Football Manager 2020 ‘The Pilgrimage’ #12 – The Playoff Push

Welcome back! Last time, we miraculously finished 5th in the Championship after only being predicted to fight bravely against relegation and were drawn against Premier League hopefuls Leeds United in the the playoff semi-finals. In today’s edition, we follow the media machine as the drama develops.

Plymouth Argyle vs Leeds United (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Final 1st Leg)

“We’re here today for the first leg of the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Finals as the giants of Leeds United travel to the minnows of Plymouth Argyle. I’m Scott Minto and I’m joined by our established team of Football League experts in Keith Andrews, David Prutton and our friend ‘Ollie’, Ian Holloway.”

Mr Minto was immediately interrupted as ‘Hollowords’ failed to control his own mouth, “Orite Scotty, luvly to be back ‘ere in the ‘muff! Been a while since the janners have let me back in this place – safe to say it ain’t so much Home Park for me anymore, eh!”

In response to this – unsurprisingly – Keith Andrews completely no-sold Holloway’s joke, instead turning back to Scott and adding in his Northern Irish drawl, “The Pilgrims are a club on the rise, but they’ll have a tough task going against a team that finished 18th in the Premier League last year.”

David Prutton, Sky Sports’ resident predictor, added his thoughts on the matter. “As soon as we knew the teams in the playoffs, I predicted that Leeds and Crystal Palace would probably be the teams making their way to Wembley after this week’s matches. Plymouth ideally have to pull off a result here and take something to Elland Road to stand any real chance of getting through.”

“Err, sorry to correct you, Dave,” Holloway began, “But just to let you know that they hate it when us pundits call them Plymouth – I have learnt some things since leaving here. Its Argo or nuffin, just saying!”

“Right you are…thanks Ollie. Okay – it’s time to see the lineups and chat to the men in charge. First up is Plym…ahem…Argyle manager RPW FM, and here’s how his Pilgrims team looks today. “

“Argyle make a massive five changes from their last match against Fulham, with Josh Grant, Joel Latibeaudiere, Luke Amos, Matt Butcher and Dominic Telford dropping out for Captain Perry Ng, Zak Vyner, Adam Randell, Conor Grant and Janis Antiste. Argyle’s front two today of Mlakar and Antiste have scored 36 goals between them this season and look like their most potent threat going forward, while the young home-grown talents in Mike Cooper and Adam Randell will be tasked with trying to stop Leeds from scoring today. Now, let’s hear from their manager, RPW FM.”

“Good morning RPW, how are you feeling about today’s match?”

“I’m going to be completely honest with you, I’m a little nervy. I think that no matter who I am managing, playoffs are a bit of a scary thing, but when you’re managing your boyhood club – the expectations are very different. The whole club and the Green Army know that all we were meant to do this season was try and stay up, and we’d already surpassed that goal. There really isn’t any pressure on us to succeed today, but as an Argyle fan, I always want us to do as well as we possibly can.”

As the familiar tune of John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Semper Fidelis’ rang out around the Home Park PA system, 17,904 people took to their feet to roar on the first of the playoff semi-finals. Ryan Edmondson would be kicking off for Leeds, who would be shooting towards the Devonport End in the first half.

Straight away, Argyle were on the press, forcing over a turnover in possession (and as a result, sending the crowd into an immediate frenzy). Conor Grant stole the ball off leads before laying it off to Shephard on the right wing to run into space. A clumsy challenge flew into the legs of our right wing-back, just outside the edge of the penalty area – free kick!

Conor Grant stepped up, put a left-footed in-swinging cross into the box towards the far post where Portuguese centre-back Pedro Ganchas would leap like a salmon and nod it in past the flapping Maxence Prévot in the Leeds goal. 1-0! After just over a minute!

Just a couple of minutes after the restart, Argyle were not letting Leeds settle. Prévot could not deal with the high-pressing of Jan Mlakar up front and scuffed a ball straight out of play, in a similar position to where Shephard won his free kick just minutes ago. Shephard would take the ensuing throw-in to Janis Antiste, who ran straight at the penalty box before being cruelly scythed down by Leeds’ left winger Andre Green (who received a yellow card for his troubles). We had an almost identical free kick as the one that caused the opening goal! Could we do it again?

