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!