In the last part of ‘The Pilgrimage’. we went through our transfer deals for our first season back in the Championship in over 10 years and started our season with an unbelievable opening day win. If you wanted to catch up with this, you can find it here.
As this season probably won’t be quite as positive as our previous ones (what with us predicted to finish 2nd from the bottom of the league), today we are going to take a whistle-stop tour through our season to see if we survive…
…to be honest, it wasn’t a bad first month back in the 2nd tier; big wins in the Carabao Cup against Stevenage and Premier League Burnley were bookended by creditable draws against Middlesborough and Leeds – two teams that always seemed to be pushing for promotion at the top end of the table. We would go top after a couple of results, eventually settling in at 10th.
As a result of our half-decent results, a couple of members of the first team squad came close to winning monthly honours: Conor Grant would come in 3rd in the Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month, while Adam Randell would only just miss out on winning Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month. Kyle Horne, one of our youngsters on loan at Port Vale, would go one better though and win Sky Bet League Two Young Player of the Month. The 18-year-old midfielder had scored a cracking 3 goals in 5 games from a defensive role in midfield.
What a month! We started the month by taking a short trip over the pond to French Ligue 2 side US Avranches to play a friendly to keep us fresh during the first international break of the season. Victorious, we returned and went on a bit of a run: we would go unbeaten for the whole of September! If I was being completely honest, this was probably because we played against several teams predicted to be near the bottom of the league at the end of the season, as well as another chance to beat Millwall in the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup.
Miraculously, we were in the play-off positions, rather than fighting it out at the basement end of the league. 5th was the highest Argyle had ever finished in the 2nd division of English football, and that was back in the 1930s. It would take a mammoth effort to replicate that in our first season back home.
Janis Antiste, one of the signings that I was very excited about at the start of the season, had so far failed to find the net this season – that was until we hit September. The 19-year-old French forward (who had been capped 9 times at an U18 level for France) found his scoring boots in the 3rd round Carabao Cup tie against Millwall, hitting an incredible hat-trick. He would then go on to score his first league goal in the 1-0 win against Charlton and bag another two away to Swansea, deservedly winning the Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month award.
Another good month – pinch me – we’re still not struggling!
We would only fail to score in one of the league games this month, being held by Sheffield Wednesday at home (not helped by Luke Amos being sent off in just the 40th minute for a two-footed challenge). Apart from that, it was plain sailing! We’d pick up big wins against Birmingham and Fulham and see the makings of an excellent strike partnership develop between Jan Mlakar (who hadn’t really featured since the start of the season) and the in-form Janis Antiste. Matt Butcher began to rear his head as well, knocking in a couple of excellent goals from the centre of midfield. The highlight had to be knocking Premier League Southampton out of the Carabao Cup after punishing them on penalties.
Butcher and Antiste’s red-hot form meant that they were nominated for the Sky Bet Championship Player and Young Player of the Month respectively; while young centre-back Noah Delap – on loan at League Two Salford – won Young Player of the Month for bagging 2 goals in 5 games. Despite the good form, some players had been struggling: the situation at wing-back had been less than ideal. Jordan Cousins was only just making a return after being injured throughout pre-season and Liam Shephard, Johann Obiang and Adam Lewis had been very inconsistent in form. As a pivotal part of our team, we need these guys to perform to achieve our goals this season.
Finally, Adam Burton, one of our promising 18-year-old strikers, would go on loan to our affiliate club York City until the January transfer window to try and get some first-team experience.
I knew things were going too well.
A shocking run during November meant that our only win came against a (now defunct IRL) Bury side in a friendly match during the international break. We’d have the curse of big games on TV; losses against Crystal Palace and a draw against our closest local rivals Bristol City sandwiched two disappointing defeats against Derby and Cardiff. While we weren’t performing badly, we weren’t picking up results and needed a bit more of a killer instinct to grind out wins against the big boys of the Championship. We would slip to 9th place, and although I wasn’t necessarily worried about our positioning, I didn’t want us to continue a free-fall into the bottom half of the league or further.
During the month, three more young players from the academy would go out on loan: Slovenian centre-back Dario Milic and Hungarian defender Gábor Bánhegyi would join Adam Burton at York City until January, while midfielder Ryan Bevan would join Solihull Moors until the end of the season.
The most exciting news of the month came in the form of two new fancy international affiliate clubs. It was my intention from the start of this save to improve the older link between Argyle and the nations of Hungary and France, where many talented Pilgrims had come from in the past. This was made successful in November through the linking of Plymouth Argyle to Hungary’s Gyori ETO, a second division side, and France’s Sedan Ardennes, a French 4th division side.
An improvement was had in December, yet our month was still fairly indifferent. Leicester City, widely tipped to win the league, would beat us easily at the King Power Stadium, but good results against Nottingham Forest and Birmingham – as well as newly-promoted MK Dons and Barnsley – meant that we picked up good points. The Boxing Day match away to Birmingham was an absolute cracker: 5 separate goalscorers would find the back of the Blues net. Brentford would end up being our bogey team after completing the league double over The Pilgrims at the end of the month. Bournemouth would cause us to exit the Carabao Cup in the quarter finals after a 2-0 loss.
