Cardboard cut-outs, iFollow and empty stadium echoes became a regular feature during the 2020/21 season. Fans were unable to celebrate with their heroes following promotion to League One the previous campaign and, bar a handful of matches at limited capacity were reduced to the dreary experience of your typical armchair fan. I think I speak for each one of us in saying that I’m glad that’s now over!
The goalkeeping situation at Plymouth Argyle was one that separated many during the season. Many considered it a proud moment as highly-rated goalkeeper and local boy Michael Cooper finally got his chance. Others however, grumbled about a lack of competition and experience between the sticks as the Pilgrims leaked 80 goals during their first season back in England’s third tier. The 21-year-old has made 57 appearances for the Pilgrims since coming on for the injured Kyle Letheren as a substitute against Blackburn in October 2017. However he had to bide his time behind the scenes, first under Derek Adams and then Ryan Lowe.
This season will undoubtedly have been a learning curve for Cooper. Despite being plunged into the deep end with no experience he managed to demonstrate why he had become so highly rated before his introduction to the first team. Whilst there were occasionally blips in his game, statistically he was amongst the best in the division. The 6ft 1in man boasted the most saves in League One (154). He finished ahead of Wigan’s Jamie Jones (136) and Charlton’s Ben Amos (130). The Englishman’s total of 3.35 saves per 90 minutes also sees him rank him as the best in the division.
It would be fair to say that Cooper lacked competition last season. The influence of veteran Luke McCormick behind the scenes may have proved invaluable, but neither he or Jack Ruddy were realistic starters. Ryan Lowe only tended to rest Cooper for EFL Trophy trophy games. Scrutiny often came calling, as you would expect in a defence as leaky as Argyle’s during the campaign. Summer signings Macauley Gillesphey, James Wilson and Dan Scarr provide, on paper at least, a much more experienced and reliable defence. This should allow Cooper the chance to prove himself not only at this level, but show that he is capable of bigger things in future. Cooper and striker Luke Jephcott demonstrate how the Argyle academy is beginning to make serious strides forward.
Cooper’s vocal skills and commanding of his area were often in question. He operated behind a back three that included the equally inexperienced Jerome Opoku and Kelland Watts alongside Will Aimson. There is no doubting that the Devon born stopper has areas of his game that need improving, and last season will have certainly highlighted those all the more with the addition of iFollow and replays to scrutinise every error. Undoubtedly the weak links within his game will be a primary focus during pre-season. With time, experience and patience, errors and negative traits will begin to fade from his game.
The signing of Callum Burton from Cambridge will provide timely competition after his surprise release from Mark Bonner’s side. The Englishman started 26 games as they finished runners-up to Cheltenham Town in League Two. The 24-year-old’s arrival makes sense in all aspects in terms of age, quality and experience. The former Hull man kept an impressive nine clean sheets in 27 appearances for the U’s last season, conceding just 32 goals. Injury to regular first choice Dimitar Mitov paved the way for Burton to establish himself. His first appearance of the season didn’t come until December. All these indicators suggest that Burton hasn’t arrived at Home Park to play second fiddle.
Ryan Lowe has previously stressed the importance of having two competitive goalkeepers in his squad. This is something that Argyle have often failed to do in previous seasons. Vincent Dorel, Robbert te Loeke and James Bittner are all recent examples of this, making just a handful of appearances between them. Lowe’s first season saw Cooper challenge loanee Alex Palmer for the number one jersey. Despite not making a league appearance that season, it was clear in Lowe’s mind that he was ready. Burton should fulfil the same role, pushing Cooper to ever-better levels.