Conor Grant would, once again, swing his left boot at the ball, floating it (again) towards the far post. This time, our captain stepped up: Perry Ng lost his marker in the box, ran towards the far post and – completely unmarked – headed in past Prévot once again. 2-0!

Throughout the rest of the first half, Argyle continued to dominate, limiting Leeds to very few chances and continuously pressing and running at their shaken defence.

After the break, Leeds came out with a bit more of an attacking intent. They managed to counter our press a lot better and often found us out of position to catch our defence out on the break. In the 74th minute, Eirik Helstad sent a long ball out to Helder Costa who ran straight to the by-line before cutting back to ex-Argyle loanee Joe Bryan. Bryan made no mistake and buried the ball straight past the outstretched hands of Mike Cooper. 2-1. We momentarily switched off, and we were punished for it.

Luckily, my team don’t know when to quit. Straight from the kick-off, Perry Ng picked up the ball and made a run to halfway before playing a perfectly weighted through ball down the wing to Liam Shephard. Shephard ran onto it, flying past the tired Leeds defence and pinged a great ball into Janis Antiste, who poked it past Maxence Prévot, making his compatriot’s day worse than it already was. 3-1!

Argyle then went on to manage the final 15 minutes of the game, keeping the ball well and frustrating Leeds. When the referee’s final whistle blew, a roar erupted around Home Park. We’d got the result at home – now all we had to do was take the form to the formidable Elland Road.

Leeds United vs Plymouth Argyle (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Final 2nd Leg)

The huge Hesco East stand at Elland Road

“Welcome back to Elland Road for the second leg of the Sky Bet Championship playoffs between Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle!” Scott Minto suddenly tailed off, pressing his finger to his ear with a pained look on his face. “What do you mean we’re not live? It’s half an hour before kick-off, surely we have to be live? Pardon? We’re not even showing this game?”

That’s right. Only some of the biggest games in English football completely not even picked up by Sky. With this underdog story, I thought the media would be chomping at the bit to show the second leg, but I guess Stoke v Palace just has a bit more interest in it. Ah well. I relieved Scott of his duties before preparing for the match.

We would make just one change going into the second leg of the playoff semi-finals: Johann Obiang would be dropped for Adam Lewis at left wing-back. The reasoning for this was that although Obiang was the more defensively-minded player, Adam Lewis could offer a bit more of a wildcard feel to play in the way that he contributes towards a lot of goals through set-pieces.

The rest of the team would stay the same, with the hope that our defenders play an absolute blinder like they did in the first leg and that our lethal strike partnership of Mlakar and Antiste can both find the back of the net.

Over 36,000 were packed into Elland Road as the two teams came out. When the ref’s whistle piped up, the roar of the majority of the 36,000 came from proud Yorkshiremen who had followed their team through thick and thin. This clearly dumbfounded the Green Army and pushed United on, who dominated the early stages of the game. Arvin Appiah, who was playing on the right wing for Leeds, picked up the ball in the 9th minute and ran at the Argyle penalty box. Adam Lewis, potentially rusty from lack of game time, stuck out a clumsy leg and completely missed the ball and took out Appiah. Penalty.

Lukas Nmecha stepped up for the penalty and hit a very good penalty past Mike Cooper into the top right corner of the net. It was 1-0, and 3-2 to Argyle on aggregate. I screamed at the boys: there was no way in hell this was going to be the goal that made the floodgates open. The seemingly iron-clad defence of Ganchas, Vyner and Ng was looking shaky throughout the first half and it was only some midfield help from Randell and good saves from Cooper that kept the score at 1-0 going into half time.

But no – that was not all for the first half. In the first minute of added time, Argyle would start off a passing move where 9 out of the 11 players on the pitch in Green would be involved, countering the Leeds high press. Randell shielded the ball in midfield and laid it back to Ng, who made an excellent surging run forward and sent a pin-point pass through to the run of Liam Shephard. The right wing-back sprinted forward and crossed the ball to the far post, where the oncoming Adam Lewis – at fault for the first goal – headed against the crossbar before burying the deflection past Prévot in goal. 1-1! We regained our two goal aggregate lead at the best time; just before the half-time break.

