Football Manager 2020 ‘The Pilgrimage’ #27 – Standing in the Way of Control

Last time in The Pilgrimage, Plymouth Argyle manager RPW FM woke up in 2007 and teamed up with popular local radio DJ Gordon Sparks to try and solve the mystery of how to get back home. If you fancy listening to a playlist defining the 2006/07 era while you read, you can find it here:

The Task at Hand

The remaining fixtures for Argyle in the 2006/07 season in the Coca-Cola Championship

…was not an easy one, not by a long shot. Gordon [Sparks] and I had the hypothesis that if I helped Argyle survive relegation from the Championship, it may be the cathartic experience I needed to return back home to 2026. First of all, our position: the Pilgrims were in 20th; 6 points above the top of the relegation zone where Southend sat in 22nd. 6 games to play, 6 points clear. Not a bad position to start in, however, we had a very difficult task regarding our remaining fixtures. Of the remaining matches, 4 out of 6 were in the top 10: Preston (10th), Leeds (6th), Norwich (8th) and away to league leaders West Brom on the final day. Luckily, the two matches against teams outside of the top 10 were very winnable: Sheffield Wednesday were languishing second from bottom and Leicester were only a point above us in 19th.

After finishing the Wednesday training session at Harpers Park, I returned to the changing rooms with the lads to find a deerstalker-clad Gordon Sparks sat by my locker, notebook in hand.

“Sparksy, what are you doing here? You’re only meant to let me know if you’ve got a lead!” I sat down next to him and took my boots off.

“Yeah, well I’ve got an idea. If you focus on saving Argyle from relegation to League One, I’ll focus on working out who it was that attacked you in Barcelona. Now, in as much detail as you can, you need to tell me anyone who would have a gripe with you enough to potentially smack you over the head and attempt to murder you.” Sparksy clicked his ballpoint pen and stared intently.

“Right…um…well it could have been someone who was annoyed about Argyle winning the Champions League – any of the Bayern Munich staff and team? Or it could have been a member of the Camp Nou staff – we did leave the changing rooms in a bit of a state after our celebrations…it sounds stupid, but it could even be someone like Pilgrim Pete! I tripped over him early on, although I doubt that would be enough to irritate him so far as to commit attempted murder…”

“Hold on RPW – those are all fairly obvious. Even Pete. Think deeper – who could be secretly jealous under the surface? To a point where it eventually bubbles over into a fit of a rage?”

“Hmm…if I looked at people who were there on the night who wouldn’t have been the first suspects that come to mind…a couple of the Argyle legends were there and at the FA Cup final. Neil Warnock was there in particular – could he be jealous that I am now one of Argyle’s most successful managers, overtaking ‘Colin’? What about any of my staff: Lilian [Nalis], Rory [Fallon] or Romain [Larrieu]? Yes, of course they want Argyle to be successful, but do they want to go it alone and step out of the shadow that I’ve created?”

Sparksy sat there, mouth agape but accepting of my suggestions. “Right, I’ll get to my investigation while you tackle the matches. First stop, Ivor Dewdney’s on Cornwall Street. I can’t be investigating on an empty stomach!”

Plymouth Argyle vs Preston North End

Against 10th-placed Preston I was not expecting us to pick up any points. Holloway announced his lineup to the squad the night before the match and it looked like he was lining us up in a 4-1-2-2-1 formation (or simply a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfielder). The squad was a strong one, with Luke McCormick in between the sticks; a very much more-than-capable back four of Barness, Doumbe, Seip and Capaldi; a midfield masterclass of destroyer Paul Wotton, technician Ákos Buzsáky and non-stop runner David Norris; and a front three of on-loan duo William Mocquet, Scott Sinclair and tricky winger Bojan Djordjic. I made the bench, alongside my future assistant manager Lillian Nalis, Michael Duff, Luke Summerfield, Péter Halmosi and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake.

It’s safe to say we didn’t get off to the easiest of starts: Marcel Seip gave away a free kick on the edge of Argyle’s box with just 30 seconds gone. Chris Sedgwick stepped up and took the shot; the ball bounced off the underside of the crossbar and past a helpless Luke McCormick. With 50 seconds gone, we were already 1-0 down. The goal put the proverbial rocket up the backsides of The Pilgrims, where straight from the restart Djordjic forced Andy Lonergan into a superb save.

Despite the counter-attacking nature of Holloway’s system, we were picking up a lot of possession and found a lot of joy from long shots from outside the box: Buzsáky hit the base of the post with a screamer of a strike after 15 minutes played. Argyle continued to pepper Lonergan with efforts but it seemed like Preston were going to hold on until half time, at least.

