I suppose the one thing about Saturday’s game is that it delivered what we all want from football, namely an emotional roller coaster. As the goals went in at Home Park and Southend, Argyle bounced from relegation to safety and back again, but it goes without saying that we should never have gone into the game relying on the outcome of another match. There’s absolutely no point going back over old ground, the ‘what ifs’ of the many, many times when we could have secured the additional point that would have saved us or kept out the goals that ultimately condemned us to the drop.
Because over the course of the season, Argyle were just not good enough. And while Saturday delivered a victory on the back of a feisty performance from the men in green, the defensive frailties that have dogged the team all season were on display yet again. Had Scunthorpe’s finishing been better than woeful, Argyle could easily have lost. This has truly been a season to forget.
As for the ‘controversial’ second Scunthorpe goal, rest assured that the first thing that pops up when anyone Googles Josh Morris’ name for the rest of time will be footage of what he did on Saturday. You reap what you sow.
But what matters is that we’re down and nothing, barring the obliteration of the unfortunate Bolton Wanderers, can change that. So let’s take a deep breath and consider some potential benefits of dropping into League Two.
First, the club is in much better shape than the last time this happened. Admittedly that’s a pretty low bar since Argyle was in Administration, teetering on the edge of oblivion, at the end of the 2010-11 season. Nevertheless, in 2019, the club has a relatively new owner committed to financial sustainability and, while still not profitable, the difficulties of eight years ago are a distant memory.
Secondly, alongside the new owner we have a new CEO, new head of recruitment and will soon have a new manager. It will also be the first full season in charge for that owner, who only came in after the first couple of games of the last campaign. Being in League Two gives the new regime a bit of breathing room to review, and if necessary, overhaul the club from top to bottom. The presence of several pairs of fresh eyes is a definite cause for optimism.
Thirdly, while the names of next season’s opposition teams might not generate much initial excitement, there’s no denying that the chances of seeing Argyle winning on the pitch are greater. For fans watching a game on a cold Saturday afternoon or rainy Tuesday night, the prospect of going home with a win is surely a positive. If we’d clung on to League One status and spent next season being battered week-in week-out, what would that have done to the Green Army’s morale? There’s been precious little to be enthused about this season. Watching your team win only 13 of its 46 games is hardly a recipe for unalloyed joy.
Many things need to happen at Home Park over the close season. But above all, Argyle must define its philosophy, its brand. That kind of talk might make traditional football supporters wince, but whether they are aware of it or not, every time someone complains that ‘we only sign journeymen, has-beens and crocks with an injury list as long as your (dodgy) arm’ or ‘we play boring defensive football’ that’s an implied club brand. So rather than leave fans to work out what the philosophy is, it’s much better for the club to set it out clearly and purposefully.
For me, there are three key, intertwined aspects of any club’s philosophy.
The first relates to finance. The Chairman has said enough about this so I won’t dwell on it any further. But basically, he is not going to jeopardise the long-term future of the club through reckless short-term spending. Additional income streams will be built over time, but the club must continue to live within its means. Whether you agree with this or not, you can’t argue with the clarity of the position.
The second is more of an open question and concerns the kind of football the club aspires to play. It’s fair to say that Derek Adams’ tenure was not characterised by free-flowing, attacking football, but of course, it’s far more complicated than deciding whether the club adopts that approach or park-the-bus defensive tactics. However it is legitimate to ask that Argyle takes a view on the style of football that it wants to be identified with.
The third relates to recruitment, to the kind of players we look for and where we hope to find them. Argyle is not in the position to pay premium fees and wages for established stars. So does that mean we look into the lower leagues at home or scour the globe for undiscovered talent? Do we try to attract players rejected from Premier League or Championship academies? Do we pick up players that have fallen out of favour – because of injury, loss of form or behaviour issues – and nurture them back to the peak of their potential? Or do we focus on developing local talent that has come up through the Argyle Academy and reserve teams?
The latter question is particularly significant. We keep hearing that geography makes it hard to attract talent from outside the south west and we have an Academy that presumably swallows a sizable chunk of cash every year. Yet last season only two local players – Fletcher and Jephcott – made any appearances at all in the first team and even they were limited to a very few minutes. So it has to be asked: does the youth system justify the drain on the club’s very limited resources? If it’s not going to be a source of first team players, would the money be better spent on scouting talent from elsewhere? I don’t have the answer to that, but it must surely be an urgent question for the club.
At the heart of all this is one thing: process. Any business needs a set of processes that are followed in order to deliver success. Many football clubs don’t seem to have grasped that basic truth, however, flip-flopping from one manager to another, from one approach to the next without any consistent methodology.
I believe that over the summer we will start to see the emergence of a ‘Plymouth Argyle’ methodology, and that process will be a key element of the philosophy. Why? Because Simon Hallett is an investment man and, speaking as someone who spent a couple of decades in that business myself, I can tell you that process is king. When you go to a pension fund to pitch for the job of managing their investments, you’d better be able to explain how are you’re going to make money for them. A good track record on its own isn’t enough. The client has to be convinced that it wasn’t a fluke, that the success is repeatable; in other words, that there’s a process.
Running a football club is no different. You need systems and processes to impose order on the vast numbers of variables that go into building and running a successful club. And finding and signing players is like making an investment. You do your research to find value (returns in excess of cost), which in football means securing talent that can score goals or prevent the opposition from doing so.
This more methodical, process-driven approach will clearly be applied to the immediate challenge – appointing a new manager. As the Chairman said today, “We have established a very clear process for the search.” That leads me to think that the club won’t rush into making an appointment in the near future. I also suspect that we might see an appointment outside the list of names being widely touted at the moment.
For one thing, I don’t believe Argyle will be looking to make a short-term emergency hire purely to try and get the club out of League Two quick sharp. That’s not to say that they don’t want an immediate return to League One, just that the new man will be brought in with a view to being part of a much longer term project at Home Park. I think there will also be a focus on finding a younger candidate who will be on board with the club’s philosophy. The Chairman said on Monday that, “We want somebody who is forward-thinking, so a kind of modern football manager, not the old school kick the players until they work harder.”
I think that rules out a ‘back to the future’ quick fix like Ian Holloway. Personally I’d be happy if the next manager was somebody I’d never heard of, young (in their 30s or early 40s) and ambitious to make a mark. I’ve nothing against the likes of Holloway, but is he really the long-term answer to Argyle’s problems? Would he, or others like him, give some of the younger players their opportunity to make a mark? I don’t think so. I suspect the board is looking for a manager who could be around for five years or more and who could make a real name for themselves at Home Park. That could take time.
So as the season draws to a close, we have a choice. We can endlessly revisit the mistakes that led to relegation, pointing the finger at this person or that decision, wallowing in self-righteous ‘I told you so’ recriminations. Personally I’m done with all that. I’d rather we take the lessons of the season, turn our faces towards the future and plan for an early return to where we rightly belong in the football hierarchy.
Oh, and here’s my genius marketing idea for next season. I suspect Donald Trump’s village idiot followers have warehouses full of those ‘MAGA’ hats left over from the election campaign. Perhaps when the Chairman gets home to America he can buy them up and rebrand them as ‘Make Argyle Great Again’. They’d look good on the shelves of the new club shop.