The Championship. It still feels slightly surreal that Plymouth Argyle will be playing in the Championship next season. Saying goodbye to lower league classics such as Morecambe, Burton Albion and Accrington Stanley and saying hello again to some genuinely huge football clubs in comparison. We’re only a few games away from potential visits to Goodison Park and Elland Road, after all… I still haven’t gotten used to checking the Premier League relegation spots to check who we might be playing next season.
It’s been well documented that Argyle’s budget has not been the same as other contenders, highlighting the club’s ability to get recruitment right over and over again. This stretches back some time now to be fair to the club too, noticeable since the latter part of the Lowe era and has continued during Schuey’s reign. Certainly, the latter’s ability to soak up every ounce of ability from footballers that were not considered League 1 winning level on arrival has been particularly impressive. Don’t believe me? Message a Walsall fan and see what they think about Joe Edwards and Dan Scarr becoming crucial players in a now Championship football club.
There comes a point, however, when the talent of a player reaches an absolute maximum. We are, I believe, reaching that point for a number of players now. The Championship – while absolutely very competitive – is a different beast to League 1. The club must now be ruthless both in retention and recruitment. If Argyle want to go into that league and have some level of success (survival might be what we look at initially) then it is unfortunately time to be ruthless with the playing squad, and that means saying goodbye to some treasured and popular players at Home Park.
There’s no room for passengers now. There are eleven players out of contract at Home Park this summer: Dan Scarr, James Bolton, James Wilson, Brendan Galloway, Jordan Houghton, Danny Mayor, Conor Grant, Luke Jephcott, Ryan Hardie, Niall Ennis and Adam Parkes. Of those we must now be critical: who can genuinely contribute for a Championship club? It gets tricky quite quickly.
A small number of that list are easier to deal with than others. Bolton and Galloway for example, while fine in their own right, have had such extensive injury issues (the latter of whom who has also had a noticeable decline in performances this season) it seems to make sense for the club to part. Elsewhere, Jephcott was shipped out early this season, has not pulled up trees at Swindon this year and is unlikely to be offered a new deal. Adam Parkes I must admit I have no idea, having never seen him play. I suppose that might depend on cost and behind the scenes action, but don’t be surprised to see him go.
Next is where it gets slightly more tricky, because everyone else has played, at some point, an important role in the development of this football club. Regrettably I think it is probably time the club parted ways with Jordan Houghton and Conor Grant. Two players who have done good things for the club but are we seriously going to sit down and suggest these two players are going to add a great deal in a higher division? It feels like a harsh decision because you do not have to go back too far to find an Argyle squad whereby Houghton and Grant would easily be two of the better players in the squad. Longer term from now however that’s much harder to envision.
So then, of the five remaining (Wilson, Mayor, Hardie and Ennis and Scarr) what do we do? Wilson and Mayor, 34 and 32 respectively, may be on the decline already or soon anyway. If deals can be reached at a value acceptable to the club, it seems to make sense keeping both older, wiser heads somewhere around the squad. I think many would look at wanting a new RCB or more depth at the AM position but both have played well enough in the last two seasons to suggest they can at least both hold their own in the Championship if they have to. Mayor’s skillset might suit the league quite well in fact, if only he was a few years younger.
Ennis and Hardie – on output alone – have earned the right to new contracts. While injuries have been an issue for Ennis, his end-of-season performances warrant a new deal and Hardie, while less convincing performance wise, has scored 13 League 1 goals this season. Though I have my doubts he can translate to the Championship especially well, a new contract so as to bring in the possibility of a transfer fee later down the line should it need to be looked at would seem to make sense. Dan Scarr is a non-negotiable keep, a crucial component through two seasons who has more than deserved the chance to be a starting CB for the club next season. Of course all these deals have to be beneficial to the club – perhaps all eleven wish to part ways regardless! While just an opinion too, remind yourself of the level of opposition next season when thinking about each player. How much do you really want Ryan Hardie to be the one taking on James Tarkowski or Yerry Mina next season? Tough questions. Don’t envy the person who has to answer them.
This brings us on to those remaining in contract. Cooper and Burton both have a further two years to go on their deal, though the club might look to bring in an alternative second choice. I get that Burton has gained some consistency as the season has gone on but cannot say I like the idea of him starting the season in goal should Cooper’s injury keep him out of it as expected.
Elsewhere, Mickel Miller’s deal runs for another year and given his injury issues the club might look to cut loose in some way. A fine player on his day but when your legs are unable to function for more than a week every three months, it’s hard to justify keeping you. Matt Butcher’s deal is of the same length and given his performances in the last few months has warranted himself a place in the squad for the next 12 months to see how he continues to develop. Randell is another until 2024, a no brainer to keep and both extend too. No coincidence his return coincided with better football and results in the crucial run-in games. A top CM signing to play next to him is what I’d be looking at for next season.
Beyond that, Gillesphey and Callum Wright are signed for a couple years and should both play next season – possibly as starters or rotation starters similar to this season. Ben Waine and Tyreik Wright, however, look far less ready to play an immediate role for the club. Both young, both with (hopefully) high ceilings, it would be worth the club finding League 1 loans if possible. Time to play and develop, where they will learn more than just training sessions and the odd minute or two here and there at the end of games. Neither look ready and both need to be playing at this point in their careers. Saxon Earley is a trickier one, given he has played most of the three. That might depend on how high the club view him and what loan offers are on the table, as well as who they think they can bring in. I’d lean towards keeping him around for now though.
The loan thing goes for others too, with a number of young pros who would probably benefit from some playing time at whatever level the club and potential market dictate. Law, Craske and Pursall have been released already while others such as Jenkins-Davies, Halls and Endacott may benefit from time away from the club to develop. I know the club are optimistic on long-term futures for some of the young pros so perhaps pre-season with Argyle could be telling for some of those.
Then you’re left with a host of loanees leaving: Mumba, Cosgrove, Lonwijk, Matete and Azaz. Mumba is an immediate yes in wanting him to return (though probably unlikely) while opinions vary more for the other four. Lonwijk and Cosgrove have played less during the run-in and the club may feel they can find better. Matete and Azaz, both fine players on their day but still young and inconsistent. If Sunderland stay down they may want to keep him around though Azaz at Villa you would think is a realistic return option should the club wish to pursue it.
Ultimately, the club must now make some difficult and most likely unpopular decisions. We are not talking about a complete overhaul or gutting of the squad but for sure we should be realistic about who can add what in a higher division. Do we want players who were ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ for us in League 1, simply because Schuey managed to extract every last drop of ability from them? Tough questions. Tough answers. One thing’s for sure: even those who leave this summer will have marked themselves members of one of the most genuinely likeable, gritty and successful Argyle teams of all time. For that, we owe them all our thanks. We can all just be glad it isn’t us who have to make the decisions.