The visit of Stoke City to Home Park was pregnant with possibility. At the Pilgrims’ helm was Tony Pulis, a man sacked by the visitors in the summer for his alleged disinclination to field foreign players. Pulis insisted he harboured no animosity towards his former club, but the Argyle faithful eagerly embraced the spice underlying a fixture that their team – consisting of a number of overseas players – had to win to avoid finding themselves anchoring the bottom of the Championship. For good measure, Pulis’ son Anthony was in the Potters’ squad. With Stoke having shipped six goals in their preceding two games, the scene was set for a cracking match.
In the end, though, confusion reigned at Home Park. Like the subtle, insidious fogs that descend on Plymouth Sound, it drifted in and permeated first the Plymouth players, then the Argyle fans, before finally settling on the large and lugubrious figure of Johan Boskamp, the Stoke City manager.
The opening exchanges set the tone for Argyle’s first-half performance. Mistakes were made by Icelander and former Potter Bjarni Gudjonsson on the right side of midfield, and hesitancy seemed to influence every touch by the former QPR and Fulham full-back Rufus Brevett on the opposite side of the pitch. A scrappy, formless opening ten minutes saw little of note but gradually the visitors took control. The industrious Paul Gallagher forced a good save from Frenchman Romain Larrieu, and minutes later, with the ball having been given away again by Argyle, was unlucky when a shot from distance cannoned off Larrieu’s left-hand post.
Argyle were unable to find any rhythm, still less each other. Wide on the Stoke left, Martin Kolar was continually unmarked, but inexplicably ignored. When he was finally gifted the ball following a goalmouth skirmish on the half hour, his amazement resulted in a scuffed left-foot shot wide. Time and again no one in the Argyle side seemed to want to take responsibility, either to shoot, pass or defend. What should have been a team fired up by the visit of their manager’s former club – albeit without his son in its line-up – was a nervous and motley crew.
The fog of confusion transferred itself to Argyle’s supporters at half-time. None could understand their side’s lacklustre effort, and few held out hope for anything other than a draw – if they were lucky. Their worst fears were realised almost immediately after the restart, when Gallagher played in Luke Chadwick, who rounded Larrieu and slotted home. But Argyle’s response was instant. Northern Ireland international Tony Capaldi beat two players to see his chipped cross hit Darel Russell and bobble across the goal-line.
Minutes later another Icelander, Stoke’s Hannes Sigurdsson, crashed a left-foot drive against the post, but Argyle – inspired by Capaldi – worked hard and found their touch. Hungarian international Akos Buzsaky, brought on at half-time for Gudjonsson, grabbed the winner with just over ten minutes remaining with a powerful left-foot drive.
“It takes as much character to pass the ball as it does to win it,” said Pulis afterwards. “In the first-half our players looked unsure, but we deserved the win thanks to hard work and confidence in the second half.” Brevett echoed his manager’s view: “We were nervous at the beginning, but the way we played in the second-half shows we’ve got the ability to do well.” But for Boskamp, there was only bewilderment. “I just don’t understand it,” said the Dutchman. “For 55 minutes we played well, then we gave the game away. I can’t explain it. We were the better team but it was as if we were playing for Christmas.”