Cole's saves ensure Plymouth Argyle cling on to three vital points and clamber out of drop zone
The tension was palpable as Plymouth Argyle clung on to their slender 2-1 lead as full-time approached at Home Park on Saturday.
Manager John Sheridan had called this a ‘must-win’ match in the Pilgrims’ fight for Football League survival. The stakes were high for Argyle and everyone inside the stadium knew it.
Had Fleetwood grabbed a late equaliser, after trailing 2-0 at half-time, the consequences could have been disastrous for Argyle. They would have returned to the bottom of npower League Two for starters, and their morale would have been badly damaged.
It was crucial to their chances of staying up this season that they held on despite all Fleetwood could throw at them. The visitors had one last chance to draw level, deep into stoppage time at the end of the match.
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Argyle’s on-loan Bristol City midfielder Joe Bryan conceded a needless free-kick which allowed the Lancashire side the opportunity to pile into the penalty area. Visiting goalkeeper Scott Davies went up, the free-kick was launched forward and Argyle could not clear it. Instead, it dropped to Fleetwood striker Jon Parkin.
He had scored a hat-trick in Town’s previous game, a 3-0 win at Accrington Stanley last Tuesday. The angle he had to shoot from was tight, but this was a striker with 12 goals in 17 games for the self-styled ‘Cod Army’ this season.
There was a collective intake of breath around Home Park as Parkin set his sights on goal. Then, in a blur, he made a good connection on the ball but sent it wide of the near post. Argyle could celebrate a vital victory only moments later.
Talk about tense – and the Pilgrims still have another eight games to go.
Argyle moved out of the relegation zone and up to 21st position after beating Fleetwood, and putting a dent in the Lancashire club’s play-offs push. Yet there is still a lot of hard work ahead for the Pilgrims in their battle to escape relegation.
The bottom five clubs are all on 40 points, with goal difference deciding which position they are in. It could go all the way to the last day of the season on April 27, when Argyle will visit Rochdale.
The win over Fleetwood followed a goalless draw with Bradford City at Home Park last Tuesday. Sheridan had set a minimum target of four points from the two matches, and that is what they achieved. Now they have back-to-back away games against Southend United and Chesterfield this week, and at least one win would be very welcome in their current situation.
Argyle took the lead at the weekend from the spot in the 25th minute with a typically emphatic penalty from Paul Wotton. It was awarded when skipper Conor Hourihane was fouled by Fleetwood left-back Alan Goodall.
Hourihane was trying to get on the end of a cross from Andres Gurrieri when he was shoved out of the way. After a debate about who was going to take the spot kick, Wotton stepped up and hammered the ball into the net.
Buoyed by that goal, Argyle went in search of a second one. Gurrieri went close after being set up by Jason Banton, and Hourihane blazed wide.
Banton then put the Pilgrims 2-0 up in the 39th minute with a goal all of his own making. The Crystal Palace loan signing received the ball from a throw-in taken by right-back Maxime Blanchard.
Banton had his back to goal and, initially lost possession to Fleetwood midfielder Paul McKenna. However, Banton showed good determination win to muscle McKenna out of the way. He then strode forward for a couple of paces before shooting low into the bottom right corner of the net from 20 yards.
Fleetwood would have reduced the deficit on the stroke of half-time had it not been for the brilliance of Argyle goalkeeper Jake Cole.
Ryan Crowther picked out Junior Brown with a pin-point cross and he tried to chest the ball into the net from close range. The ball was diverted to the left of Cole and looked certain to end up in the net.
Cole had other ideas as he stretched out his left leg and diverted the ball up and over the bar for a corner. It was, quite simply, one of the best saves I have ever seen an Argyle goalkeeper make.
Had Fleetwood scored then, they would have gone into the interval with a spring in their step. As it was, the visitors went on to dominate the second half and create a series of chances.
Argyle were forced back and could not come up with much in response, other than solid, sometimes desperate, defending. The ‘Green Army’ played their part by trying to lift the team with their vocal support. It created one of the best atmospheres at Home Park this season, on what was the club’s annual Armed Services Day.
Fleetwood should have scored in the 64th minute, but Jamie McGuire headed wide from almost point-blank range. The goal they had been threatening finally came in the 75th minute and set up a nerve-shredding finale.
McGuire headed the ball forward and it skimmed off the top of the head of Argyle centre-back Guy Branston, who was being challenged by Parkin. Striker David Ball darted in behind Blanchard and, from an acute angle, fired a shot across Cole and into the opposite top corner of the net.
There was still plenty of time for Fleetwood to equalise, and it took a fine save from Cole, high to his right, to deny substitute Barry Nicholson.
Argyle’s cause was aided when McKenna was sent off for a second bookable offence in the 85th minute. He mistimed a challenge on substitute Paris Cowan-Hall, close to the touchline, and left referee Trevor Kettle with no option but to produce a red card.
Still Fleetwood pressed forward, with Gareth Evans and Shaun Beeley both firing wide of the target, before Parkin had his last-gasp chance.