The instructions at halfers were to just keep that 2 goal gap as long as we possibly could and to expect the inevitable Leeds onslaught. I was right, and from the start of the second half our opponents really went for it. We’d experienced a number of close shaves, with Nmecha having a 72nd minute goal disallowed for being fractionally offside. Adam Lewis was substituted off for Joel Latibeaudiere not long after this due to a knock following a hefty challenge. Following a clearance from a Leeds corner just after the 80th minute, Ganchas flew in with a stupid challenge to give away a lucrative free kick on the right wing. From the resulting free kick, Juanpi floated in a pass to a completely unmarked Jonathan Panzo who headed past Cooper. 2-1. 4-3 to Argyle on aggregate. 10 minutes to go.

As the fourth official’s board showed that there were to be 4 minutes added time, we clung onto our narrow lead for dear life. Ganchas, now playing at left wing-back, picked up the ball on the wing and put a through ball into the feet of Jan Mlakar. The Slovenian striker would cut the ball back to the edge of the box, where Jacob Maddox dodged a tackle from Appiah and curved a beautiful shot past Prévot, who was left wrong-footed on his line. 2-2! The 300 or so members of the Green Army that travelled to Elland Road breathed a collective sigh of relief – we had our comfortable two goal lead back – it was 5-3 on aggregate and surely the game was over. Right?


Straight from the restart, Juanpi picked up the ball in midfield and pinged a perfect ball to Bryan who was making an overlapping run on the left wing. Bryan took a touch and sent a low cross into the box, past the half-asleep Zak Vyner, where Nmecha would slot it past Cooper to get his 2nd of the game in the 95th minute. 3-2 to Leeds. 5-4 on aggregate to Argyle. The next 50 seconds felt like forever, but when Graham Scott blew the final whistle the Green Army erupted. We’d be going to Wembley for the second time in two years!

Crystal Palace would be the final roadblock in our potential journey to the Premier League after they overturned a 3-1 loss against Stoke in the first leg of the semi-finals by winning 2-0 at Selhurst Park. Palace won the eventual penalty shootout and would be difficult opponents in two weeks time.

Crystal Palace v Plymouth Argyle (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final)

We would soon be walking out of this tunnel for the second time in two years

If I had to make a prediction at the start of the season – and if I was being truly optimistic – I would have said that we could probably finish mid-table at best. The fact that we were about to walk out at Wembley for the second time in two seasons (in what is often dubbed as the most lucrative game in English football) was unbelievable. In the two week gap between the Leeds second leg and today’s match, we’d changed our usual trip over to France to instead visit Limerick in Ireland for a friendly match and some team bonding. The big day was here though, and it seemed that Sky actually wanted to turn up for this one…

Or not, apparently.

“Orite bhuys! It’s me, Ollie, ‘ere and I’ve got my best bhuy Scott Mento next to me as we cover today’s Championship playoff final!”

“Let’s go f***ing Minto, let’s go f***ing Minto! Cheers Ollie – now you might be wondering what happened after the semi-final between Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle wasn’t broadcast on Sky Sports. To give you the full reasoning – Sky completely forgot that I had been scheduled to cover the match, thought that nobody would be interested, and so left me in the cold. Don’t you worry though, I told them what for and where they could stick their broadcasters job! Luckily I have a mate who could hijack one of their channel feeds so I thought I’d set up my own coverage with my mate Ian Holloway!”

“‘Ere bhuy, you forgot the best bit – we’re getting on it at the same time!” Ian replied before smashing a lukewarm can of Thatchers Gold against the green glass of Scott’s bottle of Rattler in a Stone Cold Steve Austin-esque show of testosterone and appreciation.

“Anyway,” Scott started, after taking a long sip from his bottle, “We don’t know how long we’ll have before BSkyB find out we’re doing this and take us off air – so here’s the Argyle lineup. Ollie, talk us through the changes.”

“Cheerz’en Minto, reyt you are. Argo make two changes from the last leg against Leeds, with Joel Latibeaudiere replacing Pedro Ganchas in the back three and Johann Obiang replacing the injured Adam Lewis at left wing-back. Not gonna lie mate, Ganchas and Obiang sound like the usual thing I order from my local takeaway!”

“Thanks for that insight into your Friday night food choices, Ollie – anyway – the match is about to start, so if this is our only time broadcasting ScottSports, just know that we went out in style! Also, Christina, please don’t change the locks, we can work this out…”

Scott sobbed into Ollie’s shoulder as the TV feed scrambled before showing the crystal clear, official Sky Sports coverage just as Keith Stroud blew his whistle to start the match.

