Last time, we saw how our new 3-1-4-2 tactic worked out and made some new January signings to bolster our first team and youth ranks. We pick up our story after the closing of the winter transfer window, as we push to improve upon our 10th place finish last season.
A short, but good month! February started with a standard Connor Ronan midfield masterclass, with a Dawid Kownacki penalty becoming the icing on the cake at the end of the 90 minutes. For our home fixture against Manchester City, I decided to revert back to my counter-attacking 5-1-2-2 that worked so well against another big team in Liverpool earlier in the season. It seemed to work well, frustrating the Citizens up until the 80th minute where a Jadon Sancho run ended with City going 1-0 up. Luckily, Dawid Kownacki was our saviour just 5 minutes later where his goal would secure a valuable point against another title challenger. Unfortunately this tactic didn’t work against a Chelsea side fighting to get into the top six, where despite going ahead 1-0 just before half time through a Jonathan volley, Krzysztof Piatek bagged two in the closing moments to take all three points for Chelsea.
I came into the month of March hoping for at least 9 points in the four matches played, however I was not too disappointed with our performances – despite not hitting my points target. A disappointing match against mid-table Aston Villa was quickly forgotten with consecutive 4-1 wins at Home Park to two of our rivals in Burnley and Bristol City. Abou Kamara and Connor Ronan were the stars of both shows and the displays of attacking football left the Green Army purring. Our huge win against Liverpool earlier in the season unfortunately did not repeat itself at Anfield, where despite going ahead through a Jan Mlakar goal in the 75th minute, Nikola Milenković and Mo Salah combined to tear apart our hopes and dreams with just 5 minutes left to play – again. We were dropping a lot of points through giving up the ghost mere moments before the full time whistle blew, and it was starting to get a little frustrating.
Connor Ronan’s performances duly earned up a 2nd place in the Premier League Player of the Month awards. All we could hope for is that our best Irish playmaker since Graham Carey keeps up his good form in the latter two months of the season.
After the opening two matches, I was starting to doubt the newer 3-1-4-2 tactic and was feeling far more appreciation for the classic 5-1-2-2. The old tactic comprehensively beat Spurs – away as well – 4-1, with Joel Latibeaudiere bagging 2 goals from corners, as well as goals from Jonathan and Hwang Hee-Chan. Knowing that the Norwich match should have been easier, I reverted to the newer and more commonly use 3-1-4-2 but found myself only just scraping a 4-3 win against the Canaries. Our defending was awful, and it was only the goalscoring prowess of Jonathan, Kownacki, Kamara and Mlakar that kept us in the game. The rest of April was disappointing, with a relegation-threatened West Ham completing a smash-and-grab after getting an early goal through Rhian Brewster before sitting back and defending for their lives; and again we had to fight from 1-0 down to at least secure a point through a Didier Ndong long shot.
We seemed to save our best form for last, where we really pulled out some big performances to hold onto our 8th placing in the league table. A huge win against a very talented Wolves side (who now boast Pjanic in their midfield) happened through solid defending before Kamara and Latibeaudiere grabbed goals in the final 15 minutes to collect all 3 points. Again, we were unlucky to lose to Arsenal next, as we went in at half time 2-0 up due to goals from Abou Kamara and Pedro Diaz. Unfortunately, this team just seems to not have the bottle to hold onto games: McPake, Tsygankov and Januzaj scored Arsenal’s three second-half goals and we – once again – dropped 3 points from a winning position. This was something we had to improve upon next season. Luckily, our final game of the season was against an already-relegated Newcastle side bereft of confidence: A very young Pilgrims side won 3-1 through goals from Mlakar, Hee-Chan and Kownacki. Lars Isecke and Josh Foster made their first league appearances of the season in the season closer.
We had done it – we had secured a new record 8th place finish in the Premier League! As a result of this, the board promised us a transfer budget of almost £60m and a wage budget of £950k p/w. This was a phenomenal jump from last season’s budgets and should allow us to make even more progress next year.
Connor Ronan was well on his way to becoming a fan-favourite as he picked up his second Fan’s Player of the Season award, but it was the signing of Hwang Hee-Chan that sold the most shirts worldwide. Not long after these bits of info popped into my inbox, I found out that the board planned to expand the Theatre of Greens even further to allow almost 35,000 members of the Green Army to watch each game. It would also make Home Park the 12th biggest stadium in the Premier League.
Transfer Targets for Next Season
Next season, there was only one area I’d like to 100% improve upon, and a number of different areas that we will sign players if needed and we have the right deals in place. Boris Moltenis is a player that has rarely featured at all during our time in the Premier League and is naturally the weakest of our 6 centre-backs and a clear area to improve upon. As well as that, Didier Ndong and Aboubakar Kamara are players that have done okay when required during two seasons in the top flight, but if we are to try and push on and progress further, they will need to be improved upon.
With the stadium expansion, a much-improved transfer budget and a record 8th place finish, everything seemed to be on the up for The Pilgrims and as a result of this I wanted to be ambitious next season. If we can really push the ‘big six’ and become the best of the rest – potentially even sneaking into European competitions – I will be overjoyed.
Thank you once again for reading. Next time, we get ourselves battle-ready for our third season in the Premier League; we attend our pre-season tour of China and make new key signings to improve our Argyle side.
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.
Last time, we finished our first ever season in the Premier League (ending up in 10th place) and looked ahead to next season’s ambitions…
At the end of each season (and in January if I really need to) I normally set up a spreadsheet with my team and look at different information to decipher a number of things:
What squad the player should be in (1st team, U23, U18) based on their current and potential ability
How well the player fits into the RPW DNA (Bravery, determination, teamwork and work rate)
Actions based on the previous two paramaters; whether or not we sell/loan the player out, give them a go in the first team etc.
From looking at the spreadsheet following the end of the 2022/23 season in the Premier League, I found that there were certain actions that needed doing: We needed to sign a new right wing-back, box-to-box midfielder and two new strikers for the first team; we needed to improve the quality of players in our U18 squad; and finally we needed to get rid of those players that we kept on last season in the case of relegation (Matt Butcher, Adam Randell, Carlton Morris etc.)
The Summer Transfer Window
9th June 2023 – IN – Romain Fuchs – Sedannes Ardennes – £2.5k
First through the door was 17-year-old winger Romain Fuchs from our affiliate club Sedan Ardennes for the tiny fee of £2.5k. While we don’t traditionally play with wingers, I’ll attempt to re-train him as a right wing-back to fit our system. If it doesn’t pay off, it’s a very low-risk move on the off the chance he doesn’t make it to the first team eventually.
15th June 2023 – IN – Nathaniel Chalobah – Watford – £5.25m (£5.75m)
Probably our first ‘big’ signing of a player that is currently playing in the Premier League IRL is 28-year-old Nathaniel Chalobah, who joins Plymouth Argyle for an initial fee of £5.25m. A very apt replacement for the on-loan Conor Gallagher last season, Chalobah brings proven Premier League experience to our fledgling top-flight side.
17th June 2023 – IN – Jordan Teze – PSV – £8m (£8.75m)
A huge signing and a statement of intent for sure, Dutch right wing-back Jordan Teze joins The Pilgrims from Eredivisie runners-up PSV. 23-year-old Teze should offer as much going forward as he should in defence . An initial fee of £8m secures the defender and if he can add 6 assists like he did for PSV in 32 appearances last year, he should be a successful signing.
21st June 2023 – OUT – Matt Butcher – APOEL Nicosia – £2.8m
Matt Butcher was a quality signing when he joined us back in League One, and it was his stellar season in the Championship which led to us being promoted to the Premier League. Unfortunately, Butcher never had the quality to do a job in the top flight and went out on loan to League One Hull City last season where he won promotion to the Championship. As soon as I transfer listed him this season, Cypriot side APOEL Nicosia came in for him with an offer I could not refuse.
21st June 2023 – IN – Dawid Kownacki – Fortuna Düsseldorf – £11.5m (£12.25m)
Our new record signing! The second coming of Robert Lewandowski appears in the form of Polish international striker Dawid Kownacki. Okay maybe he isn’t quite at the level of Lewandowski, but the ex-Fortuna Düsseldorf striker has incredible mental and physical attributes to make up for his technical deficiencies.
27th June 2023 – IN – Nils Finger – Wehen Wiesbaden – £170k (£1.7m)
We raided Germany for many youth players throughout the window to improve our U18 squad, and young centre-back Nils Finger (great name) joined from Wehen Wiesbaden. Already possessing excellent attributes, I don’t think it’ll be long before Finger finds his way towards the first team.
29th June 2023 – IN – Hwang Hee-Chan – FC Red Bull Salzburg – £7m (£7.75m)
Another high-profile signing, South Korean international striker Hwang Hee-Chan joins from RB Salzburg for an initial fee of £7m. Although Hee-Chan has not necessarily been a prolific goalscorer in his time in Austria, he has often came off the bench to act as a super-sub and pick up goals late in the game. His signing also means that merchandising improves across Asia to improve our finances and sponsorship further.
1st July 2023 – Retained List
While a lot of our contracted unwanted players found themselves on the transfer list, a couple were released following the end of their contracts: Dominic Telford, a prolific goalscorer during our early days in League One and Two, finally leaves us after spending time on loan at Bristol Rovers. Jacob Maddox also departs, as he leaves in similar circumstances to Matt Butcher. A good player on his day and a quality player in the lower leagues, Maddox just didn’t make the cut in the Premier League. Our loanees also leave after mixed fortunes last season and 10 of our youth candidates failed to make the professional standards at Home Park.
3rd July 2023 – OUT – Adam Randell – Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors – £4.2m
This one hurt the most – I always have a soft spot for local lads who come through the ranks and make a difference. Alongside Dom Telford, Adam Randell was arguably our best player during our League One and Two campaigns and was an absolute midfield maestro. Unfortunately, he is another player that wouldn’t have made the cut in the Premier League and following our top-flight safety, I transfer listed him. Surprisingly, three South Korean sides came in for him for a great fee of £4.2m and Randell chose Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. Our record sale, I hope he has a successful time in South Korea.
8th July 2023 – OUT – Zak Vyner – Preston North End – £600k
Zak left for his minimum release clause of £600k, heading to Preston after not making the cut in the Premier League. Vyner is a very good centre-back but was under-utilised and barely played, and unfortunately for Zak, youth prospect Noah Delap was already better than him and found himself in the first team ahead of his more experienced colleague.
11th July 2023 – OUT – Brandon Austin – Seattle Sounders – £120k
I won’t bore you to death by saying ‘another player who was good in the lower leagues but didn’t make the cut’ but unfortunately Brandon Austin was neither: He was a great backup goalkeeper in the lower leagues but never even threatened Mike Cooper for the #1 shirt. After the signing of Josep Martinez last summer, there was no space for Austin and he left for MLS club Seattle Sounders.
11th July 2023 – OUT – Carlton Morris – Vancouver Whitecaps – £325k
The last of our decent Championship level players left when Carlton Morris joined Canadian side Vancouver Whitecaps for a fee of £325k. Morris was a great substitute striker and was an effective threat from off the bench, but unfortunately it was clear he wouldn’t make it in the Premier League.
15th July 2023 – IN – Enea Romagnoli – Spezia Calcio – £775k (£875k)
Another young prospect joins from Serie B side Spezia for an initial fee of £775k in Enea Romagnoli. The talented young midfielder will fill the box-to-box midfielder role in the U18 squad and should add some attacking and defensive threat now and in the future.
20th July 2023 – IN – Ronald Lindenburgh – AZ Alkmaar – £1.3m (£1.7m)
A traditional hotbed for young talent, Dutch side AZ sold Ronald Lindenbergh – a young ball-playing centre-back – to Argyle for an initial fee of £1.3m. Already a tidy defender at the age of 16, Lindenbergh could easily make it in the lower leagues straight away but will stay in the U18 squad as part of the back three.
21st July 2023 – IN – Ali Yazici – Offenbach – £120k (£180k)
Our final signing of the summer transfer window (and our last from Germany), Turkish defensive midfielder Ali Yazici joins from lower league side Offenbach. The main thing that attracted me to signing Yazici was his incredible RPW DNA score; a rating of 64 across the four key attributes is better than the majority of the first team squad.
