Another trip on the Plymouth Argyle roller coaster on Saturday saw Fleetwood make the long journey down to Plymouth. It’s all a bit Forrest Gump with Argyle at Home Park this season: this is a team where you’re never quite sure ‘what you’re gonna get’ when the whistle blows. The previous weekend’s car-crash at Luton came on the heels of a much improved run – three wins in four in the league and FA Cup – and was a salutary reminder of the magnitude of the task ahead.
As it turned out, what we did get on Saturday was a resilient Argyle performance with a much improved showing across the board. Two goals in nine minutes in the second half were the highlights of course. But, in many ways, the most encouraging feature was an uncharacteristic – in recent weeks at least – display of first half fortitude.
So far this season, Argyle have conceded seven goals in the first 15 minutes of games, more than any other team in the league. So when Fleetwood came out all guns blazing, nobody would have been surprised to see the men in green once again fall behind early on. It was highly encouraging, then, to see Argyle take control of the game. Not only were they keeping the ball out of Macey’s net, they were breaking the high press that pinned them back in the opening exchanges.
Fleetwood aren’t the best team that Argyle will come up against this season but they are very far from the worst. Let’s not forget they were starting the game 11 points and 10 places ahead of the Pilgrims. They would certainly have fancied their chances of taking a least a point back to the north west so Adams’ men can be very satisfied with the outcome. The manager seems to have got his team selection and tactics spot on.
It was a significant day right across the lower half of League One as well. The bottom three – Bradford, Wimbledon and Argyle – all won, while the five teams immediately above all lost, meaning that just four points now separate the bottom six. When you’re scrapping for survival, every game is important. But there are a couple of reasons to be hopeful for a decent return from Argyle’s games in the run-up to Christmas.
The first piece of good news is that the Pilgrims have now played all the clubs currently occupying the top nine places in League One. Maybe it’s grasping at straws, but that does put the disappointing season so far into perspective. Even more importantly, the average league position of Argyle’s next five opponents – up to and including Boxing Day – is 18th. In contrast, the rest of the bottom six clubs face opponents with average league positions of 10th to 12th (Oxford have the toughest run, facing three clubs currently in the top eight).
So with the easiest run-in to Christmas – on paper at least – of all the teams around them, this is Argyle’s chance to put some daylight between them and the relegation zone by the turn of the year.
Next up is a trip to Shrewsbury on Tuesday. On recent form, the clubs are neck-and-neck with both having three wins and three losses in the last six. You can’t help feeling that a back-to-back win (which would be only the second such sequence of the campaign so far) would be a huge tonic for Argyle ahead of Saturday’s clash with Oxford.
The latter is an FA Cup game rather than a league match of course, but it assumes extra significance as an opportunity to exorcise the demons of what was probably the worst performance of the season. The 2-0 loss to Oxford at the Kassam last month wasn’t the biggest margin of defeat but arguably marked the low point of the season so far given the league position of the opposition.
The FA Cup also brings the potential of a cash injection plus the chance of a morale boosting big 3rd round draw in the New Year. And now that Argyle have shed the distractions of the Carabao Cup and the other ‘trophy-that-must-not-be-named’, an FA Cup run wouldn’t distract too much from the real business of avoiding relegation.
Improved performances will be critical to maintaining supporter backing as well. It was a cause for mild concern that Saturday’s 8,301 attendance was more than 2,000 down on the average for last season, albeit the 650 mile round trip meant that just 92 members of the Cod Army made it down. The average League attendance at Home Park so far the season so far is 9,100, down 13% for the whole of last year and the 10,000 mark has only been exceeded once this season (for the Sunderland game).
Yet, there was a sense after the final whistle on Saturday that Argyle now have something solid to build on. It’s taken a while but the Green Army is beginning to get a feel for the qualities of some of the new signings and while 10 goal Freddie Ladapo stands out, slow-burners like Niall Canavan are gradually gathering admirers. On the other hand, the jury is still very much out on Tafari Moore and Ashley Smith-Brown. The latter turned in a very solid performance against Fleetwood. Nonetheless, there’s still a lurking suspicion that the two fullbacks might be a bit too lightweight for the trench warfare of a coming League One winter campaign.
All of which, inevitably, turns thoughts towards the looming January transfer window and where Derek Adams might look to strengthen. But that’s a story for another day. On the subject of managers, with Joey ‘Bad-Boy’ Barton facing off across the technical area for the first time with our own famously fiery gaffer, you’d have got pretty short odds on one or both of the managers being sent to the stands under the new red card system. In the event it all passed of peacefully, Barton stalking off at full time, hands thrust deep into his pockets, looking uncannily like a footballing version of Liam Gallagher.