Previously in The Pilgrimage, we finished 2nd in the Premier League in consecutive seasons; managed to reach our second consecutive FA Cup final and find ourselves in our first ever Champions League final against Bundesliga champions, Bayern Munich.
The FA Cup Final – Plymouth Argyle v Liverpool – Saturday 23rd May 2026
Some sequels are better than the original. The Dark Knight, The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens. Suited and booted at home, I left for the short drive to Home Park where I’d meet up with my coaching staff and squad before taking our Target Travel coach up to London. Last year we came incredibly close. Bottled it by half time; almost made the impossible comeback by 90 minutes. Since then, we had grown as a squad. I had grown as a manager. We had grown as a club. We had to do better this time.
Sitting down onto the coach with Lillian [Nalis], Rory [Fallon] and Romain [Larrieu] – my closest confidants – we spoke about the upcoming match while the players settled down at the back of the vehicle.
[Noah] Delap and the boys were at the back, settling into their pre-game rituals: catching up on the latest Netflix craze; challenging for silverware on Football Manager; or simply sticking a pair of AirPods in and focusing their minds for the challenges ahead. I could not switch off as easily. I sat with Grant [Dawes, Chief Data Analyst] and meticulously reflected upon three matches on his laptop: our unfortunate 1-1 draw away at Anfield; our 1-0 win at Home Park later on in the season; and last year’s FA Cup final loss to Manchester City. Data would suggest that the minnows from the South West had the upper hand in this mammoth task, however we were facing the 9-time winners. We could prepare all we like, but cup finals are as much about mentality and luck as they are ability and statistics.
The next day, after a sleepless night in a hotel bed that was so soft that I felt like I was drowning in the mattress, I rose to a knock at my door. It was Lillian.
“Morning RPW, I just wanted to say a couple of words before we go out there today,” he began. His sunny disposition always saw the bright side of a tense situation like this afternoon’s match. “I know how disappointed we both were after last year’s defeat against City. Remember: the Green Army see us as heroes, whatever the result. I saw it back in my playing days and I see it now. The boys will do us proud, no matter what.” The Frenchman slapped me on the shoulder before heading down to breakfast.
Upon arrival at Wembley, we bundled through the players’ entrance (to quickly get away from the media fanfare) and settled into the vast expanses of the changing room. For a second time today, there was another knock on the door and in came Plymouth Argyle icon – clad in a tweed suit and emerald green club tie – Neil Warnock.
“Alright boys! Just wanted to say a couple of words of good luck for later – go out there and smash it. I didn’t want to add the pressure that I was the last manager to take Argyle to glory at Wembley, but…” ‘Colin’ broke off into a chuckle, shaking hands with Joey [Hermans] and Nathaniel [Chalobah] before heading up to his box.
The lineup for the match against Liverpool was the strongest I could have possibly made it. Due to the injuries to first-choice options Joey Hermans, Murphy Kalonji, Adrian Fein, Rob Down and the prolific Alan Carlos, I had to make some enforced changes. Ambrosius, Teze, Chalobah, Cassano and Hee-Chan were strong replacements though, and the lack of players available also gave young striker Alex Farrell a spot on the bench in what could be his first team debut.
As in many a cup final, the first ten minutes were edgy and resembled a stalemate. Liverpool had the first chance, with Marek Vagner picking up a yellow card and providing a promising free kick for taking out Diego Lainez to stop a counter attack from the Reds. Frenkie de Jong stepped up and forced an awkward-footed save from Chris Salz, who managed to tip the vicious set-piece onto the crossbar. The ball bounced off cruelly back into the feet of a very fortunate Declan Rice, who simply passed the ball into the net past the helpless Salz. 10 minutes gone. 1-0 to Liverpool. It wasn’t the best of starts.
From the restart, Argyle were fired up and immediately shot forward, switching play numerous times around the box before Paolo Cassano pounced on a loose ball just outside of the penalty area and smashed a shot just wide of the post following a deflection from Solet. The ensuing corner from Diaz came to nothing, and although the Greens dominated the next 20 minutes, Liverpool continued to be dangerous on the break. Liverpool seemed to get most of their joy from a well-played set-piece, with Salz keeping us in the game multiple times with some world-class saves. Liverpool had the corner now, and it was the dangerous Lainez who sent an outswinging cross into the penalty box. Oumar Solet leapt above both Delap and Ambrosius and headed the ball powerfully into the bottom left corner of the net. 2-0 to Liverpool. It was starting to look a lot like last year.