As usual, our professional players who were too good to be sticking around but not good enough for the first team went out on loan to lower league teams. The only players who had not been out on loan before that were leaving for the first team were Enrico Ambrosious, who went out to Salford City; Rob Down who went out on loan to Millwall; Jaume Jardi joined three other Argyle players at Southend United; Jesús Garcia joined League Two Crawley Town and Josh Arnold went out to our Bulgarian affiliate club Botev Plovdiv.
Our aims for the season
Despite comfortably surviving in the Premier League last season, the media still saw us clearly as the ‘whipping boys’ of the English top flight in predicting us to finish rock bottom – again. The board only expects us to again fight bravely against relegation, but to be honest another mid-table finish like last season would be my aim from the start. In terms of personal goals, I would also like to avoid being trounced by the ‘big six’ like I was last season. Our aggregate score against the best clubs in the league last season was a shocking 32 goals conceded and 3 goals scored; a record that I would love to put to bed. Finally, last season we picked up 52 points and if we achieve my predicted points total, we should hit 68 (best case scenario). Last season, that points total would achieve 7th place and only 5 points off of 6th. This may seem a tad ambitious, however there is no problem in aiming high!
Another successful pre-season! We started off with our traditional match against local Cornish side Callington Town before heading off to Hungary for our pre-season training camp. It went far better than expected: a 7-1 demolition against Hungarian giants Ferencvárosi TC was a particular highlight. The only downside was a disappointing draw against second division side – and another affiliate of ours – Győri ETO. From there, we went 5 matches without conceding against French opponents in Sedan Ardennes, AS Saint-Étienne and Stade Rennais as well as hitting big wins over York City and Tavistock back home in England. Jonathan and new signings Dawid Kownacki and Hwang Hee-Chan impressed, adding many goals to our game.
The Tactical Change
Going into our second season in the Premier League, I wanted to start playing ‘Premier League’ football, instead of always going for our counter-attacking 5-1-2-2 that we have used successfully for the past few seasons. I want to push on and attack more, keeping possession and playing more attractive football.
Therefore, I decided to push my wing-backs forward to act as attacking wingers who can also act as auxiliary full-backs when out of possession. The central midfield trio would largely stay the same, however Amos/Trybull in defensive midfield would change role from a Deep-Lying Playmaker to a traditional Defensive Midfielder to cover for the lack of defence on the wings. During pre-season, I trained our normal 5-1-2-2 tactic the majority of the time, while touching upon the newer 3-1-4-2 to see how the tactic works out. Hopefully we won’t be too exposed against the bigger teams.
Next time, we begin our second season and see how our new signings and tactics work out. Can we better our last season?
P.S. Thank you for reading! As the current COVID-19 crisis goes on, posts will unfortunately not be as regular as usual as I am a teacher and will still be in work while many are at home enjoying more Football Manager. Despite this, I hope you enjoy when I do release new posts and keep yourselves happy, healthy and safe during these strange times.
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.
In a FIFA-imposed break from our maiden Premier League season, we (very strangely) visit the ‘great’ nation of Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup that in no way has been one of the biggest human rights tragedies ever. Nope. Definitely not. While mainstream British media have decided to stay at home and cover the World Cup matches from the UK, a plucky and idiotic duo have made their own pilgrimage to Doha to follow the action as it happens. This couldn’t possibly go wrong… If you wanted to (ironically) boycott this edition and catch up on the latest Premier League action for Plymouth Argyle, you can find it here.
“Ere, Scotty! The bleddy gate for Hamad airport is this way you muppet! What are you wearing that stupid hat for anyway?” The far-from-dulcet tones of Ian Holloway rang out across the Gatwick departure lounge, which was oddly quieter than most times a World Cup was about to start. ‘Ollie’- who was in no position to criticise his broadcast colleague’s fashion choices – wore a garish Hawaiian shirt, a pair of baggy khaki cargo shorts and the sort of sandals your dad would wear. The look was topped off with a cork hat on the Bristolian’s head; a clear indication of Mr Holloway’s understanding of the Qatari climate mid-November.
“F*ck off mate, as soon as that footage of that pirate broadcast we did for the playoff final went viral, I’ve taken the nickname ‘Scotty 2 Hotty’ to heart and it’s now part of the ‘Mento Minto’ brand!” The easiest way to describe Scott Minto’s look was as if he had been cryogenically frozen from a tag match with Too Cool and Rikishi back in 1999. Three-quarter length shorts adorned Minto’s pale legs, while a black vest top layered with a garish flame shirt covered his top half. On Scott’s face were a pair of bright yellow-rimmed sunglasses (the kind you might see in a video from The Offspring) and the headgear topped it off: where would normally be a standard so-bad-it’s-good bucket hat, instead was a bucket hat with the top cut off, and Scott’s hastily bleached-blonde hair (gelled within an inch of its life) stuck through the hole. It was a look, that’s for sure.
“I’ve never heard so much sh*te in all my life! C’mon bhey, we need to get a move on or we might miss the Italy vs Qatar match!”
The FIFA World Cup 2022 in Qatar
Before we look to the first match that Minto and Holloway would be covering, let’s take a look at the countries that would be going to the finals and the groups that they were put in.
We start off with the hosts who would be attending their first World Cup and were handed a fairly nice group alongside Guinea (who were also making their World Cup debut), the USA and faced their main threat from four-time winners Italy in Group A.
Minto and Holloway predict: Italy and USA to qualify for the next round.
Wales are another team making their World Cup debut in 2022 and face a difficult challenge in perennial golden boys Belgium, as well as the often underrated Morocco and the growing football nation of China.
Minto and Hollowaypredict: Belgium and Wales to qualify for the next round.
Current World Cup title-holders France face off against the only member of CONMEBOL never to reach a finals in the country of Venezuela. South Korea will continue to show their prowess in their 11th finals, while Mexico always have the talent to go far. Expect a tight group.
Minto and Holloway predict: France and Mexico to qualify for the next round.
Is it finally the year that football comes home? 2018 semi-finalists England face a fairly kind group with their main threat coming from the team who have found their way to the final the most without ever winning one in Holland. Cameroon have some talented players to make a good go of it, however the Aussies don’t stand too much of a chance of picking up many wins.
Minto and Holloway predict: Holland and England to qualify for the next round.
I’d like to think that Spain may have rustled a couple of extra Rials to give to the organisers of the tournament as they have one of the easier group stages: their strongest opponents come in Turkey and Colombia, while Nigeria shouldn’t upset the apple cart too much.
Minto and Holloway predict: Spain and Colombia to qualify for the next round.
Our vice captain Josh Grant’s Reggae Boys face a difficult group against a German team that always seem to go far in the tournament; a Uruguay side that are famed for their aggression and determination; and a Serbian squad full of fledgling wonderkids. I would not be surprised if Granty was on the first flight home after just two out of the three group stage matches.
Minto and Holloway predict: Germany and Uruguay to qualify for the next round.
Iran and Romania lucked out during this side of the draw: Brazil are the most successful country to play at the World Cup with 5 wins to their name, while Portugal are the current (IRL) holders of the European Championship and could go far, despite not having the famous CR7 to marshall them to victory.
Minto and Holloway predict: Brazil and Portugal to qualify for the next round.
World Cup debutantes Mali face a difficult challenge in the form of Argentina in what could be Lionel Messi’s final World Cup, while Iraq look to better their 0 points won at their only other finals against the might of 2018 runners-up Croatia.
Minto and Holloway predict: Argentina and Croatia to qualify for the next round.
The Opening Match: Italy vs Qatar
“Thank you for joining all of us at ScottSports for the start of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, hosted here in the great nation of Qatar! Ollie, what did you think of the opening ceremony?”
“Well, mate, I ain’t seen nothing like that before, I tell you.” Holloway began. “Probably the biggest fireworks display I ever seen; we had the new world record for the most amount of gymnasts wearing thawbs in one place at any time; and who could have predicted that what’s she called…Greta…erm…Funberg – that’s it – would stage a protest with Extinction Rebellion ‘ere? Honestly, bhuy, if the football is anything like the drama we’ve had so far, we are in for a bleddy treat.”
Minto adjusted his open-topped bucket hat before adding, “It certainly was something, I’ll agree with that. Although I must say, I would have thought you would have been more of a critic of our hosts’ policy regarding drinking alcohol in public places like we find ourselves today?”
Ian Holloway’s face, already tomato-red from the heat of the midday sun, suddenly went a lighter shade of pale. “You what? We can’t have any bevs? They never told me that when they was scanning my extra suitcase full of Strongbow at Doha airport? For f*cks sake!” Ollie threw his microphone off, stormed off the hastily built studio set and was not to be seen for the rest of the match.
“Right…well…the show much go on, I guess! Sit back, relax and enjoy the footballing pleasures that watching Italy pummel Qatar will provide. Oh – and Christina – please tell the kids I still love them.”
As predicted, the hosts failed to pick up a win against Italy during the opening match and the most exciting match of the day was a 4-2 cracker of a win for Wales against China. Next, let’s flash forward a bit and see how the Three Lions did during the group stages.
England would qualify first in their group after Jadon Sancho scored the only goal in their win against the Socceroos, followed by a bore-draw against the main threats in Holland and then finally a 4-1 win against Cameroon where captain Harry Kane would find the net twice, along with Trent Alexander-Arnold and Marcus Rashford. Let’s see if Josh Grant’s Jamaica were able to do the same…
As Josh Grant was the only Argyle player to go to the finals, we paid special attention to how Jamaica did. As well as picking up creditable draws against Serbia and Uruguay, a Daniel Johnson goal inspired a memorable win against Germany that would mean that the Reggae Boys had qualified for the next round! There were shocks all around, as hosts Qatar miraculously qualified for the second round, while two teams predicted to go far – Spain and Croatia – would finish bottom and 3rd in their groups respectively.
The Second Round
The second round threw up some tasty ties, with hosts Qatar finally going out against Belgium and the title-holders France continuing their reign of terror against a plucky yet unsuccessful Cameroon side. Jamaica continued to overachieve as they beat Colombia on penalties, while the tie of the round had to be the derby between Argentina and Brazil, in which Argentina won 2-1 in extra time. Compared to their Jamaican counterparts, England and Portugal completely underachieved, with South Korea and Mali respectively beating both sides that would have been expected to go further than they did. (It is unsurprising that Southgate announced he was going to leave at the end of the tournament.) Germany were the final team to qualify for the quarter finals – and apart from France vs Belgium – there was a chance for an underdog to go through in each tie.
The dream run would finally end for Josh Grant’s Jamaica: a comprehensive 3-0 loss would send them out of the competition, but they could certainly leave with their heads held high. The holders would scrape a penalty win against rivals Belgium, while Italy and Germany would beat the underdogs to go through to the semi-finals. (The latter would only just achieve this, after a very dull game against the overachieving Mali).
No surprises here – Germany win on penalties. Nadiem Amiri – a German midfielder who had only just joined Bayern Munich from Leverkusen for a huge £57m at the start of the season – found the back of the net in the 86th minute to send Italy on the first flight back home from Doha. The holders would also break the hearts of Lionel Messi fans the world over as the Argentine wizard would leave his last World Cup finals without another trophy to show for it. Kylian Mbappé fired past Gerónimo Rulli in the 36th minute and an impotent Argentina wouldn’t find a reply.
“Good afternoon to those of you watching at home – I’m ‘Scotty 2 Hotty’, ‘Mento Minto’ and…seemingly the only member of the ScottSports team that hasn’t been detained here in Doha, Scott Minto. You may be looking for an explanation why my broadcast partner, Ian Holloway, is absent from today’s match coverage. I’m afraid I can’t explain; although we wish Ollie all the best and hope that the Qatari authorities decide to see that he accepts the errors of his ways. Anyway – let’s get down to the match – two giants of world football face off today as the cold and calculated tournament specialists Germany try and defeat the reigning World Cup winners, France.”
A very even and edgy first half finished with an Antoine Griezmann goal at the death, with Ousmane Dembélé providing the vital cross just before half time. Not long after the second half started, Germany made a couple of changes: Jonas Hector and Julian Draxler came on for Gian-Luca Itter and Julian Brandt. France were forced into their own changes as goalscorer Griezmann picked up an injury in the 53rd minute, where Moussa Dembélé would come on as a very capable replacement. Samuel Umtiti would shortly after come on for Corentin Tolisso to shore up the midfield.
