When Argyle lost against AFC Wimbledon in the League Two play-off final back in 2016, it’s fair to say supporting this football club wasn’t the most enjoyable experience. My coping mechanism at the time was to look towards the successes of other clubs who had fallen agonisingly short in the play-offs before moving on to better things, particularly Burton Albion. After losing in the 2014 play-offs to Fleetwood Town thanks to a fortunate free kick goal from one Antoni Sarcevic, Albion went on to achieve promotion the following year and, quite stunningly, the year after too – the Brewers confirmed their place in the Championship around a month before Argyle’s collapse at Wembley. Maybe, just maybe, Argyle could follow in the footsteps of that Burton side, and go on to re-establish themselves as a force in the Football League.
As we know, phase one of that plan came to fruition last season, with promotion to League One confirmed in the unforgettable 6-1 triumph over Newport County. Phase two, however, rapidly became somewhat difficult to come by for the club – and, well, how often may we be hearing that phrase over the course of the next few years with matters off the field? Anyway, I digress. As Argyle were put to the sword week in week out upon their return to League One, what was supposed to be an exciting new season was rapidly turning into the worst time to be an Argyle fan since the fateful play-off final.
Once again, I looked to other clubs who had previously occupied Argyle’s position to cling onto a sliver of hope. This led to me casting my mind back to the Barnsley side of two seasons ago who, despite being just a point off the foot of the table on Christmas Day, went on a scintillating run which saw them promoted via the play-offs. Could it be that Argyle, somehow, could find themselves replicating this success by turning things around and dragging themselves up the league?
This at the time appeared to be a complete pipe dream, but without trying to get ahead of ourselves totally, a Barnsley style promotion is certainly not out of the question as the final few months of the season approach. At the moment, Argyle almost seem to be improving with each passing game – I’ve lost count of the amount of times we’ve declared a certain performance the best of the season before another comes along to usurp it. Saturday’s victory over Blackburn Rovers is right up there; Tony Mowbray’s side came to Home Park on the back of an 18-game unbeaten run in the league which saw them sitting pretty in 2nd, but they were comfortably torn apart by Argyle’s play. Every Argyle player emerged with credit, with the continued gelling of Derek Adams’ first choice side perhaps showing how costly the injuries and suspensions were during the early part of the season.
But how likely is it that Argyle will be able to keep this up and push up the league even further against all odds as the season reaches its business end? Whilst dreaming of Argyle experiencing unexpected success has proved comforting in the past, it is ultimately just that: a dream. There is no science at all to the comparison with the Barnsley and Burton successes, and the different sets of circumstances make a proper investigation into the similarities almost impossible. This is particularly true with regards to the transfer window. Argyle will only be able to add to the squad through free agents from now until the end of the season (presuming we don’t experience another farcical goalkeeping crisis). Meanwhile, Barnsley and Burton still had the joy of the loan window remaining open for two months after the main transfer window closed, allowing them more choice in adding to their squads, and perhaps the opportunity to gain that extra momentum boost they needed to get over the line.
It may also be worth tempering our expectations for the season with a realistic look at the shape of Argyle’s squad. On their day, with everybody fully fit, Argyle have a very good team for this division, as demonstrated perfectly at the weekend. However, as we have seen before, it only takes a couple of injuries to key players for the side to fall apart. The success of Argyle’s transfer window is debatable to say the least, but one thing we certainly know is that the squad is thinner than it was at the beginning of January. If this squad is stretched by injuries and suspensions later on in the campaign, the momentum building currently could be destroyed very quickly, and Argyle may well have to settle for the current mid-table mediocrity.
Logically speaking, then, it may be worth us all calming down and accepting that this excellent run of form isn’t necessarily going to lead us anywhere by the end of the season. But am I going to do that? Absolutely not. With Argyle’s successes since the 2016 play-off heartbreak fresh in the mind, there’s absolutely no reason not to dream a little bit. And, as the side currently ranked as the 59th best in the country, what are we really in this for if we can’t allow ourselves that luxury?