The opening five minutes seemed edgy as Palace defender Dael Fry picked up an early yellow card within just 40 seconds. Crystal Palace had the lion’s share of possession and were carving out the most chances, and it seemed like Argyle’s role in this match was to simply sit back and hope. It’s important to remember that during the normal season, Crystal Palace went unbeaten against the Pilgrims. On one of the rare occasions that the Greens managed to get the ball back and start an attack, Adam Randell sent a long ball out wide to Johann Obiang, who ran to the byline before attempting a cross that was blocked by Harvey Elliot, on loan from Liverpool. The ball deflected out of play for the first corner of the match after 10 minutes.

Conor Grant, who had been an absolute master of the set piece during the playoffs, would be the player to step up and take the corner. The midfielder’s heroic left foot swept the ball into the box, floating it perfectly for Janis Antiste – who is only 5’10” and was marked by the entirety of Palace’s back four – to head into the top-left corner of the net past Martin Dúbravka! 1-0!

As the first half progressed, Crystal Palace used their dominance in possession to keep attacking the Pilgrims; Harvey Elliot, Jordan Ayew and Jairo Riedewald would all go very close to scoring if it wasn’t for the strength of our defence and Palace’s inability to stay onside. The whistle blew though, and Argyle had survived 45 minutes of onslaught AND nicked a goal at the other end.

The aim of the second half – I told the boys – was to simply stay in the game. Crystal Palace continued their plan in the second half, and this final started to resemble a simple attack v defence drill you might see in a training session. They continued to knock on the door, and it began to be a team effort in keeping them out; an important block by Jan Mlakar springs to mind when praising the whole team’s defence. Not long after the 60th minute, we swapped out both of our tiring wing-backs who had given everything for an hour. Jordan Cousins was a straight swap for Liam Shephard, while Josh Grant offered a bit more of a defensive impetus in comparison to Johann Obiang.

The only way I could see Argyle scoring again was if we were lucky from a set piece, and by the time it got to the 70th minute, Palace were really going for it. I brought on Carlton Morris for Jan Mlakar, who had worked very hard for the team defensively today but was not making or finishing any opportunities up front. Morris would be able to do a lot of the running needed against a tired Palace defence. The ex-Norwich striker would make an almost immediate effect, narrowly missing a header at goal after just a minute on the pitch.

Every single player wearing green was giving everything for one another. One of the key parts of my RPW DNA was high levels of teamwork, and I could see in every one of my players that they were not going to let Palace break them down.

The clock continued to tick by and reached the 95th minute when Keith Stroud put his whistle to his lips and again blew up for full time. WE DID IT!

Somehow, some way, this little side from Devon fought against all of the odds and found itself in the PREMIER LEAGUE! Don’t get me wrong, the odds of staying up and not losing every match of the season were probably going to be very slim, but if we could defy the bookies again we could truly continue to make history.

The Greens are going up! The Greens are going up! Now you’re gonna believe us, now you’re gonna believe us, now you’re gonna believe ussssssssss… the Greens are going up!

The next day, after painting London green, I returned back to Home Park to sit down with the chairman Simon Hallett and look at plans for next season. The outline of what he said can be found below:

  • Transfer budget: £30.59m
  • Wage budget: £375k a week
  • Expectations: Fight bravely against relegation
  • £2m was to be spent installing under-soil heating at Home Park

Considering the club was now at almost £4m in the red, I was surprised to receive such a hefty transfer bounty. The reality was though that we may struggle this season as our reputation is still very low in comparison to our counterparts.

Finally, the end of season awards really showed how much of an incredible first season Janis Antiste had in the green and white of Argyle:

The young French striker won Fan’s Player of the Season, Signing of the Season and Young Player of the Season, as well as winning the prestigious EFL Young Player of the Year award; which had a fine list of previous winners such as Eddie Nketiah, Dele Alli, Wilfried Zaha and Gareth Bale.

For now, my squad needed a well-deserved rest. It was only going to be 4 weeks before the football machine started rolling around again for pre-season, and this could be one of our biggest and most important ones yet.

Next time, we make our transfers ready for the battle of the Premier League and tackle our first pre-season as a top division club.

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