“Nobody knows anything…”

William Goldman

The transfer window. The article I never wanted to write. What’s the point when every man and his dog have had their say on the subject over the last few days? On the other hand, this is a weekly opinion column and it’s impossible to ignore the gigantic transfer-window shaped elephant in the Plymouth Argyle room.

So, the bald facts; the arrival of Oscar Threlkeld and Lloyd Jones and the departures of Peter Grant, Gregg Wylde and Calum Dyson means the Argyle squad is one player lighter than before. In fact you could argue that the net loss is actually three, as Stuart O’Keefe and Harry Burgoyne left before Christmas.

Looking at the window positionally, we are net minus one defender, and, if we include O’Keefe in the departures, unchanged in midfield since Derek Adams has indicated that Oscar will primarily be deployed in that area. And, while he hasn’t played in the League or any meaningful cup competition, Calum Dyson’s move means Argyle are one man lighter in the striker department.

On the face of it then a somewhat underwhelming window. And, as usual, the transfer activity raises more questions than it answers. So let’s have a go at answering some of them.

Did Argyle try to bring in more new players?

The manager’s comments on the last day of January suggests that was the case.

“For all clubs it’s been a difficult window…We’re going for players that the top teams in the division are going for, and it becomes difficult. There’s a whole host of teams that are trying to get the same players that we are at this moment in time. Obviously we’ve missed out on a good number of players over the January transfer window. You’ll probably see today that there’s a bit of movement from ones that we’ve missed out on.”

This seems to be a recurring theme. Commenting on the 2018 window this time last year, Adams said:

“It’s been one of the most difficult transfer windows to be involved in.”

Are the barriers financial, geographical (or a bit of both)?

Persuading players to come to Argyle does appear to be an uphill struggle, with two factors – finances and geography – to be considered.

Making any judgment on the former takes us into the realms of speculation, since financial terms are always well-guarded secrets. In terms of transfer payments, I’ve nailed my ‘financial sustainability’ colours to the mast so I won’t call for a plunge into debt to fund a massive gamble on promotion. We just have to sit back and watch clubs like Sunderland break the League One transfer record with a deal worth up to £4m for Wigan’s Will Grigg. That money probably equates to around two thirds of Argyle’s annual income! Then again, we don’t have the £161m debts reported by the Black Cats in their last set of accounts (published before they were written off by billionaire ex-owner Ellis Short).

So if we assume wages are on – or at least close to – par with the bottom half of table, that leaves geography and the perennial question of whether Plymouth is too isolated to draw players, either permanently or on loan. Argyle’s distance from clubs at the same or higher level is undeniable. As is the fact that many of our League One peers do draw heavily on their local area for talent. In the current window, Walsall brought in players from neighbouring Birmingham, Aston Villa and West Brom, while Bradford tapped Leeds, Preston and Derby for loans.

On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of players moving significant distances to join our rivals. Luton brought in players from Barnsley and Derby, Charlton from Preston, Huddersfield and Bradford, Barnsley drew from Fulham and Yeovil, while players from Brighton and Cardiff moved to Peterborough. It’s worth noting though that those are clubs currently challenging for promotion or at least a play off spot. A team on the edge of the relegation zone, located in the far southwest is probably a less attractive proposition. Perhaps that explains why Argyle tend to target players like Threlkeld and Jones with a previous club connection.

Other possible reasons for sluggish transfer activity? It might not help that Argyle have a tendency to sign players only to confine them to the bench (or leave them out of the squad altogether). Threlkeld has now been an unused substitute for five straight games since coming back in first week of January. Rumoured fitness issues might be at play in that specific case, but it’s not an isolated incident. Having been signed in the summer, Calum Dyson left without a single League or major cup competition appearance. Peter Grant made one substitute and five starting appearances in September/October only to disappear without trace and depart last month. No player wants to sign for a club (and no club wants a player to go out on loan) where this is little prospect of first team football.