No changes were made at half time, and early efforts suggested it wasn’t to be out day. David Norris missed an absolute sitter from a late run into the box and Buzsáky hit the woodwork for a second time before the clock hit 60 minutes. Holloway made the change, opting to bring off Norris (who was having an unusually poor game) and bringing on academy graduate Luke Summerfield. Djordjic also made way, with Hungarian Péter Halmosi going out onto the left wing. Argyle came into the game even more; dominating possession and forcing Preston back further and further into their own half. They just could not find the breakthrough. Things were getting desperate, and at 80 minutes Sylvain Ebanks-Blake replaced a very isolated Scott Sinclair at the spearhead of the Argyle attack.

It was shortly after this that the Green Army had a glimmer of hope. Summerfield won back possession from Preston in the Argyle half and sent a pinpoint through ball to Ákos Buzsáky. The Hungarian midfielder made an incredible run through Preston’s midfield before being met with a cynical challenge on the edge of the Preston area from Paul McKenna (no, not that Paul McKenna). A yellow card was awarded to the Preston midfielder for his troubles, and Ákos would take the free kick in the 89th minute. Buzsáky whipped the free kick to the far post where Sunderland loanee William Mocquet headed it straight past Lonergan to find his first goal for Argyle and to level up the scores! 1-1! The final whistle blew shortly after. It was a hard-earned point in Argyle’s quest for safety.

Sheffield Wednesday vs Plymouth Argyle

Almost a week later was what should have been our easiest clash of the remaining fixtures against a second-from-bottom Sheffield Wednesday side. In true Argyle fashion though, we did not make it easy for ourselves.

Holloway opted to keep the same starting lineup for this match but switched around his subs bench a bit: Nalis and I would keep our places but Halmosi would be dropped for CM legend Cherno Samba (I still can’t believe he actually played at Argyle for a bit). Again, we didn’t get off to the best of starts. Within 30 seconds, Barness took out Chris Brunt in the Argyle box with a mistimed challenge. Penalty. Sh*t. Kenny Lunt made no mistake and made it 1-0 to Wednesday with less than 2 minutes played. Holloway had to find a way to stop us from starting so poorly.

Luckily, the early goal conceded seemed to light a fire in every Pilgrim’s belly: From the restart Buzsáky passed the ball to Capaldi making a surging run from left-back down the wing. Capaldi looked up and curled a cross from the byline to the far post, where for the second time in two games, William Mocquet headed past a poorly positioned keeper to level the scores. 1-1! Argyle seemed to keep more possession now and seemed to hem the Owls into their own half. Wednesday were making wild clearances in desperation to sort their lines out, and one stray hoof of the ball found the feet of Paul Wotton in the centre circle. The Argyle captain simply laid the ball off to Norris, who ran through the Owls defence and placed a shot past the outstretched arms of Brad Jones. It was 2-1 to Argyle!

It always hurts more when old friends score against you. Just 5 minutes later, Glenn Whelan switched play to former Argyle left-back Peter Gilbert who swung a cross towards the head of Mario Licka. Licka simply directed the ball to the far corner of the net and took advantage of Luke McCormick, who had his feet all wrong and flapped at the header. Sheffield Wednesday had levelled up the scores and it was already 2-2 after just 25 minutes played at Hillsborough. This seemed to fill Wednesday with confidence, as shortly after a simple Gilbert throw in found the feet of Kenny Lunt, who whipped a ball towards the near post where Tudgay headed past McCormick and a Pilgrims defence that had seemingly disappeared. 3-2. Argyle were starting to lose their heads now, and another rash tackle from Mathias Doumbe provided Lunt with another opportunity from a set-piece: a well-placed free kick from the Owls midfielder nestled superbly in the top-right corner of Argyle’s net. At half time, we went in 4-2 down against fellow relegation candidates. Things weren’t looking good.

Holloway gave us a bit of a bollocking at half time. Told us to sort our acts out. Play for the shirt. A reality check that was very necessary for some members of the squad. The majority of the squad went back out after half time with two exceptions: Holloway had seen enough of right-back Anthony Barness and centre-back Marcel Seip. Both had very poor games so far and were arguably at fault for the majority of the goals conceded. I was called on at right-back in Barness’ place and Michael Duff filled the spot that Seip left behind in the heart of defence.

