Top 5: Fixtures to look out for

Plymouth Argyle’s fixtures for the 2021-22 season were released this morning. As always it’s had everybody looking at the key dates, mulling over the start of the season and planning their trips to certain away fixtures. We’ve picked out a few that are worth keeping an eye on over the coming months.

Plymouth Argyle v Gillingham – 14th August 2021

I know, it’s a pretty lazy choice this one, but surely the vast majority of the Green Army are already counting down the days to facing Gillingham at home.

On 7th March 2020, Argyle beat Macclesfield 3-0 at Home Park. Two goals from George Cooper and another from Ryan Hardie saw Argyle build a 3-point gap to local and promotion rivals Exeter City following their 3-1 defeat at the hands of Walsall. And yes, there were more than a few signs of something being slightly off with the world that week. But few could surely have predicted that the next chance for Argyle to play in front of a sold-out Home Park would be 526 days later.

That’s where we are now. Yes, there have been a few games with limited capacity in the last year, but this will feel like a true coming-together for Argyle fans. You’d say only a fool would make predictions regarding COVID, but all being well, the atmosphere against Gillingham should be absolutely electric.

Cheltenham Town v Plymouth Argyle – 26th December 2021

Looking for the nearest trip is always a must, but it’s not as easy as in recent years. Swindon and Bristol Rovers were relegated last term, and Exeter once again failed to earn promotion from League Two. And we don’t even have Forest Green to amble to this time around. Many might say that’s a blessing.

So, it’ll be the trip to Cheltenham that’ll see the Green Army take over another town this season. And it should be an interesting contest. The Robins will be playing in the third tier for the first time since 2009, but they’ll have momentum with them having won League Two last year, albeit with the fixture’s timing midway through the season threatening to mitigate the promotion bounce. Argyle will also have to deal with Cheltenham’s Plymouth-born captain Ben Tozer, who brings a terrifying long throw into the game.

It may not be the best clash on the pitch, but as a day out there may not be many better.

Sheffield Wednesday v Plymouth Argyle – 15th January 2022

What’s the point in looking at the teams coming down from the Championship if you can’t get excited about trips to some big grounds? That’s exactly what we’ve got here – an away day at Hillsborough dwarfs offerings of more regular visits to Rotherham and Wycombe.

This may also have a bearing on the pitch too. It’ll be the first time Argyle have faced the Owls since the 2010-11 season, which famously saw Peter Reid’s side do the double over their illustrious opponents in an ultimately doomed year. Half the entertainment of the 3-2 and 4-2 wins a decade ago may well send us home happy.

It’s hard to know how Wednesday will shape up this year. They’re not exactly in great shape, with a 12-point deduction for issues off the field ultimately consigning them to relegation. But a fair few teams on a downward spiral seem to use their time in League One to recover. Either way, this should be an exciting one to follow, and at a superb ground to visit.

Plymouth Argyle v Rotherham United – 26th February 2022

This one could well be key. Not only will Rotherham be tough opposition given their relegation from the Championship last season, but Argyle will come into the fixture off the back of two away games in a week. It’s therefore very possible that their performance over the eight-day period including the Rotherham game could be key to the prospects of Argyle’s season.

A week before the Rotherham fixture, Argyle will travel to Gillingham, before following that up with a tricky-looking midweek trip to newly promoted Cambridge. Following that up with Rotherham, who will surely be challenging at the right end of the table again given their yo-yo club status, makes this a tough run. It’s very possible Argyle could take 0 points from 9 and have their progress stunted. Alternatively, taking all 9 could prove to be a huge boost to their ambitions.

Argyle’s opening fixture against the Millers took the headlines. But it’s the reverse fixture that looks as though it could be more crucial.

Plymouth Argyle v Sunderland – 18th April 2022

Last season Argyle’s run-in was tough. The home games against high-flying Hull, Charlton and Sunderland led to three comprehensive defeats, and Argyle were not able to mitigate that with any strong showings away from home. Frankly, it’s a relief that Argyle managed to pick up all the points they needed to avoid relegation before the final six games.

Once again this season, Argyle will host the Black Cats late on in the campaign, and it’s set to be another tricky fixture to navigate. Sunderland will be looking to put their spell in League One to bed at the fourth time of asking, and could well have promotion on the line as they travel to Home Park. If Argyle have anything to play for late on in the season, they’ll need to be seriously up for this game.

Much like the Rotherham fixture, Argyle come into this one off the back of consecutive away trips, this time to Burton and Wycombe (or will that be Derby? We still don’t know). Therefore, a positive result against Sunderland could be key to the Greens’ ambitions.

Plymouth Argyle travel to Rotherham on opening day

Plymouth Argyle will open their 2021-22 League One campaign with a trip to Rotherham United.

The match is scheduled to be played on 7th August 2021, and will be the first meeting between the two sides since a dramatic 2-1 win for the Greens at the end of the 2017-18 campaign. Overall, Argyle have a fairly mixed record against the Millers, with 28 wins, 25 defeats and 15 draws.

Other highlights of the fixture list include a trip to newly-promoted Cheltenham Town on Boxing Day, before consecutive home fixtures against Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon take us into the New Year. Meanwhile, Argyle will end the season at Home Park for the first time in three years, with a fixture against Milton Keynes on 30th April 2022.

Argyle’s fixture list is yet to be 100% confirmed due to news from the EFL this morning concerning a potential points deduction for Derby County. The Rams have been fined £100,000 relating to “ongoing disciplinary proceedings,” but the EFL are still pushing for further punishment. If a points deduction is applied to last season, Derby will be relegated in place of Wycombe Wanderers.

As such, the EFL have published an interchangeable fixture list for both Derby and Wycombe, which can be reversed should Derby be placed into League One. Argyle are currently due to play Wycombe at home in November and away in April.

Top 10: Free Agents – Goalkeepers

Plymouth Argyle are starting to piece their squad together for the 2021-22 season. It’s therefore time for us to start looking at the free agents who may be available to sign during this summer transfer window.

Ryan Lowe’s side are currently short in goal. Not necessarily in terms of the first team; Mike Cooper had a highly encouraging first full season between the sticks last term. Rather, there is a lack of depth following Jack Ruddy’s departure and Luke McCormick being offered an alternate role at Home Park. Incomings therefore appear inevitable in this position. Here are 10 who Argyle may chase.

