Previously, we outlined our new tactical approach towards our second season in the top flight and improved our squad to battle against relegation again. We pick up our story at the start of the 2023/24 Premier League season.
We were blessed with a far easier start to the season than we did last year but failed to capitalise in a 1-1 draw at home to local-ish (in the sense that we are both on the south coast) rivals Southampton. I dreaded our first away day of the season, expecting the familiar 5-0 drubbings we received last year, and luckily managed to keep the loss to something at least slightly respectable. Wolves were next, and the Black Country side had been on a high the last few seasons, consistently finding themselves as ‘the best of the rest’. A massive 1-0 win – courtesy of a Janis Antiste goal – allowed us to pick up our first win of the season. We finished up the month with an away win in the Carabao Cup against Wigan Athletic, where a heavily-rotated Pilgrims side dominated with our new control possession 3-1-4-2.
It was also interesting to see that in terms of income and expenditure, we were still looking pretty rosy as far the finances were going. I was also pleasantly surprised that Gábor Bánhegyi, one of the young defenders I bought early in the save to develop, received his first call-up for Hungary: another international joins our squad!
We were blessed with nicer fixtures during September, where we picked up wins against fellow relegation candidates Newcastle United and Leicester City. Dawid Kownacki picked up his first two goals for the club in the 4-2 win against the Magpies, while Abou Kamara continued to impress against both Newcastle and Leicester. We found our 3-1-4-2 was undone away at the Emirates to play Arsenal, where Unai Emery’s side consigned us to defeat following a Josh McPake goal. We finished the month by continuing our progress through the Carabao Cup: a 4-2 win (where Phil Jezeph scored the pick of the goals) boosted our confidence for what would be a difficult month in October. An injury picked up by Mike Cooper also meant that Josep Martinez had a chance to shine between the sticks from the Leicester match onwards, and our Spanish captain did well.
Noah Delap, one of our original youth prospects that came through in our first intake, had taken to the Premier League like a duck to water and rightfully was nominated for Premier League Young Player of the Month. Rob Down, another youth prospect on loan at Millwall, had also had a fantastic month and duly won the Sky Bet League One Young Player of the Month award.
I knew it would be difficult, but jeeeeeeez. One goal in the whole of October meant that we were actually quite fortunate to even pick up 2 points. A disappointing collapse following a 93rd minute equaliser from Everton set the tone for the month, where we were toothless against a Manchester United side challenging for the title and even worse – a Leeds United side that had just been promoted and were fighting against relegation. I was not happy.
On the bright side, at least some of my youth players continued to impress out on loan: Rodri was having a good season at the heart of the Pompey defence and just missed out on winning Sky Bet League One Young Player of the Month.
Thank god we turned it around a little! Another comprehensive win against Sunderland in the Carabao Cup saw Hwang Hee-Chan and Dawid Kownacki put four past the Black Cats, while we were helpless to stop Moussa Dembélé (who had just been nominated for the 2023 Ballon d’Or) who hit a perfect hat-trick past Josep Martinez in goal. Despite this knock-back, we picked ourselves back up again and secured an away win against West Ham following an Iñigo Lekue goal, but the real masterclass was back at Home Park against Liverpool. We decided to switch to our previous 5-1-2-2 formation and managed to keep things tight up until half time, going in 1-1 after goals from Declan Rice for the Reds and Hwang Hee-Chan for the Pilgrims. After half time, we decided to come out on the front foot and switched to our 3-4-1-2. The most unlikely hero then emerged: Tom Trybull.
The defensive midfielder, who up until this point had never scored for Argyle, decided to hit one of the goals of the season past a helpless Alisson in the Liverpool goal. 2-1 to the Argyle. If that wasn’t shocking enough, he decided to do the exact same thing 5 minutes later! A late Naby Keïta gave us a bit of a scare but we held firm to secure our first ever win against Liverpool.
Our young Pilgrims continued to impress out on loan, where Adam Burton, Josh Arnold and Jaume Jardi all impressed in League 1 and 2 in England as well as the Bulgarian top flight. As the next international break loomed, it was lovely to see how many England youth internationals we have coming through our youth system. Clearly something was going well, and the Academy of Greens was evidence of the club making progress. The final tasty morsel of news at the end of the month was that we had – without any requests – our transfer budget increased to a whopping £33m by the board due to our tip-top finances.
Winter is always stressful in English football, where fixture congestion and wear-and-tear injuries can hit even the strongest of teams. Our December was mixed, with two wins against Aston Villa and Burnley and a creditable draw against Chelsea following a 91st minute Luke Amos equaliser. Our other draw in December came against our actual local rivals, Bristol City. I always think it is important to beat your local rivals, and so it was frustrating that we did ourselves no favours; allowed previous loanee Diogo Gama to score against us and missed many key chances to take hold of the match. Out of our three December losses, I found myself most frustrated at the comprehensive loss to Norwich City. The newly-promoted side completely outplayed us and we looked like standard Championship fodder. Brighton seemed to become our bogey team as we continued to struggle to pick up points against the Seagulls, while a 3-0 loss against Manchester City in the Carabao Cup quarter final was – being completely honest – entirely expected.
Two stellar seasons at Argyle for Connor Ronan meant that he came 2nd in the Irish Player of the Year award. Troy Parrott, Tottenham Hotspur’s wonderkid striker, pipped Ronan to the finish line through his performances in the Champions League; hopefully a competition that Ronan will play in at some point in the future.
It had to happen at some point: we finally received a bit of a naff youth intake preview from our Head of Youth Development, Mickey Evans. It was nice to finally have some perfectly-suited wide players coming through the ranks, however the fact that there was more quantity than quality meant that I was not expecting anything special in March.
