Last time in The Pilgrimage, my young Plymouth Argyle side got through to the knockout stages of the Champions League. In this post – seeing as we looked out of the running for the Premier League title this season – we follow The Pilgrims on their journey to some of Europe’s elite clubs in a quest for glory.
While our form seemed to stagnate during the first half of the season, it suddenly looked like things were picking up. We picked up the maximum points available for January and progressed through to the 5th round of the FA Cup against Sheffield United following two 4-0 wins against both Brentford and Barnsley. Alan Carlos continued his hot streak of form, scoring two in the 3-0 win away at Everton; a 91st minute winner in the narrow 1-0 win at home to Chelsea; and joined youngster Paolo Cassano in the scoring against Newcastle. The young Italian striker had spent the first half of the season on loan at Nottingham Forest, bagging 5 goals in 25 league appearances. After re-assessing the squad before the January transfer window opened, I found that Cassano seemed far better than the experienced Jan Mlakar and decided to give him a chance in the first team. 3 goals in January backed up my decision to try out the Italian youngster.
12th January 2026 – IN – Derek Love – SL Benfica – £19m (£21.5m)
In terms of transfers, we noted in the last edition of The Pilgrimage that the board offered us a boosted transfer budget of £40m. With that budget, my backroom staff and I decided to strengthen on the left wing, probably our weakest position in the squad. In came Derek Love, a Scottish winger who had come through FCSM’s academy in France before joining Benfica in 2022 for £3.4m. Love is a winger that I had been tracking for a while, and he will most probably play a rotation role behind the excellent Angeliño.
21st January 2026 – OUT – Adam Lewis – Leicester City – £8.25m
Of course, with one winger coming in, one had to leave. Adam Lewis had been at Home Park for a massive six seasons before making the move to Leicester City, who are residing in the Championship at the time of writing. Initially joining on loan from Liverpool when we were in League 1 and the Championship, we signed the (then) wing-back for a fee of just £325k upon winning promotion to the Premier League. Lewis always played a rotation role in the squad but following a change to the 3-1-4-2 tactic he started to impress on the left side of midfield. While he has improved each season at the club, he had only 6 months left on his contract and wasn’t good enough to be offered a new one, therefore when Leicester stated their interest I decided to cut ties with Adam, making a tidy profit of just over £7.75m.
21st January 2026 – IN – Chris Salz – Schalke 04 – £43m
As soon as I identified the weaker areas of the squad, I’d assembled a list of potential wonderkid goalkeepers that could challenge the evergreen Mike Cooper in between the sticks. Despite only having a transfer budget of £22m before signing Chris Salz, I interacted with the board and told them about how important the Schalke goalkeeper could be for us. Mr Hallett duly obliged and set straight out to pay his £43m release clause to bring the German goalkeeper to the club as our record signing. Salz’s attributes are already ridiculous beyond his tender age and have plenty of room to grow. I look forward to seeing how Chris turns out after a couple of seasons at the club.
28th June 2026 – OUT – Josep Martinez – Norwich City – £3m (£3.7m)
Again, following the one in/one out rule, it was time for backup goalkeeper (and former captain for one season) Josep Martinez to leave. Martinez had always been fantastic whenever he made the odd appearance for Argyle (42 appearances across 3 and a half seasons) and often pushed Mike Cooper for the starting spot in the squad. Like Lewis, Josep didn’t have long left to run on his contract so we shipped him out to be a backup for Norwich City for a fee of £3m, potentially rising to £3.7m. After signing the Spanish ‘keeper for just £525k, he repesents another player that I have made a nice profit on after a few seasons at the club.
During the January transfer window, I had to make a lot of changes to my players on loan so that they had the appropriate playing time and the right clubs to nurture their growth. One of the players that did not need a change of scenery at all was Italian box-to-box midfielder Enea Romagnoli, who had spent the entire season impressing at promotion-chasing Stoke City in the Championship, and had his talents recognised with a Player of the Month award. Jesús García spent the first half of the season on loan at Sheffield United but barely played, however, when given the chance at Sheffield Wednesday the young defensive midfielder shone and only just came second to his academy teammate.
With February came a tricky run in the Premier League as well as a difficult away trip to Atlético Madrid in the Champions League. Despite that, we went another month with a complete winning streak! Fein, Kalonji and Alan Carlos dominated in a 3-1 win at home to Southampton before there was a 5-3 thriller at Elland Road that showed off our attacking talents more than our defensive nous. Ryōtarō Meshino levelled up the scores for Leeds at half time following a Paolo Cassano opener, and then 4 more different Argyle players found the back of the net in the second half (Angeliño, Teze, Hee-Chan and Mlakar). Late goals from Meshino and Arvin Appiah gave us a scare, but we went back to Home Park with all 3 points.