Jayson Leutwiler

Club: Huddersfield Town
Status: Released
Age: 32
Appearances: 18 (for Fleetwood Town)
Conceded: 14
Clean sheets: 7

Leutwiler’s name will be familiar to long-term followers of lower league football in England, and particularly to supporters of Shrewsbury Town. He was instrumental in Shrews’ promotion from League Two in 2015, with his side boasting the best defensive record in the division. He continued as Salop’s shot-stopper right up to 2017, where his performances earned him a move to Blackburn Rovers for an undisclosed fee.

Things, however, seemed to unravel from there. At Ewood Park he was backup to the impressive David Raya, who has since earned promotion to the Premier League with Brentford. Leutwiler was never likely to get a look-in, and short-lived spells at Fleetwood and Huddersfield have since followed with no real success.

Now 32, Leutwiler would seem to have an ideal level of experience to provide depth to Argyle’s books. But one wonders whether he’ll be after a starting berth this summer to reignite his career.

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Jordi van Stappershoef

Club: Bristol Rovers
Status: Released
Age: 25
Appearances: 13
Conceded: 19
Clean sheets: 4

This is one of the names on the list that just feels as though would make a lot of sense. We know Dutchman van Stappershoef has ability – he was arguably the star of the show in Bristol Rovers’ 3-0 win over Argyle in December last year. Add in the fact that he has already spent a couple of years providing backup in the Westcountry with Rovers, and you begin to suspect that the opportunity to stay in League One to do the same with Argyle would appeal to the 25-year-old.

van Stappershoef’s career has taken quite the turn to lead him to the south-west of England. Before his move to Bristol, his only club had been FC Volendam in the second division in the Netherlands. He turned out on a number of occasions for the first team and the reserve side before heading to Rovers. Manager at the time Graham Coughlan said his head of recruitment had “travelled to watch Jordi in action on a number of occasions.” We’ll take Cocko’s word for it.

Standing at 6 ft 6, van Stappershoef would be the ideal candidate for those who’d just like a big fella to provide some backup to Cooper.

 

Jack Bonham

Club: Gillingham
Status: Contract rejected
Age: 27
Appearances: 49
Conceded: 64
Clean sheets: 12

Here’s an option with some serious League One experience. Bonham has been at Gillingham since 2019, and was an almost ever-present for the Priestfield side last season, missing just a couple of games nearer to the start of the campaign after going off injured against Ipswich. Argyle fans may indeed recall him facing the Greens twice across the course of the campaign, conceding a winner to Luke Jephcott at Home Park before keeping a clean sheet on the final day.

Bonham’s career took a little while to take off. He spent a fair amount of time on the books at Brentford, and his first real run of football came on loan at non-league Arlesey Town in the 2013-14 season. In the last few years though, he’s really come into his own. Successful loan spells at Carlisle and Bristol Rovers (yep, it’s that Westcountry link again) followed, before his current spell in Kent.

Bonham has rejected a new deal at Gillingham this summer. Whether that’s down to dissatisfaction with the terms offered or ambitions to play elsewhere we simply don’t know. But he’d be a coup for Argyle in any case.

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Remi Matthews

Club: Sunderland
Status: Released
Age: 27
Appearances: 14
Conceded: 17
Clean sheets: 3

I feel like every time we mention goalkeepers and Plymouth Argyle, Remi Matthews always gets a mention. And here we are again. The now 27-year-old had a memorable spell at Home Park in the 2017-18 season as Derek Adams’ side came within a whisker of making the League One play-offs. Many speculated that Matthews may have been tempted into a return the following year, but it wasn’t to be.

In fact, the player’s career has been hit by a series of bad decisions since he turned out for the Greens. An ill-feted spell at Bolton was his next permanent move as he walked directly into a crisis club. In a truncated 2019-20 season, Matthews still managed to concede 76 goals as Wanderers were relegated from League Two. But even Jan Oblak would have found it a challenge to stop the goals leaking at Bolton that year.

He’s since been released from Sunderland having played a bit-part role last season. Considering his successes at Argyle three years ago, the opportunity to return to Home Park and reignite his career must be in the back of his mind.

 

Scott Flinders

Club: Cheltenham Town
Status: Offered new contract
Age: 35
Appearances: 6
Conceded: 6
Clean sheets: 2

Scott Flinders is your quintessential lower league goalkeeper. Making his debut in 2005 for Barnsley, he’s gone on to make a whopping 552 appearances in all competitions across the course of his career. Most will remember him for his days at Hartlepool United, where he made almost half of his total appearances in a six-year spell between 2009 and 2015.

More recently, he’s spent time at Cheltenham Town. He was first choice for the first couple of years he was at the club, but has dropped to the bench more recently after breaking his leg in early 2020. His playing time across Cheltenham’s promotion season last year was limited, with West Brom loanee Joshua Griffiths preferred. However, he has done enough to have been offered a new deal by the club for the forthcoming League One campaign.

There are a lot of parallels we can draw here with Luke McCormick. Granted, Flinders doesn’t have the same experience with Argyle, but he could still bring that sort of knowledge to Home Park despite having been offered a new deal to be backup at a newly promoted club in a similar region. You imagine Flinders would be a signing Ryan Lowe would like.

 

Adam Smith

Club: Forest Green Rovers
Status: Released
Age: 28
Appearances: 45 (on loan at Yeovil Town)
Conceded: 71
Clean sheets: 10

Smith’s career has been through numerous peaks and troughs so far, and he’s still yet to reach the age of 30. Highly rated at Leicester, his contract was terminated after the infamous sex-tape scandal in the summer of 2015. But he recovered excellently from the setback, joining Northampton and playing an important role in their stunning promotion the following season.

Since then, things have taken a downturn again. He had a reasonable spell at Bristol Rovers after departing Sixfields, but his place never felt nailed down. And whilst he’s been on the books of Forest Green since 2019, they appear to be holding him simply for the benefit of Yeovil. He’s had three loan spells at Huish Park in that time, including playing every minute of the Glovers’ National League campaign last season.

One suspects Yeovil may be interested in bringing him back permanently now his Forest Green deal has expired, but Argyle may interest the player. It’s not far, and would give him another chance outside of non-league even if it is as a backup option.

