It has been a while, but we’re back with Plymouth Argyle following the end of the 2022 FIFA World Cup! We pick up where we left off as the Premier League returns in December 2022. Can we continue to overachieve and survive the drop?
A tricky return beckoned, with a trip to Anfield to face reigning Premier League champions Liverpool. It went about as well as I’d expected with Firmino, Salah and Bruno Fernandes running rings around my young players. Adam Lewis and Jonathan both struggled at left wing-back as Salah provided a torrid time for the two defenders. Luckily, we bounced back with a comprehensive win on Monday Night Football against Leicester at home, with Janis Antiste, Joel Latibeaudiere and Perry Ng finding the back of the net in a dominant display. A heavily rotated side then carried that momentum through to the FA Cup 3rd round tie against Nottingham Forest where U23 player Josh Foster would make his debut. Near the end of the month, we were provided with a wee early Christmas present with a teaser regarding this year’s youth intake:
Did someone say ‘golden generation’?
The star on top of the tree though was the board providing me with an extra gift in the form of an increased transfer budget – I imagine this was due to the much improved financial situation at the club since arriving in the Premier League.
Whether or not I would make any big moves in January would be something for my backroom staff and I to discuss; I would only choose to normally make signings mid-season of promising youth players or last-minute panic buys.
January was a mammoth month in terms of fixtures, and a month of mixed results. Pedro Diaz and Luke Amos scored in the away win to bottom-of-the-league Sheffield United and we picked up other big league wins against Villa and Everton, where Janis Antiste would continue to score and the midfield partnership of Connor Ronan and Conor Gallagher continued to develop. This was offset with a heavy loss against Man City and a disappointing performance against a very good Brighton side pushing for the European places. Brentford fell by the wayside in the quarter final of the Carabao Cup and we would unfortunately fail to stage a comeback against current holders Wolves in the semi-final, strangely played at West Ham’s London Stadium. Our FA Cup run continued as we played against an old friend in Sam Smith as his Reading side were pumped 2-0 following goals from Boris Moltenis and Connor Ronan.
In the previous month I was promised an increased transfer budget, and I decided to make two signings: one for the first team and one for the U18s.
The prodigal Slovenian son returns! After a very good season on loan from Brighton last year and a failed attempt at signing him permanently at the beginning of the season, the Seagulls finally decided to let Jan Mlakar go and join the Pilgrims for a fee of £8.25m, our new record signing! If Mlakar can add some goals and good link up play (just as he did last season) then he will be worth every penny of the transfer fee.
In terms of signings for the U18 squad, we brought in Lars Isecke, a young German defender, from TSV 1860 München who are currently in the 2nd tier of German football; a fee of £1.5m allowed Isecke to join the Green Army. A versatile player, I plan on re-training Lars as a right wing-back to fill another gap in the youth squads.
As well as our two new additions to the team, some more young players went out on loan: Spanish central defender Rodri and young attacking midfielder Angus Hoskins set out to join Kyle Horne at Southend; Adam Burton joined League One Rotherham in hope of a better spell than he had at Blackpool; and Northern Ireland U21 international Craig Boyle joined Oldham to support their defence. The only other major outgoings came in the form of Zak Vyner,who left to join Hibernian on loan after finding himself as the 7th choice-centre back in the first team, as well as youth departures in Jason Simpson who joined Reading for £375k and Will Kelly who joined Sunderland for £325k. You may be thinking, “Hold on – 7th choice centre-back? You only ever have 6 in the squad?” You’d be right to think that – our new member of the backline was a recalled Noah Delap, who now seemed ready for life on the fringes of the first team squad.
The only other things to mention about January were that I reached my 200th game in management (which of course I lost to Brighton), we seemed to be under the potential takeover of the board, we looked to expand Home Park and Janis Antiste came a close 2nd in Premier League Young Player of the Month. The worst news came though when it looked like Adam Lewis, one of our new left wing-backs, seemed to find his season over following a broken ankle.
