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…
4: Gary Sawyer
Years: 2010, 2015-19
Currently: Plymouth Argyle, League Two
Gary Sawyer has had two spells at Plymouth Argyle this decade. Granted, his first spell lasted from January-March 2010, where his main achievement was picking up a few yellow cards before being loaned to Bristol City. But Sawyer doesn’t make it this high up the list due to a two-month spell at the start of the decade. Rather, his performances in the five years since rejoining the club in 2015 have made him one of the most influential players of the last ten years.
2015/16: The return
Derek Adams brought down plenty of players from Scotland during his first transfer window with the club. Many of them have featured on this list. However, it’s testament to how highly Adams regarded his new left back that he made him, a player he hadn’t worked with before, his first signing. Indeed, Sawyer rejoined the side on 25th June 2015, and went about building a relationship with the Green Army all over again.
Following the Andre Blackman-induced struggles of 2013, and relying on loanees Andy Kellett and Tareiq Holmes-Dennis in 2014/15, it was reassuring to know that Argyle had a secure presence at left back, particularly somebody who knew the club so well. There was perhaps an indication that he’d evolved into an attacking force too over his time away from the club, scoring a barnstorming effort away at Forest Green in pre-season. It turned out to be a flash in the pan, but no matter.
Sawyer’s reborn Argyle career didn’t get off to a terrific start. He gave away a penalty on his second home debut against Portsmouth that saw his side lose 2-1. However, Sawyer was generally solid throughout the campaign (that will certainly develop into a theme). He turned out in 43 league games, played every minute of the play-off games, and was also an ever-present in Argyles EFL and FA Cup fixtures. He was billed as a reliable presence when signing, and didn’t disappoint. In truth, he was exactly what Argyle needed at the time.
2016/17: Vice captaincy, injury and redemption
Sawyer stuck around for the 2016/17 season despite a major squad reshuffle in the transfer window. As a result of the changes, Sawyer was given the added responsibility of the vice-captaincy under Luke McCormick, with Adams clearly keen to have his leadership team full of players with long-term experience at the club. There is no doubt that Sawyer was a popular choice. Whilst he rarely wore the armband due to the consistency of McCormick, his role was a token of his career going the full circle after spending his youth with the Greens.
Sawyer did, however, experience a few struggles across the campaign. Much of that was down to a serious injury suffered against Blackpool in August 2016, which kept him out for around three months. He was subbed off at half time that day for Ben Purrington, and Purrington did well. Incredibly well in fact, not just that day, but across the following months. There was talk that Purrington may well keep his place after Sawyer recovered, and indeed, Sawyer found himself on the bench upon his return as the young pretender took to the field.
At the end of January, Purrington was of course sold to Rotherham for a reported £300,000. Whether that was a good deal is certainly up for debate, but there’s no doubt that it became far more agreeable to Argyle due to the fact that Sawyer was waiting in the wings. Once he was back into the side, it was like he had never been away. The lack of disruption contributed a great deal to Argyle’s promotion, as did Sawyer himself – who can forget his gorgeous cross to set up Jake Jervis’ goal at Portsmouth?
Right, I’ll admit, that title does overstate things ever so slightly. Sawyer didn’t suddenly blossom into a Gareth Bale-style left back turned prolific goalscorer in 2017/18. He did, however, score his only competitive goal for the club this decade during that campaign. It was an important one too: the only strike in a 1-0 victory over Milton Keynes on Boxing Day.
In truth, Sawyer’s 201718 campain was very similar to that of 2016/17 in the sense that it started poorly, and grew as it went on. The reasons for that, however, were very different. It’s well documented that Argyle struggled to cope with the step up to League One, and Sawyer was very much a part of that. But claims that his age was finally catching up with him were wide of the mark. Because Argyle did, of course, manage to turn things around, and Sawyer was very much a part of that too.
He started in all 46 league games across the season, perhaps an indication that it was tactics rather than personnel that contributed to Argyle’s slow start to the campaign. Sawyer, in truth, was a key member of the side, wearing the armband more often than not as a result of McCormick’s injury absence, and even filling in at right back when required due to an injury to Oscar Threlkeld. He was once again, as he has been for much of the last five years, just what Argyle needed at that time.
2018/19: Apparent decline
Sawyer was a 33-year-old heading into the 2018/19 campaign, and it was a surprise to some that he was offered a new deal that summer. A fairly significant group of Argyle supporters felt that the expiry of Sawyer’s contract marked the perfect time to part ways and bring in a new left back to take Argyle into the future. But renewing his contract made sense; if nothing else, his experience would be vitally important in the development of young new signing Ashley Smith-Brown.
Sawyer was appointed full captain after McCormick’s departure, but the campaign itself was a particularly difficult one for the new skipper. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, he started on the bench behind Smith-Brown, and once he did find himself in the side, injury ruled him out until the start of December. From there, it looked inevitable that Argyle would be involved in a battle against relegation.
Rightly or wrongly, Sawyer won the battle with Smith-Brown and made the left back position his own for the remainder of the season – he didn’t miss a minute of league action from the mid-December victory against Rochdale. Ultimately, however, Argyle did go down, and despite the multitude of reasons involved, the fact that Sawyer was an integral part of a defence that conceded 80 league goals across the campaign was inescapable. In the eyes of many, he had to share a portion of the blame.
2019/20: A man reborn
If his contract renewal in the summer of 2018 was a surprise, it came as even more of a shock that he signed on for yet another year in the summer of 2019. The decision to offer him a new deal looked even more baffling when Ryan Lowe, a manager who doesn’t use full backs, was announced as the club’s new boss in June. But despite the very fair questions surrounding him, Sawyer has emerged from the first half of this campaign with his reputation more than intact.
Lowe maintained his style, meaning full backs have been consigned to the history books at Argyle for now. But he wasn’t about to overlook a man of Sawyer’s talents and experience. Instead, he challenged Sawyer to adapt to a new position: the left-sided central defender in a back three. So far, he’s passed the test with flying colours.
The position seems a perfect match for Sawyer’s strengths and weaknesses. He’s always been solid defensively, so the standard skills of tackling, marking and positioning are no problem for him. And of course, if Argyle need somebody to bring the ball out from the back, Sawyer has all the experience of prowling the left wing to be able to achieve it.
His main weakness as a centre back has always been his ability in the air, but with most of the long balls heading to the middle centre back this season, this has been a weakness negated. It’s allowed him to put in many a solid performance in recent months.
And in truth, solid performances are exactly why Sawyer makes it this high. He’s never been spectacular, but he hasn’t needed to be. When he signed, he was billed as the sort of player who delivers a “seven out of ten” performance week in, week out. More or less, that’s exactly what we’ve seen. Across a five-year period, with the player himself not getting any younger, that’s mightily impressive.
Argyle had problems at left back throughout the first half of the decade. They have none now. That speaks volumes. Sawyer is truly deserving of a place this high up our list.