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Jamal Blackman

Club: Chelsea
Status: Released
Age: 27
Appearances: 28 (on loan at Rotherham United)
Conceded: 40
Clean sheets: 6

It’s scarcely believable, but Jamal Blackman’s contract at Chelsea has finally come to an end. I never thought I’d see the day.

The 27-year-old has been on the books at Stamford Bridge since 2006, but hasn’t made a single first team appearance for the club. Instead, he’s racked up 138 appearances across eight different loan spells, with his most notable stints coming at Wycombe, Sheffield United and most recently Rotherham. He even had a spell at Swedish side Ostersunds during Graham Potter’s spell in charge. He’s now finally looking for his next permanent contract.

It’s more likely than not that said contract will be in League One. He was indeed at Championship Rotherham last season, but he was far from ever-present, and the Millers were indeed relegated on the final day. If he is indeed heading to League One, why not Argyle?

 

Frank Fielding

Club: Millwall
Status: Released
Age: 33
Appearances: 2
Conceded: 3
Clean sheets: 1

Few will remember or care, but Frank Fielding does in fact have an England senior squad call-up to his name. It was for an international friendly against Hungary 11 years ago, during an injury crisis and he still didn’t play, but still, the fact is true. What many more will remember him for, however, is a lengthy spell at Bristol City between 2013 and 2019, where he made 181 appearances.

Whilst there’s another obvious regional link there, what may make Fielding more accessible to Argyle is his recent record. He moved to Millwall in the summer of 2019 and has suffered a torrid time. He was injured 43 minutes into his debut and didn’t play again for the rest of the season. In the most recent campaign, he was limited to just two FA Cup appearances before being released this summer.

Fielding’s stock has clearly fallen since his Bristol City days, and indeed his day sat on the bench for Fabio Capello’s England side. But he still has relevant experience, and would be an asset to Argyle and Lowe should he sign.

 

Sam Walker

Club: Reading
Status: Released
Age: 29
Appearances: 16 (2 on loan at Blackpool, 14 on loan at AFC Wimbledon)
Conceded: 29 (3 Blackpool, 26 Wimbledon)
Clean sheets: 2 (both Wimbledon)

Sam Walker is a player I am unashamed to say I first came across on Football Manager rather than by closely following his four-year stint at Colchester. I know, shoot me. But his career does have some merit to it outside of the pixelated reality of the virtual world.

He, like many others, started at Chelsea and was the subject of many loan moves. The last two of those loan spells came at Colchester, and indeed that move was made permanent in 2014. He made 213 appearances for the Us in all, and the club wanted to keep him after his four-year spell, but he ended up accepting an offer at Reading. That move has proved less successful – he’s appeared just 14 times in three years for the Royals and has more recently spent time on loan again at both Blackpool and Wimbledon.

His Reading contract is now up, and it appears unlikely that he’ll be offered another shot in the Championship. It’s likely that he’ll set his sights on League One, and Argyle may well be a destination that makes sense.

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Ryan Allsop

Club: Wycombe Wanderers
Status: Released
Age: 28
Appearances: 32
Conceded: 57
Clean sheets: 4

I surely can’t be the only one who always thinks of Peter Hartley when Ryan Allsop’s name pops up? It was after all his failure to deal with Graham Carey’s corner that allowed Hartley to bundle that play-off header home five years ago. Five years? God, I feel old.

Anyway, his career thankfully carries a little more depth than that moment. After a nomadic start, Allsop eventually spent a considerable time on the books of Bournemouth. However, he was far from a regular, and spent most of his time as a recognisable football league loanee. More recently, he’s spent a considerable part of the last three years on the deck playing for Wycombe, but his contract will not be renewed following the Chairboys’ relegation.

Wycombe was really the first settled home of Allsop’s career, and one suspects he’ll be looking to settle again with some regular playing time next season. With Cooper around, he may struggle for that at Home Park, but it remains that a team like Argyle are probably around his current level.

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Extra energy helps Argyle win Lincoln epic

Have you calmed down yet? I know I haven’t. Plymouth Argyle spent their Saturday afternoon in the sun locking horns with high-flying Lincoln City, and came away with a stunning 4-3 victory. Joe Edwards’ stoppage time winner drew the loudest celebration from myself and many others since we were confined to watching on iFollow, and whilst I’ve always missed going to Home Park during the crisis, I don’t think I’ve ever felt the sense of absence quite so much as this weekend.

Argyle’s encounter with the Imps was the sort of game the phrase “rollercoaster of emotions” was invented for. The Greens made a flying start when Kelland Watts’ centre forward instincts saw him net the opener, before Danny Mayor finally, after all these months, turned one of his mazing runs into a goal for himself. Then, we had the all too familiar collapse. Conor McGrandles got one back before Jorge Grant converted twice from the penalty spot, one after an awful tackle from Watts, and the other after an awful dive from Grant himself.

But it was Argyle who had the last laugh. One of the late goals was debatably given to Conor Grant, the other undoubtedly struck by Edwards, as Argyle fought hard right up to the final whistle to secure a dramatic win.

Extra energy pays dividends

Lincoln’s first and only change of the game came after 86 minutes, when captain Jorge Grant picked up a freak injury after appearing to be struck on the ankle by the ball. By that stage, Argyle had already made their five allotted substitutions, with Panutche Camara, Sam Woods, Luke Jephcott, Ben Reeves and Klaidi Lolos all introduced. It led to a disparity in energy levels as the game drew to a close, with one side fresh and chasing a winner, and the other looking exhausted having already put plenty of effort into turning the game around.

The differences are obvious when comparing the last 15 minutes of the game with the first 75. Of the ten shots Argyle had across the piece on Saturday, four came within the final quarter of an hour. Lincoln had an aerial duel success of 77% on the 75 minute mark, but saw that drop to 60% in the final 15 as the physical nature of them took its toll. A similar story can be seen in their pass success, which dropped from 77% to 70% across the same period, suggesting some more panicked long balls from some tired legs.

They aren’t huge drop-offs, but in a game as close as this one any decrease in performance is likely to make a significant difference. That’s exactly what we saw. Argyle brought their top scorer off the bench alongside a hungry young striker in Lolos and a remarkable physical specimen in Camara. Lincoln had nothing until there were only four minutes remaining, and even that was enforced. Even though they couldn’t be spurred on by a crowd, Argyle had enough energy in the closing stages to roll their opponents over.

Perhaps it wouldn’t have made a major difference overall, but Lincoln boss Michael Appleton may look back on his use of substitutions on Saturday as a point of regret.

