On Monday night I found myself reflecting on the fact that, for the first time in my life, I had seriously considered walking out of a football game before the end. In fact, I was seriously tempted to flee at half time, and in some ways I wish I had. I could have got home early and spent the rest of the afternoon doing something more enjoyable. Like stabbing myself in the leg with a fork, or watching a six hour ‘Theresa May’s Greatest Speeches’ box-set.
But of course I stayed to the bitter end because I’m a football fan and therefore basically an idiot. I’ve sat through some bad performances so far this season, but the Easter Monday Barnsley game plumbed new depths. A Bank Holiday weekend where you concede six goals and score one in two games is never going to be a happy one, but it was the manner of both defeats that was really worrying. There was no sense of Argyle being unlucky, or being on the end of some harsh decisions, or a few players having an off day or of being hit by some act of God. With a few exceptions, the performances were just plain awful.
In fact the players looked terrified. Some supporters have accused them of not caring, but I disagree; you don’t become a professional footballer if you have the ‘don’t care’ gene. I think the problem is that they’re so frightened of making mistakes that they are incapable of playing up to their abilities. We can’t know for sure what’s going on behind the changing room doors but on the available evidence, it’s not good.
One sure thing though is that players want to know that there’s a plan. Unfortunately it was pretty difficult to spot anything of the kind on Monday. Losing 3-0 and waiting until the 80th minute to make the first change (by which time Barnsley, who were cruising, had made all three subs) doesn’t look like a strategy. In fact, throwing on three players at that point seemed like either a random roll of the dice or more likely – since with only 10 minutes to go, the chances of the substitutions turning the game were basically zero – it was a pre-emptive strike to avoid criticism of a lack of a strategy.
The manager’s priority appeared to be keeping it to 3-0 on the basis that goal difference might, if we’re really lucky, keep us in the division come 7.30pm on May 4th. That was confirmed in the post-match interviews when his favourite Herald reporter asked, “This season could come down to goal difference. Was there a part of you at half-time thinking ‘we need to be careful we don’t concede any more goals?’” To which the response was; “I have been thinking that way for a while.”
Wait, what? Argyle’s strategy has centred on staying up on goal difference ‘for a while’? Since when? Christmas? Last August? Maybe it’s the pragmatic thing to do and I’ll happily eat a large slice of humble pie if it works. But as the philosophy for the football team I support? Er, no. I don’t think so.
Plenty of people say you shouldn’t take any notice of what managers say to the press. But I disagree as this is one of the few ways supporters can get an insight into their characters and by extension, how they deal with their players. Unfortunately, recent pre and post-match comments have been PR car crashes, with a low point coming after Gillingham on Good Friday: “We have to be more clinical and we have to defend better. It’s not something that you can work on in that short space of time.” You’d hope that, 41 games into the season, there would have been time to work on things like scoring goals and not letting them in at the other end.
More worrying though was the comment before the Barnsley game: “Our players have to take huge responsibility in the game, because it’s their livelihoods they’re looking after, and also the livelihoods of other members of staff as well…It’s their responsibility, solely.”
I’m all for players taking responsibility. When the whistle goes it’s down to them not to blast the ball over an open goal from six yards or not to make a kamikaze back-pass into the path of an opposition striker. But “it’s their responsibility solely”? So why does a team have a manager at all then? An unkind interpretation might be that this is a tactical move to shift the blame to the players in case the manager needs to justify staying on for a League Two campaign next season. Not necessarily my view. I’m just putting it out there.
And I’m not even going near Ladapo-gate. Did the striker really ‘rule himself out’ of the Barnsley game? Who knows, but his sarcastic Tweet suggests all is not sweetness and light in the Argyle camp at this critical point in the season.
The club has made great efforts to reach out to, and engage with, supporters this season and should be commended for that. The problem is that all the good work can be undone in a few seconds by some ill-considered words.
When the Herald reporter asked the perfectly legitimate question about the thinking behind the substitution of Lameiras against Barnsley, the manager’s response was “No. Good try, but no.” The reporter ploughed on undaunted, asking whether the manager made the changes to save players for next week, only to be told, “You can draw your own conclusions to why it happened. You were at the game, you watched the game.”
Now a two fingered salute to Plymouth’s largest newspaper is bad enough. But it was also by extension aimed at the 10,000 Argyle fans that had paid good money to be at Home Park and who have the right to answers to reasonable questions they can’t ask directly themselves.
Derek Adams is, by all accounts, a decent, caring and likeable bloke when you interact with him in person. So it’s all the more mystifying that his public persona is so grating and frequently hostile. He clearly needs some help in this area because if anything, it’s getting worse.
So where to from here? On Saturday, Argyle take their dreadful away record to Accrington, who have just beaten a team that beat us 2-0 less than two weeks ago. Fortunately there are plenty of examples of the formbook being upset in one-off games and we’ll have to hope that the Pilgrims can pull something out of the bag against Stanley. Otherwise we’re heading for a season-defining final day clash with Scunthorpe. Oh good.