Plymouth 1 Bradford City 0
Phil Parkinson stood motionless on the halfway line, hands planted on hips, transfixed by the scenes of green celebration.
As Plymouth milked the moment from a win that moves them to level pegging with City, he looked on enviously and helpless.
A long horrible week had ended horribly. With the prospect of the longest trip home on the club’s calendar to follow.
It was no consolation that the better team had lost or that City had spent most of the previous 45 minutes camped deep in home territory.
For the fifth time in four weeks, his side had to board the bus back to Bradford with nothing to show for their efforts.
The 4-0 romp at Barnet at the end of February suddenly seems a lifetime ago. Seven-and-a-half hours of away football since have delivered no points and just one City goal – and that was turned in by a Wimbledon defender.
Nahki Wells was the last player in a Bantams shirt to score on the road when he netted the fourth at Underhill.
Parkinson, his players and the 300 or so hardy souls who followed them to the deep south will be scratching their heads at how that wretched statistic was not buried on Saturday.
Wells did have the ball in the net but was ruled offside. Other chances came and went, scrambles in the penalty box were thwarted, goal-bound efforts kept out by desperate defence.
At times the Plymouth goal-mouth was busier than the caravan car park otherwise known as the M5 at holiday time.
But Argyle clung on to their fifth-minute lead like men possessed. It is no surprise that they have conceded only five in their last 11 games.
Guy Branston was like a kid at Christmas after getting his first game for City since October.
The bruising centre half, returning to one of his many previous loan clubs, thought he’d crowned a solid game with a late equaliser. But his thumping header joined the lengthy list of “if onlys” as Jake Cole punched it away.
“That save was world class,” admitted Branston. “It was going right in the corner.
“But that just summed it up. I thought we totally outplayed them.
“We got the ball down, which people want to see, and put Plymouth under pressure all the time. But they just scraped and scrapped it away.
“You’ll watch the video and think how did the chances not go in? The lads are trying their backsides off but it’s just not happening.
“It was great to be part of it again, I can’t say that enough. It just makes it so disappointing to lose but we’ve got to lick our wounds.”
Branston was one of six changes after the battle of Crawley. Like goalkeeper Matt Duke, another called in from the cold, he did not let the manager down.
Both will have a big role to play in City’s increasingly scary struggle for survival. Nobody expected to be saying that a few weeks ago.
But then few would have anticipated the club still being mired in the sticky stuff with only six games to go.
That Barnet win should have blown away any fears of getting dragged back into trouble. But then Barnet are the only side at the bottom that City can beat.
Saturday’s loss, however harsh it may seem, prolonged their miserable run of form against the teams around them. The so-called “six pointers” are not City’s forte – how that looming visit from Macclesfield is getting bigger all the time.
Parkinson’s reshuffle at the back was expected given the sudden loss of key defensive resources. Only Rob Kozluk remained from the previous Tuesday’s backline and he was switched to the left side for the injured Matt Fry.
Kozluk struggled and so did right back Simon Ramsden, who looked washed out after throwing up before the game. He insisted on playing but looked predictably off the pace and was subbed soon after the break.
Ricky Ravenhill, too, went off early. Having passed a pre-match fitness test, he suffered another dead leg from a tackle.
That meant a half-time recall for Kyel Reid, who Parkinson had left on the bench to go with a midfield consisting of four centrally-based players. With the winger spending the end of the week in London again on maternity watch, his manager made the call not to involve him from the start.
Parkinson said: “Reidy had a problem after Tuesday with his hamstring and back but there are also the on-going issues family-wise. So we haven’t seen him.
“We’d worked on that shape and that personnel for two days in training. I felt it would offer the back four strong protection and it worked.
“I didn’t think Reidy was right to start but he showed some good flashes coming on.
“I just want this baby to arrive so we can get him back on the training pitch.”
Plymouth’s goal was a shocker as City’s zonal marking from Paul Wotton’s free-kick fell apart.
The defence weren’t in the same post code as Juvhel Tsoumou, a German striker who once scored against Bayern Munich, was left free to nod his first goal in English football.
It was a terrible goal to concede before Duke had even had a proper touch. After keeping Plymouth at bay for 90 minutes with Northampton the previous week, he didn’t last five with City.
The blame was not his at all but the absence of any defensive challenge whatsoever.
Wotton then beat him with a free-kick that smacked the post before Duke’s day improved considerably, finishing with a superb save to deny the midfielder’s late thunderbolt.
After the first ten minutes, City started to take over. The further the game went on, the tighter their grip became.
But there was no reward for all the pressure.
Before the break, David Syers had brushed a post and seen Durrell Berry block a goal-bound header from the opening corner.
The substitutions added attacking options in the second half – by the end, Branston was the only recognised defender in the City team.
James Hanson twice saw attempts cleared off the line; Wells was denied by the assistant’s flag and Branston by the keeper’s reflexes.
Wells was inches away again from a bout of head tennis and Cole kept out Lee Bullock’s flick.
Plymouth were used to living on their nerves and edged their way to three priceless points. The reaction at the final whistle showed the size of their victory.
City at least have a free midweek to get their heads together. Their League Two status remains anything but secure and a four-point cushion on the bottom two could swiftly disappear over the two-game Easter period.
Fortunately Hereford and Macclesfield, the two occupants in the ejector seats, cannot buy a win right now. But neither, for all their near misses and hard luck tales, can City.
They cannot afford April to prove as miserable as March.