At half time, feelings were mixed. My right-hand men, Nalis and Fallon, stood leaning against the wall; almost crestfallen and looking at the dressing room with a blurred gaze. Marek [Vagner] looked pretty disappointed too, knowing full well that he did not have a good first half and was arguably at fault for both of the goals conceded. Alternatively, Luciano [Rossato] and Derek [Love] were showing maturity beyond their young ages, offering advice to the other lads and motivating the dressing room. After a few words of advice to the lads, Alan Carlos popped in to give them his trademark secret handshakes as they made their way back to the tunnel.
The young Pilgrims came out of the traps fired up in the second half, immediately pushing to be on the front foot but also having to appreciate the threat that Liverpool played on the counter-attack should we make any mistakes. Jan Mlakar came on for the struggling Jordan Teze at half time which meant that Hwang-Hee Chan moved back to the right wing from previously being up front. This allowed us to have a bit more of an attacking edge and stopped Francisco Ortega from making as many mazy runs up the left wing.
Nathaniel Chalobah was seemingly having the game of his life after being in an extended period of poor form. Consistently driving forward from midfield and offering plenty of final balls for the strikers to latch onto, Chalobah was unlucky not to assist a first goal for Argyle after Hwang Hee-Chan put a perfectly-weighted through ball from Chalobah just wide of the post. Pata was Liverpool’s main threat in the opening stages of the second half, twice finding the back of the Argyle net before being judged to have been offside. Our centre-backs needed to switch on, and fast. In the 63rd minute, Delap took a free kick following one of those Pata offsides, found Chalobah who flicked the ball forward and Cassano ran onto it and took a shot. Allison was unfortunately on top form though, and easily palmed the ball away.
Josh Arnold was brought on for the struggling Marek Vagner and youngster Alex Farrell came on for his competitive debut in place of Paolo Cassano in a last-ditch attempt at finding a goal somehow. Liverpool responded by bringing Bentancur on for Nikola Milenković, deciding to shore up the defence more and switch to a 3-4-0-3 system. Farrell almost scored with his first touch of the ball: Chalobah threaded an excellent pass through the entirety of the Liverpool midfield to find the youngster waiting on the shoulder of Troon and Solet and the youngster took a touch before losing his composure and smashing the ball into row Z. A disappointing chance to miss.
Liverpool seemed happy to pass it around in their half now with 10 minutes to go, keeping possession and only making runs forward if players like Alexander-Arnold found a bit of space on the wing without having to face the relentless press from The Pilgrims. Time seemed to be slipping away. A late throw in just before 90 minutes from Derek Love on the left wing led to a flick on from Luciano Rossato and a shot from Hee-Chan which was unfortunately straight at the Liverpool ‘keeper and it looked like we wouldn’t break through. A final corner came in the 3rd minute of added time – but you guessed it – Liverpool headed it straight back to the Greens and the referee decided to blow his whistle.
For two years running we had lost the FA Cup final.
The UEFA Champions League Final – Plymouth Argyle v Bayern Munich – Saturday 30th May 2026
We had a week to prepare for the Champions League final following the disappointment at Wembley. In that time we analysed our performance and looked towards what we could do to go one better than our recent cup final woes. Yes, it did take a little longer for the lads and even the coaching staff to get over the disappointing showing against Liverpool, but we were made of stronger stuff and set off on the plane to Barcelona fully prepared.
Well, sort of. Barring the horrendous amount of injuries we picked up in training the week prior.
My coaching staff and I didn’t plan on making too many changes from the Liverpool match apart from the additions of Down and Alan Carlos up front on their return from injury. Unfortunately, the injuries forced my hand a little and it turned out that first choice left-winger Angeliño and club captain Noah Delap would miss out altogether. (This of course was in addition to the long-term injuries of Murphy Kalonji and Adrian Fein)
Derek Love and vice-Captain Joey Hermans would take the aforementioned injured players’ places for the all-important clash. The only other change not noted was Connor Ronan coming in for Pedro Diaz. Although Diaz offered a lot from set pieces and was a more technical player, Ronan had once again been in brilliant form this season and offers more offensively and defensively. Four members of the U23 squad that weren’t out on loan made up the numbers on the 12-strong subs bench.
In comparison with the young Pilgrims, Bayern were an ageing side who did well to come back after a poor start to the league season to eventually win the Bundesliga title. The old guard were more or less gone; with Alexander Nübel (29), Benjamin Pavard (30), David Alaba (34), Corentin Tolisso (31) and Kingsley Coman (30) the only players left from the Bayern side that starts the game. Although Bayern had the reputation and the big-name players, the media made Argyle the slight favourites coming into the clash.
