Slough's that for unlucky?

Slough Town

Slough Town

Plymouth Argyle

Plymouth Argyle

Harvey o.g. (61), Heathcote (78)
FA Cup Attendance: 3030 Alan Paris
The scene was set. A packed Wexham Park waited patiently, split almost exactly at the centre circle into seas of yellow and blue at one end and green at the other. BBC cameras loomed high over the ground like - something from a science fiction movie, carefully logging every move on the pitch and every reaction from the packed terraces. Police and stewards eyed the crowds nervously, waiting to explode into action at the first sign of a goal or disputable incident.

The talk was all of giantslaying, of Mark West, Dave Russell and Milwall 1982. "Slough," Barry Davies would later gravely intone to the TV millions, "hold the unenviable record of only one win in seven Conference games" but this was dismissed as irrelevant. And who would you like in the second round draw, Mr Russell?

Enter the actors stage left - Bushay, under pressure after a barren spell, Preddie and Harvey, nervous before the biggest games of their lives, Fiore and Clement, enduring stick whenever they moved within 20 yards of the visiting support, Paris and Baron, elder statesmen holding it all togcther and West, the man expccted (unfairly) to deliver the killer blows.

The Rebels lined up 4-3-3, a tactic which (depending on your viewpoint in the attacking football versus sensible defending debate) was either a masterstroke or a foolhardy reaction to press criticism. Whatever, it gave Ross Pickett only his second full game and perhaps unwisely left both Garfield Blackman and Barry Rake on the bench. No Bressington and sadly no Bunting, but perhaps no great loss if they were unfit.

And after a lot of careful manoeuvring, Slough reached half-time with the score goaless, which furnished them with a somewhat misplaced sense of expectation - later to he cruelly dashed - but was in itself a remarkable achievement.

Plymouth were nowhere to be seen or heard for 45 minutes as they were kept inaudibly quiet by a composed and graceful defence led by comeback kid Paris - his is a story so unlikely it would be laughed at as a fairy tale. While he screeched to and cajoled his charges, Baron concentrated his efforts on Adrian Littlejohn, who as a consequenee managed only one shot on goal all day.

That the visitors did not score was down to a number of reasons. As Neil Warnock conceded afterwards, three or four players "needed a kick up the backside" which they no doubt duly received during the interval, but they were also allowed so little time on the ball that most moves were rushed into submission long before they had time to bloom.

What Argyle retained from this was a shattering amount of pace on the break and, more importantly, the knowledge to use it to the full. Possession wise, no-one would argue that they were on top throughout, but it was always a slender lead.

The opening minutes nervous, expectant, unsure. Please don't let them finish it before it's begun - we don't deserve that. The first scare came on two minutes when Paris headed to Clayton in that vital just-outside-the area position. He lobbed it hack in and Evans hit an angled shot which Preddie stood up to, though he had to scramble it back into his arms from the floor. Then Littlejohn gave Baron the slip and, with hearts in mouths, the 'keeper advanced bravely to parry from the edge of the area.

Meanwhile, the Rebels made slow but steady progress up the right wing. Honor had West and Pickett as targets when he finally got to the byline but was unjustly deemed offside. A quick change of tactics and a swapping of wings for Pickett and Bushay saw the latter used to exploit a lack of pace in the centre of the defence where Heathcote and Hill are both the wrong side of 30, but it never quite came off. Three times he was called offside, twice the ball was overhit and when he finally looked to be making some progress towards the box he spoiled it by wrestling with Williams and conceding a free-kick.

Littlejohn lost Baron and Paris again after that before putting a dangerous ball across the face of the box which the incoming Billy could not connect with, while Evans and Leadbitter were close to slipping through but were stopped at the last moment.

A sequence of events two minutes before the break was to show both sides the way. First, Bushay received a flick-on from West inside the area and turned round his marker magnificently. His full-tilt shot had goal written all over it but was kept out by a desperate lunge from a defender. From Fiore's resulting comer, West got up and headed straight at BlackwelI.

At the other end, Clement denied his old club when Mauge got on the end of Littlejohn's corner with a powerful header. Preddie scrambled frantically but could not make contact, but Clement had kept his position at the far post and sliced off the line.

None of which really screamed out for a goal to be scored, but there were enough chinks of light at both ends to suggest the tunnel would eventually end in a win. The realisation had now begun to dawn on Slough that just one quick break and one proper shot on target might well he enough to ensure their place in the glory books. The headlines were waiting to be written, but whose name would adorn them?

Nervous expectancy greeted the start of the second half even more so than it had the first, but hope too that more of the same might just be enough. That hope was to he dealt a crushing blow 15 minutes later. The Rebels carried on regardless at first, but soon saw that Plymouth had found the hunger they had earlier lacked. The warning signs flashed large when Evans headed wide and when Harvey had to stop Littlejohn's meaningful run, but they were fatally ignored.

Fiore, overstretched all game down the left wing, was powerless to prevent Billy's charge past him and there followed a moment Lee Harvey, no matter how hard he might try, will never forget. It matters not that he cannot realistically be blamed, but when the cross flew into the area towards Littlejohn on the far side, he swung his foot as though to clear and sliced the ball into the corner of his own net. At the very least, Argyle's second goal means he was not solely responsible for the defeat, but that was obviously of little comfort.

Catlin's header on 80 minutes looked to have made amends from at least one angle, but his response to the livewire Blackman's cross was crucially just wide of the post. That was probably the closest Slough came all afternoon.

On 84 minutes, if that hollow feeling of inevitability inside hadn't already warned most fans, Plymouth's second finally confirmed that it was all over. Harvey hacked down Mauge on the right, Patterson took the free-kick and veteran Heathcote rose up above Baron and Preddie's flailing arms to head into the net.

Controversial but ultimately pointless moment of the match. Blackman's late penalty appeal as he was apparently pushed on the shoulder by Williams while racing onto a Bushay ball. Study the video carefully; first it is a penalty, then he definitely dived, then you change your mind again. Mr Durkin was decided at the time, so argument is academic.

Evans squandered a perfect chance for a third in the last minute when the entire defence stopped to catch him offside but, to complete surprise all round, the flag stayed down. He even afforded himself a quick bemused glance back at the ref before bearing down on Preddie, who nicked the ball from his feet in a fleeting moment of personal triumph.

Perhaps Dave Russell's cheerful diplomacy immediately afterwards indicates that he knew the result was basically fair enough, but to have again come so close without actually getting a result must be heartbreaking.

And so, by 6.00pm, Barry Davies was in the bar and his crew had begun disassembling the scaffolding over the far stand. The car park, earlier packed to the brim with optimistic fans, was now three-quarters empty and wet with drizzle in the early evening dark. The flame that first began flickering hopefully three weeks earlier when the draw was first made was finally out.

Plymouth Argyle Lineup

Blackwell, Patterson, Williams, Clayton, Heathcote, Hill, Billy, Mauge (c), Littlejohn, Evans, Leadbitter. Substitutes: Barlow, Magee, Logan.


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