Groundhopper Girl: The Time I Went To Home Park and Half The Seats Had Been Ripped Out (2/92: Plymouth Argyle)

To explain the title: [number]/92 = [number of Football League grounds visited up to and including the ground the blog is about]/[total number of Football League grounds]. If you’re wondering where 1/92 is, it involved seeing Yeovil v Tranmere at Huish Park on 8th August 2009 with my family on John Barnes’s managerial league debut for the visitors; the home side won 2-0 to our vaguely pro-Yeovil delight. The reason there is no article on my blog about this day is because that’s more or less all I can remember about the match, and I have no photos of it. Sorry.

8th October 2011: Plymouth Argyle 2 – 2 Accrington Stanley @ Home Park, Plymouth, Devon

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Another day, another quest to validate my love of football to the sexist doubters! And today’s quest involves recounting the day I got so bored one eventless Saturday at uni in Cornwall that I did an 80-mile round trip to watch League 2 football, starring two teams I don’t support. That day was 8th October 2011, and those teams were the wonderfully quaint sounding teams of Plymouth Argyle and Accrington Stanley, the latter of whom are most famous for being the butt of a milk advert joke about their obscurity.

Despite being just 40 miles away, the trip from Penryn (near Falmouth) to Plymouth takes an hour and a half over two trains, the delay stemming partly from a long wait at Truro station and partly the painfully slow mainline service through Cornwall. However, as Cornwall has no league team of its own – its footballing zenith thus far has been Truro City’s ascent to Conference South, although they lasted just two years in Step 6 before a financial debacle dragged them back down – it’s a pilgrimage that plenty of Cornish football fans make, so I’m surrounded by Argyle fans on the trains.

Home support.

Home support.

When the train finally trundles into Plymouth station, I’ve got a 25 minute walk uphill until I reach Home Park, admittedly through the pleasant confines of Central Park on a dry, sunny day. Admission costs me £15 –   presumably cheap to entice punters who otherwise wouldn’t pay custom to a League 2 team in dire financial straits and struggling near the bottom of the table. It transpires that today marks Argyle’s 125th anniversary of existence, so I expect a carnival atmosphere.

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Oh, how wrong I am. As I take my place in ‘the Mayflower seats’ on a rickety wooden seat, all I can think is how empty the stadium looks; a stadium that proudly hosted Championship football just a few years previously is less than half full (attendance: 8,013; capacity: 16,903). What’s more, the club is so financially beleaguered they’ve had to rip out rows of seats in front of where I sit: all that remains is an eerily empty terrace fenced off, with only stumps of metal that once held seats to break up the monotony of concrete.

Away fans.

Away fans.

My mood is lifted by both the brass band who take their place on the lower reaches of this area to provide a soundtrack to the pre-match anniversary celebrations, and the sight of the 100 or so diehard away fans who’ve made the 313-mile trip down south – 5 hours in the car or 7 hours on trains. They’re probably not too happy about their decision as they’re reduced to 10 men after defender Sean Hessey hacks down Plymouth’s striker in the area in the 26th minute and captain Simon Walton converts the consequent penalty, and less so as Argyle doubled their lead on the stroke of half time.

Wardens celebrate the club's 125 years of history before the game starts.

Wardens and mascots celebrate the club’s 125 years of history before the game starts.

I don’t get round to sampling the stadium’s fare, as – being a cost-conscious student – I’m keen to keep prices low and have already indulged in an Asda meal deal on the train, so I contemplate my surroundings during the interval. The fans in the home end are cheering their team on as much as possible, but it’s doomed to sound feeble given that they’re trying to fill a space designed for double the number of people in attendance.

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Such a dearth of fans that they’ve cordoned off nigh-on a quarter of the stadium.

They haven’t got much to sing about in the second half. On the 56th minute, Stanley grab a goal; just 10 minutes later they get an equaliser. Comeback mounted, the handful of away fans are energised while the home crowd are muted: not much to celebrate either today or this season, after such a bright start.

The equaliser.

The equaliser.

Although neutral, I’m rooting for the home team now; while a good comeback for Accrington to put the points within reach after a long journey, plus some distant past relative of mine apparently once played for them, it feels like kicking a dog while it’s down. Having seen Tonbridge slug out a relegation dogfight before, and been bloody emotional about it, I’m feeling the Plymouth fans’ pain right now. It doesn’t get any worse for them as the Accies can’t get a winner, but on the other hand it doesn’t get any better as they have to make do with a point to see them even further into the relegation mire. I get the train home, deflated, and ruing the fact that the next closest league team to my university house is 80 miles in each direction.

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