Upon arrival in Barcelona, the team coach was met by a mammoth crowd: The Bayern fans, flanked in Red and drinking the finest Pilsners; and the Green army, singing and necking bottles of Rattler.
Everyone had a newfound drive and determination to win. The pre-match rituals went much the same as Wembley just a week before: the usual sea of fans outside the Camp Nou; the bevy of former Argyle legends knocking on the door of the changing rooms to wish words of good luck. This time, however, time passed in a blur as the entire team and backroom staff focused on the goal at hand: we could be the champions of Europe.
As the lads filed off to the tunnel to the sound of almost 100,000 singing fans, Lillian tapped me on the shoulder and asked for a quick word.
“Arpee, I just want you to know that if we don’t win this tonight – if it doesn’t go like we planned – I’ve been thinking about moving back home with my family.” Nalis began.
I considered what he said, before replying, “Lillian, I completely understand! Win or lose, family comes first and I want you to be happy – I support you in whatever you want to do.”
We shook hands for a moment before heading out to the most important match in the history of Plymouth Argyle. As the Champions League theme played, I felt all of the nerves and emotion well up inside of me, reaching a crescendo as I made my way to my seat in the dugout. My journey was unfortunately interrupted after tripping over the stray oversized boot of Pilgrim Pete, perhaps a mistake due to my nerves about the upcoming match. I shook hands with Ernesto Valverde, dusted myself off and sat down next to Lillian and Rory. It was time.
Argyle were to kick off the all important final – and despite immediately getting on the attack against the Bundesliga champions – Bayern won the ball back and executed a devastating counter-attack. Kluivert sent a beautifully-weighted pass to Bayern’s main dangerman, striker Thomas Damm, who ran off the shoulder of Joey Hermans and barring a super block from Enrico Ambrosius would have scored within the opening minute. The following ten minutes were slightly more mundane as both sides attempted to dominate possession and control the game. During a Bayern attack, Derek Love (who normally isn’t too good defensively) managed to get the ball off of Vagnoman, then dribbled forward and laid the ball off to Connor Ronan. Ronan spotted the run of Alan Carlos, who evaded Corentin Tolisso but unfortunately unleashed a tame effort for Nübel to easily gather.
Argyle continued to dominate while Bayern couldn’t deal with our intense runs and pressing whenever we lost the ball. Both wingers, Derek Love and Jordan Teze, were seeming to have a lot of joy on the wings and often found themselves in the penalty box unchallenged. A couple of shots from the Greens went wide, while shots on target were easily dealt with by Nübel. The Bayern goalkeeper took the ensuing goal kick, finding Vagnoman on the right wing. Vagnoman sent it back infield towards Tolisso who took a touch and passed it forwards to Kinglsey Coman in an advanced position on the right. Ambrosius failed to get off the ground to respond to Coman’s cross and Damm powered a header into the back of the Argyle net past Chris Salz. 28 minutes had gone and it was 1-0 to Bayern. Things looked far too familiar to our lack of success last week.
The next 15 minutes before half time were very much more open. It was a tale of two strikers, with Damm consistently getting behind my defensive line and lashing shots at Salz and Alan Carlos hitting Bayern on the break to create chances for himself or Rob Down. Chris Salz was keeping us in the game in particular: his world-class save of a Kingsley Coman free kick kept the score to just 1-0 before half time. Shortly after, the referee blew his whistle and we headed back to the changing rooms with a one goal deficit. We didn’t play badly at all but we also knew we could step it up another level. Rory seemed less positive; a trodden clipboard was left in his wake following his walk from the dugout.
Bayern kicked off the restart and there were no changes for either side. Argyle shortly won back possession from the German champions and Jordan Teze found some space on the right wing. The Dutch wing-back pinged a cross into the box where a Rob Down shot was snuffed out by Baumgartl. The deflection lead to Chalobah picking the ball up on the edge of the box and smashing a shot at goal, narrowly going wide of the post. We decided to refresh the team and sent Josh Arnold on in place of Enrico Ambrosius, who had been struggling after being at fault for the opening goal. Argyle were in possession again and Rossato switched play to the left wing where Derek Love was just outside of the box. Vagnoman failed to intercept Love’s floated cross to the far post and Jordan Teze rose above David Alaba to head the ball first. The ball smashed against the underside of the crossbar, bouncing into the goal past a floundering Alexander Nübel. IT WAS 1-1! With just under half an hour to play, we were back in the game!
