Pilgrims progress

Darlington 0 Plymouth Argyle 1 (Mauge 65 )Attendance: 43,431
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The Independent Online
If Terry Venables needs a few tips about how to win at Wembley during the next few weeks, he could do worse than ask Neil Warnock. Four times the Plymouth Argyle manager has taken teams to play-off finals here, and four times he has won.

Warnock did it twice in successive seasons with Notts County, he did it last season with Huddersfield and then surprisingly resigned to take on the challenge of lifting Argyle out of the bottom division, where they found themselves for the first time last summer after the chaotic Peter Shilton managerial reign.

In yesterday's Third Division play-off final, watched by a record crowd for that occasion of 43,431, Plymouth found themselves against a Darlington side who had beaten them home and away during the season. After a subdued start, though, Argyle held the upper hand throughout a typically tense and committed encounter, roared on by at least three-quarters of the crowd.

The Quakers have gained a reputation this term as one of a poor division's better footballing sides, and they were the first to settle, stroking the ball around with Gary Bannister, once of Coventry and Sheffield Wednesday, prominent in midfield. Penetration was the problem, though, for both sides in a game in which defences were outstanding.

Plymouth had the first sight of goal in the 10th minute but, after a neat one-two with Michael Evans, Adrian Littlejohn's first touch let him down. Darlington's attacks were being prompted from the back by the classy Matt Appleby, who played for Newcastle in the top flight in the pre-Keegan era, and in the 22nd minute he took the ball half the length of the pitch before shooting just wide from a Robbie Blake cross.

That was Darlington's only real chance in the first half. At the other end Evans lifted a volley wastefully high, and Littlejohn dragged a shot just wide from an Evans flick-on.

There was still little to choose between the sides in the second half, but Plymouth were winning the midfield battle thanks to the tigerish tackling of Ronnie Mauge and Chris Leadbitter. At the back Mick Heathcote and his sidekicks, Richard Logan and Chris Curran, were strong for Argyle, while Andy Crosby, Darlington's captain, was courageous at the heart of their back four.

Darlington's defence dozed off just once, in the 65th minute, and it cost them the match and promotion. Barlow won a corner on the right, Leadbitter knocked the flag kick back to the right-back, Mark Patterson, whose cross was headed firmly into the net by an unmarked Mauge.

Plymouth seemed more likely to score the game's second goal, with Littlejohn and Evans leading threatening breaks. The closing minutes were played out with the Pilgrims keeping possession deep in the Quakers' half, and the final whistle produced a roar that could almost have been heard back in Devon.

Darlington (3-5-2): Newell; Gregan, Crosby, Appleby; Brumwell, Gaughan (Carmichael, 85), Bannister, Carss, Barnard; Painter, Blake. Subs: Carmichael, Twynham, Mattison.

Plymouth Argyle (3-5-2): Cherry; Curran, Heathcote, Logan; Patterson, Barlow, Mauge, Leadbitter, Williams; Littlejohn, Evans. Subs: Billy, Baird, Corazzin.

Referee: W Burns (Scarborough).