Alan Carlos brought the fury to Old Trafford, bagging two goals before Kristoffer Ajer was sent off for the Red Devils early in the first half. Delap and Fein continued their strong run of form to secure a 4-2 win against Manchester United. Hwang Hee-Chan has filled the role of a bit of an Ole Gunnar Solskjær figure at Home Park this season, often coming off of the bench to change the game and score important goals. This was no different against Liverpool, where we struggled to find a way through until the South Korean international found the net late in the second half.
2nd February 2026 – OUT – Tom Richardson-Brown – Everton – £3.8m
On deadline day, there was only one departure I wasn’t too sure about – the sale of young midfielder Tom Richardson-Brown to Everton for £3.8m. In the final days of the window, Crystal Palace and Everton were offering increasing fees for the Plymouth-born academy product, and despite his very nice looking potential star rating, I couldn’t see Richardson-Brown eventually playing a role in the first team in the coming years based on his attributes. Only time will tell if this was the right decision, and I hope Tom does not come back to haunt me.
UEFA Champions League 1st Knockout Round – Atlético Madrid v Plymouth Argyle (1st Leg)
You may have seen the result already in the fixture list above, but it certainly wasn’t one we were expecting. The side against Atlético was more-or-less full strength, in the hope that we could break down the torrid Spanish defence. Honestly, I couldn’t believe how it went down: Just before half time, Eustáquio picked up the ball in midfield and found Alan Carlos making a run between the Atlético centre-backs. The lethal Brazilian took a touch, rounded Oblak and slotted the ball into the goal to make it 1-0 to Argyle. Flavinho replied almost instantly for the hosts, receiving the ball on the left wing before dribbling through almost the entirety of my team and smashing a shot into the top-right corner past a helpless Salz to make it 1-1.
Early on in the second half, Pedro Diaz took a free kick on the left wing and floated a ball to the back post, where the towering Enrico Ambrosius nodded it back towards the near post. Joey Hermans leapt like a salmon and made it 2-1 to the Pilgrims. Madrid continued to attack, but in the 90th minute Adrian Fein won the ball back on the right wing and whipped in a cross into the Atlético box. Ironically, Rob Down was…downed…following a shove in the back from Lisandro Martinez. The referee had to go to the sideline pitch monitor to check on VAR if it was to be a penalty, and after a short wait, it was awarded. Up stepped Alan Carlos, who coolly slotted home past Oblak. We would take a 3-1 lead back to Home Park – and more importantly – 3 away goals.
Rightfully, Alan Carlos won the Premier League Young Player of the Month (with Murphy Kalonji coming in 2nd) and it was nice to also receive recognition as Manager of the Month following another winning streak.
Did someone say a three month-long unbeaten run?
The Pilgrims continued their excellent form in a month where the rest of the team had to step up in the place of Alan Carlos struggling to score goals n the league. Rob Down and Hwang Hee-Chan became the primary goalscorers in tricky wins against Brighton, Arsenal and Huddersfield. Although we had already reached the point that the board would be happy following a cup exit, a comprehensive 3-0 win against Sheffield United (with goals from Alan Carlos, Enrico Ambrosius and Rob Down) and a tight 3-2 thriller away to Spurs (with goals from Alan Carlos, Jordan Teze and Pedro Diaz) after being 2-0 down at half time meant that we were through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
UEFA Champions League 1st Knockout Round – Plymouth Argyle v Atlético Madrid (2nd Leg)
Feeling confident following the 3-1 win in Madrid, we made three changes to keep fitness up: Noah Delap, Luciano Rossato and Connor Ronan came into the team for Enrico Ambrosius, Stephen Eustáquio and Pedro Diaz. It was a tight game with both teams struggling to create anything, but my young Pilgrims managed to get the lion’s share of the chances. Shortly after half time, Angeliño found a bit of space on the left wing and simply floated a cross towards the back post. The in-form Rob Down shrugged off his marker and headed past Oblak to send Home Park wild. The rest of the match was a blur, with little highlights for either team. Following the final whistle, there were scenes of celebrations, as well as the draw for the quarter-finals and semi-finals, should we get there.
Ideally, the best team we could have faced in the quarter finals was Porto, but instead we were to face the odds-on favourites to win the Premier League, Manchester City. If we managed to get past the Citizens over two legs, we would find ourselves against the only other one of two giants: Real Madrid or Juventus. Yikes.
Another year, another poor youth intake. There were a couple players of note that could do a job in the future, but ultimately none to (literally) write home about.