It was France who would strike next (again). Ter Stegen took a poor goal kick that fell straight into the feet of Anthony Martial, who picked up the ball on the half way line and dribbled all the way into the penalty box before knocking the ball coolly past the red-faced German ‘keeper. However, it wasn’t long before Germany replied when a pinpoint Toni Kroos corner found the head of Kai Havertz who directed it past Alphonse Areola into the top-left corner of the goal. Game on!
Both countries made one more change to replace some disappointing performances from usually reliable players: France subbed Benjamin Pavard off for Kurt Zouma and Joshua Kimmich would be exchanged for Lukas Klostermann for Germany at right-back. The final action of the match would come when a period of sustained pressure from Les Bleus ended up in another assist for Ousmane Dembélé who pulled back a ball in the opposition penalty box to leave substitute Umtiti with the chance to bury it past Ter Stegen (which he certainly took).
France had done it – Les Bleus became the 2022 FIFA World Cup winners and retained their title from the previous 2018 World Cup!
Well, there we have it. Another World Cup full of twists and turns and – most notably – the first World Cup to ever be held in November and December. It was an experience, so to say. If you chose not to boycott this post, thank you for your time. Next time, we return back to normality when the Premier League restarts for Plymouth Argyle. As they say in Doha, شكرا وليلة جيدة!
Last time, we fluked our way through the Sky Bet Championship play-off semi-finals and sh*thoused Crystal Palace at Wembley to win promotion to the most famous league in the world, the Premier League.
After the dust had settled, I had to make some difficult decisions. As we were not expecting to stay up in the Championship this season, let alone win promotion from it, my squad was nowhere near ready for the Premier League. With a transfer budget of £30.59m and a wage budget of £375k a week available for the next season, I asked myself several questions: Should I go all out and ‘do a Fulham’, buying lots of decent players that ultimately may not gel and then have to deal with an inflated budget in the Championship? Or do I splash out on a single marquee signing that could lead us to Premier League safety on his own? Alternatively, do I keep the lads who ultimately performed way above the expectations I had of them and won promotion for us? Many sleepless nights were had.
In a dream, it came to me; if you took a surface-level view of my transfer plans, you may be naive and compare it to the failures of Slaviša Jokanović. The idea was to make improvements in a lot of areas and attempt to use all of our transfer budget. We would look to improve the first team in some key areas (wing-backs/central midfielders/strikers) while also buying some talented prospects for the future. No single signing would exceed the poultry fee of £3m and we would try to plan for the (almost inevitable) future by inserted relegation clauses and making sure our squad is capable of dominating the Championship next season when we probably go straight back down again. #parachutepayments
So, first things first – let’s see who in the current squad needed moving out to achieve our goals this season.
In the first team squad, Mayor, Rose, Grant and Shephard depart. Mayor and Grant had been on our journey from the start and had never been anything short of incredible in a green shirt. Unfortunately, Mayor picked up too many injuries in his final season with the Argyle and declined rapidly and Conor Grant just wasn’t good enough for the Premier League, to put it simply. Shephard and Rose had been with us for two seasons, and both seemed to appear infrequently but popped up in the big moments.
Out of all of the departing loan players, I would love to bring in Jan Mlakar again next season and if Lewis becomes available, he could be a great back-up option at left wing-back.
We also have quite a few players who are in contract that will be surplus to requirements next season: Matt Butcher, Carlton Morris, Dom Telford, Adam Randell, Jacob Maddox and Brandon Austin are not good enough for the step up in quality and I will look to transfer/loan list a lot of them. Any that I fail to sell can act as a bit of a contingency plan should we be relegated at the end of our first season in the Premier League.
Now that we have looked at who has left and some potential departures, let’s do a whistle-stop tour of our #incomings.
15th June 2022 – Connor Ronan – £950k (£1.1m) from AS Monaco
Our first signing of the Premier League era at Home Park was Irish attacking midfielder Connor Ronan. Currently IRL he is in the reserves squad at Wolves but was bought in save by Ligue 1 rich kids AS Monaco for a cheap £375k in 2020. Ronan had loan spells at Cercle Brugge in the Belgian top flight and spent last season on loan at Hull City as the relegated club’s best player: he scored 4 and created 2 goals in 15 league appearances with an average rating of 7.03. Ronan is hopefully going to be a player that picks up where Danny Mayor left off while also adding to our homegrown contingent.
21st June 2022 – Jonathan – £725k (£850k) from UD Almeria
Second through the doors of the executive lounge in the Mayflower Stand was Brazilian left wing-back and thumbs-up aficionado Jonathan. I have to admit, this one is a bit of a risk as the defender has only played 10 league matches at the age of 24, but I think that his attributes should make him a very capable player in the green and white. A product of the Botafogo academy, Jonathan’s physicals and crossing should make him an attacking threat on the left wing.
23rd June 2022 – Gustavo Gomez – £2.8m (£2.9m) from OGC Nice
We smashed our record transfer fee on Paraguayan international Gustavo Gomez, who comes in from Ligue 1 side OGC Nice. The 29-year-old’s heading, marking and tackling attributes are exceptional in comparison to the rest of our centre-back options and he should fit nicely in the centre of our back three. The 51-time international joined Nice from Italian giants AC Milan in 2020 for a fee of £3.5m and had two steady seasons with Les Aiglons.
24th June 2022 – Pedro Diaz – £750k (£800k) from Sporting de Gijón
We replaced Mayor with Ronan, however we weren’t planning on keeping Jacob Maddox so needed another aggressive attacking midfielder as a rotation option. Pedro Diaz comes in from Gijón in the Spanish second division, where he had only made 3 appearances for the first team. (There’s a bit of a theme here…) Despite this, Pedro’s excellent technical attributes and set piece prowess should add another dimension to our attacks from midfield.
28th June 2022 – Josep Martinez – £525k (£575k) from UD Las Palmas
Brandon Austin had always been a safe backup between the sticks but I knew that he would not cut the mustard in the Premier League should Mike Cooper pick up an injury. Josep Martinez joins Pedro Diaz in coming to Home Park from the Spanish second division after initially coming through Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy. With monstrous aerial reach, reflexes and mental attributes, Josep looks to be the perfect competition for Cooper throughout this season.
1st July 2022 – Tom Trybull – Free from Norwich City
As July appeared, a couple of free transfers came in. Tom Trybull was the first of these players, with the German defensive midfielder joining from recently relegated Norwich City. Trybull offers an improvement in the deep-lying playmaker position and should be the first choice ahead of Luke Amos. Trybull spent part of last season on loan at Heerenveen where he would finish with an average rating of 7.23 at the Eredivisie club. The German midfielder brings a wealth of Premier League experience, which is very similar to our next signing…
1st July 2022 – Aboubakar Kamara – Free from Fulham
…Abou Kamara! The once-capped Senegal international joins from Championship rivals Fulham where he made 78 appearances and scored 19 goals (including 3 in the Premier League). Although Kamar is an improvement on the young starlet Janis Antiste in the role of advanced forward, he should mainly be used as a rotational option while we bed the French striker into the top flight.
1st July 2022 – Dider Ndong – £2.6m (£2.9m) from Dijon FCO
Another player with some Premier League experience is Didier Ndong. The Gabonese international came in to fill the space in midfield left by Conor Grant and Matt Butcher and also provides us with the versatility of a number of roles in midfield. After leaving Sunderland in 2018, Ndong played for Guingamp and Dijon in France. Ndong is my most risky signing, with the fee paid not reflective of the player’s quality, in my opinion. Unfortunately, options were limited and I’m sure he will prove me wrong throughout the season.
1st July 2022 – Iñigo Lekue – £1.9m from Athletic Bilbao
We bring a Basque flavour to our squad with the signing of Iñigo Lekue from La Liga side Athletic Bilbao. The experienced Spanish wing-back fills one of the right wing-back slots in the squad, where his 107 first team appearances in the top flight should bring some level-headed quality to our young team. Lekue is likely to be a rotation option this season due to his poor injury record in the past – he played a similar role in the squad for Bilbao last season.
7th July 2022 – Conor Gallagher – Loan from Chelsea
The first of our loan signings this season is Conor Gallagher, a product of the Chelsea youth academy. Another versatile midfielder, Gallagher will probably be the first choice box-to-box midfielder ahead of Didier Ndong. If Gallagher has a successful season, his potential ability makes him a fine prospect for a permanent transfer should he not make the grade at high-flying Chelsea.
9th July 2022 – Joel Andersson – Loan from Manchester United
Another international joins, with Joel Andersson coming in from Manchester United. The Swedish international signs on for the season for a fee of just £1m and he should easily be our first choice right wing-back. Manchester United bought Andersson from Danish side Midtjylland and after loan spells at Astana and Feyenoord, Andersson has his first taste of the Premier League at Home Park.
9th July 2022 – Adam Lewis – £325k from Liverpool
Adam Lewis knows his way around Home Park more than many experienced members of our squad! The ex-Liverpool left wing-back finally joins on a permanent transfer after two seasons on loan with Argyle, after the Reds transfer listed him at the end of the season. Lewis will fight it out for the starting spot on the left wing with Jonathan in what should be a battle of two very talented young players.
21st July 2022 – Jesús Garcia – £16.5k from Talavera
The 21st of July brought the very early transfer deadline day (due to strange fixture dates as a result of the impending 2022 World Cup in Qatar) and Jesús Garcia was the first of a whopping 7 players to join on deadline day. The Spanish defensive midfielder comes in from third division Talavera and will join our U18 squad.
21st July 2022 – Enrico Ambrosious – £84k from Mérida
Another talented young player for a very cheap fee, Enrico Ambrosious joins from another Spanish third division side in Mérida. The Austrian centre-back already has some excellent mental attributes and will join Garcia in our U18 squad.
21st July 2022 – Jaume Jardi – £775k from Barcelona B
Our final signing of many from Spain is talented attacker Jaume Jardi. Barcelona B decided to cash in on Jardi as he neared the end of his contract and the La Masia graduate should have a very bright future in Plymouth. Although his preferred and completely natural position is in the attacking midfield positions, I will be training the Spaniard as a pressing forward to join our U23 squad.
21st July 2022 – Josh Foster – £375k from Scunthorpe United
Only our second English signing of the window, young midfielder Josh Foster joins from League Two side Scunthorpe United. A tricky attacking midfielder, Foster should excel in scoring and creating goals from midfield as a part of our U23 squad.
21st July 2022 – Diogo Gama – Loan from AC Milan
The day before deadline day I had only just realised that we had very limited quality options at the top end of the pitch. A failed deadline day attempt of signing Albian Ajeti from West Ham led us to agreeing to Diogo Gama joining Argyle from AC Milan for a loan fee of just £205k. The Portuguese striker joined Milan from Vitória de Guimarães last season and he offers us a number of options up front.
21st July 2022 – Phil Jezeph – £160k (£200k) from Larne
Phil Jezeph is our final youth signing of the window, with the young English winger joining from Northern Irish side Larne. This guy is a hell of a prospect, and I’ve decided to re-train him as an attacking left wing-back where his excellent attributes bode well for the future. For now, he will play with the U23 squad.
21st July 2022 – Sori Bari – Loan from AC Milan
And FINALLY our last signing of deadline day is another loanee from AC Milan. Sori Bari joins for a loan fee of £700k and we are also given an optional fee of £7m should we want to sign the Portuguese striker permanently at the end of the season. Much like his compatriot Diogo Gama, Bari offers us some versatility at the spearhead of our attacks.
In terms of the first team, Adam Randell made the smallest jump back down to the Championship to help QPR stay up while Butcher, Morris, Telford and Austin made the bigger drop to League One to play for Hull, Wigan, Bristol Rovers and Wimbledon respectively on loan. I struggled to find a destination for Maddox and deals fell through a number of times, but eventually Portland Timbers in the MLS came in to loan him until the end of the season.
Dario Milic, Kyle Horne, Noah Delap and Gábor Bánhegyi went back out on loan to get more Football League experience and Miguel Arias left Argyle for the first time to be Newport’s first choice ‘keeper for the season. There were three permanent departures: while Eddie Barry-Murphy looked a fantastic prospect at left wing-back in the past, now that we are in the Premier League he will never make it and therefore we sold him to MK Dons for £55k. We’d receive bigger fees for younger youth players with Cameron Johnstone joining Burnley for £1.4m and Geoff Gritt joining Blackburn for £300k. While both of the players looked like brilliant prospects, I would have bitten Burnley and Blackburn’s hands off for the fees they were offering for what will probably be below-par professionals at best.
