Extra Time: Football’s a People Business

Supporters’ desperation for Argyle to reveal the name of the new manager is understandable, but the club is caught between a rock and a hard place. Appoint too quickly and people will say they’ve jumped at the first candidate willing to take the job. Take too long and it either signals indecision, or that prospective managers believe they’ll fall off the edge of the world if they venture west of Bristol.

The latest indications are that an appointment will be made by the end of May. That’s fine, because while the club won’t be giving out any more five year contracts, we need a manager who won’t be just a short-term fix and that takes time. With most on holiday after a long season, there’s little risk of missing out on retaining or signing players by waiting another ten days to make the right hire at the top.

Current front-runners for the job appear to be Bury’s Ryan Lowe and Newport boss, Michael Flynn, though the latter will be preoccupied right now with his trip to Wembley for Saturday’s League Two play-off final.

Some question why Lowe would leave Bury when he’s just taken them up into the League from which Argyle has been relegated. Well for a start, he and his players haven’t been paid for a couple of months, thanks to a financial crisis that could see the club liquidated before the start of next season. Last week’s insolvency hearing, triggered by HMRC who are owed £277,000, was adjourned until June 19th to give the club time to find a new owner. Apparently there are three possible buyers potentially interested in perhaps taking over the club. Maybe. In the murky world of football finance, those vague statements mean absolutely nothing and I’d wager that the chances of getting a solid deal in place in four weeks time are close to zero.

It’s telling that owner Steve Dale only took over Bury in December 2018 – against the recommendation of his financial advisers – and had put the club up for sale again by April 2019. That’s a rapid u-turn even by the flaky standards of lower-league English football, suggesting that he found some particularly ugly skeletons in the financial closet. How many potential buyers are going to ignore such a big red flag? Especially when Bury will start life in League One with a 12-point penalty for going into administration (probably more as they also failed to fulfil their fixtures at the end of the season). No surprise then that Bury are the bookies’ favourites for relegation next season.

Suddenly the idea that Lowe might leave what looks like a sinking Bury ship doesn’t seem so far-fetched. Geography appears to the main stumbling block since, apart from a single season at MK Dons, he has always lived and played in the north. With a wife and young family to consider, he’d have to be convinced of the attractions of West Country life.

Michael Flynn, on the other hand, is Newport born and bred and is already a bit of a club legend. Part of the 2013 team that took the Exiles back into the Football League after a 25 year absence, he has just come to the end of his second season as manager. There have been two frankly incredible consecutive FA Cup runs, with the south Wales side defeating Leicester City, Leeds United and Middlesbrough, drawing with Spurs to earn a replay at Wembley and losing only to Manchester City in the fifth round.

Should they win the play-off final and secure promotion, luring him away to Argyle would surely become significantly more difficult. On the other hand, Newport is ‘only’ 140 miles from Plymouth, less than half the distance to Bury. So that’s a plus!

Underlying all this is the question of what kind of manager Argyle is looking for. Chairman Simon Hallett says it’s “somebody who is forward-thinking, so a kind of modern football manager, not the old school kick the players until they work harder.” Lowe (aged 40) and Flynn (38) are certainly young, and although they have only one and two years respectively of managerial experience, this might be the chance for them to make a name for themselves at Plymouth’s ‘sleeping giant’ club.

That makes a return to the past with the likes of Ian Holloway look less likely. A trivial thing, maybe, but his reaction on the radio to Watford’s FA Cup defeat on Sunday was telling. Instead of focusing on the small issue of the six goals they conceded, Holloway went off on an odd rant about the Hornets’ choice of pre-match suits and shoes. As one wag, commented to me, he seemed more like an angry bloke in the pub than a ‘forward-thinking, modern football manager’.

The other issue is what style of football a new manager would bring to Home Park. In a recent interview, Argyle CEO Andrew Parkinson mentioned that ‘playing the right type of football’ is a key aim. Was that just a throwaway line or has the club decided what the ‘right type’ of football is? If so, presumably an adherence to that philosophy is a prerequisite for the next Home Park gaffer.

Can we find any clues in the approaches of Lowe and Flynn? Both appear to favour a more attacking 3-5-2 setup, with Lowe in particular happy to concede on the basis that his strikers will more than make up for it at the other end. This season, Bury scored more goals than any other team in the division (82) but also conceded more than all but one other in the top 10. No wonder that in February the Guardian described Lowe’s Bury style as ‘frantic, attacking, cavalier football’.

Flynn has a similar, though more restrained approach. Remarkably, Newport finished the season having both scored and conceded 59 goals, and you have to go down to 16th place in League Two to find a team with a worse goal difference. But Flynn is also noted for something else, the depth of his preparation and analytical work. In January 2018, the Sun published details of the exhaustive dossier prepared by Newport that helped them hold Spurs to a 1-1 draw in the FA Cup. Flynn commented “The report compiled shows how serious we are as a club to make progress after the problems of last season.”

It’s tough to draw too many conclusions from such limited information. But given that a deliberate, analytical process appears be at the heart of everything else at Home Park these days, it would be surprising if the same approach were not adopted for on-field matters as well.

While the search for the manager has grabbed the most attention, other personnel issues lurk in the background. All are closely tied to the approach that Argyle will take on the pitch next season.

First, coaching, where the departure of Paul Wotton leaves a gap. Although he stepped up to the Assistant Manager role this time last year, he was clearly still highly influential in the coaching area. Kevin Nancekivell, who took over from Wotton as First Team Coach, looks very likely to remain at Home Park but will undoubtedly have to adapt to whatever approach the new manager brings.

Secondly, scouting. Chief Scout Greg Strong departed in November last year for Salford City, having remained in the north of England during his four year spell at Argyle. Worryingly, he appeared to operate as a one-man-band, and was quoted as saying, “I don’t have a group of scouts who I send out to all the games. It is just me, which is difficult as well at times.” Given that last summer’s recruitment was questionable at best, it looks like the weaknesses were beginning to show.

Ian Roscrow has been brought in from Swansea to replace Strong and has a good pedigree. However, the support available to him and the level of infrastructure around Argyle’s player recruitment remains a big question. Clubs with smaller budgets have to be smarter when it comes to finding players that have escaped the attention of competitors. It looks like there’s plenty of work for Argyle to do in this area.

Finally, no replacement has been found for Matt Neil, Argyle’s First Team Data and Performance analyst, who left in February after seven years at Home Park. Neil would also have been responsible for opposition analysis, aided on the ground by Greg Strong. All clubs down to National League level now have analysts of this kind and efforts to avoid relegation can’t have been helped by a lack of intelligence input for the last three months of the season.

With two and a half months left before the start of next season, there’s going to be lots of activity behind the scenes at Home Park over the summer.

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Colin Bradbury

Colin writes Extra Time, one of our opinion columns, as well as featuring on our Green & White podcast. View all posts by Colin Bradbury