Before we begin, I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! If you’ve missed the story so far, you can catch up with the rest of The Pilgrimage here:
Devon is green and white tonight, and it always will be.Derek Adams, former Plymouth Argyle manager, Saturday 17th September 2016
As the final few revellers were escorted away from St. James Park, the cries of ‘there’s only one team in Devon’ echoed among the (now deserted) streets of Exeter. For the team boarding the coach back home, this was a great, exciting, new feeling for a lot of the squad: elation at beating Argyle’s closest rivals. Dominic Telford took a last glance through the blacked-out windows of the chartered Target Travel coach before settling down in usual seat: it had been a good day at work for the young striker.
“Well done Dom. I think you could see how much that meant to so many fans,” I told him, shaking his hand.
“Cheers boss, I just want to keep on banging them in now – I reckon this could be the result that kick-starts the rest of an amazing season…”
As evidenced above, Dominic Telford was in absolutely electric form. 13 goals in 20 games (and a sneaky one year extension clause put into his contract by previous manager Ryan Lowe) meant that by the start of November, I knew I had to hold tight onto our master marksman. Traditionally, I only normally look to extend contracts around Christmas time so as to avoid any nasty surprises in the January transfer window, however I knew this one could not wait.
The excitable atmosphere that followed the Green Army back down the A38 carried into the month’s fixtures, with no game able to be described as a bore. Although it seemed like the Pilgrims were destined to suffer a post-Devon Derby hangover after finding themselves 3-2 down at half time to Grimsby Town, a completed hattrick from the in-form Dominic Telford in the second half turned the tables in Argyle’s favour. Stevenage were trounced 5-1 but Argyle were then brought back down to earth by a defeat in the
Mickey Mouse Leasing.com Trophy by Oxford United. Despite this, we still qualified for the next round and were given a tie against Arsenal U23s. Two tricky fixtures rounded off the month, with both Forest Green Rovers and Bradford City suggested as potential promotion candidates in the real world this season. Expectations were confounded though, as Telford hit four past Bradford in a 5-0 decimation and backup striker Billy Clarke scored his first goal of the season to round off a great performance away at Forest Green.
As you could easily assume, the board of directors were very happy with Argyle being 10 points clear of second place Colchester United by the end of November. Our successes on the pitch were reflected in another (almost) clean sweep of awards: Dom Telford won another Player of the Month award, I won my 4th consecutive Manager of the Month award and Zak Rudden‘s goal against Forest Green Rovers duly won the Goal of the Month award.
It was a cracking goal, with Rudden picking up the ball just inside Argyle’s half, running all the way to the outside of the penalty box and lashing a shot straight into the top corner. Beautiful.
An exciting month! December got off to a bang with a televised match against local rivals Bristol Rovers at home in the 2nd round of the FA Cup. (Another slight bit of deja vu in relation to real life: on that occasion, we lost 1-0 in a game that we dominated.) My Pilgrims side fared better than Ryan Lowe’s; a scrappy game against The Gas ended in a 2-0 win which saw Telford and Danny Mayor getting on the scoresheet, Zak Rudden miss a penalty and Rovers’ Luke Leahy be sent off for a professional foul. Spicy. Its a shame the 3rd round draw didn’t result in a money-spinning tie against a Premier League big boy; of course we were given another tricky away trip to Rodney Parade to face Newport County.
A pair of 2-0 wins followed in the league against Cambridge and the league trophy against Arsenal U23s, with the creative midfield talents of Conor Grant and Danny Mayor starting to rear their heads. Scrappy results in the same vein of the FA Cup match would follow until the end of the month: former manager Derek Adams would return to Home Park and his Morecambe side would succumb to a tight 3-2 loss; the Argyle players already seemed to be on their Christmas holidays following a 1-1 draw away to bottom of the league Macclesfield Town and the best result of them all came on Boxing Day away to Cheltenham Town. Dom Telford hadn’t scored in quite a few matches but scored in the 12th minute for a smash and grab against a decent Robins team.
The best result of December however came on the grand re-opening of the renovated Mayflower Grandstand, expanding Home Park to a whopping capacity of 17,904 – a very good size for a meagre League Two side. Stevenage were the visitors once again and lightning struck twice: instead of losing 5-1 like earlier in November, they lost 6-1 to a rampant Pilgrims attacking side, with Byron Moore getting a hattrick, Josh Grant bagging two and a returning Joel Grant finding the back of the net as well.
With the January transfer window looming, I finally got to have my first look at the updated youth intake system on FM20. I wish I hadn’t looked! If I can continue the gain the board’s trust, I would like to then request that they continue to pump funding into our youth academy.
The board would finally reach the A- level of satisfaction with my job performance and I hoped that January’s transfer window would allow me to prove my worth further. It would also be five-for-five in terms of Manager of the Month awards, and a top three full of Argyle players in the Player of the Month award. Taylor and Moore, both normally backup strikers, impressed in December and stepped up as the form of the usually reliable Dominic Telford and Zak Rudden wavered.
Finally, I decided to give out some contract extensions to some of the major players of this season so far, as well as players who had started to show some good potential. Mike Cooper, Joe Edwards, Joel Grant, Danny Mayor, Callum McFadzean, Tafari Moore, Adam Randell and veteran captain Gary Sawyer all received contract extensions until 2021. Jose Baxter had his short-term contract extended to the end of the season and the loan contracts of George Cooper and Josh Grant were also extended until the end of the season.