Camara and Edwards impress

The conditions created in the game were perfect for two of Argyle’s stars of the season to shine. Panutche Camara and Joe Edwards would probably be the two Pilgrims you’d consider to have the highest work rate amongst the squad, based on this season’s evidence at least. And they were just the players Argyle needed to step up to the plate on Saturday. Did they? You bet.

Camara left his mark in exactly the way you’d expect: his running, his dribbling, and his ability to win back the ball. If the Lincoln defence weren’t tired before they had Camara running at the heart of them, they certainly were after. He was as effervescent as we’ve come to expect, and if we’re willing to give Argyle’s equaliser to Conor Grant, Camara would come away with the two assists that his general play deserved. The fact he was able to make such an impact after starting on the bench just makes his performance even sweeter.

Joe Edwards, meanwhile, demonstrated exactly what Argyle had been missing during his recent absence from the side. Take Argyle’s equaliser as an example. Even if we’re deciding not to award him the goal, the fact he even managed to get to the front post from his wing back position to meet the original cross was superb. Then, of course, he set himself up beautifully to score a dramatic winner in injury time, making an impact after the 90-minute mark despite just coming back from injury. Splendid. Is there any better candidate for the captain’s armband in the Argyle side at present than him?

For months now Argyle have lacked the character and ability to turn things around when they go sour. They’ve often entered into a state of panic, causing irreparable damage to their chances in certain games. On Saturday we saw the polar opposite, with both Camara and Edwards making telling contributions. It warmed the heart.

Is this what we were promised with Lowe?

When Ryan Lowe was appointed, one game that stuck out from his Bury reign was a 4-3 win over Milton Keynes. Lowe’s Shakers found themselves 3-1 down with 20 minutes to play, but managed to secure a dramatic turnaround victory in in injury time. Whilst we’ve had some dramatic games during Lowe’s reign at Argyle – a few 3-2s this season have done nothing for my heart – a late win from behind had been something we’d lacked. Until this weekend.

Saturday’s performance wasn’t perfect. I was feeling particularly glum when Lincoln’s third was tucked away, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone. But the way Argyle came roaring back was tremendous, and being able to win games like this will do wonders for the players’ confidence. It seems to me that this is indeed what we were promised when Lowe joined, and as frustrating as it can be at times, it makes for an engrossing watch when done right. One suspects this game may be one we look back on with joy for years to come.

Of course, it’s a crying shame nobody was there to witness Saturday’s events live. But if this is what we have to look forward to next season, sign me up straight away.

Plymouth Argyle learn FA Cup fate

Plymouth Argyle will face Sheffield United in the fourth round of the FA Cup. The Pilgrims, making their first appearance at this stage of the competition for 13 years, were drawn as the away side, so the game will take place at Brammall Lane on the weekend of 23rd-24th January.

Former Liverpool and Tottenham striker Peter Crouch then conducted the draw for the fifth round, with both draws taking place consecutively to aid fixture planning during the continuing COVID-19 disruption. That saw Argyle or Sheffield United drawn at home to Millwall or Bristol City, meaning a potential clash with some recent League Cup opponents in round five should the Greens prevail against Chris Wilder’s side.

The tie against the Blades will be a repeat of the second-round encounter back in 2014/15. That saw Sheffield United win 3-0, but only after Reuben Reid missed a penalty with the sides deadlocked early in the second half. That was the last time the two sides locked horns, with the previous meeting in the league seeing the Blades beat Argyle 4-3 in an entertaining clash in 2010. Argyle have a fairly mixed record against Sheffield United overall, winning 15, drawing 10 and losing 21 of 46 total encounters.

Should Argyle progress beyond the next round, it’ll be their best run in the competition since 2007. That year, Ian Holloway’s side made it all the way to the quarter finals before eventually being knocked out by Premier League Watford.

Argyle forced to hold on despite dominating Gillingham

Plymouth Argyle’s first game of 2021 was slightly odd. The stats would, pretty fairly, suggest that the Greens dominated the game. But look at any highlights package and you’ll notice it was their opponents Gillingham who had the better chances across the 90 minutes. Still, Argyle managed to get themselves a victory that could prove to be particularly crucial, especially after the 3-2 defeat against Oxford in midweek.

Ultimately, Argyle did well to play to their strengths to get their noses in front, particularly the prodigious Luke Jephcott. His goal on Saturday was his 14th in all competitions this season and, as we discussed in the aftermath of Argyle’s draw with Charlton, it feels as though he’s far from done.

Things at the other end felt a little more concerning, but Argyle clung on for the three points that make their position in League One seem a lot safer than it did three days ago.

Argyle’s strengths seal the deal

After the final whistle on Saturday, I remarked that this was a case of Argyle “winning ugly.” Looking back, I’d probably revise that claim slightly. Granted, it wasn’t the most fluent Argyle performance of all time, but they still played well (and, importantly, better than their opponents). Winning ugly is a label that can probably be put on a few games from last season; the 1-0 wins on away trips to Forest Green and Cheltenham, for instance.

Still, those two games and the win over Gillingham do all share one thing in common. In each fixture, Argyle played to their strengths to gain the advantage before holding on under pressure. Against Forest Green, Argyle worked a corner routine to allow Sarcevic to burst into the area and shoot, which he always loved. And at Cheltenham, Argyle used Zak Rudden’s movement in the penalty area to full effect. Rudden was never the best finisher, but that was negated on this occasion by his work to get into a position from which missing would be a near-impossibility. Don’t laugh.

On Saturday, Argyle’s main strengths came to the fore again to craft a lovely goal. Quite rightly, the spotlight has been thrust upon Jephcott’s finish; a wonderful first-time effort on his weaker foot into the corner of the net. But to get into that position, Joe Edwards’ energy worked the ball superbly from the right, allowing him to find fellow wing-back Conor Grant in space. From there, Grant’s cross was delicious, finding the perfect target in the penalty area. And so a goal was scored using Edwards’ energy, Grant’s technical ability and Jephcott’s finishing. In other words, it was perfectly crafted.

In truth, the Lowe philosophy was evident in Argyle’s play through much of the game. Playing out from the back was paramount, with Argyle’s back three all in the top five in terms of completed passes on the day. The other two occupants of that top five? Goalkeeper Mike Cooper and playmaker Danny Mayor. Argyle dominated the ball to the extent that Kelland Watts, with 77 passes, completed almost double the amount of Gills’ top passer Kyle Dempsey (41).