Argyle regained possession shortly after the Owls restarted and David Norris threaded a pass to Mocquet on the right-wing, the main source of our goal threats. Mocquet dribbled all the way into the box and took a shot from a very tight angle at Brad Jones. The Wednesday ‘keeper made the save, but the ball rebounded out to the penalty spot, where Scott Sinclair slid in and knocked the ball into the net. 4-3! Sinclair was getting more into the game, and shortly after he decided to reciprocate Mocquet’s favour. A very good dribbler, Sinclair ran into the channel on the left-wing and sent an accurate cross to Mocquet running in at the far post. The young French winger simply had to pass it into the net. 4-4. Could we come back to win this match?

The Argyle manager decided to make on last change in the 70th minute, bringing on Cherno Samba for Bojan Djordjic on the left- wing. Samba was immediately involved; the CM legend won back possession for the Greens before finding Scott Sinclair. Sinclair dribbled through the Wednesday midfield and passed it to Mocquet on the right-wing (who narrowly avoided the offside trap). There was some poetic justice that Gilbert was the one who then went to clatter the Sunderland loanee in the box, awarding a penalty to Argyle! While Wotton would normally take all of the penalties, Mocquet was on a hattrick and the Argyle captain afforded the youngster his chance. William Mocquet made no mistake, firing into the bottom-right corner of Brad Jones’ goal. It was 5-4 to the Pilgrims! Were we done? No.

With 5 minutes left on the clock, Capaldi took a throw in deep in the Sheffield Wednesday half and threw the ball to Scott Sinclair. Sinclair laid it off back to Capaldi who brought the ball infield for Ákos Buzsáky. The Hungarian magician then did simply what he famous for; turning on the spot, Buzsáky lashed the ball into the top-left corner of the Owls goal. I couldn’t believe it. It was 6-4 to Argyle now! The Pilgrims were not done yet, however. In the fifth minute of stoppage time, Capaldi took a corner which I leapt for and caused the Wednesday ‘keeper to make a save which he parried straight towards Mathias Doumbe. Doumbe made no mistake and headed the deflection past the Owls defence. 7-4! The party atmosphere on the coach home was palpable and we couldn’t wait to take the momentum back to Plymouth.

Plymouth Argyle vs Leicester City

For the third match straight, the gaffer decided to keep the same starting line-up; although I could see that players like Bojan (Djordjic) and Anthony (Barness) seemed to be on their last chances – another poor performance and they could be benched. Leicester were in a similar position to us in the league but had far more pressure from their supporters to stay in the Championship and eventually get back to the Premier League again. Of course this would be the team that Holloway would eventually leave us for – despite saying he wouldn’t – and I had a desire to beat the Foxes due to future events.

The match was very much a stalemate and a bore for the majority of the Green Army and so I will not go into too much detail. Argyle did have the majority of the chances, although Leicester hit the woodwork on five occasions before the end of the game. After 54 minutes, Norris let the occasion get to him and foolishly two-footed Iain Hume and rightfully earned his marching orders from the ref. Our task was made even trickier. Summerfield and Samba were the first to come on and try and make a difference, with both wingers Djordjic and Mocquet coming off. Samba went to the left-wing and Ákos moved to the right-wing with Summerfield acting as Wotton’s pivot in midfield. Leicester didn’t trouble us much despite being down to 10 men, although we couldn’t find a way through ourselves.

With 5 minutes of ‘normal time’ left, Holloway decided to bring me on for Barness who was tiring at right-back. Leicester were seeing a lot more of the ball and seemed to want to earn a smash-and-grab three points from us. A period of sustained pressure around our box resulted in Josh Low taking a pot shot which was blocked by Seip before the rebound was smashed into the back of the net by Gary Martin past McCormick. The Foxes were 1-0 up and we had dropped down to 20th. With the final whistle beckoning, Holloway was screaming at us to get forward more. Buzsáky made one of his incredible runs from deep into the Leicester box before reaching a dead-end when Hughes cleared the ball from Ákos’ feet. The ball found its way to my feet, and in a flash of adrenaline, I cut inside, played a one-two with Summerfield on the edge of the box and then ran straight into the Leicester penalty area with the ball before using the outside of my foot to spin it around Rab Douglas. 1-1! It was a fair result, and it meant that we were very close to safety with three games left to play.

We were so close to safety now with three fixtures left. It was a shame that those three fixtures were against Leeds in 7th, Norwich in 12th and already-promoted West Brom on the final day.

Next time: Sparksy finds a hot new lead in his quest to find out who attacked RPWFM; Argyle battle to avoid relegation and RPWFM continues his battle to return back home…

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