After what I thought may be a tricky (and ridiculously early) pre-season schedule, we won every match – including difficult games against RB Leipzig, Saint-Étienne and Feyenoord.
Our first game of the season came in the form of a difficult away trip to Tottenham Hotspur. Mike Cooper, Perry Ng, Joel Latibeaudiere and Janis Antiste continued from the playoff final of last season, while debuts would be had by Joel Andersson, Gustavo Gomez, Tom Trybull, Conor Gallagher, Connor Ronan and Aboubakar Kamara. I was determined to keep to my ultimately quite-successful 5-1-2-2 formation, but it’s safe to say I was found out by Spurs: we would lose comprehensively 5-0 with Moussa Dembélé grabbing a hattrick as well as goals coming from Sander Berge and Dele Alli. We didn’t play particularly badly, it was more that Spurs played very, very well.
Our second match in the top flight would be against another difficult team in Chelsea. We lost, again, 3-0, even with Chelsea going down to 9 men by the end of the match. Our first steps in the Premier League were dangerous, and the step-up in quality instantly showed as for the first time in this save, we slumped to the bottom of the league.
Despite being completely outclassed in our first two games in the Premier League, we soon started picking up some points! We were unlucky to draw against Southampton at St. Mary’s, where Abou Kamara would get his first goal for Argyle, and we picked up a good point away to fellow strugglers West Ham through a Diogo Gama goal. We understandably lost to Arsenal 3-1 as the Gunners’ quality shone through, although our loss to Bournemouth hurt the most: we completely dominated the game but tripped up to an early Callum Wilson goal. In the Carabao Cup, we’d blood a lot of youth against Stevenage in the 2nd round and then had an incredible win against (if I’m being honest, a second-string) Manchester United side in the 3rd round where Janis Antiste and Conor Gallagher would bag the goals. Kamara seemed to be our main threat up front, while the performances of Joel Latibeaudiere were pivotal to our few wins this month.
In September, we finally picked up our first win! We stole all 3 points at Goodison Park as Adam Lewis would open the scoring against his hometown club’s rivals; another win would follow soon after as we beat Huddersfield Town comprehensively as our captain Perry Ng scored twice. We would still go looking for a win at home though, as we bottled our first appearance on ‘Super Sunday’ against Brighton. Our Carabao Cup run continued following an incredible match and penalty win at Southampton, where the goalkeeping heroics of Josep Martinez made him an instant cult hero amongst the Green Army. I was rewarded for our string of decent results by receiving a new contract from Mr Hallett.
Sky, BT and Amazon clearly enjoyed the underdog nature of our Premier League story, as a massive FOUR of our games were shown on TV this month. The first result of October also posed the question: Are we United’s bogey team? We put in a hell of a shift against the Red Devils at Home Park, hanging on after a Diogo Gama goal and Gallagher red card to pick up a massive 3 points. We took a trip around Europe during the international break before picking up 4 more points during the rest of the month: We were unlucky to draw away to Wolves, we (luckily) completely dominated fellow relegation candidates Watford and then completely bottled it against local rivals Bristol City in the final game of October. A Han-Noah Masengo goal for the Robins late in the game did not vindicate the quality of our play. Despite this, I was overjoyed that we moved all the way up to 13th in the table by the end of the month, a massive 7 places above the media prediction of 20th. Another massive positive was that our finances had improved MASSIVELY: we had gone from £4m in the red to a cracking £14m in the black; mainly due to the massive fees provided for TV coverage in the Premier League.
As October ended, we prepared for a weird sort of pre-season part two due to the scheduling of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. We’d have no competitive fixtures in the Premier League until mid-December, so in our next edition we will follow how the Three Lions do in the middle-east.
After I received this notification, it gave me even more reason to be invested in the World Cup! Our vice-captain, Josh Grant, made the cut for the final Jamaica squad. The rest of the Green Army would be honorary Reggae Boys when England inevitably crash out during the group stages.
Next time: we see the return of the Minto and Holloway dream team as they visit Qatar as part of the coverage of the 2022 World Cup; we follow Josh Grant as he attempts to bring glory to Jamaica and we find out if football truly is coming home!
Welcome back! Last time, we miraculously finished 5th in the Championship after only being predicted to fight bravely against relegation and were drawn against Premier League hopefuls Leeds United in the the playoff semi-finals. In today’s edition, we follow the media machine as the drama develops.
Plymouth Argyle vs Leeds United (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Final 1st Leg)
“We’re here today for the first leg of the Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Finals as the giants of Leeds United travel to the minnows of Plymouth Argyle. I’m Scott Minto and I’m joined by our established team of Football League experts in Keith Andrews, David Prutton and our friend ‘Ollie’, Ian Holloway.”
Mr Minto was immediately interrupted as ‘Hollowords’ failed to control his own mouth, “Orite Scotty, luvly to be back ‘ere in the ‘muff! Been a while since the janners have let me back in this place – safe to say it ain’t so much Home Park for me anymore, eh!”
In response to this – unsurprisingly – Keith Andrews completely no-sold Holloway’s joke, instead turning back to Scott and adding in his Northern Irish drawl, “The Pilgrims are a club on the rise, but they’ll have a tough task going against a team that finished 18th in the Premier League last year.”
David Prutton, Sky Sports’ resident predictor, added his thoughts on the matter. “As soon as we knew the teams in the playoffs, I predicted that Leeds and Crystal Palace would probably be the teams making their way to Wembley after this week’s matches. Plymouth ideally have to pull off a result here and take something to Elland Road to stand any real chance of getting through.”
“Err, sorry to correct you, Dave,” Holloway began, “But just to let you know that they hate it when us pundits call them Plymouth – I have learnt some things since leaving here. Its Argo or nuffin, just saying!”
“Right you are…thanks Ollie. Okay – it’s time to see the lineups and chat to the men in charge. First up is Plym…ahem…Argyle manager RPW FM, and here’s how his Pilgrims team looks today. “
“Argyle make a massive five changes from their last match against Fulham, with Josh Grant, Joel Latibeaudiere, Luke Amos, Matt Butcher and Dominic Telford dropping out for Captain Perry Ng, Zak Vyner, Adam Randell, Conor Grant and Janis Antiste. Argyle’s front two today of Mlakar and Antiste have scored 36 goals between them this season and look like their most potent threat going forward, while the young home-grown talents in Mike Cooper and Adam Randell will be tasked with trying to stop Leeds from scoring today. Now, let’s hear from their manager, RPW FM.”
“Good morning RPW, how are you feeling about today’s match?”
“I’m going to be completely honest with you, I’m a little nervy. I think that no matter who I am managing, playoffs are a bit of a scary thing, but when you’re managing your boyhood club – the expectations are very different. The whole club and the Green Army know that all we were meant to do this season was try and stay up, and we’d already surpassed that goal. There really isn’t any pressure on us to succeed today, but as an Argyle fan, I always want us to do as well as we possibly can.”
As the familiar tune of John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Semper Fidelis’ rang out around the Home Park PA system, 17,904 people took to their feet to roar on the first of the playoff semi-finals. Ryan Edmondson would be kicking off for Leeds, who would be shooting towards the Devonport End in the first half.
Straight away, Argyle were on the press, forcing over a turnover in possession (and as a result, sending the crowd into an immediate frenzy). Conor Grant stole the ball off leads before laying it off to Shephard on the right wing to run into space. A clumsy challenge flew into the legs of our right wing-back, just outside the edge of the penalty area – free kick!
Conor Grant stepped up, put a left-footed in-swinging cross into the box towards the far post where Portuguese centre-back Pedro Ganchas would leap like a salmon and nod it in past the flapping Maxence Prévot in the Leeds goal. 1-0! After just over a minute!
Just a couple of minutes after the restart, Argyle were not letting Leeds settle. Prévot could not deal with the high-pressing of Jan Mlakar up front and scuffed a ball straight out of play, in a similar position to where Shephard won his free kick just minutes ago. Shephard would take the ensuing throw-in to Janis Antiste, who ran straight at the penalty box before being cruelly scythed down by Leeds’ left winger Andre Green (who received a yellow card for his troubles). We had an almost identical free kick as the one that caused the opening goal! Could we do it again?
Conor Grant would, once again, swing his left boot at the ball, floating it (again) towards the far post. This time, our captain stepped up: Perry Ng lost his marker in the box, ran towards the far post and – completely unmarked – headed in past Prévot once again. 2-0!
Throughout the rest of the first half, Argyle continued to dominate, limiting Leeds to very few chances and continuously pressing and running at their shaken defence.
After the break, Leeds came out with a bit more of an attacking intent. They managed to counter our press a lot better and often found us out of position to catch our defence out on the break. In the 74th minute, Eirik Helstad sent a long ball out to Helder Costa who ran straight to the by-line before cutting back to ex-Argyle loanee Joe Bryan. Bryan made no mistake and buried the ball straight past the outstretched hands of Mike Cooper. 2-1. We momentarily switched off, and we were punished for it.
Luckily, my team don’t know when to quit. Straight from the kick-off, Perry Ng picked up the ball and made a run to halfway before playing a perfectly weighted through ball down the wing to Liam Shephard. Shephard ran onto it, flying past the tired Leeds defence and pinged a great ball into Janis Antiste, who poked it past Maxence Prévot, making his compatriot’s day worse than it already was. 3-1!
Argyle then went on to manage the final 15 minutes of the game, keeping the ball well and frustrating Leeds. When the referee’s final whistle blew, a roar erupted around Home Park. We’d got the result at home – now all we had to do was take the form to the formidable Elland Road.
Leeds United vs Plymouth Argyle (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Semi-Final 2nd Leg)
“Welcome back to Elland Road for the second leg of the Sky Bet Championship playoffs between Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle!” Scott Minto suddenly tailed off, pressing his finger to his ear with a pained look on his face. “What do you mean we’re not live? It’s half an hour before kick-off, surely we have to be live? Pardon? We’re not even showing this game?”
That’s right. Only some of the biggest games in English football completely not even picked up by Sky. With this underdog story, I thought the media would be chomping at the bit to show the second leg, but I guess Stoke v Palace just has a bit more interest in it. Ah well. I relieved Scott of his duties before preparing for the match.
We would make just one change going into the second leg of the playoff semi-finals: Johann Obiang would be dropped for Adam Lewis at left wing-back. The reasoning for this was that although Obiang was the more defensively-minded player, Adam Lewis could offer a bit more of a wildcard feel to play in the way that he contributes towards a lot of goals through set-pieces.
The rest of the team would stay the same, with the hope that our defenders play an absolute blinder like they did in the first leg and that our lethal strike partnership of Mlakar and Antiste can both find the back of the net.
Over 36,000 were packed into Elland Road as the two teams came out. When the ref’s whistle piped up, the roar of the majority of the 36,000 came from proud Yorkshiremen who had followed their team through thick and thin. This clearly dumbfounded the Green Army and pushed United on, who dominated the early stages of the game. Arvin Appiah, who was playing on the right wing for Leeds, picked up the ball in the 9th minute and ran at the Argyle penalty box. Adam Lewis, potentially rusty from lack of game time, stuck out a clumsy leg and completely missed the ball and took out Appiah. Penalty.
Lukas Nmecha stepped up for the penalty and hit a very good penalty past Mike Cooper into the top right corner of the net. It was 1-0, and 3-2 to Argyle on aggregate. I screamed at the boys: there was no way in hell this was going to be the goal that made the floodgates open. The seemingly iron-clad defence of Ganchas, Vyner and Ng was looking shaky throughout the first half and it was only some midfield help from Randell and good saves from Cooper that kept the score at 1-0 going into half time.
But no – that was not all for the first half. In the first minute of added time, Argyle would start off a passing move where 9 out of the 11 players on the pitch in Green would be involved, countering the Leeds high press. Randell shielded the ball in midfield and laid it back to Ng, who made an excellent surging run forward and sent a pin-point pass through to the run of Liam Shephard. The right wing-back sprinted forward and crossed the ball to the far post, where the oncoming Adam Lewis – at fault for the first goal – headed against the crossbar before burying the deflection past Prévot in goal. 1-1! We regained our two goal aggregate lead at the best time; just before the half-time break.
