And so, late on the evening of the 28th of April 2019, one of Plymouth Argyle’s most successful managers departed Home Park.
Derek Adams may have only won one promotion, missing out on the League Title on goal difference, but he ends his time as the manager with the second highest individual win rate of any to take the reigns, only behind Frank Bettrell, who left the club in 1905. Overall, only six managers have won more games than the Scot.
Yet, with no wins in eight, a dramatic collapse into the relegation places and a period of eleven goals conceded without reply from Gillingham to Accrington, a huge section of the fanbase – quite possibly a majority – demanded his departure. And they received it.
Even so, the manner in which he left came as a shock. Many were expecting that, if he were to go, it would have been immediately proceeding the catastrophic 5-1 defeat at Accrington that left the club desperate for a win on Saturday to maintain its League One status. Instead, he departed as the Green Army were heading to bed ahead of a new week.
Though there was a general feeling of jubilation and relief at the news, some have already begun to reflect on what might have been. In some ways, this season certainly feels like it should not have been the end of his story with the club. Yet, countless mistakes – ones he has made before – seemed to re-appear throughout this season with increasing regularity.
Feuding with Chris Errington was a mistake. Banning the Herald was a big mistake. Calling some of the fans yobs was a huge mistake. Making repeated tactical blunders was a repetitive mistake. Taking little – if any – of the blame for the club’s situation was a constant mistake.
In most ways, this season has been a story of the fall of Derek Adams, though that certainly has not been the only narrative to emerge. This ending, one more of regret and frustration than anything else, has been a culmination of the two great issues stalking his time at Home Park combined with the circumstances he faced. In the end, it proved his undoing.
It has been apparent for some time that Adams was far from a tactical genius. He was a manager more inclined to force pegs into holes that suited his tactical approach than one who could and would produce a game-plan superior to his opponents or select a team that was specifically designed to compliment the players’ individual qualities. He was far from inept in this regard – he would never had made it this far otherwise – but there have been far too many occasions in which he has been outwitted by his rivals, and few reverse examples.
One of his biggest sins has been the inability to keep the ball out of the back of the net. In the League, only two sides have conceded more goals than Argyle. Going into the final game of the season, the Greens have conceded 93 goals, the most since 1995 – also a season in which the team were relegated. The sheer number of goals conceded has largely been derived from Adams himself: his chronic defensive rotation combined with poor tactics goes a long way to explaining the abysmal entry in the goals against column.
|Chronic Defensive Rotation (excluding the Football League Trophy)
Adams has spent so much time and energy trying to piece a team together in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation throughout this season, despite repeat reminders that he does not have the personnel to do so. The system exposes David Fox defensively and reduces his influence on the ball. Meanwhile, it has also resulted in Yann Songo’o partnering him in midfield more than any other player, and he has certainly not had a season approaching the standard that some claim he has.
Despite obvious deficiencies, Adams persevered with a midfield that was quite obviously not good enough for far too long. Argyle’s success last season was heavily built on a rigid midfield spine of Fox sat behind Sarcevic and Ness – that style has only been used sparingly this season.
On the rare occasions in which it has been used, the midfield has been strong and provided much greater protection to the defence. When utilised – against Fleetwood, Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Blackpool, Charlton and Gillingham – opposition teams have scored virtually all of their goals either from long range or crosses, rather than creating openings by working their way through a weak midfield duo like so many other sides have.
Indeed, the contrast between performances against Charlton, which featured Fox, Sarcevic and Ness in a three, to Doncaster and Barnsley, demonstrated just how much easier it is for opponents to dominate possession and create chances when facing the inferior 4-2-3-1 system.
Argyle were the dominant team in the first-half against Charlton, pushing them back and creating chances, before they were undone by a pin-point cross. It was one of the best performances – if not the best – by Argyle against a top side in League One this season. Charlton only began to create chances by attacking Argyle’s spine once the team found themselves chasing the game.
Contrast that with Doncaster, the next week, in which the 4-2-3-1 returned and with it another abysmal away display. Fox and Songo’o gave little protection to their defence, enabling Doncaster to rain down shots at goal, and both (particularly Fox) conspired give away the opening goal. Meanwhile, Argyle offered little by the way of creativity at the other end as the pair simply could not get a foot on the ball.