Bayern now decided to make two substitutions in an attempt to change their fortunes: Jonathan González came on for Vagnoman (who was being beaten far too easy by Love) and Zeki Güngör was the straight swap for Justin Kluivert. After a chat with Nalis and Fallon, I decided to make a change too. Rob Down had been a little threatening so far but was seemingly ineffective against a torrid Bayern defence, so I decided to bring young Paolo Cassano on in his place for the final 20 minutes.
Bayern had a corner, but it was easily defended and the ball was cleared by Marek Vagner. Alaba had the chance to send the ball back into the box from a deeper position but the heavy press from Cassano led to the long-standing Bayern defender rushing a pass which was intercepted by Chalobah who switched play to the left wing where Derek Love was spearheading the counter-attack. Love dribbled all the way into the box but the fresh González managed to barge the Scottish winger off the ball and forge a counter attack for Bayern. He passed it forward to Coman on the right wing, who sent another amazing through ball through to Damm who was one on one with Salz. Damm took the shot, and Salz made an incredible save which was then headed away by Josh Arnold.
With 10 minutes to go, Teze was becoming tired after running up and down the flank for 80 minutes in such a high-pressure game. Our equivalent to Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Hwang Hee-Chan, was brought on in place of the Dutch winger on the off-chance that the South Korean international striker could nick a goal at the death. I could have moved Josh Arnold up from centre-back as a more defensive option but I felt we really had to go for it now. We’d lasted this long and played really well – we deserved to win this. Bayern were pressing higher now and with more intensity, and even though my ball-playing defence were normally very good at forging passing lanes from the back, they were buckling under the press and were lucky not to concede from Coman winning back possession and shooting wide. Luckily, Coman was offside and Argyle had the free kick from deep inside their own half.
Vagner took it, playing a 1-2 with Joey Hermans before laying the ball off for Chris Salz. Salz passed forward to Arnold, who found Rossato and the Italian midfielder found his partner in Connor Ronan. Ronan decided to switch the play to the right wing, where Hwang Hee-Chan cut inside, evaded the press from Alaba and created space for Paolo Cassano to run into. The South Korean striker sent a perfectly-weighted ball to Cassano, who ran wide to the right and sent a high cross over the head of the back-peddling Alaba to Alan Carlos, who was stood more or less on the penalty spot. The Brazilian striker barely stepped off the ground, simply using all of his neck muscles to redirect the ball towards the right side of the Bayern goal. Nübel went for the dive to keep the ball out of his net but it was too late – he wasn’t expecting the header and got his footing all wrong. The ball rippled the back of the net and Alan Carlos tore off towards the Green Army going absolutely ballistic. WITH 5 MINUTES TO PLAY, IT WAS 2-1 TO ARGYLE!
From the restart, Bayern tried to go nuclear and go for a strategy of hitting long balls over the entirety of Argyle’s midfield but it left their talisman Damm constantly fighting a losing battle against my defence’s solid offside trap. It was the 94th minute, and Damm had been penalised once again for straying offside. Hermans took his time with the free kick, sent a pass forward to Connor Ronan AND THE REFEREE BLEW HIS WHISTLE!
The entirety of the Argyle bench leapt to their feet as an almighty roar echoed around the Camp Nou. The players on the field fell to their knees; punched the air; ran with the bench towards the travelling Green Army. PLYMOUTH ARGYLE WERE CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE!
Following the trophy celebrations (and after finally being put down by the entirety of the first team squad), the lads and I headed back to the changing room where ‘Bringing on Back the Good Times’ by The Love Affair was belted out and beer was sprayed everywhere. I dried myself off, gave hugs to every single member of the footballing team that I managed and headed back out down the tunnel to the pitch.
Camp Nou had been emptied by now, although it seemed like the Janners were painting Barcelona green outside the famous stadium. I wanted to go out onto the pitch; take in the sight once more. We won here – it was always going to be a special place to me.
I breathed in the humid Catalan air and surveyed the horizon. This was the pinnacle of my managerial career; and I couldn’t have been happier to have achieved it with my one true love – my hometown club – Plymouth Argyle. A smile spread over my face before I turned back towards the tunnel to re-join the celebrations with the lads.
But no – it wasn’t to be. From what I recall, I never made it back to the changing rooms.
All I do remember was the feeling of cold metal cracking against my skull.
The smell of the freshly-cut pitch.
My view of the Camp Nou fading to black.
Thank you for reading The Pilgrimage so far. Next time, we look to solve the mystery of the attack on the Argyle manager in a different, yet very familiar setting…