The instructions at halfers were to just keep that 2 goal gap as long as we possibly could and to expect the inevitable Leeds onslaught. I was right, and from the start of the second half our opponents really went for it. We’d experienced a number of close shaves, with Nmecha having a 72nd minute goal disallowed for being fractionally offside. Adam Lewis was substituted off for Joel Latibeaudiere not long after this due to a knock following a hefty challenge. Following a clearance from a Leeds corner just after the 80th minute, Ganchas flew in with a stupid challenge to give away a lucrative free kick on the right wing. From the resulting free kick, Juanpi floated in a pass to a completely unmarked Jonathan Panzo who headed past Cooper. 2-1. 4-3 to Argyle on aggregate. 10 minutes to go.
As the fourth official’s board showed that there were to be 4 minutes added time, we clung onto our narrow lead for dear life. Ganchas, now playing at left wing-back, picked up the ball on the wing and put a through ball into the feet of Jan Mlakar. The Slovenian striker would cut the ball back to the edge of the box, where Jacob Maddox dodged a tackle from Appiah and curved a beautiful shot past Prévot, who was left wrong-footed on his line. 2-2! The 300 or so members of the Green Army that travelled to Elland Road breathed a collective sigh of relief – we had our comfortable two goal lead back – it was 5-3 on aggregate and surely the game was over. Right?
Straight from the restart, Juanpi picked up the ball in midfield and pinged a perfect ball to Bryan who was making an overlapping run on the left wing. Bryan took a touch and sent a low cross into the box, past the half-asleep Zak Vyner, where Nmecha would slot it past Cooper to get his 2nd of the game in the 95th minute. 3-2 to Leeds. 5-4 on aggregate to Argyle. The next 50 seconds felt like forever, but when Graham Scott blew the final whistle the Green Army erupted. We’d be going to Wembley for the second time in two years!
Crystal Palace would be the final roadblock in our potential journey to the Premier League after they overturned a 3-1 loss against Stoke in the first leg of the semi-finals by winning 2-0 at Selhurst Park. Palace won the eventual penalty shootout and would be difficult opponents in two weeks time.
Crystal Palace v Plymouth Argyle (Sky Bet Championship Playoff Final)
If I had to make a prediction at the start of the season – and if I was being truly optimistic – I would have said that we could probably finish mid-table at best. The fact that we were about to walk out at Wembley for the second time in two seasons (in what is often dubbed as the most lucrative game in English football) was unbelievable. In the two week gap between the Leeds second leg and today’s match, we’d changed our usual trip over to France to instead visit Limerick in Ireland for a friendly match and some team bonding. The big day was here though, and it seemed that Sky actually wanted to turn up for this one…
Or not, apparently.
“Orite bhuys! It’s me, Ollie, ‘ere and I’ve got my best bhuy Scott Mento next to me as we cover today’s Championship playoff final!”
“Let’s go f***ing Minto, let’s go f***ing Minto! Cheers Ollie – now you might be wondering what happened after the semi-final between Leeds United and Plymouth Argyle wasn’t broadcast on Sky Sports. To give you the full reasoning – Sky completely forgot that I had been scheduled to cover the match, thought that nobody would be interested, and so left me in the cold. Don’t you worry though, I told them what for and where they could stick their broadcasters job! Luckily I have a mate who could hijack one of their channel feeds so I thought I’d set up my own coverage with my mate Ian Holloway!”
“‘Ere bhuy, you forgot the best bit – we’re getting on it at the same time!” Ian replied before smashing a lukewarm can of Thatchers Gold against the green glass of Scott’s bottle of Rattler in a Stone Cold Steve Austin-esque show of testosterone and appreciation.
“Anyway,” Scott started, after taking a long sip from his bottle, “We don’t know how long we’ll have before BSkyB find out we’re doing this and take us off air – so here’s the Argyle lineup. Ollie, talk us through the changes.”
“Cheerz’en Minto, reyt you are. Argo make two changes from the last leg against Leeds, with Joel Latibeaudiere replacing Pedro Ganchas in the back three and Johann Obiang replacing the injured Adam Lewis at left wing-back. Not gonna lie mate, Ganchas and Obiang sound like the usual thing I order from my local takeaway!”
“Thanks for that insight into your Friday night food choices, Ollie – anyway – the match is about to start, so if this is our only time broadcasting ScottSports, just know that we went out in style! Also, Christina, please don’t change the locks, we can work this out…”
Scott sobbed into Ollie’s shoulder as the TV feed scrambled before showing the crystal clear, official Sky Sports coverage just as Keith Stroud blew his whistle to start the match.
The opening five minutes seemed edgy as Palace defender Dael Fry picked up an early yellow card within just 40 seconds. Crystal Palace had the lion’s share of possession and were carving out the most chances, and it seemed like Argyle’s role in this match was to simply sit back and hope. It’s important to remember that during the normal season, Crystal Palace went unbeaten against the Pilgrims. On one of the rare occasions that the Greens managed to get the ball back and start an attack, Adam Randell sent a long ball out wide to Johann Obiang, who ran to the byline before attempting a cross that was blocked by Harvey Elliot, on loan from Liverpool. The ball deflected out of play for the first corner of the match after 10 minutes.
Conor Grant, who had been an absolute master of the set piece during the playoffs, would be the player to step up and take the corner. The midfielder’s heroic left foot swept the ball into the box, floating it perfectly for Janis Antiste – who is only 5’10” and was marked by the entirety of Palace’s back four – to head into the top-left corner of the net past Martin Dúbravka! 1-0!
As the first half progressed, Crystal Palace used their dominance in possession to keep attacking the Pilgrims; Harvey Elliot, Jordan Ayew and Jairo Riedewald would all go very close to scoring if it wasn’t for the strength of our defence and Palace’s inability to stay onside. The whistle blew though, and Argyle had survived 45 minutes of onslaught AND nicked a goal at the other end.
The aim of the second half – I told the boys – was to simply stay in the game. Crystal Palace continued their plan in the second half, and this final started to resemble a simple attack v defence drill you might see in a training session. They continued to knock on the door, and it began to be a team effort in keeping them out; an important block by Jan Mlakar springs to mind when praising the whole team’s defence. Not long after the 60th minute, we swapped out both of our tiring wing-backs who had given everything for an hour. Jordan Cousins was a straight swap for Liam Shephard, while Josh Grant offered a bit more of a defensive impetus in comparison to Johann Obiang.
The only way I could see Argyle scoring again was if we were lucky from a set piece, and by the time it got to the 70th minute, Palace were really going for it. I brought on Carlton Morris for Jan Mlakar, who had worked very hard for the team defensively today but was not making or finishing any opportunities up front. Morris would be able to do a lot of the running needed against a tired Palace defence. The ex-Norwich striker would make an almost immediate effect, narrowly missing a header at goal after just a minute on the pitch.
Every single player wearing green was giving everything for one another. One of the key parts of my RPW DNA was high levels of teamwork, and I could see in every one of my players that they were not going to let Palace break them down.
The clock continued to tick by and reached the 95th minute when Keith Stroud put his whistle to his lips and again blew up for full time. WE DID IT!
Somehow, some way, this little side from Devon fought against all of the odds and found itself in the PREMIER LEAGUE! Don’t get me wrong, the odds of staying up and not losing every match of the season were probably going to be very slim, but if we could defy the bookies again we could truly continue to make history.
The Greens are going up! The Greens are going up! Now you’re gonna believe us, now you’re gonna believe us, now you’re gonna believe ussssssssss… the Greens are going up!
The next day, after painting London green, I returned back to Home Park to sit down with the chairman Simon Hallett and look at plans for next season. The outline of what he said can be found below:
Transfer budget: £30.59m
Wage budget: £375k a week
Expectations: Fight bravely against relegation
£2m was to be spent installing under-soil heating at Home Park
Considering the club was now at almost £4m in the red, I was surprised to receive such a hefty transfer bounty. The reality was though that we may struggle this season as our reputation is still very low in comparison to our counterparts.
Finally, the end of season awards really showed how much of an incredible first season Janis Antiste had in the green and white of Argyle:
The young French striker won Fan’s Player of the Season, Signing of the Season and Young Player of the Season, as well as winning the prestigious EFL Young Player of the Year award; which had a fine list of previous winners such as Eddie Nketiah, Dele Alli, Wilfried Zaha and Gareth Bale.
For now, my squad needed a well-deserved rest. It was only going to be 4 weeks before the football machine started rolling around again for pre-season, and this could be one of our biggest and most important ones yet.
Next time, we make our transfers ready for the battle of the Premier League and tackle our first pre-season as a top division club.
In the last part of ‘The Pilgrimage’. we went through our transfer deals for our first season back in the Championship in over 10 years and started our season with an unbelievable opening day win. If you wanted to catch up with this, you can find it here.
As this season probably won’t be quite as positive as our previous ones (what with us predicted to finish 2nd from the bottom of the league), today we are going to take a whistle-stop tour through our season to see if we survive…
…to be honest, it wasn’t a bad first month back in the 2nd tier; big wins in the Carabao Cup against Stevenage and Premier League Burnley were bookended by creditable draws against Middlesborough and Leeds – two teams that always seemed to be pushing for promotion at the top end of the table. We would go top after a couple of results, eventually settling in at 10th.
As a result of our half-decent results, a couple of members of the first team squad came close to winning monthly honours: Conor Grant would come in 3rd in the Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month, while Adam Randell would only just miss out on winning Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month. Kyle Horne, one of our youngsters on loan at Port Vale, would go one better though and win Sky Bet League Two Young Player of the Month. The 18-year-old midfielder had scored a cracking 3 goals in 5 games from a defensive role in midfield.
What a month! We started the month by taking a short trip over the pond to French Ligue 2 side US Avranches to play a friendly to keep us fresh during the first international break of the season. Victorious, we returned and went on a bit of a run: we would go unbeaten for the whole of September! If I was being completely honest, this was probably because we played against several teams predicted to be near the bottom of the league at the end of the season, as well as another chance to beat Millwall in the 3rd round of the Carabao Cup.
Miraculously, we were in the play-off positions, rather than fighting it out at the basement end of the league. 5th was the highest Argyle had ever finished in the 2nd division of English football, and that was back in the 1930s. It would take a mammoth effort to replicate that in our first season back home.
Janis Antiste, one of the signings that I was very excited about at the start of the season, had so far failed to find the net this season – that was until we hit September. The 19-year-old French forward (who had been capped 9 times at an U18 level for France) found his scoring boots in the 3rd round Carabao Cup tie against Millwall, hitting an incredible hat-trick. He would then go on to score his first league goal in the 1-0 win against Charlton and bag another two away to Swansea, deservedly winning the Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month award.
Another good month – pinch me – we’re still not struggling!
We would only fail to score in one of the league games this month, being held by Sheffield Wednesday at home (not helped by Luke Amos being sent off in just the 40th minute for a two-footed challenge). Apart from that, it was plain sailing! We’d pick up big wins against Birmingham and Fulham and see the makings of an excellent strike partnership develop between Jan Mlakar (who hadn’t really featured since the start of the season) and the in-form Janis Antiste. Matt Butcher began to rear his head as well, knocking in a couple of excellent goals from the centre of midfield. The highlight had to be knocking Premier League Southampton out of the Carabao Cup after punishing them on penalties.
Butcher and Antiste’s red-hot form meant that they were nominated for the Sky Bet Championship Player and Young Player of the Month respectively; while young centre-back Noah Delap – on loan at League Two Salford – won Young Player of the Month for bagging 2 goals in 5 games. Despite the good form, some players had been struggling: the situation at wing-back had been less than ideal. Jordan Cousins was only just making a return after being injured throughout pre-season and Liam Shephard, Johann Obiang and Adam Lewis had been very inconsistent in form. As a pivotal part of our team, we need these guys to perform to achieve our goals this season.
Finally, Adam Burton, one of our promising 18-year-old strikers, would go on loan to our affiliate club York City until the January transfer window to try and get some first-team experience.
I knew things were going too well.
