We are in a most uncertain time, both in football and in society as a whole. One thing we do however know, following a League Two vote last week, is that Plymouth Argyle’s season is officially over. Promotion to League One looks likely, but that is yet to be absolutely confirmed. In the meantime, five of our writers have assessed the candidates for Player of the Season and made some compelling arguments for each.
Enjoy, and let us know on social media who you’d give the award.
Frazer Lloyd-Davies: Antoni Sarcevic
Argyle have all but been promoted, and in most other promotion winning seasons I’d have struggled to pick my Player of the Year. Yet as we know, this season is a little different. Not only has COVID-19 seen League Two finish with Argyle playing just 37 of their 46 fixtures, but for me at least, one player has stood head and shoulders above the rest
Let me introduce: The Manchester Messi – Mr. Antoni Sarcevic.
Sarcevic ends the season as top goal scorer with 11 goals in 37 games. He’s second only to George Cooper in terms of assists with a total of eight. The long and short of it is he’s directly contributed to more goals than any other Argyle player this season, but anyone that’s watched Sarce this year will tell you he’s been much more than just stats.
Argyle had a relatively slow start to the season, and in fairness Sarcevic sometimes struggled. He could look out of place as he tried to adapt to Ryan Lowe’s slow, methodical approach play, which benefitted more technical players such as Danny Mayor. But with a change in emphasis came a change in fortunes. As Argyle shifted to a more direct style of play, Sarcevic started to flourish. The shackles were taken off.
From the centre of midfield, he was able to drive Argyle forward, leading from the middle. He’s a nuisance to play against, strong and physical with fitness few in the division can match. As often as Sarcevic would press forward, he’d track back too. He’d quickly become the personification of Ryan Lowe’s Argyle, a team that above anything else worked hard for one another and left nothing on the pitch.
At this stage I’m wary I might be suggesting Sarcevic is little more than a workhorse. Whilst I’m in no doubt he works as hard as anyone on the pitch, there’s been more to his game than purely effort. With an emphasis on pushing forward, Sarce often showed his ability to work his way out of tight spots, and whilst not blessed with an abundance of pace, he could frequently beat a man. He was no stranger to something spectacular either. I’ll let the video do the talking…
With all this being said, as well as Sarcevic has played this season, it’s the person he is off the pitch that makes him my favourite to be crowned Player of the Year. I’m going to steer slightly wide of the ‘People’s Captain’ tag he’s been affectionately given by some fans. Whilst I’m certain no disrespect is meant; I think it’s a little unfair on club captain Gary Sawyer who has made 297 appearances for the club. Nonetheless, I can see why some say it and I’m in little doubt he’ll one day follow in Sawyer’s footsteps.
As well as personifying Argyle on the pitch, he has come to personify Argyle off it. I’m immensely proud of supporting a club that plays the role it does within our community. Argyle support people from all walks of life regardless of whether they are football fans, and in what has been difficult times for many, Sarcevic has done the same. Not only has he checked in with elderly neighbours and helped those who need it during this pandemic, as of last week he’d also helped raise over £10,000 for our local NHS trust.
Some might ask what does all of this have to do with an end of season award, but for me, it’s everything.
When a player pulls on the Argyle shirt, they represent our city, and this season no player has done that better than Antoni Sarcevic. For me, he’s without doubt Player of the Year.
Sam Down: Niall Canavan
When the season began in August, in the days where Corona was nothing more than one more item to remember getting a round in at the beer garden, one player who seemed like his Argyle career was headed for the dumping ground was Niall Canavan. A regular participant in Argyle’s awful defence last season, many fans hoped he’d be quietly replaced by a safe favourite of Lowe’s from his Bury era and quietly put out to pasture.
The early months of the season didn’t exactly help his case. He did play in our successful first month of the season, with no shortage of clean sheets, but then went on to have a bad September which saw him dropped from the side. He lost a header to big David Wheater in our frustrating 2-2 draw at home to Oldham and completely lost his man the next week away to Port Vale. At this point, Argyle’s start to the season did not look convincing and Canavan’s himself really wasn’t anything to write home about.
He was, inevitably, dropped from the side around this time but found his way back in as a result of Will Aimson’s prolonged injury. At this point, Argyle’s excellent run of form from October to March began and Canavan was an ever-present in the team. One big exception (that day in Exeter) aside, he has been a colossus since his return. His dominance in the air has been matched by his composure and decision making. His communication too has markedly improved, allowing him to be handed the captain’s armband in the season’s dying embers with injuries ravaging the side.