That domination of possession, surely ingrained into the psyche of each Argyle player by now, allowed the Greens to create chances at a greater rate than their opponents. One shot dragged wide by Edwards in the first half saw both Aimson and Watts involved in the build-up. And had Mayor put a smidgen more weight on a pass in the second half, Panutche Camara would have had the opportunity to finish a gorgeous team move. On another day, Argyle may have added more goals to reward their silky play.

Set-pieces still a worry

In the main, Argyle did have the better of the game, and created more chances across the 90 minutes. However, as discussed, the Greens didn’t have everything their own way, with some of the better-quality chances falling to Gillingham. Frustratingly, many of the problems leading to those chances were of Argyle’s own making.

Once again, set pieces proved to be Argyle’s Achilles heel. Gillingham will be kicking themselves that they didn’t take one of their big openings from such situations to steal a scarcely deserved point. Take a second half free kick, for example, when Connor Ogilvie was left completely unmarked at the back post before managing to divert his header over the bar from around four yards. Or a later corner which Cooper came for, completely missed, and Watts somehow managed to turn round his own post.

As we’ve so often seen in the past, Argyle were their own worst enemy at times. Cooper himself failed to cover himself in glory, looking notably shaky dealing with crosses all afternoon. Admittedly, my judgement of Cooper’s performance probably comes down entirely to his part in Matty Willock heading over in stoppage time. If Cooper did get a hand to the cross, it’s a match-winning save. If not, it’s a glaring error that almost costs Argyle the game. I wasn’t able to find a touch, but I’ve been told he did get a crucial fingertip on the cross. As a Cooper fan, I’m more than happy to believe it.

After Argyle’s defeat to Bristol Rovers last month, I wondered exactly what went on in training. Lowe gave us that insight after the Gillingham win, mentioning that they had prepared for corners, free kicks and long throws in the build-up. As promising as that is, it didn’t seem to help this weekend. Maybe that’s something to do with the fact that Argyle don’t have any attacking players that aren’t called Frank Nouble who can pose a regular aerial challenge during those drills.

We’ve mentioned that on another day Argyle would have scored a few more. Equally, on another day they may have lost the points due to their shoddy set-piece defending. Luckily it didn’t matter on this occasion, but the issue still needs fixing.

Is Luke Jephcott the best striker in League One?

Plymouth Argyle were unlucky not to beat Charlton on Boxing Day. That’s my take anyway.

Ryan Lowe’s side had an excellent first half, and deserved their lead through two quality finishes from star striker Luke Jephcott. That they didn’t win can be put down to two unfortunate goals against – one which looked suspiciously like a foul on Kelland Watts, and the other a moment of magic from Marcus Maddison that not many sides at this level would’ve been able to stop. I also felt Argyle ought to have had a penalty for handball midway through the second half, but perhaps that’s my bias coming to the fore.

There were plenty of positives to take from the game at The Valley. Primarily, Jephcott again proved his worth to Argyle with two fine poacher’s goals. It means he’s already hit double figures in the league this year, and as a player who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, you sense he’s far from finished. Still only 20, there has to be an argument now that he’s the greatest striker at any club in League One.

The raw stats

It’s been shared pretty widely over the last day or so, but it’s worth repeating. Luke Jephcott is now the joint-second top scorer in the league, with only Peterborough’s Jonson Clarke-Harris having scored more. However, Clarke-Harris has been on the field far more often than Jephcott this season, and the Argyle striker’s stats compare very favourably with the rest of the league.

Player Goals Assists Goals/90 minutes Mins per goal Conversion Rate (%) Shot accuracy (%)
1 Jonson Clarke-Harris 12 1 0.68 132 26 49
2 Joe Pigott 10 4 0.58 155 21 53
3 Luke Jephcott 10 0 0.90 100 40 68
4 John Marquis 9 3 0.55 164 24 46
5 Matty Taylor 8 1 0.48 186 22 62
5= Callum Camps 8 1 0.44 206 29 71
7 Jorge Grant 7 4 0.37 244 25 46
8 Scott Fraser 7 1 0.42 214 21 59
9 Charlie Wyke 7 0 0.61 148 27 54
9= Mallik Wilks 7 0 0.47 190 20 60
11 Josh Magennis 6 2 0.48 189 32 58
11= Matthew Lund 6 2 0.36 253 24 48
13 Kane Hemmings 6 1 0.52 174 33 44
13= Dion Charles 6 1 0.47 193 21 52
13= Conor Washington 6 1 0.43 209 32 63
16 Chuks Aneke 6 0 0.96 94 23 58
16= Mikael Mandron 6 0 0.36 248 22 59

Jephcott’s early-season injury and international experience have hindered him in the race for the League One golden boot. Because as we can see, he has a far better minutes-per-goal ratio that the vast majority on the list. He outscores both Clarke-Harris and Joe Piggott, the only two players ranked above him at the moment, comfortably. And of all the players to have scored six or more this season, only Charlton’s Chuks Aneke beats his record. But Aneke only has six goals compared to Jephcott’s ten, making his sample size smaller. Plus, any neutrals watching on Boxing Day wouldn’t have a hard time deciding upon the better striker.

But there are stats there even more remarkable that minutes-per-goal. Look at his shot accuracy, which sits at a princely 68%. Hitting the target around half the time is usually a decent barometer; to do it around seven times in ten is excellent. Only Fleetwood’s Callum Camps hits the target at a better rate than the 20-year-old.

What really separates Jephcott from the rest of the field is his conversion rate. Indeed, there is quite a difference between making the goalkeeper work and actually beating him. In that regard, Jephcott’s record is unrivalled, with 40% of his shots this season finding the net. It’s a particularly remarkable statistic – Jephcott has only had 25 shots in the league all season, and found the back of the net with ten.

Add in the fact that Argyle haven’t won a penalty all season, so Jephcott hasn’t had the chance to add to his tally from the spot, and his numbers become even more revealing. Statistically at least, Jephcott is right up there with League One’s best marksmen.

