The train journey back from East Anglia to the Westcountry provides a long period for thought. Portman Road’s floodlights – that have just illuminated Norwich City loanee Bali Mumba’s 93rd minute equaliser – are still visible from the platform and so the monotonous journey back to God’s Country begins.
During those hours I decided to write this – a long ramble as to whether we really are ready for the Championship.
I’m not initially considering the long-term plan of Simon Hallett and co and how much of that is viable because, in truth, this club has never been run so well – in my time in the stands at least. Neither am I here to pre-judge Steven Schumacher’s ability as a second-tier coach. ‘Schuey’ is destined for great things as a manager and appears to have his head screwed on and his feet firmly glued to the floor.
Consider this as an overview of the state of the current squad, the comings, the goings.
We’re all aware of the Loan FC jibes that get bandied about on various social media platforms, not least from those who had the pleasure of watching the aforementioned Mumba strike alongside us on the weekend, but how effective would we be without our loan players?
Let’s start with Bali himself. A midfielder by trade, raised through Sunderland’s academy, he made his professional debut by coming off the bench to become the club’s youngest ever captain in the Mackems’ 3-0 Championship win over Wolves back in May 2018 – replacing John O’Shea who handed him the armband.
His sale to Norwich, amid uproar from fans in the North East, led to a Championship winners’ medal and several photos of a topless Bali flexing with the trophy, before a loan stint at then-Championship Peterborough where he scored on his debut in the FA Cup against Bristol Rovers.
It’s safe to say that he’s never had a fair crack at the whip in England’s second tier, despite clearly being good enough, and I’d imagine that if Norwich fail to gain promotion that’ll be the case once more, even if just as backup to the ever-present Max Aarons at Carrow Road.
The same applies to Morgan Whittaker, recalled by Swansea City but yet to make the bench and presumably sitting around twiddling his thumbs until a serious offer comes in. Rumors of Ipswich Town and ourselves faxing in offers appear to be wide of the mark. Fresh talk of interest from West Brom appears more likely – but I can see him playing just as much at The Hawthorns as at the Swansea.com Stadium.
Since Whittaker’s departure, Argyle have refilled their quota of loanees (five) with a January deal for Jay Matete – a rangy, ball-winning midfielder who is seen by many as the future of the Sunderland midfield. However they, like Norwich and West Brom, are sitting towards the top end of the table, and any accidental promotion to the Premier League could see Jay return to play out next season in Green and White.
The conclusion here is that Neil Dewsnip and co currently have very successful relationships with top clubs and should any of the three find themselves in the promised land next season, we would happily accommodate their progression with another stint in Green.
Continuing with the loanees; Nigel Lonwijk would be the easiest to retain as Wolves appear resurgent under Julen Lopetegui. I can’t see him taking Max Kilman’s place anytime soon. The nineteen year old has wavered in his performances this season but that is to be expected with his age and lack of experience. Rotherham initially wanted him in the summer before finding an alternative more immediately suited to the Championship, but another year of coaching under Schumacher, Hughes, Nancekivell, and co could see him become a real asset to our squad at a higher level, even if not as a regular starter.
One thing we do know is that Finn Azaz already possesses incredible quality. His steady progression of loans in League Two, with Cheltenham and Newport, before joining us in League One indicates that his parent club, Aston Villa, would be more than happy to see him ply his trade with us in the second tier as the obvious next step in his long road to starting in front of the Holte End faithful.
The January acquisition of Ben Waine already looks a bargain and could earn us a pretty penny in a season or two; his introduction at Portman Road led to some serious pressing, relentless movement and geeing up the traveling support, minutes before Mumba’s outrageous strike. The Papa John’s Trophy will provide him with a real springboard for both minutes and, hopefully, goals.
“The Waine Train” provides a different option to the strikers we already have, although you could argue that he’s similar in style and stature to the Ryan Hardie we saw during his initial loan period in 2020. Niall Ennis looks our most complete striker; his progression over the last season has been tenfold and almost demands a starting spot in our best XI, despite the goals being shared around the squad fairly equally.
Although I do envisage him making up a quarter of our striking options, it equally wouldn’t surprise me too much if the club decided to move Ryan Hardie on in order to free up funds. His goal record for us has been far greater than expected, but his insistence on trying to find a highlights-reel finish rather than just putting the ball in the net can be grating; on Saturday, Mumba bailed Hardie out, by Hardie’s own admission. A finish against Morecambe in recent weeks also springs to mind.
Our other striking option is Sam Cosgrove. The on-loan Birmingham striker has played far more minutes than I first anticipated and while his cameo at Derby, seventeen-minute hat trick against AFC Wimbledon and singlehanded fending off of Wycombe Wanderers for our first win in a lifetime at Adams Park have all showcased his value, I can’t see him being retained. A year remains on Cosgrove’s contract back at St. Andrews, and Birmingham, who could themselves be in League One next season, will surely see what he can do back in a blue shirt or, failing that, look to recoup some of the £2 million they spent on his signature from Aberdeen. Neither of the options look favorable for Argyle, who would surely look to sign another striker who can add future value in their bid to become a self-sustaining side upon promotion.
