Almanac FA Cup: Pilgrims’ Progress – to the Replay

Pilgrims’ Progress


Tavistock, my little home town in South West England, doesn’t boast a long list of sporting heroes apart from my Uncle Bill and young Frankie Drake.


Uncle Bill, a big fella, once hit a six from The Ring, the local cricket pitch up high on the edge of Dartmoor, which cleared the gorse bushes and the Dartmoor ponies, ran all the way up Down Road and killed a cat in the square.


It’s better known that Frances Drake became one of England’s finest bowlers and saw off the Spanish Armada XI in an early Test series in 1588. Spanish cricket has never recovered.


Sir Francis, as he became, had to travel the 15 miles to Plymouth to find the sea and his great sporting adventures. So did young men of my vintage. If we wanted to see professional sport, we took the train to watch the Pilgrims, Plymouth Argyle.


It was always a fine day out: a visit to the second-hand book shop – where I found my first topless picture of the richly-endowed starlet, Diana Dors –  an Ivor Dewdney’s pastie, the real McCoy of Cornish pastry-making, and the walk to Home Park.


It wasn’t Highbury, Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford but it was the only place an impecunious teenager could see professional footballers live. Mostly it was Third Division South stuff in those days though we see-sawed regularly between that and Division Two – too strong for one, not good enough for the other.


Occasionally, we’d draw a First Division (Premier League to you, young fella!) side in a cup-tie. I saw the longtime England captain, Billy Wright with the then, all-conquering Wolves, and the massive John Charles with Cardiff. I still remember Charles easing his jockstrap before the match and a bloke shouting, ‘Oh, look, he’s taking the weight of ‘em!’ I have no idea what he meant but we laughed like he was Billy Connolly.


Mostly our diet was Millwall, Southampton, Torquay or Newport County but it was our team and our local heroes. Names little-known to the wider world, like bearded man-mountain Jack ‘Jumbo’ Chisholm, ‘diving’ champion Jimmy Gauld and the immaculate Johnny Williams were my boyhood idols.


I left England long ago but Plymouth Argyle never left my heart. I thought it had when I discovered Aussie Rules and Alex Jesaulenko and Darrell Baldock who controlled a footy like a soccer ball, but it’s re-surfaced in recent years.


I’ve picked up where I left off through the A-League and the flickering soccer flame now burns brightly again.


In May last year, I took a quick trip ‘back `ome.’ Argyle were in a League Two promotion play-off at Wembley and Australia were taking on England at Sunderland the same weekend.


I mentioned on social media that it was the chance of a lifetime – the `Gyle at Wembley indeed – and before you could say Jonathon Aspropotamitis, a nephew had booked the tickets and was daring me not to come. Next minute, I’m sitting at Bandar Seri Begawan airport for far too long courtesy of a cheap Royal Brunei flight to Heathrow.


The adventure continued: a four-hour train trip from London to Sunderland (who knew England was so big?), a conversation with a Geordie cabbie which I assumed was in English but of which I understood hardly a word and a brave showing at the Stadium of Light when England was forced to bring on Wayne Rooney to break the deadlock.


The following Monday, my brother and I, dressed in green and black, were walking Wembley Way, the broad avenue to the mighty Stadium, field of all our boyhood dreams. Throughout the match, the Green Army, ‘janners’, Westcountrymen from Devon and Cornwall, chanted their mournful ‘Ar-gy-oh, Ar-gy-oh’ relentlessly but to no avail.


Wimbledon beat us two nil, a goal to Lyle Taylor and a penalty to the fattest little footballer I’ve ever seen, Adebayo Akinfenwa. I’ll bet there are a few janners who’d want to give him ‘Adebayo Fackin’fenwa’ if they met him down the pub!


So no joy, then, over a long but immensely enjoyable, weekend.


Nine months later, Plymouth, doing well again in League Two, draw Liverpool in the third round of the FA Cup – the might Reds at Anfield.


It’s on Foxtel in the early hours but my son, who provides me with pay TV accessibility at his home, is interstate. Through some mystical, electronic wizardry far beyond my ken, he, from a distance, records the match for me to watch – as long as I feed the cat en passant. Fair deal.


My match expectations are low; a draw would be a win, if you know what I mean, and the first fifteen minutes were a blur of Liverpool attacks and desperate clearances. We parked the biggest double-decker we could find down back and played 4-5-1.