A shocking run during November meant that our only win came against a (now defunct IRL) Bury side in a friendly match during the international break. We’d have the curse of big games on TV; losses against Crystal Palace and a draw against our closest local rivals Bristol City sandwiched two disappointing defeats against Derby and Cardiff. While we weren’t performing badly, we weren’t picking up results and needed a bit more of a killer instinct to grind out wins against the big boys of the Championship. We would slip to 9th place, and although I wasn’t necessarily worried about our positioning, I didn’t want us to continue a free-fall into the bottom half of the league or further.
During the month, three more young players from the academy would go out on loan: Slovenian centre-back Dario Milic and Hungarian defender Gábor Bánhegyi would join Adam Burton at York City until January, while midfielder Ryan Bevan would join Solihull Moors until the end of the season.
The most exciting news of the month came in the form of two new fancy international affiliate clubs. It was my intention from the start of this save to improve the older link between Argyle and the nations of Hungary and France, where many talented Pilgrims had come from in the past. This was made successful in November through the linking of Plymouth Argyle to Hungary’s Gyori ETO, a second division side, and France’s Sedan Ardennes, a French 4th division side.
An improvement was had in December, yet our month was still fairly indifferent. Leicester City, widely tipped to win the league, would beat us easily at the King Power Stadium, but good results against Nottingham Forest and Birmingham – as well as newly-promoted MK Dons and Barnsley – meant that we picked up good points. The Boxing Day match away to Birmingham was an absolute cracker: 5 separate goalscorers would find the back of the Blues net. Brentford would end up being our bogey team after completing the league double over The Pilgrims at the end of the month. Bournemouth would cause us to exit the Carabao Cup in the quarter finals after a 2-0 loss.
As is tradition, I like to renew the contracts of our top players when we get around Christmas (think of it as a bit of a present) and the biggest win was securing a new deal for our promising goalkeeper Mike Cooper. Mr Moshiri had clearly recognised The Pilgrims’ rise through the league system and offered me an interview with the struggling Premier League club (I obviously declined, however, it is always nice to see recognition of our current successes). I received the biggest festive gift of all from Mickey Evans, our Head of Youth Development, in the form of a preview of this season’s youth intake – it looked preeeeetty good. #goldengeneration
As the January transfer window was looming on the horizon, I could not find a position in the squad that we could improve upon. If any younger talents could be signed for a very cheap fee (and by that, I mean £0) I may bring in some players to improve the academy. The dilemma with this, however, was that the club finances were starting to look a bit ropey. At nearly £600k in the red and with little room to manoeuvre on the wage and transfer budgets, options were definitely limited.
January meant the start of the FA Cup for teams in the Championship and above, and we were drawn against Blackburn Rovers in the 3rd round where we would win and set up an unfortunate loss in the 4th round against Everton at Home Park. It would also be a month to remember for Jan Mlakar, who would pick up where Janis Antiste left off and be the driving force between our 4 wins and 2 draws in the league. This would shoot us back up the table to 7th place, and only 3 points off of the play-off places. Halfway through the season, we could be very proud of our position so far in the league.
Our one signing of the window would be a player that I had been tracking after discovering him by doing the classic ‘search through international youth squads’ trick. Rodri (Rodrigo Suarez Marcos) is an 18-year-old Spanish U20 international that was on non-contract terms at Spanish Segunda B side Cultural Leonesa. Getting a player of the calibre of Rodri in on a free transfer was excellent work by my scouting and transfers department. My intention for the young Spaniard is to ideally send him straight back out on loan again to a Football League club, but he could also fill in as adequate cover in the case of an injury crisis in the first team.
Other transfer business:
Adam Burton -> Blackpool (League One) – After scoring a whopping 6 goals in just 3 appearances, I recalled Burton in the January transfer window to send out to a club higher up the league system. Blackpool came calling, and seeing as they were challenging for the top of League One, they seemed the perfect destination for this young and talented striker.
Dario Milic -> Solihull Moors (Vanarama National League) – Milic would swap National North side York City for Solihull Moors, where he would join up with midfielder Ryan Bevan to get further first team experience.
Gábor Bánhegyi -> Gyori ETO (Merkantil Bank Liga) – The Hungarian centre-back would return to his native country to help our affiliate club Gyori to challenge for promotion from the Hungarian second division.
Finally, Janis Antiste – who was quickly becoming a cult hero at Home Park – picked up his second Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month award after bringing his goals tally to 11 in all competitions.
March was going to be a difficult month, with challenging league games against promotion-chasers in Leeds, Forest and Derby, as well as potentially even trickier games against relegation battlers Barnsley and Millwall.
Despite all of the potential adversaries, Argyle would pull off some fantastic results, with the highlight being a bit of a smash-and-grab at Elland Road against league leaders Leeds. Although we had picked up 5 big wins, the loss against Nottingham Forest meant that we wouldn’t progress into the play-off places and would instead hang onto 7th place on the league table. The biggest loss of all, however, would not be dropping 3 points: Danny Mayor would pick up a hip injury and be out for 4 months; effectively ruling himself out for the rest of the season. The rest of my midfield would have to make do and fill in with each others’ roles, with young Craig Boyle ready to fill in if necessary.
Having not to deal with a local rival since our first season back in League Two, we were clearly out of practice: Bristol City would defeat us again at Ashton Gate; ironically we lost after Zak Vyner – a product of The Robins’ youth academy – put one past Cooper to hand them a 1-0 win. For the remainder of the month, we would turn it around though as we drew against new league leaders Leicester City and then putting a total of 8 goals past Blackburn and Charlton, where Janis Antiste would get his second hattrick of the season. Antiste would duly win yet another Sky Bet Championship Young Player of the Month award as a result of this.
Exciting news in terms of our youth academy followed our final league game of the season: we would have our first youth call-up to the England setup in Noah Delap. The young centre-back had finally been recognised for his talents now that he had spent some time playing first-team football. As well as that, our youth intake was fantastic, with 3 or 4 of our players looking capable of making the step up in the future.
As we approached the penultimate month of the season, we were in 5th with games against 2 of the bottom 5 and bottom half Swansea, as well as tricky games against promotion-chasing Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday. There is no way that we were expecting to be fighting it out for the play-off positions at the start of the season. If I was completely honest, I would say that my squad were playing way above their ability – beyond any expectations that I had of them. While Mlakar, Antiste and Butcher continued pushing for their nominations for Player of the Season, we picked up another 10 points to end April still in 5th place.
The most important thing though was that we had successfully secured a playoff place and secured a bit more of a windfall in terms of finances for next season.
Strangely, I would prefer it if we didn’t do well in the playoffs this season. I’d ideally like to make it to Wembley for the finances but fall at the final hurdle, as I don’y think that my squad is anywhere near being able to compete in the Premier League. (I could easily see us breaking Derby County’s record for the lowest amount of points in a Premier League season.) Having to probably fight it out with Crystal Palace, Leeds and Stoke should make it an easier job for me to avoid doing well in winning promotion…
In May, the normal season ended and Leicester City and Bristol City both made their immediate returns to the Premier League after being relegated last season. We would play our final game of the season at home to Fulham and draw 1-1, meaning that in the playoffs we would face the last of the teams trying to make a return to the Premier League, Leeds United.
It was an outstanding effort that we would be in the playoffs again for the second season in a row, although there is certainly less expectation this year.
Next time, we face Leeds United in the playoff semi-finals in what could be two season-defining matches.
Last time out, we smashed the playoffs and won promotion back to the SkyBet Championship after spending 11 years away from our traditional home. If you wanted to find out how we got here, you can catch up here.
The last echoes of ‘We’re on our way, we’re on our way’ flittered out of London as the [now defunct] Target Travel-sponsored team bus left Wembley. The players were joyous: they’d won promotion to the Championship and were off on their holidays the next day. For me, it would be a solid two days off with my family before heading back to work and getting ready for next season.
The aim was survival, and so we had to recruit sensibly to stand a chance at achieving our ambitions. My signings in this amazing promotion-winning season were mixed, with many impressing far more than I’d expect, and some barely featuring at all. We had to be more dilligent – and as a result – I had my targets listed for [Paul] Sturrock to try and bring in to the club straight away on the morning of Tuesday 25th May.
A major overhaul was required.
Many of our permanent signings – including players who had only joined this season – would be released in the summer, and along with the losses of our talented loanees we are left looking for a whopping 14 players at least (if I keep to my ‘two players per position’ rule). Taylor, Grant and McFadzean simply weren’t up to the standard of our squad anymore and seemed almost permanently in the injury room; Edwards and Songo’o could do a job but I couldn’t afford to give them a wage hike for the level of player they both are; and despite Edun, Cameron and Mills only joining last summer, none of them stood out to me as being capable enough for the step up in quality.
As stated above, we would also lose our loanees that had been amazing this season. Scott Wharton, in particular, was an absolute rock in defence and I would love to get him back on loan or sign him permanently. Adam Lewis, in his short time at Argyle, had the second-most assists in the whole season from left wing-back and looked the steadiest in his position (despite competition from the more experienced McFadzean and Grant). Up front, Sam Smith was our saviour – alongside Danny Mayor – during the playoffs and we wouldn’t be promoted if it wasn’t for his 15 goals throughout the season. These three players would be targets for next season.
Sturrock, who had been a great Director of Football since joining the club again in 2019, agreed with me that there should be a limit of approx. £10k a week on wages for players in the squad. The reason for this was that while we are now in the Championship, we do not want to be stuck living beyond our means should we get relegated again at the end of the season. Being stuck with players on over £10k a week in League One reminds me far too much of teams like Sunderland and Portsmouth; not teams I would like to replicate.
Tuesday 1st June 2021
New contracts were given to Perry Ng, Adam Randell and Dominic Telford (as theirs didn’t have long to run) and Argyle’s retained list was announced not long after this.
Tuesday 15th June 2021
It wasn’t long before the first #incoming cropped up on Twitter.
The prodigal son returns! Zak Vyner, a 24-year-old centre-back, comes back to the Theatre of Greens after recently relegated Premier League side Bristol City sold him to us for an initial fee of £350k. Vyner had previously appeared in the green and white while on loan from The Robins back in the 2017/18 season in League One, where he would make 17 league appearances and score a single goal. I brought Zak in because I know from real life – as well as in the game – that he is a very talented ball-playing centre-back at this level and I would have expected to pay much more than the fee we settled for his services. An RPW DNA score of 58 is very good for his age.
Wednesday 16th February 2021
As we have an affiliate link with Manchester City, we often find out earlier than most about youngsters that have expiring contracts. Joel Latibeaudiere was one of these players. The Armthorpe-born centre-back was a player I decided to quickly sign up as he is a young player with a lot of potential who could take up a rotation/back-up option this season. He fits the role of ball-playing defender very well and despite only having a lowly RPW DNA score of 39, Latibeaudiere is the sort of player that could be sold on for a profit in the future – something that the board want to see me doing.
Friday 18th June 2021
Now, this is an exciting signing! Young Portuguese ball-playing defender Pedro Ganchas is a player that my scouting team at Home Park have been tracking for a while. Having been in the Benfica academy for the past three years, Ganchas hasn’t made a single appearance for their first team and thus wanted a move away to get more experience. The talented centre-back is also open to a permanent move to Plymouth in the future. The downside of this though is that it would probably be for a fee that could be as much as £2m: an amount that we probably wouldn’t be able to afford until we are a high-end, established Championship team.
Ganchas wasn’t the only signing to be made that day.
Luke Amos is the first of a number of our summer signings that I have signed in previous iterations of Football Manager (and signed for Argyle, too). A versatile midfielder, Amos is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none; Luke is very talented across the board but doesn’t have a single attribute that he stands out in. This will be handy in terms of covering multiple positions, although I hope to use the former Spurs academy graduate as competition for Adam Randell in the role of a deep-lying playmaker. Amos has spent the past two seasons in the Championship with QPR and Reading so he will be ready to come straight into a team new to the second division.
Saturday 19th June 2021
Both wing-back positions have been very difficult to find ways to improve. I’d toyed with the idea of bringing in a young winger with a lot of potential that I could convert to wing-back but there were little options in the market. Instead, I opted to sign Jordan Cousins on loan from Stoke. Another player with enormous versatility, Jordan is a very similar player to Joe Edwards (who had recently been released). Although a natural in the centre of the pitch, Cousins’ fantastic physical attributes make him a formidable opponent on the wings to fit the physicality of the Championship.