Going back to the subject of the January transfer window, the main area of the squad I wanted to improve was our centre-backs. While Josh Grant had impressed on loan and the evergreen Gary Sawyer had adapted his game to a central role, Will Aimson was talented but too short (and injured too often), and both Niall Canavan and Scott Wootton were mediocre at best. I didn’t plan on making any permanent signings as a £50k transfer budget would not buy much quality in January for a League Two side.
After a strong 2019, the new year almost appeared with a whimper. While January would start with a strong 2-0 showing against promotion contenders Swindon Town, a disappointing 3rd round tie in the FA cup against our bogey team Newport County ended in a 3-2 defeat at home. Ex-Argyle loanee Jamille Matt would score twice against his former team and Dom Telford would miss a crucial point-winning penalty late on. This was disappointing, yet Argyle would continue to struggle: a bore draw, 0-0 against Scunthorpe United and a lucky 1-0 win against Carlisle after Joe Riley went off injured early and was replaced by goalscoring Tafari Moore.
Argyle’s fortunes would improve however with a comprehensive 3-0 win at home in the Dockyard Derby against Portsmouth in the 3rd round of the Mickey Mouse Leasing.com Trophy and were unfortunate to drop points at home to Mansfield in a 1-1 draw. Luckily, next up was an away encounter against Stevenage who the Pilgrims had already trounced twice this season. Argyle would go 3-0 up at half time – completely dominating – yet the Greens completely capitulated in the second half, conceding twice around the 70th minute and then conceding a third in the 96th minute. It’s fair to say the laptop almost went out of the window. I expected the last match of the month, a home encounter against Crawley Town, to hopefully act as an improvement. All I received though was a poor performance with Dominic Telford once again bailing us out late in the second half.
Despite the disappointing form compared to earlier in the season, the board were still pleased with my performance, in particular the recent moves in the transfer window, which we will speak more about below. It is interesting to note that this was the first time since the start of the season that no Manager of the Month, Player of the Month, Young Player of the Month or Goal of the Month awards would be sent in the direction of the South West.
January 2020 Transfer Window
I said that I wanted an improvement to my backline, and Sylvain Deslandes, a 22 year-old French defender on loan from Wolves, answered my call. A versatile player, FM20 describes his best position as left-back. However, used as a ball-playing defender in the same role as Gary Sawyer, Deslandes has a number of attributes that stand out to be successful. Although he gave away a penalty in his debut against Mansfield, he would go on to score in the draw away to Stevenage. An RPW DNA score of 52 is not too shabby should we wish to pursue signing him permanently at the end of the season.
Normally, I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to transfers for the first team, U23 and U18 squads. This year, I’ve put a lot of trust into my Head of Youth Development, Mickey Evans, to improve what currently is a mediocre/poor youth squad. Evans would use his new responsibilities a lot and sign an eye-watering four players to the U23 squad – luckily for no transfer fees at all. Here’s some quick summaries of each of his signings:
Rahis Nabi – Free transfer from Alvechurch
A twice-capped Pakistan international, 20 year-old Nabi was signed from Southern Premier League Central side Alvechurch. A creative, attacking central midfielder, he has some interesting attributes in key areas but an RPW DNA score of 35 means he needs a lot of improvement to fit into my squad.
Kelsey Mooney – Free transfer from Hereford
Coming through Aston Villa‘s academy, 20 year-old Mooney shows a lot of promise as an advanced forward and had already impressed scoring 8 in 23 for Hereford in the Vanarama National League North so far this season. With great physical attributes and great finishing, another low RPW DNA score of 33 is the only point of contention for the young striker.
Lewis White – Free transfer from Dulwich Hamlet
Another talented striker from England’s sixth tier, 20 year-old Lewis White came through Millwall‘s academy before scoring 8 in 25 for Dulwich Hamlet this season. Again having excellent physical attributes, his technical skills don’t quite compare to Mooney’s. The lowest RPW DNA score yet of 31 makes me consider what Mickey Evans sees in this young striker.
Joe Lynch – Free transfer from Morecambe
A second midfielder that Evans brought in, the 20 year-old box-to-box midfielder has actually already featured 6 times in League Two this season, scoring a single goal. A well-rounded player, he is the first of the U23 signings that shows a lot of potential in my RPW DNA policy: a score of 56 should take him far in the game.
I’ve covered the ins, now for the outs: at the suggestion of my backroom team, I sent some of my young players out to get some first team experience. Firstly, Luke Jephcott and Ryan Law would be recalled from the inferior Truro City and loaned back out to Chesterfield and Southport respectively for more of a challenge. Young Greek striker Klaidi Lolos would join Law at Southport and Tom Purrington would also join a sixth tier side in Hungerford Town. New signings Rahis Nabi and Kelsey Mooney would be sent straight back out on loan to Vanarama National League sides Eastleigh and Solihull Moors respectively. Finally, my first permanent departure would be made with backup striker Billy Clarke being released at the end of his short-term contract. While Clarke had scored twice in four appearances for The Pilgrims, he never really fit into the way that I play and could not compare to the bountiful options I already have in the squad.
Going into the final three months of the season with a solid 10 point lead at the top of the table gives me a lot of hope, however I also look forward to an upturn in form that will allow The Pilgrims to gain the promotion that was a best-case-scenario at the start of the season and potentially even a continued cup run if luck favours us in the Leasing.com Trophy.
Next time: the season one run-in; we see our youth intake properly for the first time and we could have a trip to Wembley…