Effect on Argyle

What makes Jephcott so effective at the moment is how perfectly he fits into Argyle’s system. This isn’t a Freddie Ladapo in 2018/19 situation we have on our hands, when one player almost monopolising chances ultimately acted as a detriment to the team’s efforts. (I should say, that doesn’t mean Ladapo was a bad player. Rather, Derek Adams’ preferred system asked much more of the lone striker than simply scoring goals. I suspect Ladapo would have thrived at Home Park had he played under Ryan Lowe.)

Jephcott, meanwhile, has proven to be just what Argyle have needed in Lowe’s tenure. For the first few months, a lack of clinical finishing saw Argyle drop points unnecessarily, but Jephcott managed to fix that immediately upon his recall from Truro. With Ryan Hardie not hitting the back of the net quite so often this year, Jephcott has almost single-handedly kept Argyle going. The partnership between the two, however, remains very strong. After Boxing Day’s showing, there can surely be no doubt that Argyle are better when both Hardie and Jephcott start.

There are also huge benefits Jephcott brings to Argyle that we may not see immediately. Most obviously, should he be prised away from Home Park, Argyle can expect to be reimbursed with a hefty transfer fee the likes of which we probably haven’t seen since the Championship days. And how about the boost he’s giving to the academy? Nobody could have foreseen Jephcott’s meteoric rise this time last year, but now every youngster at Argyle knows they have a path to the first team if they perform well, even if they are sent on loan to the depths of the non-league pyramid. It’s bound to help.

I know this is all gushing, and it feels as though I’m a step away from declaring my undying love for the man, but it needs to be said. In a terrible year for just about everyone, Jephcott’s emergence is by far the best thing that has happened to the club.

So, is he the best striker in the league?

There are many relevant things we’ve discussed that can be considered when answering that question, and some less relevant. Jephcott’s age, for example, is of little help in deciding how good he is now, even if it does suggest he has a higher ceiling that most at this level. It’s also important to remember that goals aren’t everything. Ryan Taylor, for example, was a magnificent striker for Argyle when fit and utilised correctly. You’d hardly call him an assassin in front of goal.

That being said, it’s incredibly difficult to argue against Jephcott’s numbers. To be going at a rate close to a goal a game this side of Christmas is remarkable. Whether he’s the best all-round striker in the league is up for debate; I’d personally like to see him get a few more assists to claim that crown, even though I do appreciate his influence in Argyle’s general play. But is he the best goalscorer? The best poacher? On current form, I don’t really see how one could argue otherwise.

But even if they did, it’s ultimately all academic. Best in the league or not, Argyle have a phenomenal player (and asset) on their hands. Managing him well could be key to the club’s success both now and for many years to come.

Argyle’s best team grab elusive victory

Plymouth Argyle put their best team out on the field and won their first league game in eight attempts. That more or less tells the full story. I’ll spare you the thousand-or-so words of analysis of the victory over Milton Keynes, and leave you with that simple fact we’ve all been crying out for across the last few weeks.

Ok, I’ll go on a bit more – I just can’t help myself. In a surprise to absolutely nobody at all, having their strongest side on the field led to Argyle looking an awful lot better at both ends of the field. The back three of Kelland Watts, Niall Canavan and Will Aimson, surely now unanimously agreed to be the best option at the back, made Argyle look considerably more solid. On top of that, Ryan Hardie and Luke Jephcott’s combined play was back to its fluent best, with the former scoring with a well-taken finish that’ll surely boost his confidence immensely.

It’s been a tough time supporting Argyle across the last month or so. But this win could well prove vital – let’s hope the Greens can build from here.

Defensive solidity prioritised

In recent weeks, Ryan Lowe has regularly opted for Jerome Opoku in the centre of his back three. And it’s easy to see why the Argyle manager has a soft spot for the Fulham loanee. The way he’s comfortable with the ball at his feet and able to play out from the back makes him a very “Lowe type” player. However, his defensive deficiencies have been unavoidable. To say he resembled a rabbit in headlights at times would be kind, and despite all of the good he can bring, Argyle couldn’t persist.

Against Milton Keynes, Opoku’s presence wouldn’t be necessary. All season, they have been a side who have kept the ball well without creating much, so attempting to go toe-to-toe with a possession-based game would hardly have been wise. Rather, Argyle simply needed to have enough solidity in their defence to ensure their opponents couldn’t use their copious possession to threaten.

As such, lining up with Watts, Canavan and Aimson made a lot of sense. Whether each represents a good option at this level in their own right is up for debate, but their inclusion together is certainly the best Argyle can muster. And they delivered on Saturday. Will Aimson in particular stood out, winning 80% of his aerial duels across the 90 minutes, and whilst the pass completion stats were not what we’ve come to expect from Argyle’s defence, they managed the basics to ensure just their third league clean sheet of the season.

Credit must also go to Argyle’s midfield, particularly Lewis MacLeod and Panutche Camara, for providing a level of protection to the defence that we simply haven’t seen in recent weeks. MacLeod clearly seems to be back to full fitness, and managed to one-up Aimson by winning 100% of his aerial battles on Saturday. Meanwhile, Camara was at his effervescent best, winning 9 tackles (4 more than anyone else on the field) to provide Argyle a platform on the counter. It’s just another example of the solidity provided by the setup. Lowe could have opted for the more “ball playing” options of Tyrese Fornah and Ben Reeves, but solidity was correctly prioritised, and the result duly followed.

Hardie back in the goals

Ryan Hardie has come in for a fair bit of stick lately. Not necessarily for his build-up play, which has remained at a high level, but for his finishing. Before Saturday he’d only managed to score one goal all season, a paltry figure considering the chances he’s had to find the net. Against Bristol Rovers, for instance, he really ought to have got himself on the scoresheet at least once, and probably twice. The fact his goal tally has been dwarfed by Jephcott has only emphasised Hardie wayward shooting so far this season.

With that in mind, how lovely was it to see Hardie find the target on Saturday afternoon? To not only score, but score the winner in a vital match in front of the Devonport End has the potential to deliver him a huge boost. It’s cliched to say he’ll start banging them in now – that’s not guaranteed – but from being left wondering where his next goal may come from, Argyle’s number 9 managed to demonstrate the quality he still possesses at such a crucial time.

It was such a well taken goal, too. Good work from Jephcott and particularly Joe Edwards on the right gave Hardie the chance, but he still had plenty to do. A wonderful touch on his right foot took the ball around defender George Williams, before Hardie produced the finish of a striker bang in form to find the bottom corner. Goal drought? Forgotten.