Sunday 20th June 2021
We brought in Cousins for the right wing-back role, and we brought in Johann Obiang on loan from FC Lorient to protect the very sparse left wing-back position. A Gabonese international on 40 occasions, Obiang is another player that I signed for Argyle while in the Championship in previous iterations of FM. Johann is more of a defensive wing-back than one that will bomb forwards and constantly attack; yet despite this, Obiang can do both if needed. I don’t plan on opting to keep Obiang permanently at the end of the season unless he really impresses and performs to a higher level than his attributes may suggest.
Following the departure of Ryan Taylor and the very low chance of signing Sam Smith permanently, I wanted to get at least one pressing forward in permanently to act as a bit of a backup to the first choice striker. Carlton Morris, a product of the Norwich City youth academy, is another player that I have signed previously for Argyle on different versions of Football Manager. An incredible lower-league striker, Morris didn’t play any first-team football at all last year but the year before that he scored a mammoth 22 goals on loan at Rotherham in League One. Morris should give us the option of a frontman with a bit of speed and physicality to disrupt difficult opposition defences.
Finally, the last bit of good news on this day was that Adam Lewis decided to renew his loan with Argyle until the end of the 2021/22 season. Lewis was a fantastic asset at the end of last season and should give us a bit of attacking intent at left wing-back.
Monday 21st June 2021
The following day, a marquee signing joined from Premier League Brighton & Hove Albion, a striker that had been rumoured on popular fan forum PASOTI.co.uk for weeks:
Slovenian forward Jan Mlakar joins The Pilgrims on loan for the season. Mlakar had signed for Brighton from Slovenian giants Maribor for a fee of £2.6m a couple of years ago but had only achieved 5 league goals since, in two spells on loan at Maribor and QPR. A natural in both of our striker roles (advanced forward and pressing forward), Mlakar should be in the starting lineup for a lot of games – as long as he can find the back of the net more than he previously has done.
Another signing in the same vein as Joel Latibeaudiere, Boris Moltenis comes in from French side FC Sochaux-Montbéliard. The young centre-back will probably act as my sixth choice option, although his age and potential could see him improve with more game time. Boris could certainly be another player that we could turn a profit on in the future should he not live up our usual high expectations.
Thursday 24th June 2021
Guess who’s back? Back again? Josh Grant’s back – tell a friend.
Mr Versatility is back! With just a year left on his Chelsea contract, Josh Grant wanted a move away from the London club and enjoyed his time so much here on loan a couple of years ago that he decided to sign up permanently for a fee of just £250k. Able to cover any position along the defence as well as in defensive and central midfield, Josh allows us to be fluid in terms of tactic while also being a very good defender in his natural centre-back position.
Friday 25th June 2021
Our first departure came in the form of centre-back Nathan Cameron. Nathan joined last year from League Two strugglers Macclesfield Town on a two-year contract as a backup option with a lot of experience and excellent attributes to come into the team whenever necessary and shore up our defence. Unfortunately, he never really seemed to get going in a green shirt so I decided to transfer list him at the end of the season. League One QPR were the only team interested and offered £75k up front for the powerful centre-back.
With £68k of the £75k received from Cameron’s transfer, we signed our final striker to contest with Telford and Rose as an advanced forward. 18-year-old Janis Antiste signs on from Ligue 1 side Toulouse on a three-year contract and I couldn’t be happier with the terms of the deal. The young French striker already has incredible attributes at this level and still has a lot of potential to build upon in the future. The only risk with this signing is that he’s never really played any first-team football, so I hope that the step up to the Championship isn’t too much for him.
Thursday 1st July 2021
Our final signing for the first team this summer is Jacob Maddox. Another youth player released by a Premier League club (this time, Chelsea), Maddox is a very good attacking midfielder that should be able to challenge Danny Mayor in the advanced playmaker role in midfield. Maddox still has a bit of potential to improve, so I can see the 22-year-old being another youngster that could be sold for a profit in the future if he performs well.
Wednesday 7th July 2021
A little gem brought in from Northern Irish top division side Glenavon, Craig Boyle is a prospect that we signed for £74k to boost the numbers in our U23/U18 sides and is another versatile player for the future. Proficient at both centre-back and in defensive midfield, Boyle is one to watch for the future; whether that be at Argyle or out on loan at a lower-league side.
Saturday 10th July 2021
One of the key reasons why we decided to bring Jacob Maddox in as the competition for Danny Mayor as an advanced playmaker is because I looked to get rid of Tayo Edun. Although Edun had turned up in big games last season and was versatile enough to fill in at wing-back during crises of suspension and injury, he just wasn’t quite good enough for the step-up to Championship football. Despite being transfer listed, there was little interest from other teams. Eventually, League Two Scunthorpe United put in an offer to loan him until the end of the season, which we accepted.
Other youth loans
Near the end of the transfer window, we decided to loan out some of our youngsters to get some first-team experience lower down the pyramid:
Kyle Horne – The 17-year-old midfielder was ready for League Two football according to my scouts, so he has joined Port Vale until the end of the season.
Eddie Barry-Murphy – The 18-year-old left wing-back was supposedly only ready for National League football; however when Port Vale guaranteed him first team football alongside Horne I could not refuse.
Noah Delap – The 18-year-old centre-back joins the Class of 92’s passion project Salford City until the end of the season.
For the first time on this game, we were offered a training camp during pre-season in the sunny climbs of the Scottish highlands. Throughout all of the pre-season friendlies, we showed great attacking intent and only really let ourselves down defensively in our away game at Bath City. Getting lots of wins before the start of the actual season was so important this year as if the media’s prediction was correct, we could be in for a long season…
The other big change at the club was that Perry Ng would be our new club captain, with Conor Grant becoming his deputy.
Finally, before we start the season, I thought it would be good to share this season’s new kit designs as you can see below.
First Game of the Season – Hull City (H)
To finish up this first update of our 2021/22 season, I thought I’d let you all know how the first game of the season went. A lot of debuts were had in our opening day fixture against Hull, with Ganchas, Obiang, Amos, Mlakar and Antiste appearing in the green and white for the first time. I was expecting an edgy match, with the most likely result being a Hull City win. However, I was completely surprised by the game’s conclusion:
It was an outstanding result. Debutant Pedro Ganchas would get two goals from centre-back; fellow centre-back Zak Vyner would get his 2nd goal for the club and Jan Mlakar would blow supporters away with an outstanding hat-trick on his debut for Argyle. Wow. I don’t want us to get ahead of ourselves, but surely we won’t surpass expectations again this season?
Next time, we continue our season in the Championship and see if our opening day form carries us further than anything we could have possibly dreamed of…
The Sky Bet League One Playoffs are here; our captain Gary Sawyer has (at most) three games left of his playing career and we could face our first trip to Wembley since the debacle against AFC Wimbledon five years ago. If you missed the last part of this story, you can catch up here.
Heading back into the tunnel in the newly-renovated Mayflower stand, Dominic Telford threw his shin pads at the media team, blurting a number of expletives out as he stormed into the changing rooms. The rest of the eighteen-man squad followed, many slamming the door against the wall on their way in. After finishing up giving my thanks to the Devonport end and the Green Army, I tentatively opened the door to speak to my players.
“Look, lads. All we can do is put this disappointment behind us and put things in perspective: all we were expected to do was survive this season. We’ve surpassed that, and we’re only gutted because we have our own ridiculously high standards to uphold!”
The crestfallen look on Mike’s [Cooper] face changed to one of deep thought. “He’s right, you know. We know how good we can be, don’t we?”
“Are you f***ing kidding me? We’ve just bottled it against b**tard Donny Rovers who had absolutely sh*t all to play for!” replied an increasingly frustrated Luka Racic, throwing his boots across the room, where they would land in front of an oddly silent Yann Songo’o.
“Luka, give it a rest,” Yann began, cutting through the tension in the room like a knife through hot butter. “Look, Gaz [Gary Sawyer] has been there. Nothing will probably make him forget the disappointment against Wimbledon five years ago. But he is a winner because he never gave up. So, quit your whining, we need to start looking to the future rather than the past.” A stunned silence came over the room: Yann was a silent assassin, a man of few words, but all of the younger lads knew to shut up and listen when he spoke.
“Yann’s right. We’ve got to start planning now as the first semi-final against Sunderland is in just three days time. I can’t fault any of your work ethics; however we can’t afford to rest on our laurels now.” The rest of the boys began to lift their draping heads as I spoke, showing that typical Argyle grit and determination that we needed to get through the next two matches.
Sunderland vs. Plymouth Argyle, Wednesday 5th May 2021
The three day gap between the final game of the normal season against Doncaster on the Sunday and the first leg of our playoff semi-final against Sunderland on the Wednesday seemed to go by in a flash: the analysts had a report on The Black Cats on my desk by 7am on the Monday. What followed was a complete re-jig of our training priorities. The play-offs are a different kettle of fish; we had to look into harnessing any advantage possible. The lads reported in for some light training and tactical briefing after lunch, and then Tuesday was spent working on our shape in and out of possession before heading up to the North East ready for Wednesday’s match.
Sunderland were always going to be tough opponents, and therefore in the first leg away from home I wanted to keep things balanced and tight. I wanted to take a result we could build upon back to Home Park in the second leg. The easiest decisions to make were of the defensive kind: Mike Cooper, Perry Ng, Luka Racic, Scott Wharton and Adam Randell had worked like a well-oiled machine for the majority of the season and were the most reliable players to do a job when out of possession. Adam Lewis had come up with a cracking 6 assists from left wing-back since joining on loan from Liverpool in January, yet right wing-back was a harder decision to make.
Liam Shephard offers more defensively than Zak Mills does, however Shephard hasn’t really hit any kind of good form since joining in January. I still decided to go with my gut and stick with Shephard and leave Mills on the bench should I change my mind during the match. Conor Grant had picked up a little niggle in training so Matt Butcher would go on to deputise for him, and I hoped that the very experienced Danny Mayor would pull out the stops in this big game. Sam Smith was in excellent goal-scoring form up top and I chose Telford to partner with him as he always seems to show up in matches like these. Tayo Edun and Danny Rose were both players I could rely on to come on and change the game if needed from the subs bench.
Not long after the sun began to dip, the boys left the tunnel and stepped out in front of a gigantic crowd of almost 46,000 fans. (Surely both of these teams are too big for League One football?) They knew what I’d asked of them: stay in the game, and take a decent result back home to Plymouth. Andy Haines’ whistle blew, and off we went: our play-off journey began. Sunderland were almost immediately on the front foot, with Will Grigg going close before [Adam] Randell would go and earn a yellow card after just 2 minutes – possibly a sign of the young midfielder’s inexperience. Despite this, we would ride out the storm of the first 5 minutes where Sam Smith arguably should have scored on the counter-attack but pulled it wide after a deflection.
The ball would go out for a thrown in on the right-hand side, where Liam Shephard would take on a quick one-two before floating a cross into Smith’s battling head, who would direct it towards the awaiting foot of the midfield maestro Danny Mayor. Waiting on the edge of the box, Mayor would hit Smith’s header on the volley, straight past Jon McLaughlin and into the back of the net. 1-0. The upper tier of the North Stand erupted, breaking out into the familiar tune of ‘We’ve got Mayor, Danny Mayor…’. Of course, I was delighted, but I screamed at the lads to calm it down and keep their concentration. There was still over 80 minutes left of the match and a lot could happen in that time.
20 minutes later, [Adam] Lewis would give away a free kick in our half on the wing. Lynden Gooch would take it quickly, with [Perry] Ng heading it away to Lewis before he would clear it to the open Adam Randell. What happened next can only be described as a complete brain fart: Randell would dither with the ball just outside the box, opting to turn around on the spot and try to pass back to [Mike] Cooper in goal instead of clearing the danger. This left Gooch with enough time to nick the ball off of him, lay it off to the clinical Will Grigg and you can guess the rest. 33 minutes gone, 1-1. We would hold on until the end of the first half, and half time could not come quickly enough.
After some words of advice and a re-iteration of the message I sent to the boys pre-match, Argyle went back out in the second half with one change. Randell would be substituted off for Conor Grant after the difficult 45 minutes the young midfielder would have, with Butcher heading deeper into defensive midfield and Grant taking his place. Grant would make the difference initially, putting a number of fantastic set piece deliveries into the mixer and creating chances, however it was Sunderland who would strike first. Following a goal kick, Jordan Marshall would play a simple ball over the top, catching Shephard and Racic out. Grigg would run through onto the ball, take a touch and pass it past the helpless Mike Cooper. It was 2-1 to The Black Cats.