Finally, Barnsley annihilated the lacklustre duo. In one of the most comprehensive displays of midfield domination Home Park has witnessed in years, the Tykes cut through them repeatedly. Argyle barely laid a glove on their opponents. The highlights do no justice to the way they tore through the 4-2-3-1 formation Adams laid out to stop them.
But Adams’ tactical failings went beyond just the midfield. Aside from getting that set-up wrong for the majority of the season, he also made routine mistakes. Scott Wootton somehow started the season as the first choice centre-back despite it being quite obvious before he had even kicked a ball that he was not good enough, as we even raised in our season preview. Lameiras’ game time was far too limited in the first half of the season and only returned to the team because of Joel Grant’s injury rather than tactical preference. Ladapo has started countless away games despite repeatedly failing to perform well outside Plymouth while Ryan Taylor has warmed the bench despite being the better option in those circumstances.
However, the worst fact of all remains that the front six of Fox, Sarcevic, Ness, Carey, Lameriras and Taylor are still yet to play a single minute together this season. Those six were the backbone of the side going into this season, carried over from last season’s successful turnaround. Adams never gave them a chance. That is not a hyperbolic statement; that is a literal statement. Even if you do not think that they are the best option available to Adams, you surely cannot defend the absence of a single minute all season. This will likely remain his biggest tactical mistake this season.
But it is only one of many. Adams has made plenty tactical and selection errors throughout his time at Argyle, but the frequency and scale of these errors increased drastically this season to an unprecedented level during his tenure. When answering any question about why Argyle are in the position they are in, Adams’ failings in this area must be the single greatest factor.
Public relations disaster
While his tactical deficiencies caused endless frustration from the stands, Adams’ confrontational approach to media relations ensured that he was irritating the Green Army off the pitch too. Like his tactical deficiencies, his approach to media relations similarly took a nosedive in 2018/19.
The Scot has done himself few favours in this regard throughout his four years at the club. Indeed, Adams’ media manner has exposed him. He was both abrasive and evasive. Unnecessary pot-shots again opposition managers and clubs made him appear petty and diminished his standing with a large section of the fan base. Worse, his endless list of excuses portrayed him as sometimes clueless and otherwise attempting to absolve himself of any blame.
An early sign of this came when he blamed defeat against Cambridge on algae. More recently, after defeat against Gillingham, he was more literal: “It’s their responsibility, solely. I told them in there, and I told them last week, they’ve got to get themselves sorted out for the final three games of the season, because there’s a lot at stake.”
Ultimately, this combination of abrasiveness and evasiveness soured him to significant portions of the fans, removing him of allies he vitally needed when the going got tough.
Worse, it was blatantly obvious that he was making enemies within the Green Army, and quite unnecessarily too. A smarter operator would have made a fundamental change in their approach to dealing with the press, especially given the dreadful start he oversaw this season. Instead, Adams doubled down.
When the fans, frustrated by his tactics, comments in the press and the lack of points on the board, turned on him, he described a group of them as yobs. This will go down as one of the biggest own-goals in Argyle’s managerial history. He aligned himself against the fans, and had it not been for an instant turnaround in form – Argyle won back-to-back games against Gillingham and Scunthorpe – that could have been that. However, he did not win the fans back over, he merely quietened a vocal group calling for his departure. They would return again once form dropped. When it came, they had the impact they desired.
Then there was his personal feud with the Herald. First, he refused them interviews in all circumstances except post-match interviews. Then, when answering the questions of Chris Errington – hardly Jeremy Paxman – he again demonstrated an inability to handle basic questions. When asked about the substitution of Ruben Lameiras – prefaced by noting the fans objection to the substitution – he gave the worst answer possible short of calling the fans yobs again: “No. Good try, but no.”
Banning them was a stupid decision in the first place. Answering questions like that was just another in a long list of PR blunders. Once again, it made him appear as though he thought he was above reproach. It was these media slights and fights that soured fans to Adams before he suffered any real backlash on the field. This lesson, which he failed to learn from his time at Ross County, is on he will need to learn in the future if he is to succeed at another club.
For certain, there is a case to be made that his personality, far more than his tactical deficiencies, is the main reason that he no longer resides as manager at Home Park. He had already lost too many fans before form took a nosedive.
A collapse in form
While his tactics and his public persona were two long term trends that weighed heavily on his departure, as ever it was results that necessitated his departure. Argyle have been in and around the relegation places all season, and have only ever pulled themselves more than five points clear of the relegation zone on the occasions that they have played more games than those below them.