Did the recent run of good form reduce the urgency to make signings?

A controversial one this but worth mentioning. Argyle’s fortunes turned around literally on the first day of the transfer window, with the 3-0 New Year’s Day win over Oxford. Did the fact that they went on to win four out of five games during the transfer window blunt the urgency to bring in new players or is that too simplistic given the lead-time required to sign players or arrange loan agreements? Who knows?

How does this window compare to 2018?

Last year’s January window saw a net squad reduction of one, with four arrivals on five departures. Jake Jervis was sold to Luton, Jakub Sokolik was released while Nadir Ciftci, Nathan Blissett and Gregg Wylde also left the club.

Of the arrivals, we can probably say that two were successful and two less so. Few would argue that Zak Vyner made a very positive contribution in his 17 appearances while on loan from Bristol City. Similarly with ‘keeper Remi Matthews, joining on loan from Norwich City initially in October 2017 then re-signing in the January window. Again, he impressed during his 27 appearances for Argyle.

However, striker Simon Church’s six-month loan yielded just two substitute appearances before a long-term hip injury brought his time at Argyle, and sadly his career, to a premature end. Moses Makasi lasted longer, making seven appearances before injury took him back to parent club West Ham in mid April and – in the process – largely killed off Argyle’s play-off hopes.

How will this season’s hirings fare? Only time will tell.

How does Argyle’s transfer activity compare to other clubs?

It might come as a surprise, but the majority of our rivals didn’t add significantly to the actual size of the squad in the window. 13 League One clubs had net additions of one player or fewer in this transfer window. Less reassuringly, the biggest net additions – five each for Wimbledon, Gillingham and Walsall – came at clubs in and around Argyle in the league table who will likely be in the relegation fight at the end of the season. The Pilgrims may find themselves at a numerical disadvantage as the remaining games roll around and player fatigue starts to be a factor.

Where are all the strikers?

The most glaring transfer window omission was the failure to strengthen up front. The departure of Dyson leaves Ladapo and Taylor the sole striking options and there has to be a concern that this could be problematic if injuries kick in during the latter part of the season. We are all only too aware that this scenario played out less than 12 months ago, contributing to the poor end to last season. Ryan Taylor’s ankle injury in April helped to derail the play-off push and the striker has already been sidelined with the same issue for two months in autumn this season. He has started just four games during the current campaign (and hasn’t scored), though that is partly because Adams has preferred Ladapo in his one-striker set-up.

That has certainly worked well so far with Freddie bagging 13 goals. However, he’s played 35 games already, including Carabao and FA Cups. While at 26 he’s still young, he appears not to have played so many games in one season in recent years and so we’re into uncharted territory. If Ladapo is out for any reason we’ll be reliant on a player with a known weakness, with the other back up – Dyson – having left.

Mind you, it could be argued that we don’t really need the strikers at the moment since seven of Argyle’s 12 goals over the last seven games, have been scored by midfielder Ruben Lameiras! Which is fortunate as not only has Ladapo been less prolific in 2019, but Graham Carey, with just three goals this season (none since the end of September) is not contributing to the tally as he did last year.

The good news?

Finally, and this is a big one, we didn’t lose any key players in the transfer window. Few would have been surprised to see bids for the likes of Lameiras and Carey and it’s encouraging that the one approach that appears to have been confirmed – a £400,000 offer for Ladapo from Sunderland – was rebuffed. With Argyle in the highest league position (16th) since 11th August and top of the form table for the last six games, (15 points from a possible 18) we couldn’t afford to see key players depart and interrupt the momentum.

Anyway, hopefully we can now forget all the transfer nonsense and concentrate on watching the football. Because almost everything about the transfer window is speculation and hearsay. When American screenwriter William Goldman was asked about how movie industry insiders predict which films would be a hit, he said that basically they can’t. “Nobody knows anything.” He could just have well been talking about football transfer windows.