This season has been one in which I have seen Alan Carlos go from strength to strength and it has been nice to see other officials involved in the game recognising his talents: in March, he received the Brazilian Olympic Committee Footballer of the Year award. Shortly after this, he made his national team debut. “How did it go?!” you all ask. Scored twice on his debut. #JustAlanCarlosThings
April was a huge month for Argyle, and it was a shame that the three-month win streak had to end. Things got off to a good start with a 3-0 win against Wolves, with goals from Vagner, Cassano and Alan Carlos. Our customary disappointing loss to a side we should be beating considerably came in the form of a 2-0 loss to lower-mid table Norwich City. We were completely outplayed for 90 minutes and made them look good, which did not bode well for our confidence in the Champions League quarter-finals. We did, however, manage to turn things around in our FA Cup semi-final against Brighton, where we won comprehensively 4-1 at Wembley. Perry Ng’s Burnley were unfortunate to find themselves relegated after the final league game of April, a 3-0 win at Home Park with goals coming from Alan Carlos, Cassano and Angeliño.
UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final – Manchester City v Plymouth Argyle (1st Leg)
For our tricky trip to Manchester, we went for a bit of rotation to keep us fresh for our league campaign, with Teze, Love and Ambrosius making starting appearances for the Pilgrims. Adrian Fein was unlucky to pick up a season-ending injury in training, so it was time for Nathaniel Chalobah to pick up where the talented German midfielder left off. It was Alan Carlos who opened the scoring at the Etihad. During a sustained attack, Rob Down ran into the City penalty box and lobbed a cross at the far post. Missinho managed to head the ball out of danger before Connor Ronan could take a shot at goal, but following the clearance Laporte struggled under the pressure of Chalobah and headed it back towards his own goal. Alan Carlos leapt on the Frenchman’s mistake and tapped it home past Ederson. 1-0 Argyle. City struck back almost immediately from the restart: Kylian Mbappé threaded a wonderful pass to Lautaro Martinez through the entirety of my midfield before the Argentine striker slotted the ball past Salz in goal. Although we hadn’t conceded many this season, goals like this were becoming an all-too-familiar theme. 1-1.
Raheem Sterling was substituted off due to injury not long after their equaliser, and it looked as if that disrupted their groove a little. Again and again Mbappé tore us apart on the right-wing while we sprung counter-attack after counter-attack, and thus it was no surprise that our new January arrival, Derek Love, was sent off following two yellow cards trying to stop the legendary striker. At this point, I talked to my assistant Lillian Nalis about what to do. He suggested we hold on to the away goal and take a draw back home. I kept it tight, with Hwang Hee-Chan dropping back to the left wing to cover for the loss of Love. Following a City attack, Kimpembe found himself under a heavy challenge from Luciano Rossato, lost the ball to the Italian and then Rossato whipped the ball forward to Alan Carlos, waiting on the shoulder of the Citizens’ defensive line. Just like many an Alan Carlos goal I have seen before, his composure was unreal as he ran the length of the City half before smashing it past Ederson. 2-1, and the referee’s whistle blew shortly after. Massive result.
UEFA Champions League Quarter-Final – Plymouth Argyle v Manchester City (2nd Leg)
After the poor performance against Norwich between the two legs against City, I had to make some changes in defence, with Josh Arnold, (a returning from injury) Joey Hermans and Murphy Kalonji coming into the team. The goal was simple in the second leg: make the most of the two away goals, as I couldn’t see us keeping Lautaro Martinez and Kylian Mbappé quiet for 90 minutes. As expected, City came flying out following the start of the match with a vicious attack, and Chris Salz kept us in it in the opening moments with some stellar saves. Following a classic Rob Down head-on to the right wing, Kalonji picked up the ball and ran straight into the City box. Laporte – who was clearly starting to hate playing against Argyle – scythed him down and the referee immediately awarded a penalty. Yes! Even though Ederson went the right way, Alan Carlos swung it into the bottom-right corner to make it 3-1 to Argyle on aggregate after 20 minutes. Pretty much straight after, Hermans was taken off due to injury; clearly he was not quite fit enough to come back to a difficult game like this.
Just as a I thought that would be the final struggle we would have to face of our own doing, Murphy Kalonji was tackled and had to come off too. Before the second half had even started, we’d already made two of our substitutions. Despite this, we hung on until the 70th minute before the next big event happened. My centre-backs played excellent passes around the back line before Ambrosius pinged a pin-point ball to Hwang Hee-Chan (once again filling in on the left wing). The South Korean international headed it on to Alan Carlos, who brought the ball down, spun John Stones and smashed it past Ederson at the near post. 2-0 to the Pilgrims, 4-1 on aggregate. We were through to the bloody semi-finals of the Champions League. Against the most successful team in Champions League history: Real Madrid. Oh god.
