This past decade has seen players arrive at Home Park and demonstrate the potential to play top flight football – some of which have. Others have left a great impact on the club, as their actions have helped to positively change the club’s future. As 2019 draws to a close, we’ve reviewed the past ten years to pick out the top fifty Pilgrims to have donned our Green and White.
It’s important to note three things: first, this is not a competition of the best players; we have not judged players based purely on their skill, but also their impact. Jake Cole may not be the most able goalkeeper in Plymouth Argyle’s history, but he left a greater impact than most, as his performances were vital in avoiding relegation to the National League for two consecutive seasons. For that, he gets a ranking higher than that of Alex Palmer, who is a better keeper objectively speaking but has had a significantly smaller impact on the club.
Second, players have been judged according to their ability across all the time they were at the club, not just their peak. For example, Conor Hourihane in his first eighteen months wouldn’t get close to this list, but the Hourihane of the final five months before his departure would probably outrank all but a select few individuals in terms of ability. This has been factored into his ranking, instead of merely taking him at his peak.
Finally, this list is not perfect. It is notoriously difficult to rank players, let alone more than 200 of them across a ten year spell. To build this list, we spent hours debating, ranking and re-ranking lists of players until we arrived on a list that we were happy with. There will be players that you believe should be ranked higher, lower, or shouldn’t be on the list at all. You can’t please everyone. Please remember that while you’re complaining on social media having read this list. Otherwise, enjoy…
1: Graham Carey
Years: 2010, 2015-19
Currently: CSKA Sofia, Parva liga
Be honest. You didn’t really expect number one to be anyone else, did you?
Relatively unknown Irishman Graham Carey signed for Argyle in the summer of 2015 as one of the many players brought down south by new manager Derek Adams. His previous experience in England was a short loan spell at Huddersfield, and he’d spent most of his career north of the border at the likes of Celtic, St Mirren and Ross County.
The Green Army were happy to trust Adams’ judgement with this new signing – after all, the pair had worked together in Scotland prior to their arrival at Home Park. Some YouTube highlight reels, including a scorching strike for St Mirren, certainly excited many an Argyle fan. But honestly, who could have seen at the start of his time here that Carey would become one of those players we’d talk about for decades to come?
Too good for League Two
It became apparent incredibly quickly that Carey was far too good a player for the level at which he was playing. And opposition defenders knew it. A goal on his debut helped, but Carey’s early success was about more than his goalscoring. His opening ten games posted as many assists as they did goals, and it was often his dribbling and trickery that troubled defences, forcing them to double up on Carey and leave gaps elsewhere. Often, even that wasn’t enough.
By the start of 2016, it was obvious that Carey was the star of the side. His injury from November to January led to table-topping Argyle suddenly going on an alarming winless run. That’s no coincidence. It’s well documented that Argyle fell away in the second half of the season, but this was only once opposition sides had based their entire game plan on stopping Carey.
In the play-off final, for example, Wimbledon cut off the passing avenues to Carey, doubled up on Carey, and were willing to leave gaps elsewhere on the big Wembley pitch as long as they weren’t filled by Carey. The attitude was that stopping Carey stopped Argyle, and it wasn’t wrong. Truly, Argyle were a one-man team at times across the 2015/16 campaign.
Argyle could easily have suffered a hangover from that play-off final defeat, particularly following a string of departures after the final whistle at Wembley. But Argyle kept hold of the player who mattered most. In 2016/17 there were no injury layoffs – Carey started all 46 League Two games, scored 15 goals and notched 16 assists, and Argyle were ultimately promoted. Coincidence? Of course not.
Carey’s first two years at Argyle were littered with successes. Just ask the likes of Mansfield, Yeovil, Morecambe, Newport, Barnet, Wimbledon and Cambridge about his ability to strike a football. Factor in his plethora of assists, a catalogue of skills, and a couple of excellent appearances against Liverpool, the club he supported as a boy, and Carey was already turning out to be one of the Argyle heroes of our time.
Established as one of the greats
In the summer of 2017, there were once more questions over whether Carey would remain at Home Park for another year. His contract had expired, and there were unsurprisingly many sides from higher levels interested in his services. Why wouldn’t they be? But whilst it looked a foregone conclusion that he’d leave, Carey turned up at the end of June to sign on the dotted line and join pre-season training. It sent the Green Army barmy.