Following our opening goal, Shephard had struggled against the pace and power of Sunderland, so I opted to bring on Zak Mills in his place. [Dom] Telford also seemed to have a non-existent presence leading the line for the Greens; perhaps the pressure of captaining The Pilgrims for the first time was affecting his performance. Danny Rose would be substituted on for him as I knew that Rose would at least run like hell for the remaining 20 minutes of the first leg. Unfortunately, we’d spend the rest of the match prying and searching for an opening in Sunderland’s defence, although Grigg’s constant well-timed runs and movement caused us absolute nightmares on the counter-attack. The match would ultimately finish in Sunderland’s favour, and we would have to take a one goal deficit back to Plymouth.
Plymouth Argyle vs Sunderland, Sunday 9th May 2021
Just four days later, we were back at Home Park for the second leg of the playoff semi-final.
“Right, lads. We did alright up in Sunderland, now we’ve got to get a result here. The difference here is that we’ll be going much more attacking than we did in the first leg. I want you to be aggressive, I want you to press and I want every single one of you using every ounce of energy in your body to completely outrun them. We’ve got the advantage here of 16,000 fans singing us on; we’ll have that 12th man in our squad.”
As I explained to the squad, we’d chase Sunderland’s lead from the first leg and go slightly more attacking. Two changes would be made, with the more attacking Zak Mills coming in for Liam Shephard at right wing-back and Matt Butcher being dropped for Tayo Edun. Butcher would drop out of the squad entirely due to injury and Joe Edwards would return to the match day squad (perfect for if Randell falters again). Apart from that, it was the norm and the boys knew exactly what they had to do.
As the familiar trumpets of Semper Fidelis piped up over the tannoy, there was a tangible atmosphere of nerves and excitement in the tunnel. Walking out onto the plush green pitch at Home Park was like being hit with a tidal wave of hopes and dreams: all across the Lyndhurst Stand a mob of green and white stared back, singing ‘Argyyyyyyle, Argyyyyyyyle‘ as loud as their lungs would allow them to.
The ref’s whistle blew and the boys were off: we were going the traditional way of attacking the away fans in the first half and shooting towards the Devonport End in the second half. Argyle would instantly keep possession a lot better than they did in the North East, orchestrating some decent chances in the opening 20 minutes.
Luck came the way of The Pilgrims first, when in the 24th minute Adam Lewis dispossessed Max Power on the left wing and got yet another assist when he laid an excellent through ball into the box for Sam Smith to run onto and slot cooly into the bottom right corner. 1-0, and 2-2 on aggregate. It was all square. Smith took no time celebrating; he knew I wanted all out attack until we were in control of the game.
Argyle would continue to dominate and Sunderland seemed impotent to fight back, yet we couldn’t find another way through before the half time whistle blew. As things were going well, I opted against making any changes at the break, instead deciding to just remind the boys that we were in control and just one more goal would allow us to achieve the unthinkable at the start of the season.
At the start of the second half, Sunderland came out with a bit more attacking intent – Will Grigg (once again) seemed to be their biggest threat in behind our defence. However, the Black Cats were taken aback when in the 55th minute they would concede a free kick more or less on the left of the penalty box. Without our specialist Conor Grant on the field, Tayo Edun would step up. A whipped cross to the far post would meet the head of Smith, deflect off the crossbar, fall to the feet of Luka Racic (who would get his feet in a bit of a mess and knock the ball off of the near post), and finally – unconventionally – be bundled in by Danny Mayor. IT WAS 2-0! As it stood, Argyle were through to the playoff final, 3-2 over the two legs. It wasn’t neat, it wasn’t pretty, but it was getting the job done.
Sunderland really pushed for a reply, and so I opted to go slightly more defensive and bring Shephard on for Mills at right wing-back. Although Sunderland were coming more into the game, we were still continuing to create chances on the counter attack. Telford was snatching at his chances yet again, so Danny Rose came on for him just after 75 minutes. [Yann] Songo’o followed him on for [Perry] Ng to get some fresh legs in the defence as well.
The substitutes would make an almost instant impact: Songo’o would clear the ball in defence to Edun, who would ping a ball over the top of The Black Cats’ defence and Danny Rose, the King of the goal late in the game, would run onto it and smash it into the bottom left corner. 3-0, and 4-2 on aggregate. Home Park erupted as Rose sprinted over to the Devonport End to celebrate with the fans. It seemed like the entirety of Plymouth broke out into the familiar ‘Que será, será…’ chant, as it was almost confirmed that we were, indeed, going to Wembley. The full time whistle 10 minutes later initiated a party atmosphere, as the team danced and sang with the fans – we were to go to London to face Fleetwood Town in the final of the SkyBet League One Playoffs.
In preparation for the huge game in two weeks time, we returned to the training ground to prepare efficiently. In came the training sessions to practice our set pieces – in particular our penalties – as I wanted us to take any fine margin as a potential advantage. Lilian [Nalis] and I had also planned to take the lads over on the ferry to Brittany for a one-off match against French amateur side Crozon. I’m a big advocate of not just the physical side of getting a good footballing team together, but also the mental. Through the three days away in the North of France, I hoped to improve (even further) the strong bond between my squad.
All members of the squad that weren’t injured had at least a 45 minute run-out at the Stade Municipal. As expected, we nailed an 8-0 win against the amateur side, with goals from Conor Grant, Adam Lewis, Liam Shephard, two goals apiece from Danny Rose and Dominic Telford and finally an own goal from Denis-Will Kerleoux. Despite the clear gulf in class, the team’s general shape throughout the match was encouraging and we left Brittany with a strong sense of hope.
Plymouth Argyle vs Fleetwood Town, Sunday 23rd May 2021
An incredible 51,766 spectators flooded Wembley Stadium, with an even more outstanding Green Army making up over 40,000 of that crowd.
Despite not changing too much over the course of the two legs of the semi-final, the coaching team and I decided to make some wholesale changes as well as having some decisions be taken out of our hands. Although we clearly dominated the second leg against Sunderland with a more attacking side, I wanted to at least start off at Wembley with a more balanced side. Shephard and Conor Grant came back in after featuring previously in the semi-finals, while there would also be three new starters: Danny Rose’s goalscoring antics last time out (and Dom Telford’s lack of form) meant that I felt he earnt a spot in the first XI; Joe Edwards came in for Randell in the DLP role as Adam was injured; and our captain – Gary Sawyer – would make his final appearance in a Green shirt leading his boyhood club out at Wembley.
For many of the lads, this was their first time playing at the home of English football, and I must admit that the thought of taking my hometown team out onto the hallowed turf gave me a sleepless night. Before the game, I made sure to let the lads know that no matter what, this season we have defied expectations. If this as far as we can go, so be it. But at the same time, why not carry on defying expectations? Confound the critics, silence the doubters. Become heroes.
At the start of the match, Fleetwood dominated possession, using the expansive pitch at Wembley to pass the ball around in what seemed to be a tiki-taka style 4-1-2-3 DM wide. We didn’t roll over in the early periods however; we’d hit them on the counter repeatedly with balls from the midfield floated over the top to the energetic Smith and Rose at the spearhead of our attack. The first time this paid off was in the 38th minute: Edwards picked up a loose pass in our own half and cleared it to Rose, who would take a touch, dribble past a defender and send a long ball forward to he on-running Smith. The young striker on loan from Reading would then cut past Eastham and Roberts in central defence and slot the ball coolly into the bottom left corner past Alex Cairns in goal 36th minute. 1-0. Sky cameras shook as 40,000 members of the Green Army erupted and cheered.
While I believed that this was a fantastic position for us to be in going into half time, the boys clearly thought it wasn’t enough. As we continued to dominate attacks (while Fleetwood’s front man Ashley Hunter seemed impotent with every chance he had) we earned a late corner on the right-hand side just as it was announced there would be two minutes added time. Taking his time, Conor Grant corner sent an unsuccessful cross into the box which was headed straight back out to him. Grant would then confound critics as he dribbled past Wes Burns and floated a cross into Danny Mayor (who was stood on the penalty spot). What happened next was exactly what you’d expect from a player like Danny Mayor. Our midfield wizard didn’t even take a touch to control Grant’s cross; instead he would swing his right foot at the ball and volley it with pace and power into the top left corner. 2-0. The mood as the boys went back to the dressing room was incredible, but we knew we had to keep our focus and application in the second half.
Although we could say that we dominated the first half, we had to expect a Fleetwood fight-back – and they did. Wes Burns, Ashley Hunter and (later) substitute Ched Evans would carve out attack after attack, but we would defend well and put in strong blocks to defend our lead. As usual, our first substitute in the 67th minute came in the form of a straight swap in Shephard coming off for Mills. Although Mills is the more attacking option at right wing-back, Shephard was struggling with Conor McAleny’s runs and a change of personnel may help. As the second half progressed, we found ourselves starting to see out the game with dangerous counter-attacks that should have put the game to bed completely. Our final substitutes came in the 81st minute: Songo’o, possibly making his last appearance for the club, would take the place of Joe Edwards as a bit of a half-back to see the game out; while Tayo Edun would deputise for the tiring Adam Lewis, who hadn’t quite been up to the same standard as usual.
The assistant referee raised the board to show there was to be 4 minutes added time, just as the travelling Green Army broke out into a chant of ‘We’re on our way, we’re on our way, to the Championship, we’re on our way!’. Just as I stood there, thinking that the day could not get any better, my expectations were surpassed once again. Sam Smith – who had worked exceptionally hard all game – won possession from Sheron on the left wing and sent a perfectly-weighted pass into space for Danny Mayor to run onto and smash the ball past Cairns into the bottom right corner. It was 3-0! With less than 3 minutes left to play, surely this was it now, right? Wrong: pretty much straight from the restart, Tayo Edun repeated Smith’s feat and won the ball high up the pitch and sent a low, uncontested cross into the box for Smith, who buried it into the back of the net on 93 minutes. I couldn’t believe what I was watching – Plymouth Argyle were about to win 4-0, at Wembley, in the playoffs to get back to the Championship!
The last action of the game fell to Smith, who would run offside as the whistle blew for full time. An almighty roar erupted around Wembley as well as from the live beam-back at Home Park. We’d done it! As Fleetwood players collapsed to the floor, the boys hugged and jumped around, singing along with the incredible fans who travelled for this special day out. The only Pilgrim who didn’t do this was Gary Sawyer: he instead went straight over to the opposition defence, picked up 19-year-old Haydon Roberts off of the hallowed turf and whispered some words of advice in his ear. Gaz, in his last game, was a true gentleman and a professional to the end.
As it was confirmed that we would be making our way back up to the Championship once again, we received messages of thanks from Simon Hallett and the rest of the board in the form of the initial budgets (which was fairly decent for a team of our stature) and a new contract extension until 2024. Although this was the case, the board expected more from as a result of their generosity: whereas before they wanted entertaining, attacking football and for me not to sign players over the age of 30, they also wanted me to play high-tempo pressing football. Luckily, we already play with a much higher tempo and always look to press and counter-press with intensity. Finally, the board only expect us to fight bravely against relegation next year – as a result of this, my job security might well be a lot safer this year.
Following the open-top bus parade around the city centre three days after our Wembley win, the end-of-season awards ceremony was held. Scott Wharton won the prestigious Fan’s Player and Young Player of the Season unsurprisingly, as he was our most solid defender throughout the season. Edun won goal of the season after his free kick against Ipswich and Perry Ng was deemed our signing of the season. I was also very surprised to win Sky Bet League One Manager of the Year, seeing as I didn’t win automatic promotion like Adam Barrett of MK Dons or Nigel Adkins and his Barnsley side. Mike Cooper seemed to flow under the radar a little this season, although his 20 clean sheets would be a new team record and he would also be in the League One team of the year in his first full season as our first choice ‘keeper. Some more of our young players, Ryan Bevan and Alex Fletcher, impressed on loan as well, with Bevan winning Vanarama National League North Player of the Season and Fletcher coming second in the hunt for the Vanarama National League golden boot.
Now all of the excitement is over, it’s time for the rebuild ready for our first season back in the Championship.
Next time: Our new transfers and pre-season, which this year will take place in Scotland!