Another eventful week at Home Park, then. The bare facts are that, following the abysmal 5-1 defeat at Accrington, Derek Adams was sacked 6 weeks short of 4 years in charge of Argyle. That’s a long tenure by the standards of modern football management, though I’m sure that’s of scant comfort to him just now.
The record shows that Adams had a 42% win ratio in his 213 Argyle games, which is not too shabby. And there have been plenty of highlights: reaching the League Two play-off final in 2015-16, automatic promotion in 2016-17, an aggregate 1-0 defeat to Liverpool over two games in the FA Cup and (arguably) last season’s ‘great escape’.
However, a manager can only live on past glories for so long and it’s tough to survive a season like the current one. Adams’ win ratio in his first three years was 46%, but has plummeted to 27% this season. With the team losing almost half of its games so far, there has been precious little to cheer the fans. In contrast to last year, the mini revival that started in January was quickly snuffed out and the Pilgrims have won just one out of their last 11 games. And it’s actually got worse as the end of the season approaches. The last five games in particular – scored two, conceded 15 – meant that the groundswell of opinion that Adams had run out of time reached a crescendo.
The team’s disastrous performance in this campaign was the most obvious cause of the manager’s departure, but the terrible beginning of last season also contributed. Yes, it finished with a run to the fringes of the play-offs, but a second consecutive season that saw the club in and around the relegation zone at Christmas eroded any belief that we wouldn’t see a repeat of that for a third year in a row.
It also has to be said that Derek Adams didn’t really help himself in this situation. Managers of struggling teams are clearly on thin ice these days. The 92 clubs in the top four divisions have seen 43 managers depart so far this season, a whopping 47% attrition rate (about four times that of a British First World War soldier, since you ask). In League One, there have been 15 managerial changes and, of the current bottom six, Argyle was the only club not to have changed managers. As a side note, Bradford City and Scunthorpe have the unenviable record of having sacked two managers in the current campaign.
Whether that rate of managerial turnover makes sense is a discussion for another day. But Adams must have been aware of the sword hanging over his head and did little to help himself, despite being the last man standing among the managers of relegation-threatened clubs. Such stubbornness could be an admirable quality under certain circumstances, but it’s certainly not the best way to go about keeping your job in football.
On the pitch, he struggled to come up with his best starting eleven and preferred formation. Several of the players brought in last summer or who arrived on loan failed to make any meaningful impact – think Calum Dyson, Peter Grant, Scott Wootton and Stuart O’Keefe – while more recent arrivals like Lloyd Jones and Paul Anderson have found it hard to get any game time. Spending some of the precious wage bill on players who have barely featured might be an occupational hazard, but the list of names that have not, and arguably will not, make it at Home Park is a bit too long this season. And there have also been far too many mysterious long-term or recurring injuries.
Then there’s the lack of opportunities for youth players. Only two reserve team young professional players – Fletcher and Jephcott – have made any appearances at all this season, and Argyle sit close to the bottom of the table in terms of minutes played by players aged under 23. Being under 23 doesn’t of course mean that a player has come from the club’s Academy, but Adams has favoured older, presumably more experienced players and it just hasn’t worked.
He also seemed tactically inflexible once games were underway, and some of his substitution decisions – for example, waiting until the 80th minute to make a triple change when 3-0 down to Barnsley and frequently swapping defenders when Argyle were trailing by a couple of goals – baffled the fans. This was in stark contrast to some of the opposing teams. The surprising but game-changing double half time substitution by then Gillingham manager Steve Lovell when trailing 1-0 to Argyle a couple of weeks ago springs to mind.
By all accounts, the manager was involved in all aspects of the club and was generally well liked around Home Park. But as the pressure mounted, his inability to connect with supporters and the press became more damaging. By the end, it looked like he wasn’t connecting with the players either.
An early low point with the fans came after the defeat to Burton Albion in October, the 9th loss in the first 14 games of the season. After being on the receiving end of some less than complimentary comments, Adams said that, “There’s always yobs at every club…there’s a number of individuals that are showing a yobbish feeling towards myself and the team.” The behaviour of some supporters was obviously unacceptable and it would take a superhuman effort not to respond to that. To be clear, the manager never labeled Argyle fans in general as ‘yobs’, but the label stuck, particularly on social media. Unfortunately, when you use emotive words like ‘yobbish’, it’s just asking for trouble.
