When I sit down to write this column every week, I usually take an analytical approach. Look at the facts, crunch the numbers and write something based on a balanced assessment of the two. But there are times when all that goes out of the window, when emotion takes over and there’s an overwhelming urge to just howl in frustration. Saturday was one such occasion.
When Carey’s penalty was saved, I turned to my son and said, “Watch this. They’ll go down the other end and score and we’ll lose this two or three nil.” I’m not claiming to be Home Park’s resident Mystic Meg. I suspect hundreds, if not thousands, of other Argyle fans were saying the exact same thing, because this has happened so often this season that clairvoyant powers were not required to predict the outcome.
By the time we walked away from the ground at 5pm, teeth-gnashing frustration had turned into existential angst. Questions that wise men have pondered through the ages filled my head. Is all human life about suffering? Through that suffering do we ascend to a higher level of being? And most importantly, will Freddie Ladapo ever win a midfield aerial battle?
Was I over-reacting? Probably. But at the time, all I could think about was another point (at least) thrown away on top of the four squandered in the previous two weeks as leads were surrendered against Bristol Rovers and Blackpool. Had we taken even some of those additional points from the three games we wouldn’t now be looking over our shoulders at the chasing pack between us and the relegation zone, and could maybe even relax and enjoy the remaining fixtures.
Thoughts then turned to post-match interviews. What reasons will be given to explain Argyle’s almost unnatural inability to hold onto a lead, to convert chances into goals or to perform basic defensive duties? Poor refs, adverse weather, pretty much anything beyond the control of those on the pitch or in the dugout? Fair warning to all in the vicinity; if I hear the phrase ‘fine margins’ one more time, so help me, I won’t be responsible for my actions.
Even Charlton’s manager, Lee ‘punch your team-mate’ Bowyer, got in on the act after the game, saying he couldn’t understand how Argyle are embroiled in a relegation fight. Well here’s one blindingly obvious reason: we don’t seem to be able to play a full 90 minutes without imploding. Argyle were by some margin the better side for most of the first half on Saturday. As the manager said, “For 45 minutes we were excellent.” It was left to Gary Sawyer to point out the main problem: “As good as we were in the first-half, we’re sitting here with no points. It’s something that we’ll look at in training, and if we could play like that for 90 minutes rather than just the 45, we’ll certainly have no problem at all.”
Actually, hearing that from the Captain is one of the most worrying things to come out of Home Park in a while. If this was September and we’d played a handful of games that might wash. But it’s April and, 41 matches into the season, isn’t it a bit late to “look at it in training”? Shouldn’t this have been pretty high up on the agenda in training for the last nine months?
There’s clearly something fundamentally amiss that prevents Argyle taking their chances or holding onto a lead, or makes them fall to pieces when they go behind. It certainly looked like the same players who came out onto the pitch for the second half on Saturday, but it was as if they’d been swapped with lookalikes who had barely seen a football before. It has to be something to do with the attitude, the culture or the motivation, because good players don’t suddenly become hopeless cloggers after 15 minutes sucking on an orange in the dressing room at half time.
This is just one of several recurring themes at Home Park this season. Another is the metronomic regularity of the manager’s substitution policy. The crowd is very much not on the edge of their seats wondering which will be the exact minute Ryan Taylor will come on to run around ineffectually or which defensive substitution we’ll go for when trailing by two goals. I used the phrase ‘Groundhog Day’ last week to describe the sense that everything appears to be set in stone at Home Park, that nothing is going to change regardless of how regularly the same issues rear their heads. Tactics seem to fall into that basket as well.
As I’ve said before, I think that after two mediocre to poor seasons, this lack of urgency to even talk about some of the key issues could come back to bite the club. Details of 2019-20 season tickets were announced last week, and while the increases in some prices caused comment, I think that’s a bit of a sideshow. Yes, the adult ticket has gone up by about £20 but that’s not much in the grand scheme of things and if people want the club to spend, they have to accept that at our level there is a big reliance on ticket revenues.
There’s something more important than price. What supporters will crave is hope that they won’t have to endure, for the third year in a row, a miserable first five months of the season that leaves the team rooted to the foot of the table by December.
If the club wants supporters to commit to season tickets next year, they have to make some effort to actually sell them to us. Above all, tell us why we should expect anything different from the last two seasons. Because I confess that, while driving home on Saturday, I started to question the wisdom of shelling out the best part of £500 for season tickets for me and my son. And that’s before adding the cost of petrol for the 120 mile round trip for every home game. Now obviously I will renew, not because I can make a rational case for why I should, but because like many football supporters I can’t help myself. I can picture my wife rolling her eyes even as I speak.
Rant over. Normal boring analytical service will be resumed in this column next week. Probably.