February was a mixed month: we lost (as expected) against Chelsea and Spurs, while Manchester United finally broke their curse against us when they finally beat us at Old Trafford following Mason Greenwood and Kristoffer Ajer goals. We bottled what should have been an easy win against Huddersfield but turned it around (twice) against Newcastle; new signing Jan Mlakar scored in both fixtures, with goals from Abou Kamara and Connor Ronan adding to the scoreline. At the end of the month, a tense extra-time win
ANOTHER big month. The main threat came from Manchester City, where we managed to only hold down a 1-0 loss as opposed to our usual heavy losses to the bigger sides, whereas matches against Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Southampton were very winnable games. I wanted to focus in particular in our match against bottom-of-the-league Blades, who arguably gave us the game of the season following the sacking of long-standing manager Chris Wilder.
What should have been an easy win at home was certainly not the reality. We went down early on, as the Yorkshire side free of their manager took the shackles off and allowed Lys Mousset and John Egan bagging goals before 15 minutes had even passed. Things weren’t going to plan. I laid into the lads, giving them hell from the sidelines, and luckily two players stepped up: Janis Antiste clawed one back just 5 minutes after Egan’s goal, and Didier Ndong levelled the scores just before half time. Despite coming back, I really was not impressed with our performance so far.
The advice did not fall on deaf ears, and Diogo Gama stepped up to score in the 62nd minute to take the lead! As we approached the end of the match, Callum Robinson found an unlikely equaliser for The Blades in the 83rd minute and it seemed like we were going to drop two points. The 4th official’s board went up, and an extra 5 minutes were to be played. Cometh the hour, cometh the man and Luke Amos scored a long-range screamer to make it 4-3 in the 92nd minute! Jubilation and celebrations were cut short however, when Lucas Moura popped up on the counter attack straight from kick-off to level up the scores again! I thought that was it, but with practically the last kick of the game, Didier Ndong found himself in space on the edge of the box and smashed it past Karl Darlow in the 96nd minute! If any game was to give me a heart condition, this would be the one.
The other big deal in March was our youth intake! The supposed ‘golden generation’ turned out to be a generation of only two players who looked like they had a great deal of potential. Adam Holmes looked a bit of a prospect up front but I was more overjoyed at the fact we had a decent wing-back come through in Swiss defender Remo Schulthess!
Finally, our focus on the youth paid off as we had a massive THREE players nominated for Premier League Young Player of the Month award. Diogo Gama won it, with Noah Delap and Janis Antiste coming a close 2nd and 3rd. Connor Ronan also continued his good form and came 2nd in the Premier League Player of the Month.
The penultimate month of the season was rough, to say the least. We equalled our best finish in the FA Cup following our defeat in the semi-final to Manchester United, and the losses came thick and fast against Liverpool and Arsenal in the league. Despite the latter two being heavy losses, I was more gutted at dropping points against Leicester and Bristol City. We looked toothless in attack and I couldn’t see us finding the back of the net at all. The only positive was that we picked up points against strugglers Watford; a result which meant we were now safe from relegation with a month to go!
Lastly, I thought it was interesting that we made the 4th largest profit in just our first season in the Premier League. I understood that this was probably due to us having the lowest wage contribution in the league, yet I couldn’t help but be happy about the fact that we were looking in sound financial clout for the future.
The first few performances of our last month of the season continued to disappoint and we were lucky to pick up a win against Bournemouth. I made a couple of tactical changes following the Southampton draw and in our final game of the season we really seemed to go for it. A ridiculous 5-1 win against West Ham at Home Park was a cracking way to celebrate our survival in the Premier League, with goals from Connor Ronan and Jan Mlakar and a hat-trick from Diogo Gama acting as the icing on the cake.
Following the end of the season, our 10th place finish superseded our pre-season expectations by a massive 10 places and luckily Simon Hallett kept expectations exactly the same for next season. Even though he’d previously asked me to sign players under 30, he removed that restriction for next season. Despite this, I don’t really like buying older players so that works for me regardless.
Finally, the end of the season also brought official plans for an expansion to Home Park; we found that we were the 4th lowest spenders in terms of transfers in the league; Diogo Game very rightfully won Premier League Young Player of the Month for May and shared his delight with the media at how much he has enjoyed being at Home Park. Diogo, we’ve enjoyed you being here too.
Well, what a journey our first season in the Premier League was! Next time, we get prepared for our second season in the top flight and see how far we can push The Pilgrims!
Thank you (as always) for taking the time to read my mundane stories – it’s a pleasure to write them.