A near-death experience, bottom of the Football League and now FA Cup humiliation – Plymouth Argyle have that sinking feeling yet again.
Carl Fletcher is 31 years old. He is the recently-appointed permanent manager of Plymouth Argyle, one of the club’s senior professional players, and he is also the father to three young children. That’s already a lot of roles for one man to fulfil – but if he’s got any spare time in his busy schedule, it might be time to consider a crash course in psychotherapy.
For after one of the longest periods in administration in English football history – seven months of financial misery and uncertainty during which, at one point, the club had “between a 10-20% chance of surviving”, according to eventual buyer James Brent – the Pilgrims now appear to be experiencing the sporting equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.
From 18 games played in League Two, Argyle have accumulated just nine points; they have a goal difference of -23 and have only scored six times at home. After first-round exits in the Carling Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy earlier this season, they were embarrassed in the FA Cup on national television on Tuesday night in a 2-0 defeat at seventh-tier Stourbridge. The shell-shocked Greens look fearful, inhibited and a sense of helplessness is pervading the fanbase. The players are even beginning to lash out at those around them, if loanee Paul Bignot’s crazy red card (the club’s 20th since August 2010) against the Glassboys is anything to go by.
As well as the anxieties caused to everyday life by administration, the spectres of back-to-back relegations are still haunting Argyle and unless a significant recovery can be staged in the next five months, they will be going the way of Luton Town – a third successive drop, and life outside of the Football League. Bristol City and Wolves famously hit three snakes in a row too on the football board-game of the 1980s, but at least neither went lower than level four.
They say you find out who your true friends are in times of desperate need, and an average of around 6,000 fans are rallying round the club for home games at the moment. For away fixtures, the Green Army continue to turn out in force – there would have been more than 1,050 at the 3-1 Devon derby defeat at Torquay if the allocation had been greater, while 1,272 visiting supporters attended the 2-1 reverse at Cheltenham. Even the midweek 5-1 hammering at Oxford attracted over 700 Plymouth fans, respectable figures considering a Kassam massacre was expected (and ensued).
With times so tough, how should we react as supporters when players at the clubs we love seem to be in such a fragile mental state? Angry words and gestures probably aren’t going to help (especially at Argyle, where almost half the squad are under the age of 21) while only the most fervent fans can maintain vocal levels of encouragement and enthusiasm for the full 90 minutes as the goals rain in past their floundering keeper. It’s all relative, of course – if you’re paying £50 a ticket to watch Premier League multi-millionaires, your patience is going to be thinner than that of a long-suffering lower-league supporter. But no fan can tolerate a lack of effort and fight – and the alarming Opta statistic on tackles won by Argyle players compared to Stourbridge in Tuesday’s game suggests they were shirking from the challenge.
That’s a big worry, especially as the club’s next three fixtures are all against relegation rivals – home to Northampton (20th), away to Bradford (22nd) and home to Hereford (19th). The will to win is likely to be more important than tactics and style.
Argyle fans have to try and transmit some positivity, perhaps by drawing on the qualities they have shown since the club started sliding down this horrible helter-skelter, on which rock bottom still appears some way off (the club may be propping up the Football League, but there is still room for further decline). Former Argyle boss Ian Holloway always used to loathe the word “expectations” being used around Home Park; he was usually optimistic, but refused to pander to those outsiders who wanted to set targets for him and his players. So with a nod to Ollie, here’s an acronym that Pilgrims and all supporters can relate to:
Humility – Those members of the Argyle faithful (and there were many) who chortled throughout rivals Exeter’s dalliance with spoon-bending director Uri Geller and his ilk, their subsequent administration and their Conference wilderness years aren’t smiling any more. Moreover, the generosity of spirit shown by fans of Brighton and other clubs who visited Home Park for two ‘Fans Reunited’ days, or who wished Argyle well via messageboards or social media, demonstrated that – on the terraces at least – the existence of a genuine ‘football family’ populated by selfless supporters conscious of crises greater than their own is no myth.
One – The unity engendered by the fight for survival has undoubtedly strengthened the Green Army. The Argyle Trust worked tirelessly with James Brent to continue to push through his takeover when all seemed lost (former Trust chairman Chris Webb is now the club’s honorary president), while fundraising efforts by the Green Taverners group and web forum PASOTI raised over £100,000 for unpaid staff. The story of 22-year-old club chef Nathan Tonna is a case in point – his world gradually fell apart as Argyle’s cash crisis deepened. He believes administrators “lied” to staff (many of whom, like him, were fans) in order to persuade them to stay in their jobs and ensure the club remained a going concern. But donations raised by the fans helped employees like Nathan through the hardship, and fostering that sense of togetherness on and off the pitch is going to be vital.
Perspective – Argyle are lucky to be alive. Were it not for Brent and his persistence, the club would have been liquidated last month. Blue Square Premier football would be heart-breaking, but it is not a fate worse than death. Doncaster Rovers, Carlisle United, Oxford United and, yes, even Exeter, have been there and come back. Looking at the Conference North and South table suggests trips to places like Hyde and Woking await. Plymouth are a well-supported club, but size and history won’t count for much in the coming weeks. Thank heaven we’re still here – carpe diem and all that.
Emotion – “It’s all about character,” Fletcher told the club website when asked if his players could bounce back from losing to Stourbridge. These are dark days indeed, but one beacon of light is the arrival on loan of no-nonsense centre-back Darren Purse, who went to watch the FA Cup tie and whose passionate words had Chris Webb and PASOTI’s Ian Newell purring afterwards. Former Bournemouth and Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll was in attendance too, on Fletcher’s invitation – he wanted to hear the opinions of his old Cherries boss.
Argyle’s only home win this season – a 2-0 victory over Macclesfield – came on the occasion of the first ‘Fans Reunited’ day at Home Park in late September. A crowd of 6,005 was far from capacity, but it was the quality of the support more than the quantity that helped make the difference. The players put in the effort, and were rewarded with the emotion – a carnival atmosphere grew in the ground as the game progressed. A fortnight later, and over 8,000 turned out for the club’s 125th anniversary fixture against Accrington which finished 2-2. It’s a two-way street – desire on the pitch, die-hard support from the stands.
For everything that the Argyle faithful have been put through in the last five years – the chronic mismanagement, the poor performances, the relegations, the shameful mistreatment of staff and players during the administration process – they keep turning out to support their team, praying for a change in fortunes, like any true fan would. The performance at Stourbridge was shameful and put the bond between fans and players at risk. Yet to quote Elvis Costello: ‘The vow that we made, you broke it in two, But that don’t stop me from loving you’.
And where there’s love, there has to be hope.
Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.
Jon tweets at @jonboy79