“This club should be nowhere near the position it’s in. It’s a joke really. Almost embarrassing.”
So said on-loan striker Reuben Reid after Argyle had avoided the drop into the Conference on the final day of the season. Watching sections of the Green Army stage a Spotland pitch invasion from my position higher up the Willbutts Lane Stand, my thoughts were the same at the final whistle. An estimated 2,000+ Pilgrims fans had travelled to pack Rochdale’s away end – they saw their 10-man side lose 1-0 but stay up by a single point, with a goal difference just three better than Barnet’s. Other than an over-riding feeling of relief, what was there to celebrate, really?
There was a greater reason to cheer on Tuesday morning, when the club announced that John Sheridan – whose arrival as manager in January triggered a turnaround in form – had agreed in principle to continue as boss. The straight-talking Mancunian, whose initial deal ran only until the end of the season, is not the type to tolerate the sort of football comedy that Reuben Reid speaks of. However, he has already told Argyle owner James Brent he is confident of challenging at the top of League Two next season. Having persuaded Sheridan to stay in the South-West, a long way from his family home in Yorkshire, Brent must now back him in the transfer market and transform a squad of mixed abilities into one of the division’s strongest.
Although Argyle ultimately accumulated six more points in 2012/13 than they had managed in the previous campaign, this still represented another season of decline on the pitch. Clambering out of administration had been the mitigating circumstance in 2011/12 – but once again, Argyle lost 20 of their 46 league fixtures. Despite all his hard work and effort, Carl Fletcher oversaw a period of over two months in which his side won only one of 13 league games, and he was dismissed on New Year’s Day. It was only five years ago that the Greens finished 10th in the Championship – but that seems a distant memory now.
Over the course of nine months, the rearguard tightened up, particularly when experienced centre-back Guy Branston followed Sheridan south in January; Argyle actually ended the season with the eighth best defence in League Two. Zimbabwe international left-back Onismor Bhasera’s consistency was rewarded with the Player of the Year award, while goalkeeper Jake Cole was runner-up.
However, only bottom-placed Aldershot scored less goals than the Pilgrims and it was left winger Jason Banton – on loan from Crystal Palace for 14 games – who finished up as top scorer with six. The assists table makes for even bleaker reading, with Bhasera on top with just three. Young Player of the Year Conor Hourihane chipped in with five league goals from midfield, but creativity was minimal all season and when chances did come, they were usually spurned by wasteful strikers.
Highlights of the league season were hard to find, but a few spring to mind. There was the 4-1 victory at Barnet in October, Argyle’s biggest win and one that proved crucial in the final reckoning; an unlikely comeback at Morecambe the month before, when the Greens recovered from two goals down to triumph 3-2; the 1-0 Devon derby success over Exeter in March, when the result was all that mattered; and the last win of the season, 2-1 at Chesterfield in mid-April, which saw the club hit Sheridan’s survival target of 52 points.
In the interests of balance, the lowest points were arguably: the miserable opening-day 2-0 home defeat by Aldershot which set the tone for another season of struggle; a largely shambolic 3-0 loss at Fleetwood in November; the 4-0 mauling at Port Vale, the only fixture between Fletcher’s sacking and Sheridan’s arrival which left the club in seemingly dire straits in the drop zone; and an utterly abject 2-0 reverse at relegation rivals York on Easter Monday.
The nadir of the campaign, however, could again be found in the FA Cup – a humiliating first-round exit at sixth-tier Dorchester Town, live on TV, less than a year after going out at Stourbridge at the same stage.
An average attendance at Home Park of 7,095 – the third highest in the division – was an improvement on last season, even it represents less than half the current stadium capacity. Nevertheless, three home games attracted a crowd of over 10,000, while the travelling support provided by the Green Army – an average of 729 fans at every League Two away game – was outstanding given the geographical and sporting circumstances.
So what does the future hold? With £299 club memberships (season tickets) on sale for another week (and priced only £59 for Under-18s), it’s hoped the people of Plymouth will turn out in greater numbers next season. There’s already a buzz of activity and planning in the Devon city, with news of Sheridan’s stay swiftly followed by the issue of the retained and released lists.
The out-of-contract Cole, Bhasera, Branston and Hourihane have all been offered new deals, along with club legend Paul Wotton, Argentinian winger Andres Gurrieri and young striker Isaac Vassell. Among those moving on are injured striker Warren Feeney (although he has been offered a pre-season trial), while two contracted players – goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin and striker Nick Chadwick, for whom Argyle’s survival triggered an extension clause – have both been transfer-listed. Chief scout Joe Taylor has also left the club after a year in the job.
Many will hope Bristol City allow classy midfielder Joe Bryan to return on loan next season, although that may be wishful thinking. In any case, Argyle desperately need attacking players of proven quality as the squad as it stands is top-heavy with defensive experience, with a smattering of young blood in wide areas and up front. Torquay striker Rene Howe – joint-fifth top scorer in League Two with 16 goals – is already being linked with a free transfer down the A385 and A38. His ‘robust’ physique would make him an ideal replacement for Reid, although his alarmingly poor disciplinary record – 93 fouls and 15 bookings in 2012/13 – would be a worry even for the strict Sheridan.
As for the coaching staff, Tommy Wright and Mark Crossley have both left their positions at Chesterfield, paving the way for them to potentially join Sheridan. Meanwhile, the possibility remains of some sort of involvement for former boss Neil Warnock – the 64-year-old is searching for a club role akin to “a niche between manager and directors”. Whether such an opening arises at Argyle remains to be seen; the appointment of a dedicated chief executive is a more pressing concern for James Brent.
Off the pitch, Brent’s leisure company Akkeron has put forward plans for a £50million redevelopment of the Higher Home Park area, including a new stadium grandstand, ice rink, multi-screen cinema and 120-bed hotel. Plymouth City Council’s planning committee are studying these at the time of writing, but Pilgrims supporters are far from united in their support for the proposals. A perceived lack of ambition is the major sticking point; the proposed new stand does not look particularly ‘grand’ at all and with seating for approximately 5,000, it may in fact be smaller in terms of capacity than the opposite Lyndhurst Stand (redeveloped along with the adjacent Devonport and Barn Park Ends a decade ago). Brent had hoped work could begin on the project in September, but the wrangling is likely to go on for several more weeks at least.
There’s one thing all Argyle fans can agree to look forward to in 2013/14, however – the return of the Dockyard Derby. Argyle have met Portsmouth twice in cup competitions in recent seasons, but we haven’t had a league double-header against Pompey in over 20 years. Two proud naval cities, their clubs sailing towards calmer waters… and with Sheridan at the helm, the good ship Pilgrim should be well equipped for the long voyage in the coming 12 months.
Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.
Thanks to Steve and Malcolm from Greens on Screen – the essential Argyle resource – for the picture.
Jon tweets at @jonboy79