Cornwall Sports Media’s own Plymouth Argyle supporter Colin Bradbury puts a Cornish fan’s perspective on the Pilgrims’ FA Cup trip to Chelsea.
It’s 3.30am, and the park & ride at Home Park is starting to fill up with 800 bleary-eyed Plymouth Argyle supporters arriving to board the fleet of 16 coaches heading to Chelsea for the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Five hours later we’re driving past the interior design shops, bijou restaurants and other temples of mammon in the wealthy west London enclave: truly we are Pilgrims in a heathen land.
The pubs of Earls Court have already been taken over by the Green Army, but we head to a greasy spoon caff on the Kings Road to meet up with an old friend who, for all his virtues, carries the burden of being a Chelsea fan. Outside, three 80-something geezers straight from a documentary about the Kray twins (“Yeah, they shot a few blokes, but Ronnie and Reggie loved their mum…”) are reminiscing about days gone by, when going to Stamford Bridge was for the common man.
My mate reminds me how much things have changed when he tells me about the son of a friend who works on match days in the executive boxes. Back when Roman Abramovich used to attend games, the billionaire owner’s presence was signalled by the two huge bodyguards outside his suite, wearing earpieces and accompanied by a par of attack dogs. Staff members were instructed not to make eye contact, let alone speak, to the Russian plutocrat. We’re not in Plymouth any more, Toto.
At the ground, we negotiate the sniffer dogs and phalanxes of stewards and are ushered though the concrete tunnel and up the steps onto the Shed End concourse. 45 minutes before kick-off, the away fans are already there in force, singing and chanting. If football were just a numbers game, there’d be no point in their team even turning up. Facing a Chelsea starting eleven valued at £420 million, roughly 100x the estimated value of the entire Argyle squad, surely it’s just a formality for the expensively assembled team of European stars.
Except, thankfully, football is a play without a script. After a nervous start, at 12.38pm the impossible happens. Macaulay Gillesphey rises to glance Jordan Houghton’s free kick into the corner of the Chelsea net, and, in the Shed End, all hell breaks loose. My son, recently turned 18 and so now officially a man, is a delirious child again, bouncing up and down, pumping his arms and screaming at the top of his voice. If you’re a parent, I don’t need to tell you what moments like this mean. That, my friend, is what football can do.
Then, it’s Alamo time as Argyle go on the defensive. Wave after wave of Chelsea attacks are repulsed by the heroic trio of Wilson, Scarr and Gillesphey, with Chelsea’s £90m man Lukaku running repeatedly into an impenetrable green and while wall. Between the posts, the confidence of the young Pilgrim’s ‘keeper, Michael Cooper has grown with every minute, while captain Joe Edwards has Callum Hudson-Odoi in his pocket.
Four minutes before half time, perhaps inevitably, a Chelsea attack produces the equaliser, and most of the second half follows the same pattern. Then, miraculously, the referee’s whistle signals the end of the 90 minutes, and the team from League One has taken the Champions of Europe to extra time. The goal that puts Chelsea into the lead comes, agonisingly, in time added on at the end of the first period, but that doesn’t dishearten an Argyle team looking for an equaliser in the final 15.
The chance comes with two minutes to go. Ryan Hardie is brought down in the penalty area, but his spot-kick is saved and for Argyle, it’s all over. The striker is inconsolable, But then, after the final whistle, 6,000 Argyle supporters are singing ‘There’s only one Ryan Hardie’, and later his two Twitter posts gather more than 3,000 likes, and hundreds of positive replies. If the true measure of a person, or a club and its fans, is how they respond to defeat, then Plymouth Argyle pass with flying colours.
So, 24 hours later, with time to reflect, how does it feel? Disappointment, inevitably but, far outweighing that, the immense pride that we came so close. The players and fans exemplified the virtues of pride, passion and dignity. And while Argyle might be a team from across the Tamar, their engagement with Cornwall, their commitment to raising the standard of football in the Duchy and giving local talent a pathway to the upper levels of the professional game should make that accident of geography completely irrelevant.
Because at the end of the game yesterday, as the Argyle players and management came to the Shed End to applaud the supporters, I looked at the 34,000 Chelsea fans, who had been comprehensively out-sung for 120 minutes, and felt sorry for them. Sorry that they will never get to experience the feeling of being amongst 6,000 fellow Pilgrims who came, saw and so nearly conquered.