The other factor that alienated the supporters was Adam’s seemingly endless supply of excuses in post-match interviews. Fans were almost playing ‘excuse bingo’, wafting for poor officials, bad pitches, unsuitable weather and just general ‘bad luck’ to be trotted out on a regular basis to explain another loss. And it didn’t escape anybody’s notice that the manager rarely if ever took any of the blame onto his own shoulders.
The press also became increasingly alienated as the season wore on, culminating in Plymouth’s largest newspaper, the Herald, being banned by the manager from his pre and post-match interviews (apart from those mandated by the EFL). The Herald wasn’t entirely blameless in all this. The club had already had a run-in with the paper over some of its articles, and its practice of publishing lists of Tweets from disgruntled fans- hardly Watergate era Washington Post levels of journalism. Then again, given the financial pressures faced by local newspapers, such click-bait journalism becomes a bit more understandable.
Whatever, a seasoned reporter like the Herald’s Chris Errington, who has followed Argyle the length and breadth of the country for 20-odd years, deserved better treatment than that. The refusal to speak to anybody, including Argyle’s own media, after the Accrington fiasco was the final straw, though in reality it may have simply reflected the manager’s realisation that the game was up anyway so he had nothing to lose.
However it could be argued that the club let Adams down in some respects. Given that he is not a natural communicator, somebody should have stepped in to guide his interactions with the fans and the media. But it appears that he was just left alone to get on with it; for example the Herald ban looked like a unilateral decision on the manager’s part, a situation that should never have arisen. Worst of all, far too often his less-than-considered comments to the press were faithfully repeated via the Argyle website and social media, making it appear as if the club fully endorsed his views. Not good PR practice.
But the bottom line of all this is quite simple. When things are going well, a manager can get away with a lot. When they are going badly, you need friends, and in that regard it appears that Adams had burned all his bridges.
Losing the fans and the press is one thing. Losing the dressing room is another, usually fatal, problem. And that seems to be exactly what happened in recent weeks at Home Park. This can’t have been helped by the manager’s recent decision to very publicly shift all responsibility for results onto the players. Before the Barnsley match he commented that: “Our players have to take huge responsibility in the game, because it’s their livelihoods they’re looking after, and also the livelihoods of other members of staff as well…It’s their responsibility, solely.” Note the word ‘solely’. He then doubled down before the Accrington game: “They hold the key, and they’ve got to go on the pitch there and get the win that we require. The eleven players that we choose to play on Saturday hold a big future for this football club.”
So there you go. Not so much parking the bus as throwing the players under it. You’ve got to wonder what that does to respect for the manager in the dressing room. Players need to acknowledge their mistakes, but surely they expect managers to stand up and take some responsibility. After all, you can’t take credit when the team wins if you don’t accept some of the blame when they lose. It appears the manager was not prepared to do that.
Anyhow, conceding 11 goals and scoring two in the last three games suggests something was badly wrong. Add to that the strange omission of Freddie Ladapo for the Gillingham game and the player’s Tweet apparently contradicting the manager’s claim that the striker ‘ruled himself out’ of selection. And finally, a growing feeling that Adams was not the best placed to retain key players in the summer, especially Lameiras who, it was rumoured, had fallen out badly with the manager. All in all, it became clear that the manager had reached the end of the road.
So what next? We’ll leave talk of who takes over until the end of the season. Speaking of which, the stark reality is that the only outcome on Saturday that guarantees Argyle’s survival without needing to worry about other results is if the Pilgrims win and Southend draw or lose. If Argyle lose, they go down. Equally if both Argyle and Southend draw, Argyle go down. There are various other permutations which depend on the outcome of the Wimbledon and Walsall games – if Southend lose or draw and Argyle draw, both teams will be relegated if Walsall win, for example – but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.
The good news is that Argyle are playing the one team in the league on a worse run of form than them. Scunthorpe have taken one point away from home in their last six games while Argyle have taken eight points from their last six games at home. Meanwhile in the other fixture, Southend have the worst recent record in the league at home with four points from the last six games, while Sunderland have one of the best away records over the same period.
So if the form guide is to be believed, Argyle will win, Southend will lose and we’ll all go home happy. That’s what I’m clinging onto anyway. Whatever, we’ll know by about 7.20pm on Saturday.