For Adams and Argyle, the only real respite this season came with a run of 21 points from ten games, a run that lifted the team from bottom of the table to outside of the relegation places. However, it wasn’t especially difficult to pick out that January’s brief increase in form was unsustainable, based as it was on clinical finishing from half-chances and opposition teams missing glaring opportunities. Unfortunately, Adams seemed to buy into the hype, instead of recognising the failings of the system. Yet, as soon as this anomaly corrected itself – as it always does for teams that are recording results superior to their performances – the form nosedived once more.
Had Argyle drifted towards relegation, failing to lift themselves out of the mire, the feeling would be slightly different. One that lent itself more to resignation and apathy than anger and fury. Instead, the total collapse of form that made the club plummet from relative safety to the precipice of League Two has merely widened the chasm between the manager and the supporters. It hasn’t just been the losses, but the fact that Argyle have conceded 21 goals during their eight-match winless run, in the same time they have scored five (two were own-goals).
Yet, it’s important to recognise that it isn’t the spectre of relegation that currently hangs over the club that saw off Adams. There are many ways he could have survived a return to League Two. Rather, it has been the disintegration in relations between the Scot and the fans, encouraged by the collapse in form, combined with his tactical deficiencies, that appears to have forced this decision on an understandably reluctant Simon Hallett.
With no wins in eight, and six points from 33 taken, there could have been little faith that Argyle would have gained the win they likely require to stand a chance of staying up this weekend. Imagine the atmosphere during the game if Argyle were struggling, what would happen if the side fell behind, and how ugly the scenes could have been upon confirmation of relegation. The division between many fans and the club would have been cemented over the summer, potentially leading to a reduction in season ticket sales, lost revenue and a lesser likelihood of an instant return to League One.
It’s important to recognise that Adams cannot take total blame for this collapse in form: dropped points against Blackpool certainly were not his fault; Carey and Ladapo missed huge chances before Charlton took the lead at Home Park; and Smith-Brown made two mistakes as Gillingham came from behind to lead on Good Friday; moments before, Edwards had missed Argyle’s best chance of the game to make it 2-0. However, this is just another reminder that it wasn’t the form, so much as his tactical failings and PR nightmare, that saw him fired.
A regretful end
My overriding feeling is one of remorse. I genuinely wanted Derek Adams to succeed and hated watching as he paved the way to his eventual departure. In the aftermath of his departure, I saw some refer to Adams as a potential Sir Alex Ferguson for the club, and while I disagree with the idea in its literal form I understand the sentiment. Adams was a figure of great stability that finally overturned the misery that built up over nearly a decade. While in the role, he oversaw progress on and off the pitch in almost every facet of the club.
Because of the way things ended, Adams’ reputation will likely be tarnished for some time to come. He will be remembered as a stubborn man who was hostile to the players, fans and club, and quite possibly the man responsible for Argyle’s relegation. Some are (or were) talking about him as though he was a source of poison running throughout the club that needed to be purged. Both of these characterisations are unfair.
In time, Adams will be remembered for his inspiring first three season at the helm. He led one of the most exciting starts to a season that we have enjoyed since the Holloway days, culminating in that enthralling roller-coaster of a semi-final against Portsmouth. My favourite memory of him will always by that of him hugging Craig Brewster and Paul Wotton after defeating Portsmouth in the semi-finals of the play-offs. After the mental battering that the Green Army had faced for nearly a decade from 2008, that was the moment that truly made us believe again.
A season later, he achieved a quite incredible promotion with a squad remarkably low on individual quality, and then somewhat repeated the feat the next season when he almost secured a play-off spot in League One having gone into December bottom of the table. Had it been for a slightly deeper squad, or an injury fewer here or there, I think he would have achieved a top-six finish.
He was far from flawless throughout that time and relied heavily on Graham Carey as his talisman during his entire tenure. It is quite symbolic that the Irishman, who, like the Scot, has so defined Argyle’s past four seasons, is likely to depart at the same time, making way for a new era.
Nevertheless, Derek Adams has been a huge net-positive influence on Plymouth Argyle since he arrived in 2016. He absolutely deserves the thanks of the entire Green Army for what he achieved at the club. As the season comes to an end, no matter what the outcome is, I know that I – and many others – will ponder what might have been had he been able to pick up those extra handful of points that would have secured his and Argyle’s status for another year.