This really has come from nowhere. After saying his goodbyes to the Plymouth Argyle back in 2018, Luke McCormick made a sensational return to Home Park yesterday, making his acquaintance with the Green Army for the third time in his career. The ex-club captain, who turns 37 next month, is expected to provide backup for Mike Cooper as Argyle’s custodian for the forthcoming campaign.

Having played 338 games for the Greens across his first two spells, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody on the market more familiar with Argyle than McCormick. He certainly brings knowledge and experience, but there are plenty of aspects of this signing we can look at. The amount of time McCormick is forced to spend on the pitch may go a long way to determining whether his third spell at the club is a success.

Cog in the off-field machine

There’s a certain irony that McCormick’s main plus point this time around is exactly the same thing that had many cautious about him rejoining seven years ago: what he offers off the pitch. Back in 2013, he had only been out of prison for a year, and for many the baggage he carried was simply too much for Argyle to take on. That reasoning was fair; at the time the club already had a safe pair of hands in Jake Cole to call upon.

Fast forward the best part of a decade, and McCormick’s off-field influence is now key. There’s a sense that Argyle have weathered the storm of McCormick’s past after his second spell at the club, and now his influence away from the action may revolve around training rather than tabloids. Crucially, he could prove to be an excellent mentor for academy graduate Mike Cooper.

Cooper was in fact earmarked as a potential starter for the 2019/20 season, before Alex Palmer came in and made the position his own. Given the West Brom loanee’s form, few would argue with that decision. However, he’s unlikely to return next season, particularly given the new contract he’s signed with his parent club. As such, Cooper would appear to be the natural successor. He’s now a year older, and Argyle are unlikely to face the pressures of a promotion push during the forthcoming season. In short, it seems the perfect time to bed Cooper in.

However, it’s important to note that Cooper is still very raw, no matter how long it feels he’s been waiting for his chance. To date he has only made two league appearances, both from the bench as injury replacements for Kyle Letheren at Blackburn and Matt Macey against Scunthorpe. He’s not actually conceded a goal in either game, but his total time on the field still adds up to less than 90 minutes of action. If he’s going to be thrown in from the start this season, he’ll need a circle of support around him.

Step forward Luke McCormick. He knows exactly how it feels to come through the ranks at Argyle and make a mark as a goalkeeper. His debut came in October 2002, in the same month Cooper celebrated his third birthday. Whilst mini Cooper was still playing with his new toys, McCormick played a pivotal role during Argyle’s promotion campaign of 2003/04. He turned 20 that season, the same age Cooper is now. On the face of it, the mentoring unit looks like a match made from heaven.

McCormick knows the club, knows what it takes, and certainly knows how to react if things go badly wrong. If one could hand-pick the right person to guide Cooper through his first full season between the sticks, McCormick would be very close to the top of the list. If the main role for the backup goalkeeper this season is to support the regular custodian, who better than Luke?

Difficulties on the field

Of course, there’s a chance that McCormick will need to play this season. Cooper may get injured, may hit some poor form, or Lowe may simply prefer McCormick for certain games. We therefore need to keep a close eye on his performances on the field, as well as his influence elsewhere.

Talk about Luke McCormick in goal and many Argyle fans will bring fond memories to the table. He was linked with a move to the Premier League after his form for the Greens in the Championship, but those rumours were put to bed in 2008 for obvious reasons. After returning, McCormick’s first season was curtailed by injury, but he was back to his best the next year, winning Argyle’s player of the year award as part of one of the best defences in the league back in 2014/15.

Things only got better from there. He was a key player as Argyle reached Wembley the following year, and backed that up with a promotion as captain 12 months later. In the same season, he kept a clean sheet at Anfield, and saved a Divock Origi penalty in the dying embers of the replay.

It may be wonderful nostalgia, but McCormick’s career has taken a nosedive from there. Injuries again plagued him during Argyle’s first season back in League One, but whenever he did get a chance on the pitch, he failed to do himself justice. In fact, his most recent game for the club saw him make a glaring error as Argyle were eliminated from the FA Cup against Bradford. In hindsight, Derek Adams’ decision to let him go at the end of the season was hasty, but it’s easy to understand why the judgement was made.

Since then, McCormick has been a bit-part player at Swindon, playing 21 times in 2018/19, and 15 times in the Robins’ most recent promotion-winning campaign. His figures for 2019/20 are very striking. He was an ever-present for Swindon in the league until mid-October, before losing his place to Steven Benda for the remainder of the campaign. Swindon, of course, won the league, but they were on the edge of the play-off places before Benda’s run in the side.

With McCormick’s career downturn in mind, one must consider how effective he could be should Argyle need him in League One. He’s not a busted flush by any stretch – Swindon saw fit to offer him a new deal this summer despite his lack of appearances – but is he the star he once was? Emphatically not.

From a technical point of view, he’d still be superb at organising the defence (expect to hear him bellow “higher” to his defence many times, particularly without a crowd to drown him out). There are, however, questions as to how good his distribution will be in Lowe’s system. He can probably still be considered a reliable pair of hands when used sporadically, but he’s unlikely to develop into the modern-day goalkeeper Lowe prefers.

If he spends a limited amount of time on the pitch, this could be considered a very good signing. If he’s out there regularly, trouble may await.

Overall: an intelligent signing

In truth, despite some of the reservations outlined, bringing McCormick back to the club is a smart move.

Lowe mentioned today that he expected McCormick to provide competition for Cooper for a first team spot, but that’s just standard managerial bluster. If he said McCormick’s main role was to put out the corner flags and prepare the half-time snacks, Cooper would hardly feel he was on his toes competing to keep his place. As it is, it’s highly likely Cooper will start the season in the team, unless there are further signings to come to relegate McCormick to third choice.

And with that in mind, the deal to sign McCormick is more than satisfactory. He represents an experienced, cheap option who can be trusted to play a game here and there if required. But his influence will be felt far beyond his on-field exploits.

Lowe’s first foray into the transfer market this summer has been noticeably intelligent. Let’s hope that level of smartness continues.