A week ago, I wrote about how January 2024 could be a pivotal moment in Plymouth Argyle’s history. A week later, a new manager has been appointed, Finn Azaz – by most opinions our second-best player this season behind Morgan Whittaker– has been recalled and sold, and Luke Cundle – the player most likely to step into the creative void he left – has been recalled ahead of his own move. Now, rumours of an eight-figure bid for Morgan Whittaker are emerging.
Ian Foster, ex-England youth manager with an u19 European Championship title to his name, is the new man in the dugout, replacing League One title-winner Steven Schumacher, the man with the highest win percentage of any Argyle manager.
He began his reign with a dull, laboured win over a League Two Sutton United fighting to preserve their EFL status, 53 league positions below Argyle. You absolutely couldn’t pin that on Foster of course, the man hadn’t even been officially manager for 24 hours! Yet, this was a game mostly played in first gear by the side in Green, making for a boring watch that verged on infuriating at times. Ryan Hardie’s muted reaction to putting Argyle back ahead from the penalty spot said it all.
Yet, just one game and a matter of days into his time as manager, a narrative is already emerging in Argyle’s season. One of decline prompted by January upheaval. One of an upstart League One side that had established itself in the Championship playing an exciting brand of football, ruthlessly exploited by those with the resources to stop them in their tracks.
It is quite possible that Argyle are currently at a peak in the club’s recent history. It’s a depressing thought, but hardly that unrealistic after the last few weeks we’ve had, certainly with the (understandably) more negative mindset around the fanbase.
It could be that in a year or two we’ll look back knowing that this was the culmination of five consecutive seasons climbing the EFL, from its basement division to the final step before the untold riches of the Premier League. That from January 2024, Argyle began a fall back into their historically average position as a League One club. That, like the last time Argyle announced a five-year plan in the Championship, it ended in relegation, not promotion.
This is where the narrative threatens Foster. He doesn’t arrive as a recognisable name; his wasn’t mentioned even once by fans prior to the news leaking to the press. He has no previous history in football club management. Already, there are accusations that he is a puppet of Director of Football Neil Dewsnip: a “yes-man” as one put it to me, following Hallett’s comments about the new manager not being “someone who wishes to impose his own values on the club”.
These accusations seem a bit of a reach. Foster comes following success as a coach and then youth international manager, a similar route to Steve Cooper prior to his successful spell at Swansea. Yes, Dewsnip and Foster have worked together before and he is the latest in a line of Scousers to manage the club, but if he is a puppet, he appears a highly qualified one.
Yet, before the manager was even through the door, questions were being asked. Rightly or wrongly, they were asked. He must be the first manager since Carl Fletcher or Peter Reid to receive such questioning at such an early stage.
Ryan Lowe, Derek Adams and John Sheridan arrived with good reputations and strong expectations for the jobs they were being asked to do. Schumacher was the only exception, having no management experience, but there were already big suspicions that he was a more important part of the successful operation than your average assistant manager, and so it proved. That, combined with his loyalty in remaining with the club when Lowe jumped ship, bought him valuable credit from the supporters.
Given the lukewarm reaction by the fans to his appointment, Foster may not receive the same kind of grace period that is customary for new managers. He inherits a squad in a strong position with aims merely to remain in the league, but one that is being picked apart before his very eyes. Foster will need to earn the support of the Green Army on merit rather than reputation to prevent uncomfortable questions from starting to circulate online quite quickly. Questions about his suitability for club management, the competence of Dewsnip by extension given that early trope of a “yes-man”, even the board’s ambition given the general feeling around the transfer market.
The negativity caused by departures – and rumours of departures, of which I expect there to be more than just about Whittaker in the coming weeks – are only serving to create a detrimental atmosphere of fear and anger. Argyle could do with leaking some potential transfer moves to the press to try and improve the mood: fans want to be excited by potential signings right now, and instead the talk is about who’ll be leaving next and “same old Argyle”.
In fact, a more prudent move for Argyle might have been to allow some of the managerial candidates’ names to leak earlier. Had Foster’s name been already circulating on social media, there would been more time allowed for content to be written about his merits and successes. It would have filled a vacuum that fans were desperate to fill. And it would have resulted in far greater excitement and anticipation for a new manager than otherwise greeted a low-key, 8pm Friday announcement.
Argyle should take the temperature of the fanbase right now and see that we need positive news to unite around, and quite a lot of it. The sheer positivity that enveloped the club just 22 days ago after another stoppage time winner is rapidly vanishing and needs to be reinjected quickly. At that point, who could have foreseen that, just three weeks later, so many fans would be trying to rally each other to stay calm, get behind the club, and trust the process.
Four of Argyle’s relegation rivals have already strengthened early in the transfer window, including our next opponents Huddersfield. A bad result there, combined with a bad week in the transfer front, and the mood among the supporters could turn sour, quickly.