Eleven days after a humiliating 4-1 loss to Bristol City, Argyle have taken four points from two seemingly tricky games, achieving their first away point in four attempts in the process. Quite the recovery, particularly given that defeats in each game, while hardly unexpected on paper, could have easily led to a snowballing of negativity so early in the season.
Had Argyle only been able to take one point from those set of fixtures we’d sit in 20th, outside the bottom three on goal difference, with huge pressure on the seemingly favourable run of fixtures that include Millwall, Swansea, Sheffield Wednesday and Middlesbrough at home in the space of six matches just before the next international break.
That obviously goes to show the fine margins at this stage of the season when looking at the league. A win now has the potential to move you four or five places up the table, while – for most teams – a win in March might move you two at most. So, while 13th is an exceedingly good spot to find ourselves, it could all change, for the better or worse, very quickly depending on how those next six games transpire.
That’s what makes away draws like Saturday’s oh so valuable. Converting performances into points, even if not all three, is important, which is what made the result against Hull so pleasing after previous missed opportunities away to Birmingham and Preston. Yes, it could have been more: mere millimetres must have been the difference between Azaz’s shot rolling across the goal line and nestling in the back of the net via the opposite post rather than it somehow going out for a goal kick.
However, you’d be hard pressed to say that Argyle deserved the win over the ninety minutes that ultimately transpired. A draw was definitely a fair result in my eyes, with Hull only threatening over a few minutes at the end of the game as Argyle clung on for a point.
Were it not for a fantastic save with his feet by Conor Hazard, we might have been looking at another stoppage time defeat, but instead we survived. That moment aside, there were no really outstanding performances, just a solid team effort full of sixes and sevens out of ten, though Joe Edwards’ efforts to keep things quiet certainly deserve singling out.
A hard-fought and deserved draw provides further evidence that Argyle are competing at this level, that we deserve to be here and aren’t making up the numbers, which was my main fear going into this season. Even if we do end up finishing perilously close to the bottom of the table come the season’s close, so far the football has been entertaining and we’re outperforming our very modest resources quite admirably.
The main source of pressure is when our first away win will come. While our run of home fixtures is favourable, the next five away games are hardly ideal: West Brom, Ipswich, Leeds, Coventry and Leicester. Collectively, Argyle have won 14/101 league games at their grounds throughout our history. The last time Argyle won at any of those grounds was Portman Road in 2010, and Argyle have only won away in the Championship once in eight attempts since. With every failed attempt to bring three points back to the Westcountry, the pressure rises and the need to continue picking up wins at Home Park will remain.
2 points from 5 is not the start we wanted, but it’s still not the worst record, which is held by Rotherham who have accumulated no points at all on the road, while our away form alone would have us above Sheffield Wednesday in the League Table.
Focus from some areas of the Green Army has been on an error by Macauley Gillesphey in the build up to Hull’s equaliser on the stroke of half-time, a very frustrating moment after Argyle had worked so hard to get a foothold in the game, earn the lead, and keep the Tigers at arm’s length for the remainder of the half. The ball from Dan Scarr to his partner from last season was nothing special itself, too short to allow him to let it run across his body, forcing him to turn, but it was quite clear what Scarr intended. He immediately signalled for Gillesphey to play the ball back to Hazard who could recycle possession to the unmarked Julio Pleguezeulo. Instead, Gillesphey tried to work the space to play the ball down the line but it was read, blocked, and seconds later the ball was in the back of the net.
In truth, it wasn’t a brilliant return to the team by the Northerner, who was dribbled past three times in addition to his mistake, but any of those people who singled him out as not good enough to play Championship football need to take a moment to think. It was his first start back from injury, his first minutes of a football match since the euphoric win at Vale Park in May, save for the couple as an enforced sub versus Norwich. He, like others did, will take time to both get up to match fitness and adjust to the demands of Championship football. I’m confident that he’ll prove to be a good defender for us this season, even if he’s unable to dislodge Lewis Gibson from his starting position once he returns to full fitness.
His removal by Steven Schumacher was probably a in part reflection on his performance, but also that Hull were getting well on top of Argyle’s 3-4-3 formation and pinning them back. As I alluded to last week, this formation is liable to allow us to be totally penned into a defensive formation for sustained periods and face down shots on goal, which is what we saw on Saturday.
Prior to Kaine Kesler-Hayden’s arrival in Gillesphey’s place and the change in formation to 4-3-3, Argyle had a single ten-minute period when they were able to move the ball towards Hull’s box and threaten. During this time, Argyle recorded 48% possession, Randell scored (insert standard note about how Randell somehow can’t score at home and Argyle have only won one game of seven in which he’s scored for us), Edwards got to the byline and nearly cut it back for Azaz, and the loanee hit the post after Hull lost possession deep in their own half.
In the remaining 45 minutes of football prior to the formation change, Argyle had just 25% possession, two shots (both from thirty yards out), and four touches in Hull’s penalty area, while Hull probed for first an equaliser and then a chance to go ahead. In the first ten minutes after half time, Argyle were particularly besieged, with Hardie touching the ball just three times, each competing for headers, one inside his own box, and the team as a whole manging just four touches of the ball in Hull’s half.
This was immediately rectified by the change. For the remaining 40 minutes of play, Argyle achieved nearly 48% possession, breaking the sustained pressure and allowing Argyle to get through to stoppage time relatively unchallenged. It was only as Hull went seriously in search of a winner as we entered stoppage time that Hazard was finally called upon, and my word he did magnificently to deny what would have been a sloppy winner from being chested into the back of the net at knee height from point-blank range.