More than that – he’s gone from a player out of fashion with all bar a few niche supporters to actually being something of a cult hero. His moment of crowning glory is surely his primal roar into the camera that followed his late goal from a set piece that won us the game at home to Stevenage in the final fixture of 2019. At that moment, ‘Big Naz’ became loved by the Argyle fans rather than just appreciated.
It’s also worth looking at his importance to the side from a statistical point of view and here he truly shows that he is the most valued member of the defence. He has won a very impressive 69% of his aerial duals, his strength in the air is clearly benefiting the side to an enormous degree. For context, Scott Wootton has won only 58% and Gary Sawyer just 54%. Clearly, the two on Canavan’s right and left side have had good seasons in their own right but it’s the man in the middle who has truly made our back three system tick with an eye-catching 13 clean sheets from 28 games.
He also had the occasional knack for a brilliant pass. His pure passing accuracy isn’t as good as some others, as some passes can go a little awry when done too ambitiously. Yet, Canavan at his best is a player who can start passing moves from the back by cutting through the midfield into a man in some space who will begin an attack on the opposition goal. Yes there have been a few brainfarts but by and large, nobody has combined defensive solidity with the ‘Loweball’ vision quite like this chap.
He’s done all this as well suffering from a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes. Surely news that would have knocked anyone for six, his late in life diagnosis and natural concern for his son may have explained why his form slightly dipped last season during our relegation from League One. Canavan admitted that it took a while to get his rhythm and confidence back, but boy has he delivered since.
Is he likely to win player of the season? Ultimately not. There are a lot of other contenders who have stolen more headlines going forward. Where he does absolutely deserve to be, however, is in the conversation. All credit to him and let’s hope the retained list sees him putting pen to paper on a new deal to remain a Green.
Nick Saunders Smith: George Cooper
Let’s make one thing clear: I don’t actually think Cooper would win the Player of the Year award. Sarcevic’s impact off the field has inspired new levels of devotion from the fans that he had not experienced before this season, while his inspired efforts to raise money for the NHS have demonstrated exactly why he’s been dubbed “the people’s captain” by some.
Despite Sarcevic’s efforts – he was one of the best players, if not the best, between October and January – I think that there has been one player who has had an even greater impact on Argyle’s promotion hopes: that player is George Cooper.
Sadly, it is quite likely that we have seen Cooper (sponsored by Argyle Life no less) play his last game at Home Park. What a game it was too: two goals and one assist saw Argyle open up a three-point gap in third place and almost guarantee promotion to League One now that the season is set to be decided on points-per-game.
Cooper’s stats are remarkable. Initially blocked from getting into the team by Callum McFadzean, he finally broke into it off the bench at Swindon Town, when he created the equaliser for Joel Grant in his short period on the pitch. From that point, he’s assisted 12 goals and scored a further three.
Despite starting just over half of the league campaign, only Randell Williams (2 more assists from 10 more starts than Cooper) and Charlie Kick (2 more assists from 11 more starts) have exceeded him for assists. Had we played on until the end of the season, he would have almost certainly overtaken them and even surpassed Graham Carey’s record for a single season.
The opening goal is such a valuable commodity in any football match. Argyle have failed to win only one game this season in which they have scored first (the home loss to Swindon Town), but only won one game in which the opposition have scored first (the vital 2-1 victory against Crewe).
Given that, Cooper’s remarkable statistics take on even more valuable status in the success of our season. He has scored or assisted nine opening goals, leading to eight victories. This is not to mention his highly influential role in the opening goals in victories against Leyton Orient and Cheltenham Town. No other player has been anywhere near this involved in breaking the deadlock, nor has any other created as many big chances, while only Danny Mayor has completed more key passes than Cooper.
For context, the only player to be this influential in a recent season was Graham Carey: he scored or assisted 15 of Argyle’s 23 opening goals in 2016/17 – from these games Argyle gathered 75% of their points on the way to promotion.
Cooper may have only been involved for half the season, but his impact on Argyle’s promotion aspirations have been greater than any other player.
That, above any other factor, is why he deserves to win the Player of the Year award.
Luke Folland: Alex Palmer
Alex Palmer signed from Championship club West Bromwich Albion on a season-long loan deal at the start of the campaign. He arrived with little relatively experience and an air of mystery surrounding his ability. Before the season commenced, discussion was rife as to whether the position between the sticks was going to be taken by either Palmer or young counterpart Mike Cooper. Palmer claimed the spot for the first outing versus Crewe Alexandra and put in a stellar, arguably match-winning performance.
