PLYMOUTH Argyle Ladies showed their character to dig deep and earn a place in the third round of the FA Cup.
The Pilgrims triumphed 4-3 after extra-time away at Oxford United to pick up a £1,000 winners’ cheque and move to within 90 minutes of a possible glamour tie against one of the country’s top clubs.
They will now face league rivals Watford away in the third round.
It was always going be a difficult tie for Argyle against an Oxford outfit who were playing at Super League level a couple of years ago.
The Greens also went into the game without a recognised goalkeeper as Ben Kyle is still out injured and back-up Kate Middleton was unavailable. But coach Vicki Fannon stepped in to don the gloves and proved to be a reliable replacement with some good stops as Argyle recorded their 11th straight league and cup win.
The visitors started with Steph Beck, Kayley Lane and Faye Ivall on the bench and with Fannon the surprise choice in goal.
Argyle once again relied on scouting reports about Oxford and it paid dividends as they took an early two-goal lead.
Fannon was given an early chance to prove herself when she made a good save to deny a well-struck Cheryl Williams free-kick.
The tie quickly settled into a midfield battle until Helen Bleazard fired in a superbly struck free-kick over the head of goalkeeper Paris Sercombe.
This was just the start Argyle needed as they began to take control of the game. And it quickly became 2-0 when four minutes later striker Natasha Knapman appeared at the back post to head in her 20th goal of the season.
The visitors were now in total control of the game and deservedly held on to the lead until half-time.
But Oxford came out for the second half determined to reduce the arrears. And they almost scored but Emily Allen’s header was hooked clear of the goal line. Argyle responded with Knapman racing clear but shot narrowly wide.
Back came Oxford whose perseverance paid off a minute later when following a frantic goalmouth scramble the ball dropped to Georgia Timms, who fired it into the net. A minute later a rare mistake by Fannon who spilled the ball led to Georgia Clifford shooting narrowly wide.
Once again Argyle responded with Knapman firing over as the Oxford defence did enough to put her off.
The Oxford pressure eventually told when Gemma Sims guided the ball past a sea of players to level the scores. Fannon then distinguished herself by denying Allen in a one-on-one situation.
Argyle fought back but had an effort cleared off the goal line by Williams. And with five minutes remaining a Bleazard free-kick clipped the outside of a post.
And so the game went into extra-time. Nine minutes into the added period it did not look good for the Pilgrims when Gemma Sims headed in a corner at the back post to give Oxford a 3-2 lead.
The camaraderie that Argyle have shown all season was put to the test and they were determined to get back into the game and with three minutes remaining Helen Bleazard let fly from 20-yards with a stunning volley to level the scores.
The Pilgrims were determined not to let the chance of a win go begging and two minutes later Kayley Lane appeared in the penalty area to tuck away the winner after the Oxford defence failed to clear a Bleazard free-kick which was knocked on to Lane by Bow Jackson to seal the victory much to the delight of the players and management.
A relieved manager Dave Leonard said: “I am feeling exhausted but unbelievably proud. What can I say? They are a special group of girls.
“Managing these girls is a proud moment. What you ask them to do they just keep coming up with it week-in, week-out.
“For me we went 2-0 up and were cruising. They had a game-plan but we had a detailed report from my backroom staff who went and watched them (Oxford) and the detail they gave us we put into the first half.
“We stopped what we were doing in the second half. What we did against Wimbledon (last week) we did against a better opposition and they punished us. I said to them at half-time you do what you did against Wimbledon and they will punish you.
“We went 3-2 down in extra-time and I changed it around. I brought on Kayley Lane for Amber Pollock and Steph Beck for Becky Dandridge to give us a bit of freshness. And it worked – Blez (Bleazard) fired in the equaliser and Kayley (Lane) produced a great first touch and put it into the corner.”
Commenting on Fannon, who stepped in between the sticks, he said: “She did well, she pulled off some good stops. She is very assured and could do nothing about the three goals. I’m very pleased with her.”
Argyle: Vicki Fannon, Bow Jackson, Ebony Dover, Leah Burridge, Helen Bleazard, Zoe Cunningham, Becky Dandridge (Steph Beck), Amber Pollock (Kayley Lane), Natasha Knapman, Mollie Taylor, Lydia Huntley. Unused substitute Faye Ivall.
Leonard, meanwhile, is disappointed his team have been handed another away trip in the third round, where they will play league rivals Watford.
The tie means that 12 of Argyle’s 16 matches this season will have been away from home.
“How much more are we going to chuck at these girls – but you know what, chuck anything you want at them and they will stand up and face it,” said Leonard. “They will not shirk. Watford away in the cup, we know what we are facing and we will be ready for it.”
Last season Argyle were virtually nomads as they played on six different grounds for home fixtures. Apart from playing Yeovil and Keynsham at their new home ground at the Manadon Hub and a match against Watford at Home Park, this tie means they will have clocked up more than 4,000 miles on the road.
Leonard said: “We all said on the bus coming back from Oxford that we’d get Watford away. I’m disappointed. I don’t mind who we play but I’m disappointed that yet again we are away from home. It’s just disappointing for the girls – the amount of travelling we have done we yet again go away.
“It is disappointing but away games have positives – they unite us as a team so there are pros and cons and we are playing against a team above us in the league.
“I have already spoken to the Watford manager and he is as disappointed as us that we are playing each other – a mutual respect that goes along way between the two of us.”
There was also cup joy for Argyle’s development team who beat Alphington 2-0 away thanks to two strikes by Nicola Champion to reach the Bristol SoccerWorld League Cup Western Division final.
They will now meet Plympton in the final, who thumped Bude Town 10-0 in the other semi.
The pair had played each other twice in the league with both teams winning a game each.
Argyle started well against Alphington, with Dani Wyatt and Champion both going close.
The young Pilgrims lost Kiara Robins early through injury to be replaced by Maisie Williams who promptly went close as did Beth Cowd
It looked as if it was going to be one of those days for Argyle but a piece of magic by Champion saw her well struck free-kick nestle into the corner of the net for a 1-0 half-time lead.
Argyle, with Beth Everson prominent, looked to increase their lead although visiting goalkeeper Maddie Walsh was twice called into action as Alphington responded.
Wyatt then had a goal ruled out for offside. But the crucial second goal came when the tireless Rachel Heron broke up an Alphington attack and the ball was fed to Champion. Her first touch was superb and as she dummied to shoot with her left foot before shifting the ball to her right and hit an unstoppable shot past goalkeeper Burwood.
Next it was some fine link up play between Maddy Leppard and Hannah Brock that set up Nelinha Barros, who was unlucky as she just failed to connect correctly with an effort from outside the penalty area.
Argyle had to ride out a few more attacks from the home side in the dying minutes but managed to see the game out.
Manager Rob Bonney said: “We knew this would be a difficult game and we really had to dig deep. They are far from the finished article but they are adding different aspects to their game and improving in every game.”
Argyle development: Maddie Walsh, Isla Brumhead, Panagiota Papaioannou, Rachal Javan, Beth Cowd (Maddy Leppard), Beth Everson, Dani Wyatt (Nelinha Barros), Rachel Heron, Kiara Robins (Maisie Williams), Lucy Solloway (Hannah Brock), Nicola Champion, Abbie Scurr.