball was excellent. They were another piece of evidence that the way to succeed in this Division is not through brutality and ugly football, but through playing properly. Hull City are similarly intentioned. But only at home. In Martin Phillips Plymouth had an eager dribbler; Hodges, Wotton and Stonebridge all impressed with their mobility. In comparison we looked static and unimaginative. Plymouth are smart too. They controlled possession patiently, fully aware that this would preclude our (notional) wing-backs daring to go forward to assist our attack. The result was, as Plymouth envisaged, that we had five defenders rooted deep inside our half for the whole of the first 45 and, as an attacking force, the Tiger was bereft. No one on our side had the wit to change things. Plymouth held the initiative. We let them polish it, passively, depressingly.
And half-time came and went without our manager making a change, except only that Petty and Holt had plainly been instructed to station themselves further up the pitch, come what may. It was a plan that, I suppose, enjoyed modest success, in the sense that, after the 1-0 thrashing we had suffered in the opening 45, there was rough parity between the teams during the second period. But it was drab football, and we didn't truly improve - Plymouth simply deteriorated. And the carelessness of our play was grotesquely captured by one moment early in the second half when, in the space of five seconds, Johnsson lost the ball, Whitmore offered no challenge and Petty was left floundering by the dribbler. It was good fortune that we escaped with the damage of only a corner. For short spells we invaded Argyle territory, but a defence organised by the excellent Coughlan and backed by sturdy goalkeeper Larrieu looked thoroughly competent to me. Alexander acquired yet another booking - an unfair one, this, as his opponent fell as if taken at the shin with a chainsaw, when I was close enough to the incident to feel certain that even if Alexander touched him at all, it was a graze at most. But the referee was - like most of them aside from the estimable Steve Baines - wholly ignorant of what is real and what is fiction on a football field.
Plymouth had lost their sheen and, failing to re-capture their first half fluency, damaged us only periodically. But a ball stroked to the far post was tucked back into the centre to a free man in green and, although his shot was scuffed, vast credit is nevertheless due to the Muss for sprinting across his goal to block the effort. Alert professionalism from a fine keeper. But, up the field, things needed changing. Any or all of the midfield could legitimately have been removed. Whitmore was ineffective and Johnsson is a pale shadow of the forceful runner we enjoyed in the Autumn. But it was Greaves, far adrift from match-fitness, who made way for the industrious Sneekes (who, the Saturday Guardian informs us, has named his new child Jamiroqui, a brother? sister? for Ashley, Giorgio and Givenchy). Shortly afterwards Holt and Johnsson were swapped for Beresford and Williams and we reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, with Wicks taking on the job of left-back. Our share of possession increased further, but there remained no real expectation that we could provide a flash of imagination in the final third of the pitch. Beresford's sole contribution was to pick up the ball forty yards out and run very fast down the wing and out over the dead-ball line, having earlier donated the ball to a grateful defender, while Williams made no contribution whatsoever. Off the top of my head, I don't recall one useful thing he has done this season in the attacking third of the pitch.
To Dudfield fell our only half-chance, as he grabbed a right-footed shooting opportunity from a narrow angle. Larrieu, the Argyle keeper, parried the shot and the loose ball was swiftly cleared by attentive defenders. Plymouth had not played well in the second half, but they deserved their win and their fans wandered off into the Devon twilight contemplating a Championship to go with the remarkably rapid transformation of Home Park, which has lost its grand old windy away terrace and now has a three-sided (albeit incomplete) all-seater stand to complement the elderly Main Stand.
And Hull City? Where is it that we are going, I wonder?
The shattering defeat at Kidderminster had me, and, I know, other City supporters realising for the first time that it is actually possible that we will find ourselves trudging round this accursed Division for yet another season come next August. It is a ghastly vision, but if our manager persists in sending out a team in such a negative frame of mind when we play away from home, it may well happen. Kidderminster was especially wretched because Mr Little wholly altered our formation and style of playing in order to counter the perceived threat of opponents who were and are plainly inferior to us. But it seems to me that in pretty much every away League game since the romp at Exeter in the August sunshine we have been over-cautious, and it is very hard for me now to avoid the conclusion that this is the direct result of "play it safe" instructions meted out anxiously in the dressing room at ten to three. It is daft, because our strengths are as a fast-paced attacking side, as we have frequently demonstrated at the Ark this season. We should be playing to those strengths - away as at home.
There is, in addition, an alarming lack of spirit and leadership in the side. I don't mean the players don't try. This is the vapid terrace loudmouth insult, and it is wholly unjustified. "Get stuck in, Whitmore, make some tackles, earn your wages" howled one lank-haired lamebrain near me yesterday (again .. and again .. again ..). I notice he didn't shout "Feint left and then go right, Greavsie, caress the ball into space with the outside of your boot, earn your wages" or "Kill an awkward bouncing ball instantaneously on your instep, Mussy, and then glide round three opponents as if they weren't there, earn your wages". I don't want Tappa wasting his breath tackling. It's not his job. Players should play to their strengths, though, regrettably, the Whitmore footballing master class was cancelled yesterday. Everybody in our team tried hard yesterday, in their own way. But we sorely lack a man who will not accept defeat, who will, in the face of adversity, seek to seize the initiative, who will unsettle opponents and lift the spirits of his own team-mates by feats of daring and loud in-your-face encouragement. A Kenny Burns, a John O'Hare, a Dave Mackay - even, more Tiger-pertinently, a Garreth Roberts. Only the benched Mohan of the current squad has even a pinch of this anxiety to look to the whole team, not just his own game, and the result is that when a game is going badly this City team too often droops. So, Mr Little. Penny dreadful or Charlotte Bronte?
Report by: Steve Weatherill