Smiles back at Home Park as Plymouth Argyle turn on the style
THERE was more compelling evidence on Saturday that the green shoots of recovery at Argyle are starting to take hold.
The Pilgrims played their best football of the season as they beat Rochdale 3-1 at Home Park, with on-loan striker Guy Madjo twice scoring from the penalty spot.
A fortnight earlier, Argyle had produced a dismal performance when they lost 2-1 to visiting AFC Wimbledon.
That led to fears the Pilgrims could be in for yet another season of struggle but, two weeks later, it looks more likely to have been a blip than the start of a downward spiral.
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Since then, Argyle have won three consecutive matches, starting with a 2-1 success against Aldershot Town in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy at Home Park.
They followed that up with a 4-1 League Two triumph at bottom-of-the-table Barnet before beating Rochdale.
For the first time since August 2010 the Pilgrims have a positive goal difference.
They had also not had back-to-back league wins since Easter 2011, shortly before their relegation from League One was sealed.
Argyle have taken their goal tally to 19 in 13 league games this season.
Contrast that with last term when it took them until the 20th match, a 1-1 draw at Bradford City on December 10, to reach that total.
The Pilgrims are on 17 points after their defeat of Rochdale, in which Argentine playmaker Andres Gurrieri excelled.
They did not accumulate that many points in 2011/12 until they won 3-2 at Bristol Rovers on Boxing Day.
That is the scale of Argyle's improvement, admittedly compared to a disastrous start to last term.
We will have a better idea of the extent of the Pilgrims' progress after their consecutive away games against Cheltenham Town and Rotherham United this week.
They are two teams likely to be challenging for promotion come the end of the campaign.
It is still too early to get carried away by Argyle's recent results – four wins and the same number of draws in their last 10 league games.
That said, genuine confidence must now be building within the Pilgrims' changing room.
The players have tried to implement the more pleasing-to-the-eye style of passing football wanted by manager Carl Fletcher, and they are starting to get their rewards.
Last season it was all about escaping relegation. Now the emphasis is on style, as well as winning.
Few, if any, of the fans at Home Park on Saturday could have complained about the entertainment value of the match.
I cannot recall a better first half performance from Argyle for a long (and I mean, long) time.
Rochdale arrived at Home Park with four successive away league wins behind them, including a victory at table-topping Gillingham.
But they were simply outplayed from the kick-off, with the Pilgrims racing into a 2-0 lead.
The home side could have, and probably should have, been further in front by half-time, but there was an improvement from Rochdale after the break.
After Argyle 'keeper Jake Cole had saved a penalty, Rochdale's pressure finally paid off in the 76th minute when striker Dele Adebola headed home.
But the Pilgrims shrugged off that setback and held onto their lead before adding to it in stoppage time with Madjo's second spot kick.
Gurrieri was inspired at times, particularly in the first half, as he played behind Madjo in a 4-4-1-1 formation.
His trickery on the ball and awareness of those around him seems to be best suited to a central role, rather than out wide.
Gurrieri was involved in the build-up to Argyle's first goal, which came in only the fourth minute.
He spotted on-loan left-back Scott Griffiths breaking forward and picked him out with a good pass.
Griffiths drove the ball low into the penalty area and off-balance Rochdale centre-back Ryan Edwards was penalised for handball by referee Gary Sutton.
With Rhys Griffiths ruled out by a groin injury, the spot kick duties were assumed by Madjo and he confidently dispatched the ball into the net.
Argyle had taken a 2-0 lead against Barnet inside 12 minutes at Underhill. This time, they needed less than seven minutes to emulate that feat as Gurrieri headed home from close range.
The move that led to the goal was a fluent one, with several players involved along the way.
It ended with Alex MacDonald clipping the ball into the penalty area and Gurrieri deftly guided it into the bottom right corner of the net.
The Green Army roared their approval as Argyle continued to apply all the pressure.
Madjo had a good chance to put them 3-0 up in the 17th minute when he got on the end of an inviting cross from Paris Cowan-Hall.
However, Madjo's powerful header was pushed away for a corner by 'keeper Josh Lillis.
After that, MacDonald, Gurrieri and right-back Durrell Berry all went close for Argyle before half-time.
But there was a warning shortly before the break that Rochdale were not out of the contest.
Adebola soared above the Pilgrims defence to meet a free-kick from midfielder Andrew Tutte and his header brushed off the outside of the left post.
Rochdale then forced Argyle to defend for long spells in the second half, with Gurrieri seeing nowhere near as much of the ball as before.
The visitors from Lancashire were awarded a penalty in the 54th minute after centre-back Maxime Blanchard's challenge on Jason Kennedy was ruled illegal by Sutton.
It seemed a harsh decision and justice was perhaps served as Cole kept out the spot kick from Rochdale's top scorer Bobby Grant.
Time was starting to run out for the away side when Adebola headed home, only moments after flattening Argyle captain Darren Purse with a stray arm.
The referee did not spot the incident, however, and allowed play to continue.
That was soon followed by a disputed free-kick for Rochdale from which Adebola (cue pantomime villain style boos) scored.
The tension built as full-time approached, with Argyle pair Conor Hourihane and MacDonald both booked by Sutton for tackles.
Curtis Nelson was sent on as an 89th-minute substitute for Gurrieri as Fletcher tried to tighten up the defence.
Victory was secured, though, when substitute Joe Lennox scampered into the penalty area and Sutton ruled he was pushed over by Edwards.
Madjo took the spot kick and crashed the ball high into the net, to the right of Lillis, to finish off Rochdale once and for all.
The Green Army were in buoyant mood as they made their way out of Home Park.
There were smiles all round as 'Bringing on Back the Good Times' – the 1969 hit by The Love Affair – rang around the stadium over the PA system.