The early odds released for League Two next season show that the bookies expect Plymouth Argyle to be firmly mid-table in 2012/13. The Greens are priced up at 20/1 for the title with Victor Chandler, alongside the likes of rivals Exeter and newly-promoted York. Rotherham are the strong favourites for success, followed by Fleetwood Town. However, it’ll be worth seeing what price the Pilgrims are when the promotion odds appear – because they might just be worth a gamble, depending on the summer comings and goings at Home Park.
Last season, Argyle were seriously goal-shy – only Macclesfield scored less. After losing 1-0 at Rotherham in mid-March, they were back in the relegation zone with 10 games to go. Fortunately, their settled and solid defence became even more miserly over the next eight fixtures, conceding just four goals to secure survival. The abysmal form shown by the Silkmen (seven draws and no wins to show for their efforts since New Year’s Eve) and the fact Hereford, as it proved, left it too late to mount an escape, were also key factors in Argyle staying up by just two points.
Argyle’s effective rearguard actions in the final few months bode well for next season. The arrivals in November of centre-back duo Darren Purse (now 35, but still a tough and fit competitor) and Maxime Blanchard – who ended up being named Player of the Year – lifted the whole camp; young right-back Durrell Berry improved considerably, and with midfield warrior Paul Wotton and hard-working striker Nick Chadwick returning to the club too, a team that had been callow and spineless changed into one loaded with experience and resilience.
Champions Swindon conceded just 32 goals in 2011/12 – by some distance the least in the division. They were not top scorers however; Gillingham, who failed to even make the play-offs, hit 79 goals over the course of 46 games, while Shrewsbury and Crawley both scored more than Paolo Di Canio’s Robins. But Argyle fans know full well how the stingiest defence usually comes out on top in the fourth tier – when Paul Sturrock’s Greens racked up 102 points in 2001/2, they shipped just 28 goals. Second-placed Luton scored many more times than Argyle that season, but they didn’t get their hands on the trophy.
Carl Fletcher clearly needs to add goals to his side, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of his defence – as we’ve seen, it’s more important to be hard to break down in League Two than blistering up front. One of last season’s joint top scorers, Barnet’s Izale McLeod, is already being linked with Argyle (as well as many other clubs higher up the food chain) – but he might be exactly the sort of player Argyle DON’T need. Of the fourteen league games in which he scored for the Bees, they only won five of them. McLeod is fast and exciting, but can also be massively frustrating. In contrast, that resolute title-winning Sturrock side of a decade ago had eight players who netted five or more league goals over the course of the campaign – and the top scorer was centre-back Graham Coughlan.
What’s more important than finding a McLeod or similar striker is injecting more creativity in forward positions and inviting runners from deep; building on the firm foundations of the Purse-Blanchard partnership and freeing up the likes of the energetic Luke Young – scorer of a fine goal at Morecambe in the penultimate game of the season – to shoot from in and around the area. There has been far too little of that in Argyle’s attacking play, entirely understandable as the pressure mounted in the battle against the drop and every point became the proverbial prisoner. But with those shackles lifted and a clean slate presenting itself come August, the onus will be on Fletcher to find a blend that can facilitate a promotion push.
Having only turned 32 last month, Fletcher is the second youngest manager in the entire Football League, and his achievement in uniting the Argyle squad and masterminding their great escape should not be underestimated. He had earned his UEFA B licence coaching badge last summer, but taking on the responsibility of one of the south-west’s biggest professional clubs – and at such a perilous point in their history – was a huge undertaking for someone with no previous experience. The assistance of goalkeeper Romain Larrieu, a true Pilgrims hero with over 300 appearances for the club, and the senior players brought in midway through the campaign was crucial in creating a ‘never say die’ spirit. Both Fletcher and Larrieu have earned a crack at a season without fear of financial turmoil.
Long-term, owner James Brent has talked about how he sees Argyle as a Championship club. It seems a tall order to get back to those heights any time soon for a club that’s just finished 21st in League Two. However, if Fletcher can identify three or even four new players with genuine attacking talent that are prepared to match the current squad’s work ethic – and if Brent is prepared to pay the fees and wages they will demand – there might be a great opportunity to beat the bookies, and see a more entertaining Argyle team heading up the Football League ladder once again.
Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.
Jon tweets at @jonboy79