Some funds may be freed up with the impending sale of Luke Jephcott, another one of our academy talents who I’m sure will have a good future in the lowest two tiers of the EFL, but for whom a route back into the Argyle side looks a stretch, even if he does actually boast a good record in green. His progression to the first team would likely have seen him viewed as one of the best talents we’ve produced for some time, had Randell and Cooper not forced their own ways in.
It would be foolish of me to predict the futures of the scholars, namely Brandon Pursall, Finley Craske and Will Jenkins-Davies who continue to perform well for our Under-23 side. The latter looks the most likely to forge a professional career at a good level, although I feel a loan to a side such as Torquay United would do him the world of good, much like that aided Adam Randell’s development – more on him later.
The mid-season transfer window also saw the #incomings of Wright and Wright; Callum from Blackpool after a four-month stint in Blighty’s Best Seaside Resort (as voted by me) and Tyreik from Aston Villa after being recalled from a successful stint on loan at Bradford City under Mark Hughes (the Manchester United / City one, not the Argyle one).
Both appear to be great pick-ups considering their rumored price tags coupled with their potential, though a lot will depend on whether they can display that in full during their time with us. I imagine both will regularly fill spots on the bench to begin with, and use sub appearances to forge their paths into this side. Tyreik Wright was announced for an undisclosed fee, although reports suggest no money exchanged hands – instead sell-on clauses apply.
Saxon Earley – another in the door from Norwich Colney – provides a different threat down the left-hand side, mainly due to his long throw – something we’ve not seen from an Argyle player in at least a decade. He is seen as a likely replacement for Conor Grant, who I don’t envisage getting many more minutes this season, nevermind next.
Earley’s introduction surely casts Ryan Law’s future into doubt too. A mediocre spell on loan at Gillingham didn’t reap the expected rewards, with many Gills fans unimpressed with his performances. His involvement in the giant killings of Brentford, in the League Cup while at Gillingham, and Birmingham, with us, will be of little relevance to Schumacher when building a stable side for the Championship.
Another whose future will be in doubt is Mikel Miller; the wing-back has looked excellent in the few cameos he’s had, tearing Torquay apart in pre-season (though in hindsight this is nothing much to write home about) and impressing in appearances away at Burton and Cambridge. He’d be a real asset to any League One or Championship side if he could stay fit, but he collects knocks like Pokémon cards.
In the same category sits James Bolton. In the few appearances I’ve seen from him, he’s looked like a solid defender, never more so than when playing through injury – a broken toe, if memory serves – that night in Birmingham. His only appearance this season came off the bench in the win – and clean sheet – at home to Wycombe Wanderers.
In truth, those losses would be nothing compared to the one that worries me most: Michael Cooper.
He is, without doubt, our best player and would be near impossible for us to replace with someone of the same calibre- though with this recruitment team, nothing would shock me. If we fail to get promoted I cannot see how we might keep him in our ranks. Villa and Norwich have been rumoured to be interested in his services; Emiliano Martínez will be on the wishlists of many top European clubs, while Tim Krul’s time as a Canary must soon be up, and Angus Gunn does not look ready to replace him.
It’s possible that the deals for Finn Azaz, Tyreik Wright, Saxon Earley and Bali Mumba have been intended as sweeteners in a potential deal that might see Cooper switch to claret and blue or Canary gold – although that might just be my negative over-thinking. But any deal that involves a permanent move for either of the loanees would soften the blow somewhat – especially if it were for Azaz.
Promotion for the Pilgrims could mean an extended stay for Cooper with a fresh contract on the table, perhaps containing some form of relegation clause – I’m not sure he’d jeopardise the chance of a whole season as a second-tier number one while nearing status of one of Argyle’s all-time greats.
Callum Burton and our recent goalkeeping acquisition, Adam Parkes, wouldn’t fill me with huge confidence should we lose our main man, though Burton has promotion pedigree with Cambridge United under his belt (albeit from League Two) and has been the man between the sticks for the majority of our Papa John’s run. I’d imagine that the club is already scouting potential replacements and back-up options, such is the progression in our recruitment system compared to years gone by.
In front of Cooper usually sit James Wilson, Dan Scarr and Macauley Gillesphey, all three of whom have matured in an Argyle shirt despite the previous chop and change of the back three. Gillesphey especially has really impressed me as time has passed; he’s become much calmer in possession, capable of a big switch of play and strong in the challenge.
It’s no coincidence that Scarr’s absence coincided with our early-winter wobble, and since returning he’s looked as solid as ever, picking up a place in various League One ‘Teams of the Week’ in the process (and garnering a player of the month nomination to boot). Alongside him, James Wilson has been an ever-present rock at the back with a head made of granite. All three would make my Championship squad upon any potential promotion.