In truth, however, Argyle and Carey did experience their fair share of struggle at the start of their first campaign back in League One. By mid-October, the Irishman had scored just once (a consolation penalty away at Walsall), and served a three-game suspension for a red card picked up against Milton Keynes. But Argyle were to turn their season around, and who else but Carey would be at the forefront of it?
First of all, bottom of the league Argyle welcomed top of the league Shrewsbury to Home Park, where a mauling was anticipated. Yet Argyle got a battling point from the game, with Carey curling a gorgeous shot past visiting goalkeeper Dean Henderson in the process. Three days later Argyle fought for another point at promotion-chasing Blackburn, where Carey scored a terrific solo goal. Four days after that, Argyle finally picked up their second win of the season through Joel Grant’s winner at AFC Wimbledon. Who got the assist? Come on, you know where this is going by now.
When Argyle looked like they were in for a season of struggle, Carey grabbed each game by the scruff of the neck and brought his side into contention. In December, he was aided further by Adams’ decision to finally start playing Ruben Lameiras, meaning Carey had even more space to operate in. It had a devastating effect – he scored 11 goals and created 6 more after Christmas that season alone, hitting double figures in goals and assists for an astonishing third campaign in succession.
Add in his ability to take pressure penalties against the likes of Bristol Rovers, Peterborough and Rotherham, and you have a player who truly transformed Argyle’s season. If a further spot kick against Southend didn’t clip the crossbar, he’d have become only the second player to hit a hat-trick for Argyle this decade, after Reuben Reid.
Argyle weren’t promoted in the end, but if Carey did end up taking the club to the Championship, he certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place.
The so-called dip
According to some, Carey was poor in 2018/19. Despite Argyle’s relegation, those claims could hardly be further wide of the mark.
Now, there could be an argument that Carey performed below expectations – after all, he only managed to score six goals across the league campaign, far fewer than any previously at Argyle. But the only reason one could claim he was performing below expectations would be because the expectations were so high in the first place. When you rely on one man to win you a football match single-handedly, there’s a chance they won’t be able to every now and then.
In truth, Carey wasn’t even particularly lousy across the campaign. Had a new signing performed as he did, he’d have been lauded as a shining light in an otherwise dreary season. Carey suffered not due to his personal poor form, but due to Adams’ idiotic decision to stop building the team around his talents. Often having to start from deeper positions, whilst isolated by his teammates, and doubled up on by his opponents, Carey was up against it all year.
And yet, his goals managed to gain Argyle six points, his general play countless more, and he still managed 13 assists across the campaign. If anything, the fact he managed to be relatively successful in such adverse circumstances is testament to just how incredible he was.
Departing with our blessing
It’s never easy to see your best players depart, and it can lead to emotions running high. Reuben Reid, for instance, was one of Argyle’s finest between 2013 and 2015, but his legacy was severely tainted by his departure to Exeter a year later. Carl McHugh was another quality player to experience a messy divorce with Argyle, with the confusion surrounding his move to Motherwell generating a significant level of animosity that in some quarters remains today. The same cannot be said, however, for Carey.
After that aforementioned relegation in 2019, Carey was out of contract once more. Even the most optimistic of Argyle supporters didn’t expect the Irishman to stick around against the odds for a third time, and so it proved. 31-time Bulgarian champions CSKA Sofia announced the signing of Carey on 11th June 2019, and his adventure at Home Park was over.
Was there sadness? Absolutely. Desolation, indeed, in some quarters. But animosity? As if. The prevailing wisdom was that he’d earned the chance to play his football elsewhere, and he left with the blessing of the entire Green Army. He didn’t join a direct rival (unless Argyle intend on playing Europa League football any time soon), reportedly trebled his wages, and moved to a country with a lower cost of living. Nobody could honestly say they wouldn’t have made the same decision.
And that summed the attitudes towards Carey up. After four years of seeing a master craftsman at work, there was a mutual understanding that he was too good for the level Argyle were heading. But before his departure, we had the absolute pleasure of watching this mesmerising footballer week in, week out.
Truly, he was the best of the decade.