Time went on. Forty minutes in – no goals. If we could hang on till half-time, that would be something.


And we did! In the second half, we seemed to gain a little in confidence. We breached the halfway line and got a free kick on target. It was never going in but – do you hear what I say? – we got a shot on target!


‘Ar-gy-oh, Ar-gy-oh’ the 9000 travelling Green Army wailed endlessly as the minutes ticked down.


Liverpool fans seemed dumbstruck – this wasn’t how it was meant to be. Another Argyle attack – that’s two, now – but the cross cum shot, dribbles harmlessly wide.


75 minutes, 80, 85 – no goals. Deflections off desperate defensive feet, headers over the bar to safety, big hoofs upfield to clear momentarily and brave saves from goalie captain, Luke McCormick.


Someone said recently that Aussie Rules is all about excitement and soccer about tension. This was suspension with bells on – I could feel it right to the pit of my stomach.


90 minutes up. Time, gentlemen, please! What? Six minutes of extra time? Six bleedin’ minutes – long enough for Sturridge, Lallana and Firmino, arriving late to reinforce the youngest team Liverpool ever put on the park, to conjure a win.


Hang on, my bewdies, hang on! Stop it, deflect it, boot it up the back of the stand – it ain’t pretty but, by God, it’s working.


96.04 minutes on the clock – but who’s counting?


The whistle! It’s a nil all draw and Plymouth Argyle stand proud; outplayed but unbeaten and unbowed. Well done, my fourth tier champions, you’ve done us proud and, yes, there may have been a tear in my eye when I relaxed on the couch for the first time in 96.04 minutes.


There’ll be a replay on January 18th at Home Park. Will I be badgering the Royal Brunei staff at Bandar A Whatsit airport again before looking out for buxom Diana and chomping on my favourite pastie in the old Plymouth pre-match ritual? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility.



The Doggies Almanac 2016 is out now. Read more.

WBA cover jpeg version


  1. goodonya Merv. one of my fave UK memories is a trip to the NE to see Sunderland 2 Everton 2. Friendliest people on the planet, the Maccems.

    I have a soft spot for Plymouth. They should have beaten us in the Cup in 89, were robbed and then the 4-0 win in the replay at Goodison set us up for the run to Wembley. We were unlucky to lose there, but lucky to be there in the first place. The romance of the Cup!

    (having just thrown away a lead to the cellar enquiring Leicester, at home, the Cup can go and…)

  2. Brilliant. You can take the boy out of Plymouth, but you can’t take Plymouth out of the boy.

  3. Love it, merv.
    The global village meets the real village meets the global village.
    ‘Ar-gy-oh, Ar-gy-oh’

  4. Super piece. From the opening all the way to the promise of the replay.

  5. That’s a beauty Merv. What a picture you painted!

  6. Pure Gold BlueBoy. You painted the picture perfectly of following a lower tier team in days gone by. An ‘a’ grade pastie, diana dors and an afternoon at the football; yep, pretty much the trifecta.

    As a Red, i was watching the match expecting the goal to come eventually but full marks to the boys in green ( not near enough green worn in world sport), they played the game of their lives. Looking forward to seeing the Argyle ground and they are in with a real chance.

    I reckon you should book the ticket….

  7. Great stuff Merv. Got a picture from a friend at the game and saw the image of The Beatles statue in town clad in the PA scarves but you painted a terrific picture. I’m just happy my side, Cheltenham Town, got a win over the Leicester City 21s this morning – although the Checkatrade Trophy doesn’t quite have the same prestige! Good luck for the replay.

  8. I think you need to speak to JC to arrange a private jet and get you butt over here, ? I promise I won’t buy you any more cheap t-shirts!! Great read, love it and love you xxxxx

  9. Simon Hallett says

    Loved this piece, Merv. I first sat in the Demport End in 1966, and last year became a shareholder and director of Argyle. Should you ever make it to a game again, get in touch with me.

    Simon Hallett

  10. G’day Simon, I think Argyle are becoming the side of the Almanac community. All the best to you and the club. We’ll keep an eye on your fortunes. We also have a writer (John Green) who is a Preston North End fan as he was living in Preston, a suburb in northern Melbourne in the 1970s, when he began to take a closer interest in soccer. He has travelled to watch The Lillywhites. Hopefully Merv will keep us up to date with Argyle. If you are ever in Australia, yell out. We’ll get you along to an Almanac lunch. Regards JTH

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