Another who I believe would be shown the exit is Brendan Galloway.
Oh, Brendan. A player of genuine quality – he’s plied his trade in the Premier League for a reason. When I see last season’s third shirt, my instant memory is his goal away to Lincoln City at the LNER Stadium. I was among many vocal supporters online who appreciated the club’s efforts to look after him while he recovered from an injury that saw him miss the close of the season by extending his contract – had we had him (and maybe Luke Jephcott’s finishing) on the final day we might not have missed out on the play-offs, such is his talent. I’d imagine the club would agree, though, that his wages would be better invested elsewhere at this point, having only played a handful of minutes this season and not looking overly convincing in the process.
With Bolton, Galloway and potentially Lonwijk leaving, the club will need to bring in defensive reinforcements, and while I can’t see the current recruitment model opting for a familiar face in the form of a Sonny Bradley, Zak Vyner or Curtis Nelson, a steady, Championship-hardened face would be an excellent addition to help us shore up our back line and see out high-pressure games.
One man with both experience and recent Argyle minutes is Captain Joe Edwards, who has impressed me beyond belief with his ability to keep stepping up to the task, week in, week out. An almost ever-present in this side, Edwards brings a wealth of knowledge and leadership and reliably puts in seven-out-of-ten performances every week. He’s worth keeping around and I assume that the club would be keen to tie him up to a player/coach role as he winds down his minutes on the pitch in future.
Moving into midfield, another who offers that consistent level of performance is the previously mentioned Adam Randell.
We’ve all raved about how good Michael Cooper is, but I could see Adam Randell being poached first. He is an outrageously good midfielder whose relentless work rate, eye for a pass and dead-ball ability is next level. I think he is Championship-standard already. Any success has to be built around him and supported accordingly. He is the future of Plymouth Argyle Football Club, whether that’s through minutes in Green or an outrageously large bid from a Southampton or a Brighton-type club that enables us to make moves in the window. He is THAT good. A future captain, that is for sure.Of someone, if not us.
Alongside him usually sit Jordan Houghton or Matt Butcher and neither are nailed on Championship players for me.
Houghton has been a terrific pick up on a free from MK Dons and has bought a calm reassurance to the side – his red rag to a bull performance against his former employers at Home Park aside. Despite being with Chelsea from Under-8 level to signing his first professional contract, he’s yet to play a single minute above League One level. The talent is there, but the minutes he gets between now and the end of the season will be the real test of his longevity in this side, with Randell and Matete likely to become our first-choice midfield pairing. But he’d be a useful squad option in any first season back up, I’d say.
Matt Butcher, on the other hand, has been deployed in varying roles since his move from Accrington Stanley; centre back, centre midfield, even left wing back at times. His versatility has been of use in a squad that has been hampered by injuries but he’s yet to really set the world alight; though, as with Houghton, it’s a tough ask to expect a central defensive midfielder to capture the imagination and run wild. At 25 years of age, he’s a semi-dependable figure who I’d expect to still be in the squad next season, albeit with his game time dependent on incomings. A Jay Matete, or even Panuche Camara, style midfielder would suit our system incredibly well and I’d expect, much as with our keeper situation, that the club already have targets lined up.
We’ve no real talisman leading the goals or assists charts as they’ve all been shared out equally, however one whose numbers are on the wane is Danny Mayor. The aforementioned Azaz and Whittaker have taken his mantle and stepped up to the roles as our most creative number 10s but that’s not to suggest Mayor’s offering to the side is non-existent as his ability to drive the ball higher up the field and beat a man or two with his trademark jinking run has still been an asset. His contribution to our promotion from League Two can not be understated, however I see a world in which he could feasibly return to League One football next season.
So, in summary – are we ready for the step up?
Honestly, I have to say yes – don’t I? Although we might not have the strongest team of individuals or players who’d make any EFL Dream Teams, as a squad I’d back this side to the hilt. We’re unlike any Argyle side I’ve seen in many a year. Of course, our first return to the highest level of the EFL will be no walk in the park, but every domino is slowly falling into place at Home Park.
Our recruitment seems organised, well planned and thoroughly rigorous. We now have back-up plans for all eventualities. Players are choosing a move to the South West as opposed to being forced. Our boardroom is in great shape with ‘proper football’ people in charge of the right roles.
Should we lose any of our key assets I have full faith that they’d be replaced, and then some.
Should we lose any of our management or coaching staff, I have full faith we’d have ample replacements.
Should we lose all five of our loanees, I have every faith that the club would have the facility to accommodate new signings.
What a wonderful time to be a Green. It is without doubt one of the best seasons in recent memory and by God should we enjoy it.
Am I getting a little too far ahead of myself? Abso-bloody-lutely.