So are we officially in a crisis yet? It’s becoming increasingly tough to sustain the argument that there’s a long way to go, plenty of time to turn things around, our luck must change soon etc. Plymouth Argyle are five points from safety at the bottom of League One and out of both cup competitions. This not where we had all hoped to be approaching the year-end run-in.
After Saturday’s FA Cup defeat, the manager’s press conference followed the usual pattern. To quote selectively:
“I thought we were very good today. I’m sure (Oxford manager) Karl Robinson would have said that we were the better team…They are obviously very fortunate to get through to the next round of the cup… We were far better than Oxford today. We were the ones that were on the front foot… Listen, we were far better than Oxford today. We played them off the park at times and created many opportunities… Performance-wise we were better than Oxford. I’m sure Karl Robinson, if he’s looking with his footballing head on and watching the game, he would admit that…We had the better opportunities in the match to get through.”
Now nobody would question the fact that Argyle played some good football against Oxford and the first half performance in particular was night and day compared to that against Shrewsbury four days earlier. Unfortunately, it’s another quote from the press conference that tells the only story that matters.
“They had a 10-minute spell in the second half where they have been able to get their two-goal lead.”
We played well but came away from the game with nothing. And here’s the rub. If this had been an isolated experience this season, fans would be more willing to accept the argument that the home team was the victim of some sort of injustice. But when we’ve seen the same scene played out over and over again, the whole ‘unlucky’ line becomes a lot harder to swallow.
Now of course there’s an element of ‘luck’ in football. The outcome of any single match can swing on a bad bounce of the ball, a freak deflection or a poor decision by a referee. But over the course of a season, it evens out and a team gets what it deserves. Does anybody really believe that there is a malignant, Plymouth Argyle-hating cosmic force cruelly heaping injustice on the heads of the Pilgrims week-in, week-out? There’s something almost Shakespearean about the manager, and by extension the club’s, approach at the moment. Adams comes across as a King Lear figure shouting into the face of the storm, railing against the injustices of the universe.
With the half way point of the season looming (Accrington Stanley’s visit to Home Park on 22nd December), we’ve had a sufficient number of games to iron out the short-term fluctuations in fortune. The bad news is that the stats show a haul of just 16 points from 20 games, one worse than at the same stage last year. Having been in the relegation zone since 1st September and with just four wins across those 20 games, there’s precious little festive cheer for the Green Army.
The stark arithmetic is that if the current points per match return continues, Argyle are on track for a 37 point season. In 2017-18, that would have translated to a 23rd place finish, 14 points from safety. And in case you weren’t feeling glum enough, a loss by Argyle to Bradford and a win for Wimbledon at home to Rochdale would see the Pilgrims return to the foot of the table by 5pm next Saturday.
On a more positive note, we all know what happened this time last year. Argyle would lose just twice in the next 20 games, bagging a massive 46 points in the process. Of course, that’s when the wheels fell off with a meagre five points from the last six games of the season, a pattern that has continued this season.
So the question on everyone’s lips is whether there are any signs of another comparable resurgence. We can’t go any further without addressing the elephant in the room accompanying every Argyle conversation at the moment, namely the manager’s future. I’m not going to get into the ‘should he or shouldn’t he’ debate, but the inescapable fact is that at many other clubs the recent run of form would have seen the manager receiving his marching orders.
So far this season, three League One managers have lost their jobs. First to go was Michael Collins, let go by serial sackers Bradford City after just six games (won two, lost four). Then Wimbledon and Shrewsbury both fired their bosses within a 24-hour period in mid November. Neil Ardley left the Wombles after seven straight defeats, taking 11 points from the first 17 games of the season. John Askey departed Shrewsbury with 18 points, also from 17.
With just 13 points from the same number of games at that point, you’d have expected alarm bells to also be ringing at Home Park. Especially as Derek Adam’s record is now 21 points from a possible 78 over the last 26 league games, with a win ratio of just 19%.
Now just because some other clubs go about things a certain way doesn’t mean it’s the right thing go do. Nobody would want to emulate the record of Bradford City who are now onto their fourth manager in less than 12 months. Thankfully, Argyle have been willing to take a longer-term view. Which is why Derek Adams, after three years and five months at the helm, is the fifth longest serving League One manager after Gareth Ainsworth (Wycombe), Keith Hill (Rochdale), Darrell Clarke (Bristol Rovers) and John Coleman (Accrington).
However, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the rapidly approaching January transfer window could be a crunch point. That’s because it will force the club to address the problems that have Argyle on trajectory for a return to the basement level of league football. In a nutshell, we have either got the wrong players to stay in League One or we have the right players but the wrong tactics and organisation. Or some combination of the two.
If the conclusion is that the mix and quality of playing personnel is wrong, January represents the last chance this season to do anything about it. The question would then be whether the funds are available and if so, whether the current manager is the right one to be spending them.
The omens so far don’t look encouraging. Commenting on the approaching transfer window yesterday, Derek Adams said: “It depends on other parties, players and clubs to fall into place.” Now if that quote had been preceded by something like: “The club is actively searching for the right individuals to strengthen the squad and we have identified several promising candidates…” then the caveat about needing all of the factors to align would have been perfectly reasonable. On its own though, particularly in the current atmosphere around Home Park, fans will likely see this as a case of getting the excuses in early ahead of a disappointing transfer window.
If, on the other hand, the conclusion is that poor tactics and organisation are to blame, the spotlight will inevitably fall on the management team.
Whatever, it is no longer good enough to simply blame the problems on some mysterious force like ‘bad luck’. But, publicly at least, Argyle’s strategy seems to amount to little more than hoping for a change in fortunes. I guess we’ll know whether this is the case if on Saturday, instead of Semper Fidelis, the team comes out to the strains of ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’.