One would like to think he’ll take the momentum from this game into the remainder of the Christmas period. We thought that may happen after he broke his duck for the season against Wigan in October with another lovely finish, but it didn’t quite materialise. It’s all the more important this time – a firing Hardie would be a key cog in Lowe’s Argyle machine to spark a recovery from the recent run of form.

Have Argyle turned a corner?

Saturday’s result was crucial. Had Argyle not found a way to win, it’d have been eight without tasting victory heading into a tough trip to Charlton on Boxing Day. And it’s sparked hope that the Greens have now put the worst behind them in this campaign. So have they turned a corner?

It’s probably too early to tell for sure. As mentioned, the next game on Boxing Day will be a tough one, and a defeat has the potential to take Argyle right back to square one. Argyle may have beaten Charlton away from home in the cup, but the Addicks will no doubt be a different beast this time around.

There’s also the question of how much we’re actually able to take from this game. Milton Keynes, for their part, are far from the best team in this division. Yes, Argyle may have managed to keep a clean sheet against a side fairly useless with the ball, but there are plenty of tougher battles to come. Yes, Hardie may have been able to score at the weekend, but he needs to add plenty more to that in order make his second loan spell a success.

But, as the old saying goes, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s certainly much more refreshing to assess how Argyle will build on a victory, rather than analysing how they can respond from defeat. All good runs of form must start somewhere – why can’t this one start with a narrow victory on a cold winter’s afternoon against Milton Keynes?

Argyle’s issues laid bare once more

Well, here we go again.

You’ll have to forgive my tendency to resemble a broken record during these times. I’d love to be able to explore some new topics in these pieces, but we are beginning to see the same patterns repeated over and over again. Plymouth Argyle have now lost five league games in a row, and after around ten minutes against Bristol Rovers it seemed inevitable that the dire run was set to continue.

Admittedly, that may seem like a little overreaction. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat was far from Argyle’s worst performance of the season, though the displays against Fleetwood and Rochdale don’t exactly make that a major achievement. Indeed, had Luke Jephcott taken his one big chance as he so often does, and Ryan Hardie managed to stick one of his many opportunities into the net, we may have bene telling a very different story. Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And in truth, it wasn’t Argyle’s attack that was the problem on Saturday. When you concede three goals, you can never expect to win games with regularity. When those goals are terrible ones to concede, the problems clearly run even deeper than once thought. That’s was the case with Argyle on Saturday, and it means big questions hang over the squad. In truth, they have for quite a few weeks.

What exactly happens in training?

All three of Rovers’ goals could be considered “straight from the training ground” efforts. Each one of them came from a set piece, and they were all totally avoidable from an Argyle point of view. It does lead one to wonder what defensive work actually takes place in Argyle’s training sessions.

Let’s take the two goals from corners as an example. On both occasions, Argyle decided to exclusively use man-to-man marking in the penalty area. Now that mightn’t seem like an inherently bad thing until you consider the responsibilities it puts on the players. One-on-one, Argyle’s defenders had to be experts at winning aerial battles to make the method of defending effective. Put simply, they’re not.

The first goal is a prime example. As soon as Alfie Kilgour got the run on Jerome Opoku, he more or less had a free header on the Argyle goal. I remarked at the time that Opoku didn’t cover himself in glory, and I maintain this is true, but he was hardly helped by the system. Had there been an element of zonal marking, another player may have been able to steal a march and win the ball, or at least put a little more pressure on Kilgour’s header. Setting up to defend the corner the way Argyle did was simply asking for trouble.

A lack of zonal marking also contributed to Rovers’ second goal, for different reasons. This time, the first ball was only partially cleared, and Luke McCormick (heh) swept up the pieces to double the hosts’ advantage. And it was always likely to be a Rovers player who got to the ball first. With man-to-man marking deployed Argyle’s defenders, understandably, would have been focusing on their designated attackers, allowing all of Rovers’ players to watch the ball and react quickest. Unsurprisingly, they did. Had somebody been in that zone to clear, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Zonal marking isn’t a magic bullet – far from it. In fact, most teams opt for a hybrid approach, incorporating aspects of both man marking and zonal marking to deal with set pieces. Such an approach would have aided Argyle immensely on Saturday. Can we trust Ryan Lowe, a former striker and famously attacking coach, to implement this on the training ground? I’m beginning to wonder.

Where is the protection?

Take the best defence in the world, and they’ll still find life difficult if they have to defend with no midfield protection for 90 minutes. That difficulty will be exemplified if they have to defend as a back three rather than a back four. Argyle’s defence, it’s fair to say, isn’t the best in the world, so the lack of midfield protection being provided currently is a serious concern.

Tyrese Fornah is the main culprit here, but again he’s not helped by the system Lowe deploys. As the “1” in the 3-1-4-2, much of the defensive responsibility, particularly when the opposition launch a counter, rests on his shoulders. He doesn’t seem cut out for it at all. He regularly finds himself ten or fifteen yards further upfield that necessary, and that results in acres of space being left behind him. We saw Fleetwood, for example, take advantage of that very early on, and Rovers again were given far too much of the pitch to operate in without pressure this weekend.

Fornah seems to be suffering the same way we saw Yann Songo’o suffer in 2018/19. Neither are bad players in their own right – Fornah picked out a superb pass on his weaker foot in the second half to demonstrate his ability on the ball – but neither have been played to their strengths for large portions of their time at Home Park. It’s seen the same pattern emerge on both occasions: a complete lack of protection for an already shaky defence.

Argyle’s defence isn’t great. The protection afforded to them is inadequate. The results? Obvious.

How big are the issues?

I don’t want to overreact. Argyle have shown across this season that they have the tools to compete. This is an awful run of form, of course, but that doesn’t mean Argyle have suddenly become a bad side. There are issues that need resolving, and I’m very happy to concede that. But it’s not as if Argyle aren’t capable of doing just that, and still making a success of this campaign.

Still, the leadership void at the back needs resolving, and it may well take until the January transfer window before that issue can be put to bed. But the defence could still be improved by bringing in those most competent in the air, with Niall Canavan a prime candidate. I note that Argyle’s best back three (in my view at least) of Kelland Watts, Will Aimson and Canavan were again not given a chance together this weekend.