After this performance Palmer only went from strength to strength. His shot stopping ability was certainly not to be ignored, and his ability to prevail when one-on-one saved Argyle on numerous occasions during the season. Games such as Mansfield Town’s visit to Home Park saw Argyle outplayed, and realistically should have been impossible for us to win. But Palmer stood strong and almost won the game single-handily. He did this with regularity.
After the prior season’s debacle, with Matt Macey and Kyle Letheren competing to be the least worst between the sticks, Alex Palmer has been a breath of fresh air and plays in with the confidence of a player far more experienced than himself. His organization of the back line is impressive and most certainly an incredible improvement on the year prior.
This is one of the key aspects that converts Palmer from quality goalkeeper to genuine Player of the Year contender. Need I remind you of last season’s horror show with regards to defensive organisation? Palmer has helped change that dramatically.
As I conclude my argument for Alex Palmer, I also wish to state how he has spent all season between the sticks and has stayed fit throughout. He’s had no signs of injuries or suspensions to his name, making him a truly reliable choice as Argyle’s custodian.
After all, we all know that if you chop and change the line-up regularly, things become messy quickly. Just look back on the tale of the Argyle goalkeeper curse only a few years ago. Palmer’s regular involvement has acted as a reliable basis upon which to build the rest of the side, and indeed the season.
Not only has Palmer been superb individually he has also enabled others to excel via this strong building block he provides. Hopefully we see him again, but it would be fitting to see him go out with the Player of the Year award.
Best of the rest: Louis Killick
Mayor may not have set League Two alight as he had done in previous campaigns, but he was certainly integral to the Pilgrims’ success this season. The end product wasn’t as consistent as many would have hoped, but Mayor was key to the excellent football played at points this season.
Mayor’s talent has been clear to see, frequently working well in the build-up to chances, and he’s always been a constant threat with his willingness to take on and beat players. When he broke free of many opponents’ double marking and was able to get on the ball, Mayor was able to produce some highlight reel worthy moments, including a fantastic piece of skill in order to set up Joe Edwards’s second goal away to Crawley. However, Mayor’s standout moment from this season was his glorious finish against Salford early in the season, drifting in off the left before calmly sending the ball into the far corner.
I was happy to eat my words regarding Luke Jephcott this year as he began a hugely successful run beginning in the new year. Whilst proving near ineffectual on the wing in the previous campaign, Jephcott’s move to a central role did wonders for the Argyle academy graduate. Recording seven goals in thirteen league appearances, including two braces in his first two appearances against Scunthorpe and Carlisle, Jephcott contributed hugely to Argyles successful league campaign.
Lowe identified Jephcott’s proficiency in a central position and gave him a chance which he took in his stride. Having a former striker as a coach seems to have helped the youngster progress, as he is showing some true talent in both finishing and positioning, two essential elements of the central role. Highlighting the dramatic improvement his second campaign for the club, Jephcott won the League Two Young Player of the Month award for January after scoring five in five for the month.
Most players would hate the of title of ‘super sub’, but Ryan Hardie seems to have thrived in that role. With five of his seven goals for the Pilgrims coming in substitute appearances, Hardie has been a vital part of Argyle’s end of season success. Joining the club on loan from Blackpool, Hardie’s electric pace allowed him to make an instant impact, scoring three goals in his first three games, playing just 55 minutes outside of additional time.
His highlight of the season was a crucial injury time winner against Salford in February to seal three essential points for the Pilgrims. Hardie used his pace to capitalise on some poor positioning from the Salford defence, beat several players as he raced towards goal, and turned the ball into the far corner, sending the travelling support into a frenzy of hysterics.
Byron Moore has proved hugely important to the system that Ryan Lowe has ingrained at Argyle. Aside from his six league goals, Moore’s versatility has been a useful tool at Lowe’s disposal. Moore’s ability to play as both a striker and a wing-back, sometimes both within the same match, has given Lowe a lot of options, with the gaffer having publicly praised his former Bury signing on several occasions.
Five of Moore’s six league goals came in wins, with the other in a draw, proving his ability to come up with the goods when necessary. His highlight of the season came early in the new year, getting on the end of an excellent George Cooper diagonal and thumping a well-timed volley in the bottom corner for the second goal in a 3-1 away win against Scunthorpe.