Plymouth Argyle manager Carl Fletcher got the response he wanted from his players as they came close to upsetting npower League Two leaders Gillingham on Saturday.
Fletcher had seen the Pilgrims beaten in all four of their previous matches, including an FA Cup first-round defeat to non-League outfit Dorchester Town. He insisted, though, that he had talented players at his disposal and called on them to show it against high-flying Gillingham.
The League Two pace-setters arrived at Home Park on Saturday as the firm favourites to beat the Pilgrims. They had the best away record in the division, with six wins and a draw from eight games on their travels. Argyle, meanwhile, were coming off a 2-1 home defeat to Burton Albion last Wednesday.
With the Pilgrims playing their third game in only seven days, it was no surprise that Fletcher shook up his side against Gillingham.
Darren Purse returned as captain after being absent for three matches with a toe injury. The 35-year-old centre-back had been struggling for form before his lay-off, but was much more like his usual commanding self on Saturday.
Curtis Nelson stayed in the side after his recent impressive displays, so it was Maxime Blanchard who made way for Purse. The Frenchman was an unused substitute.
There was also a change in goal, with Jake Cole being replaced by Rene Gilmartin. It was the 6ft 5in Irishman’s third appearance for the Pilgrims and his League debut.
Midfielder Conor Hourihane returned from a one-match suspension, while there were also recalls for winger Paris Cowan-Hall and striker Rhys Griffiths.
Andres Gurrieri and Joe Lennox dropped down to the substitutes’ bench, while Alex MacDonald was not picked on compassionate grounds after a family bereavement.
Hourihane was effective in the centre of midfield, linking up the play well at times, while Jamie Lowry had his best game yet for the Pilgrims alongside Hourihane.
Full-backs Durrell Berry and Onismor Bhasera provided a lot of energy, while 19-year-old midfielder Luke Young continues to develop his all-round game. He would have had a winning goal against Gillingham to celebrate had it not been for former Argyle centre-back Adam Barrett’s 89th-minute equaliser.
The Pilgrims were the first to pounce in the 33rd minute when Nelson, another 19-year-old prospect, put them into the lead. Warren Feeney had a header from Lowry’s corner blocked on the line, but the ball broke to Nelson and, from a tight angle, he shot into the net from inside the six-yard box.
Argyle’s advantage lasted only five minutes as poor marking allowed Ben Strevens to equalise. It came after Chris Whelpdale hit a weak shot as he ran away from goal.
No one had picked up Strevens and, when the ball fortuitously found him, he swivelled and shot low into the bottom left corner of the net.
There was not much to choose between two hard-working teams until the Pilgrims sent on Gurrieri for Feeney in the 60th minute.
Gurrieri played on the left of midfield, which allowed Young to switch to the right side, while the lively Cowan-Hall moved into a central attacking role. The substitution was soon followed by that of Nick Chadwick for Griffiths, and Argyle began to build up some attacking momentum.
Gurrieri had a far-post header blocked after a fine cross from Young. There was more balance about Argyle, and they deservedly took a 2-1 lead in the 80th minute.
Hourihane headed the ball forward and Chadwick touched the ball into the path of Young. The Plymothian took one touch, set his sights on goal and then crashed a shot past goalkeeper Stuart Nelson from 18 yards.
It was a fine, emphatic finish from Young and only Argyle’s third home League win of the season seemed on the cards.
The tension increased as the clock ticked down, a good example of which came when the Pilgrims thought they should have been awarded a corner. Fletcher, assistant manager Romain Larrieu and first-team coach Kevin Nancekivell all angrily remonstrated with the fourth official.
Then, in the 89th minute, Argyle failed to clear their lines and Jack Payne picked up possession, wide on the right. Cowan-Hall tracked back but could not stop Payne from crossing deep to the far post.
Myles Weston found space in between Berry and Bhasera and headed the ball inside. Barrett threw himself forward and headed high into the net from six yards.
It was particularly hard to take for the Pilgrims as they had seemed in control, but it also showed why Gillingham have emerged as title contenders. They refused to accept defeat and returned to Kent with a hard-earned point to show for their endeavour.