I was gutted following the match to find out that Hermans would be out for a month, but even worse was that Kalonji had broken his leg and was done for at least 8 months.
UEFA Champions League Semi-Final – Real Madrid v Plymouth Argyle (1st Leg)
So, here we were at the Bernabeu, missing three key players in Fein, Hermans and Kalonji. I spoke with Nalis again before the match and told him that all I’d expect is for the lads to give it their best shot. Yes, we’d knocked out massive teams in Atlético and City, but Real Madrid are just another level. Against a team that boast Harry Kane and Erling Braut Håland in their squad, I could not see us keeping them quiet for 90 minutes, let alone 180.
To put it simply, it was a tale of two keepers. Thibaut Courtois did not find himself challenged very much apart from the odd pot-shot from Rob Down and Alan Carlos, but Chris Salz kept us in the tie and duly won man-of-the-match in the 0-0 draw. It seemed like Real’s strategy was simply to play dirty: with 6 yellow cards and countless fouls, their performance not only disrupted our attacking flow but also the talents of Kane and Håland who both had poor games. I was very happy to take a draw back to Home Park, but was oddly disappointed not to nick an away goal in Madrid.
We ended the season very nicely in the Premier League, although we technically had nothing to play for after Manchester City comfortably secured the title in the first week of May. Angeliño grabbed the all-important goal against a very defensive West Brom to secure all three points; Hwang Hee-Chan was the saviour of our side in another 1-0 win after Alan Carlos had to be taken off early due to injury – an injury that would keep him out until the end of May. Sh*t. Angeliño and Hwang Hee-Chan continued to shine in the final two wins of the season against Aston Villa and West Ham, with Paolo Cassano and Noah Delap also finding the back of the net.
UEFA Champions League Semi-Final – Plymouth Argyle v Real Madrid (2nd Leg)
Luckily, we had Alan Carlos for the second leg against Real Madrid. The plan was very simple: stop Madrid from scoring, or simply out-score them.
Real Madrid immediately seemed more dangerous than in the first leg, with Håland looking far more dangerous coming off of the left wing. Salz pulled off some more excellent saves before we managed to hit Madrid on the counter-attack. Lucas Hernandez cynically stopped Rob Down in his tracks just outside of their penalty box and received a yellow card. Pedro Diaz took the ensuing free kick, whipping the ball from the right side of the box to the far post, where Enrico Ambrosius out-muscled Fran Beltran and headed past Courtois. 1-0! Just before half time, Rob Down found himself free, turned Lucas Hernandez and ran at the box. Hernandez, who was having a poor game, mistimed his tackle and took Down (down) again. The French centre-back received his second yellow card and was sent for an early bath. Going into half time, we were 1-0 up against a 10-man Real Madrid. The stuff that dreams are made of.
Against constant waves of pressure from Argyle in the second half, Kane and Håland were kept completely quiet and their defence were making more and more mistakes in poor clearances and mistimed tackles. It was one of these tackles that provided our second goal: Josh Arnold made a mazey run into the box before Andreas Christensen knocked the academy product over. Penalty. Alan Carlos stepped up again and scored. 2-0. We were going to the Camp Nou for the Champions League final. Our opponents: Bayern Munich. While this was terrifying, my coaching team and I celebrated with a night out on the Barbican, where Nalis and I partied the night away in joy at our victory.
After beating Real Madrid, we were also told that we were going to play in the Club World Cup this year. At the start of The Pilgrimage back in 2019, I could not see little-old Plymouth Argyle playing in the CWC.
Following the completion of the Premier League season – another 2nd place finish – we were provided with information about next year’s budgets. The Champions League money had really rolled in this year, especially while we kept one of the smallest wage budgets in the league, and therefore we were given a massive transfer budget of £106m and a wage budget of £1.3m per week. Kylian Mbappé, who had a brilliant season for City, beat Alan Carlos to the Premier League Golden Boot bur it was still another amazing season for the Brazilian striker. One of the board’s newer plans as part of the Club Vision was to expand Home Park further to 46,000 seats, an ambitious plan from Chairman Simon Hallett. It was nice to once again win the Premier League Manager of the Year award – hopefully next year I can win the league, instead of just being nominated as the best manager.
Next time, we try and make up for our coming so close last season in the FA Cup final against Liverpool; as well as facing the challenge of 5-time Champions League winners Bayern Munich at the Camp Nou in Barcelona.