As is tradition, I like to renew the contracts of our top players when we get around Christmas (think of it as a bit of a present) and the biggest win was securing a new deal for our promising goalkeeper Mike Cooper. Mr Moshiri had clearly recognised The Pilgrims’ rise through the league system and offered me an interview with the struggling Premier League club (I obviously declined, however, it is always nice to see recognition of our current successes). I received the biggest festive gift of all from Mickey Evans, our Head of Youth Development, in the form of a preview of this season’s youth intake – it looked preeeeetty good. #goldengeneration
As the January transfer window was looming on the horizon, I could not find a position in the squad that we could improve upon. If any younger talents could be signed for a very cheap fee (and by that, I mean £0) I may bring in some players to improve the academy. The dilemma with this, however, was that the club finances were starting to look a bit ropey. At nearly £600k in the red and with little room to manoeuvre on the wage and transfer budgets, options were definitely limited.
January meant the start of the FA Cup for teams in the Championship and above, and we were drawn against Blackburn Rovers in the 3rd round where we would win and set up an unfortunate loss in the 4th round against Everton at Home Park. It would also be a month to remember for Jan Mlakar, who would pick up where Janis Antiste left off and be the driving force between our 4 wins and 2 draws in the league. This would shoot us back up the table to 7th place, and only 3 points off of the play-off places. Halfway through the season, we could be very proud of our position so far in the league.
Our one signing of the window would be a player that I had been tracking after discovering him by doing the classic ‘search through international youth squads’ trick. Rodri (Rodrigo Suarez Marcos) is an 18-year-old Spanish U20 international that was on non-contract terms at Spanish Segunda B side Cultural Leonesa. Getting a player of the calibre of Rodri in on a free transfer was excellent work by my scouting and transfers department. My intention for the young Spaniard is to ideally send him straight back out on loan again to a Football League club, but he could also fill in as adequate cover in the case of an injury crisis in the first team.
Other transfer business:
- Adam Burton -> Blackpool (League One) – After scoring a whopping 6 goals in just 3 appearances, I recalled Burton in the January transfer window to send out to a club higher up the league system. Blackpool came calling, and seeing as they were challenging for the top of League One, they seemed the perfect destination for this young and talented striker.
- Dario Milic -> Solihull Moors (Vanarama National League) – Milic would swap National North side York City for Solihull Moors, where he would join up with midfielder Ryan Bevan to get further first team experience.
- Gábor Bánhegyi -> Gyori ETO (Merkantil Bank Liga) – The Hungarian centre-back would return to his native country to help our affiliate club Gyori to challenge for promotion from the Hungarian second division.
Finally, Janis Antiste – who was quickly becoming a cult hero at Home Park – picked up his second Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month award after bringing his goals tally to 11 in all competitions.
March was going to be a difficult month, with challenging league games against promotion-chasers in Leeds, Forest and Derby, as well as potentially even trickier games against relegation battlers Barnsley and Millwall.
Despite all of the potential adversaries, Argyle would pull off some fantastic results, with the highlight being a bit of a smash-and-grab at Elland Road against league leaders Leeds. Although we had picked up 5 big wins, the loss against Nottingham Forest meant that we wouldn’t progress into the play-off places and would instead hang onto 7th place on the league table. The biggest loss of all, however, would not be dropping 3 points: Danny Mayor would pick up a hip injury and be out for 4 months; effectively ruling himself out for the rest of the season. The rest of my midfield would have to make do and fill in with each others’ roles, with young Craig Boyle ready to fill in if necessary.
Having not to deal with a local rival since our first season back in League Two, we were clearly out of practice: Bristol City would defeat us again at Ashton Gate; ironically we lost after Zak Vyner – a product of The Robins’ youth academy – put one past Cooper to hand them a 1-0 win. For the remainder of the month, we would turn it around though as we drew against new league leaders Leicester City and then putting a total of 8 goals past Blackburn and Charlton, where Janis Antiste would get his second hattrick of the season. Antiste would duly win yet another Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month award as a result of this.
Exciting news in terms of our youth academy followed our final league game of the season: we would have our first youth call-up to the England setup in Noah Delap. The young centre-back had finally been recognised for his talents now that he had spent some time playing first-team football. As well as that, our youth intake was fantastic, with 3 or 4 of our players looking capable of making the step up in the future.
As we approached the penultimate month of the season, we were in 5th with games against 2 of the bottom 5 and bottom half Swansea, as well as tricky games against promotion-chasing Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday. There is no way that we were expecting to be fighting it out for the play-off positions at the start of the season. If I was completely honest, I would say that my squad were playing way above their ability – beyond any expectations that I had of them. While Mlakar, Antiste and Butcher continued pushing for their nominations for Player of the Season, we picked up another 10 points to end April still in 5th place.
The most important thing though was that we had successfully secured a playoff place and secured a bit more of a windfall in terms of finances for next season.
Strangely, I would prefer it if we didn’t do well in the playoffs this season. I’d ideally like to make it to Wembley for the finances but fall at the final hurdle, as I don’y think that my squad is anywhere near being able to compete in the Premier League. (I could easily see us breaking Derby County’s record for the lowest amount of points in a Premier League season.) Having to probably fight it out with Crystal Palace, Leeds and Stoke should make it an easier job for me to avoid doing well in winning promotion…
In May, the normal season ended and Leicester City and Bristol City both made their immediate returns to the Premier League after being relegated last season. We would play our final game of the season at home to Fulham and draw 1-1, meaning that in the playoffs we would face the last of the teams trying to make a return to the Premier League, Leeds United.
It was an outstanding effort that we would be in the playoffs again for the second season in a row, although there is certainly less expectation this year.
Next time, we face Leeds United in the playoff semi-finals in what could be two season-defining matches.