Argyle should be able to solve the midfield issue straight away. Lewis MacLeod being back to full fitness will be a great help, and providing he is at 100% he really ought to start against Crewe on Tuesday night in Fornah’s position. But if not, Lowe can still make things work with Fornah in the side. Giving him a partner by subtly changing to a 3-4-1-2 or 3-4-3 would give Argyle’s the double benefit of solidifying the midfield whilst retaining Lowe’s preferred back three, minimising the upheaval in the process.

But the issues, whilst solvable, are serious. It certainly feels as though how he responds to this run will be the making of Lowe. Derek Adams failed to solve Argyle’s problems two years ago, despite having the tools to do so, and it ultimately cost the Greens their place in League One, and Adams his job. Lowe will need to learn from his predecessor’s mistakes to ensure his time at Argyle doesn’t follow a similar trajectory.

Ipswich defeat sees Argyle lose their heads again

Plymouth Argyle will not be the force they have the potential to be at this level without sorting out their glaring mental deficiencies. That is the simple reality at the moment.

It’s been a path well-travelled in recent days, but let’s explore it again. On the 70-minute mark against Ipswich at the weekend, Argyle were in control. By the 75-minute mark, they were a goal and a man down. Danny Mayor lost his mind to get sent off before pure panic in the Argyle ranks led to them conceding two goals in as many minutes. Somehow, from a position of extreme strength, Argyle had thrown it away in the time it takes for me to…no, I won’t finish that.

Anyway, the worst part of all of this is that it’s hardly the first time we’ve seen Argyle fall apart this season. It almost seems to be a weekly occurrence. Stopping these mad moments in games surely has to be Ryan Lowe’s number one priority.

Mayor loses his mind

I’m a fan of Danny Mayor. I think that’s a sentiment shared by most Argyle fans. But his performance on Saturday was exceedingly stupid. It was his red card that sparked the Greens’ capitulation, and looking back, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a dismissal made up of two more ludicrous bookings.

The first could be considered a little unlucky, but I don’t have a great deal of sympathy. Lowe’s argument in the aftermath was that Mayor’s yellow card for timewasting shouldn’t have been awarded because a couple of Ipswich players were preventing his corner from being taken. And I’m not totally dismissive of that argument; indeed, it looked as though the defenders were closer to five yards away from Mayor than the required ten on occasions.

What Lowe didn’t mention was that Mayor had already dallied over taking the corner before this happened. He’d already been warned that he was taking too long before he started complaining about the enclosing defenders. He really didn’t need to insist on playing the corner short if he was worried about picking up a booking. Regardless of the circumstances, getting booked for timewasting with around 40 minutes still on the clock is a little silly.

That pales into insignificance, however, compared to the mind-numbing stupidity of his second booking. Already on a yellow card, he saw Armando Dobra advancing downfield with the ball and just…tripped him up. No attempt or chance of playing the ball, he just tripped the man. For a player who, I must repeat, was already on a yellow card, this was the absolute nadir of dim from the 30-year-old.

As I’ve already mentioned, I like Mayor. He’s definitely the most talented player at the club in a number of areas. But considering the wages he eats up, can a player with his decision making really be considered value for money? The jury is very much out.

The state of panic

Mayor’s mindlessness has been well covered, but it wasn’t the only reason for Argyle’s collapse at the weekend. Rather, his red card was the catalyst for panic in the ranks from which the Greens ultimately couldn’t recover.

Nobody wants to see one of their players receive their marching orders – that goes without saying. However, when it does happen, you need to have some sort of plan. Tighten up and drop back if you must, but continuing to keep your head is imperative. You may have to soak up pressure with ten men, but if you play with intelligence and calmness you’ll give yourself a decent chance of keeping your opponents at bay, particularly if you only have to do it for around 20 minutes.

Alas, Argyle’s reaction was the complete opposite. As soon as their premier playmaker was sent from the field, every player to a man seemed to lose their heads. Nobody took control, nobody showed leadership, and nobody played for the next five minutes as well as they had for the first 70.

The collapse itself happened in the blink of an eye. Rushed clearances were the order of the day, and Argyle scarcely looked capable of calming things down just by keeping the ball for a few moments. They could easily have done so after kicking off following Ipswich’s equaliser, for example. Both of those are mental issues, and clear and obvious examples of the sheer terror in Argyle players’ minds following Mayor’s dismissal.

Lowe mentioned after the game that Argyle would’ve had players blocking both of Ipswich’s goals had Mayor been on the field. I’m not convinced. But I’m certainly confident that Argyle would’ve avoided the issue entirely had they not lost their minds in the wake of the red card.

How do you stop the rot?

Well, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?

A dip into the transfer market must surely now be in the offing with January just around the corner. Each of Argyle’s defenders has shown they have talent this season, but few of them have demonstrated any level of leadership. Niall Canavan is perhaps the exception, but he doesn’t seem to have Lowe’s trust at the moment, particularly after the mistakes against Rochdale in midweek. It may sound simplistic, but I wouldn’t be against the idea of a big noisy b*stard coming into Argyle’s defence this winter. A Sonny Bradley type player would be just what this team needs.

The management also have to be questioned on a run like this. I’m not calling for Lowe’s head at this time; that would be a knee-jerk reaction to the extreme. But it’s clear that work needs to be done on game management, and it’s been clear for a while. To respond to a red card, that was already ridiculous, by conceding two goals in as many minutes against a team who hadn’t scored in over five hours of football is unacceptable. I remarked after the final whistle that this was some of the worst game management I had ever seen, and I stand by that claim.

As painful as it may be, it may simply be a case of learning from experience. Ipswich’s two goals on Saturday, Nolan’s in particular, were superb finishes. Had they not found the net, we’d have been praising an Argyle side capable of winning in the face of adversity, rather than dissecting a capitulation. And Argyle have shown they can “win ugly” before. Think Blackpool this season, or the trips to Cheltenham and Forest Green last term. Maybe Argyle just need to get through a similar game again to get the confidence flowing.

Blame certainly needs to be shared. Argyle’s players have natural talent, but how good can they really be considered as footballers without the concentration and composure to back up their skills? Similarly, Ryan Lowe is a good young manager with a bright future ahead of him, but if he had the foresight to take a tiring and booked Mayor off the field, a horrible situation may have been avoided. Clearly, he still has a lot to learn.

Argyle have all the tools to be a success at this level. But as I say, they will not become the force they have the potential to without sorting out their glaring mental deficiencies.