“Is it getting better… or do you feel the same?” Over twenty years have passed since Bono posed this question, but it’s one Argyle fans keep asking themselves at the moment.
One year on from the club’s life-saving operation and the transplanting of Carl Fletcher for Peter Reid at its heart, there are occasional good days and mostly bad days for the Pilgrims as they traipse along the long road to recovery. New blood has been injected and small steps are being taken in the quest to be at least a half-decent football team again, but you can’t blame the supporters too much if their bedside manner is a little impatient. Argyle keep breaking down – and are likely to go on in the same vein for the foreseeable future.
Even Dr Julius Hibbert would be struggling to maintain a smile amid the current run of one point from six games, especially when you factor in the grim 1-0 FA Cup exit at lowly Dorchester as well. The club’s owner James Brent admits the predicament is painful, but he’s keeping the faith for now and doesn’t want a new course of treatment – even though only two points separate Argyle from the League Two drop zone after 19 games played.
“Carl is doing a great job in terms of improving the quality of the football spectacle,” said Brent earlier this month, in a quote that sounds like something his namesake David from The Office might come out with. However, it’s not the owner but the manager who is at risk of becoming a real-life version of the Ricky Gervais character – and it all boils down to their shared philosophy. What kind of atmosphere is Fletcher trying to create at Home Park? As Slough’s most famous son memorably phrases it: “(One) where I’m a friend first, boss second… probably an entertainer third.”
I don’t mean to mock the Argyle boss when I write that. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that Fletcher is striving to satisfy several expectations – those of his owner, his players and the fanbase – and his flaws are being magnified as a result.
Being only 32 years of age and recently retired from playing, Fletcher is naturally closer to his charges than most managers. There’s undoubtedly a strong bond between the squad and the coaching set-up, with Fletcher supported by assistant boss Romain Larrieu (36), and first-team coach Kevin Nancekivell (41). A shortage of experience is compensated by fresh ideas and vitality on the training ground, the camaraderie having been bolstered under the collective hardship caused by last year’s administration process. Reports from the training ground suggest spirits are buoyant despite the poor run of form, and there’s been little evidence of dissent in the ranks.
Having such a tight-knit group is beneficial, but it’s also fair to ask whether Fletcher might be reluctant to get angry with the players when they fall short of his standards. You’d hope not, but his relatively calm exterior and considered approach suggests his dressing-room rant wouldn’t get close to a Fergie hairdryer. After Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Fleetwood, the squad were staying in the north for a few days ahead of the game at Bradford on Tuesday night. When asked if having everyone together for an extended period of time would make it easier to recover for the clash at Valley Parade, Fletcher responded with a wry smile: “We’ll have to wait and see… if I don’t rip their heads off before that.” He clearly knew some strong words were needed, but he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he could deliver them effectively.
After losing 1-0 at Bradford, in a game where Argyle played well in the second half but failed to score, Fletcher again indicated that a lack of fortune was largely responsible for the month-long misery. There’s undoubtedly some truth in that, but blaming bad luck for a lengthy series of disappointments while also claiming a ‘deserved’ win is just around the corner sounds more than a little desperate.
As for that “football spectacle”… its quality may be improving, but Fletcher can’t afford to worry too much about entertainment values when Argyle are slipping ever closer to the bottom two. They impressed in the 3-1 home win over Rochdale – the last time they claimed three points – and the recent 2-2 draw with leaders Gillingham. Yet the focus on trying to play a more technically accomplished game – “passing with a purpose”, as Fletcher calls it – is undermined by a tendency to ship goals weakly due to lapses in concentration, mostly on long throws and set pieces. Argyle stayed up last season due to a defence that became ever more miserly as the months went by. Generosity has been far too great in the current campaign.
In addition, there is no cutting edge or even a consistent presence up front. Three strikers have three goals each – Warren Feeney’s have come from 16 appearances, although two were penalties; on-loan Guy Madjo’s have come from 13 appearances although, again, two were penalties; while Rhys Griffiths, with two from open play and one spot-kick, has been hampered all season by injuries. Nick Chadwick is yet to register in the league.
Argyle’s midfield contingent and wingers have understandably benefitted from Fletcher’s focus on getting the ball on the deck. Alex MacDonald, back on loan from Burnley, and Argentinian Andres Gurrieri produced energetic displays against Bradford and tested the hosts repeatedly. Local lad Luke Young – still only 19, but with over 50 first-team outings to his name – continues to make strides, while 17-year-old Tyler Harvey is also now getting a taste of first-team action. Youth is being given its chance, but perhaps too much is being asked of them. League Two may only be the fourth tier, but experienced ex-internationals like Fleetwood’s Barry Ferguson and Rotherham’s Kari Arnason remain tough opponents for teenagers and twenty-somethings.
Off the pitch, the appointment of former Bristol City chairman Colin Sexstone as a non-executive director bodes well, with James Brent having admitted he needs more football experts around him to give advice and guidance. Hope remains that work on a new and long-overdue Home Park grandstand will begin next summer – but there have also been staff redundancies too, and the club’s average attendance of around 6,200 is below the break-even figure of 8,000.
Brent is likely to stick with Fletcher for the time being, although continued poor form as the busy Christmas period approaches would significantly increase the pressure on both men. Until then, this perseverance package remains hard to accept for Pilgrims fans, who fear their club is becoming a laughing stock. The other Brent – David – would say: “You just have to accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue.” It’s been four-and-a-half weeks of statue for Argyle – time for pigeon power, and fast.
Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.
Jon tweets at @jonboy79