As the new year began, we got off to a flyer. Leonardo Jardim’s Manchester United must have been out the night before, as a dominant Pilgrims side beat the Red Devils through a late Jan Mlakar goal – it was the second time in two seasons that we beat United in the league. Our attentions then turned to the FA Cup, where relegation-fighting Leeds fell by the wayside due to goals from two young Pilgrims in Phil Jezeph and Romain Fuchs (scoring on his debut) as well as a Lekue volley from the right wing. The red-hot form continued against Everton and Leeds (again) where Jan Mlakar continued to find the back of the net. Bournemouth – along with Brighton – was just one of those teams we always seemed to struggle against and it was no different at the end of the month. Our unbeaten run was brought to a staggering halt as the Cherries outclassed us twice at Dean Court, knocking us out of the FA Cup. Brighton were sandwiched between the two fixtures, and despite a late comeback, they beat us again. We continued to cling to the top half, but needed to improve on our form to stay there.
Mlakar’s 5 goals in 5 games earned him a well-deserved Premier League Player of the Month award, and it was also nice to see that our young striker Adam Burton was finally finding his scoring boots consistently in the lower leagues, receiving another Sky Bet League Two Young Player of the Month award to his name during his time on loan at Doncaster Rovers.
January Transfer Window
3rd January 2024 – OUT – Lucky Kehinde – Stoke City – £93k
With a year left on his contract, it was clear that one of our youth wing-backs in Lucky Kehinde wasn’t going to make it at Plymouth Argyle. Stoke City came in for the Nigerian defender and it was only fair to let him move to their U23 squad for just £93k.
9th January 2024 – IN – Sol Miles – Dulwich Hamlet – £11.75k
Our first incoming transfer was a bit of a hidden gem found by my scouting team. Sol Miles, a Welsh defensive midfielder at non-league Dulwich Hamlet, was available on a free transfer with just £11.75k compensation.
10th January 2024 – OUT – Josh Grant – Bristol City – £2.8m
This was a hard one, but due to Granty’s low RPW DNA, if a good offer came in for the Jamaican international, I would take it. Josh Grant had not appeared much in the first team and due to his wages I wanted to get rid. Even though it was our rivals, Bristol City, that came in for the ex-Chelsea youngster, a fee of £2.8m was very good considering there was only 6 months left on his contract.
10th January 2024 – IN – Marek Vagner – Sparta Praha – £14m
Granty’s replacement came in the form of Czech international Marek Vagner, who joined for a club record fee of £14m (his release clause). Although Vagner’s personality is less than ideal, the 18-year-old has incredible attributes for his age and the first *official* wonderkid that has joined Plymouth Argyle!
18th January 2024 – IN – Dillon Parkes – Brentford – £5.25m (£5.75m)
Our last signing of the window to join to Argyle is English goalkeeper Dillon Parkes. I was keen to improve our home-grown quota as well as get in another talented backup keeper to go out on loan to potentially be a member of the first team squad in the future. Although the initial £5.25m fee is a bit steep, there is always an extra premium for English players and I guarantee that I could sell him for a profit in the future.
31st January 2024 – OUT – Ellis Hickman – Sheffield Wednesday – £95k (£205k)
This was an absolute steal for us! Ellis Hickman, a mediocre goalkeeper who came through our youth system was wanted by Sheffield Wednesday and I bit their hands off when they offered a potential £205k in the future for the young English ‘keeper.
31st January 2024 – OUT – Janis Antiste – Hull City – £1m
Finally, the hardest transfer we had to make. With the emergence of Rob Down as an incredible youth striker, the need for Janis Antiste was gone. Antiste, one of my favourite signings I have made during The Pilgrimage, was incredible in the Championship and always popped up with important goals in the Premier League but was unlikely to improve further and was not worth giving a new contract to. With 6 months left on said contract, Antiste left for a fee of £1m (and a huge profit on the £68k we paid for him) to relegation-fighting Hull City in the Championship. Godspeed, young Janis.
Loans Out: Romain Fuchs (Morecambe, League Two), Phil Jezeph (Botev Plovdiv, A Futbolna Grupa Championship).
Inspired by the fact that I am putting off writing end-of-year reports for my class currently, I instead decided to look back on the progress of three remaining players who came through our youth intake in our first season.
What more can be said about Noah Delap that hasn’t already been said? A young centre-back that has taken like a duck to water to the Premier Leauge, loan spells at League Two Salford City and League One Wigan Athletic was the perfect senior experience that Delap needed to make it in the first team ranks. Hopefully, Noah will continue to impress in the first team, as much as he has been so far in his Argyle career.
Kyle Horne initially seemed to be one of the most impressive candidates coming through the youth intake in 2020, and the box-to-box midfielder has always impressed wherever he has been on loan. A spell at Port Vale in League Two and two seasons in League One with Southend United clearly showed Horne’s level: even though he impressed, he doesn’t seem like he has the ability to progress enough to make the first team. A trier, but unfortunately not quite good enough.
I am always a bit of a sucker for talented youth strikers coming through the system, and Adam Burton looked to be one that could make it all the way to the top flight. In the U18 and U23 Argyle squads he thoroughly impressed, although this unfortunately did not reflect in many of his loan appearances. Despite scoring freely with York City in the Vanarama National League North, he then struggled in League One with Blackpool and Rotherham United, scoring only 2 goals in 17 appearances. This season he has found his level in League Two with Doncaster Rovers, scoring a record 13 league goals in 43 appearances. Like Horne, he isn’t ever going to make it in the top flight but should have a successful lower league player.
Thank you again for reading – next time, we finish our second season in the Premier League and try to better last season’s finish of 10th.