He’s surely under threat of losing his place when Cooper returns, in part due to his still improving distribution. Yet, Hazard has already racked up some saves for cameras this season, denying what seemed certain goals versus Southampton and Preston – both in vain – before he somehow turned the ball over the bar with his outstretched left foot while practically on his goal line, and in doing so earned his team a point as important mentally as it is practically.
As mentioned earlier, this was hardly a game of individual performances, rather a collective effort to bring a point back to Plymouth, but if two players were to be singled out it would be Hazard and captain Edwards.
Edwards has no doubt faced questions, as he has for the past few years, about whether Argyle are better without him. These stem from a general desire among fans to throw as many attacking players onto the pitch at any one time, in spite of the fact that teams who take that approach usually perform worse. Yet, though Edwards isn’t as good at dribbling past an opponent as Mumba or as good at passing as Kesler-Hayden or Saxon Early, he provides vital balance to the team defensively as well as the leadership qualities that this inexperienced team is otherwise short on.
Here, he was defensively dominant, making eight tackles and winnings nine duels, with most of Hull’s threat coming down the opposite flank. Yes, he might not always get the plaudits he deserves, but how many times did he swap flanks with Mumba last season, neutralise an attacking threat, and provide the platform for Argyle to get on the front foot and score? How important does that quality make him?
The most impressive element about him is his footballing intelligence. Go back and watch his performance versus Watford for an example of this; he had a torrid half hour, before getting to grips with the skills of his opponent and changing his style of play, ultimately securing his wing for the remainder of the game as Argyle took home a point.
Edwards is the definition of an unsung hero. The first signing of the new era after the arrival of Lowe and Schumacher, he’s been integral to the way Argyle play for over four years, had a key role in two promotions, even scoring the goal to take the title back to Plymouth. Every season I somehow end up in the same debate with someone about whether we need to upgrade his position, and up until this season I’ve been defending him, but even I thought that the Championship would be a step too far, but I was wrong.
He’s the sort of player who, in three, four, or five years will be looked back upon as the sort of reliable presence we might wish we have in the team during a bad run. For now, I’m just glad we have him and look forward to his first goal of the season, which will surely come given his impressive attacking instinct that’s seen only sixteen other Pilgrims score more goals than him this century.
If Edwards is an example of the core values we love about football and the sort of player that all successful teams need, then the scenes at Sheffield Wednesday, Reading, Scunthorpe, Southend in particular are a reminder that football has an ownership problem, as one particularly eloquent fan put it.
For those who haven’t seen it, I recommend you read up about Dejphon Chansiri, the owner of Sheffield Wednesday, and his statement this week. It was the sort of horror show that I’d never wish to see coming out of Argyle, the act of a sulking child petulantly reacting to not getting his way.
There were some uncomfortable home truths in his statement, besides the Steve Dale-esque nonsense, about how fans treat owners. It’s true that, for some, an owner can do no right unless the team is winning. Haplessness is framed as corruption, patience as cowardice or indecision, failure to adopt a short-term bankrupting approach to squad-building is usually met with accusations of asset stripping.
Putting that aside, this is yet another sad reminder about the broken state of football and the vital need for an independent regulatory body with significant powers to be convened immediately, and for their first action to be reviewing the ownership model of football clubs.
If he sticks to his word, and he is correct that subsidising Wednesday’s financial obligations costs him £2m per month, then Wednesday will be in administration before January and all but relegated. How much would he be willing to sell the club for, let alone the stadium – owned by a separate company that is also owned by Chansiri. Would anyone with that much money wish to sink it into a League One bound side? Most importantly, could you trust anyone like that? Those kinds of owners are the sort who tend to make situations worse, not better.
While dark clouds gather on the Sheffield horizon, they’re closing in over the likes of Scunthorpe and Southend, who both are at risk of following Bury and Macclesfield as recent EFL clubs expulsed from their league and forced to reform in the non-leagues. Both, let’s not forget, were sides that could comfortably outspend Argyle just six seasons ago. There were times when I used to look up the leagues with jealousy at their success. They are yet further warnings about the dangers of even benevolent owners that had the best interests of the club at heart, initially at least.
Both Ron Martin at Southend and Peter Swann at Scunthorpe financed spending consistently beyond the clubs means for years, seeing both compete for promotion to the Championship as recently as 2017 when Southend finished 7th, a point outside the play-offs, and Scunthorpe 3rd, four points from promoted Bolton. Yet, to cut their long, unique yet similar stories short in an oversimplified way, creating debt chasing a dream eventually caught up with the clubs and they now owe money they don’t have which is putting their very existence at huge risk. It’s unlikely one club survives, and very unlikely that both survive.
A common thread among teams in these predicaments, including Bolton and Bury a few years back, is that the stadium isn’t owned by the club, it’s owned by a separate entity owned by their owners. Here, again, is where an independent regulator with meaningful powers can fundamentally change the model of football ownership.
Not quite in the same boat as those two, but worse off than Wednesday, is Reading. Once again they have a transfer embargo, and with their squad as weak as it already is and more points deductions on the horizon, League Two beckons. They’re looking likely to join the list of mis-managed ex-Premier League sides who’ve sunk all the way to the bottom tier of the EFL.
A takeover this side of January will surely save them, giving them the spending power to bring in quality that should see them survive comfortably but, like with Wednesday, who has the money to afford the club and the stadium, let alone the millions that would be needed to get Reading even close to contention for promotion to the Premier League?
How many more clubs need to stare into the abyss before something is done to prevent this happening again? How long will it take before the next club emerges as at risk of liquidation? How long before the next Championship side goes into administration?
At least there’s a positive thought to close on, and it’s that at times like this that always I’m thankful for the sustainable approach to football and investment in long-term projects that Simon Hallett has prioritised.