by RICK COWDERY
THE city of Plymouth still has a Football League club.
In August 1920, Bob Jack, Argyle’s first and arguably finest manager, was at the helm as his team drew 1-1 with Norwich City in the newly formed Division Three (South); in August 2013, 3801 games and 93 years later, the Pilgrims will renew battle at essentially the same level.
Just. Their 1-0 defeat at Rochdale on Saturday – possibly the most important Saturday in the club’s history – combined with helpful results at Northampton and Dagenham brought about the perfect storm that kept the good ship Pilgrim away from the previously uncharted waters of the Blue Square Bet Conference Premier
They were obliged to drag a backs-to-the-wall effort from the locker following the 15th-minute sending-off of central defender Maxime Blanchard.
The Frenchman saw red after referee decided his challenge on former Pilgrim Georgie Donnelly, just outside the penalty area, was a foul which denied Donnelly a goalscoring opportunity. Neither looked nailed on.
With their game-plan in early shreds, the ten men neither enjoyed, nor put their hundreds of fans through, a particularly comfortable experience.
Defender Michael Rose hit the underside of the crossbar, and goalkeeper Jake Cole made one save from the miracle end of his repertoire. There were plenty of other anxious moments, too.
In the end, a goal from substitute debutant Joe Bunney, 11 minutes from the end of their noble rearguard effort, cracked their resolve but, by then, thanks largely to Northampton, it was superficial damage only.
For several weeks, the bottom of npower League 2 has been a macabre game of musical chairs as the seven or eight teams threatened by relegation have all gamely refused to give up their Football League status, edging into and out of the bottom two relegation places in turn.
It was the Pilgrims’ lot that, when the music stopped, they were 21st out of the 24 teams in the division.
There is justice in the outcome. Out of the season’s 40 weeks, they occupied a bottom-two spot for only seven of them and not at all since mid March.
Since the arrival of the taciturn, determined, and foresighted John Sheridan as manager in January, their form has been more top-seven, than bottom-seven: eight wins; four draws; a point and a half a game.
Privately, he targeted 52 points for survival the day he walked into Home Park, when several fewer looked likely to be the safety-mark, and he worked out how he was going to achieve that aim.
Compliant players – old, new and borrowed – have bought into the Sheridan methodology and tunnel vision, too. To such an extent that recent performances have been marked, not by the grim hang-on-at-all-costs mentality of the recent past, but, as club president Chris Webb highlighted in an emotional rallying call at Sunday’s Player of the Season Presentation Evening, by attacking play that has bested the likes of Chesterfield, Burton, Fleetwood, Rotherham and Exeter. If only the season was beginning, rather than ending.
This maturity of performance enabled Argyle to approach their Dale date with destiny in a confident frame of mind. In the immediate wake of the previous weekend’s demoralising defeat by Rotherham, the Argyle chairman had sent his manager a text that began along the lines: “If the unthinkable should happen and we lose at Rochdale...”
“Chairman,” came the immediate reply, “we won’t lose.”
The modest triumph of Football League safety is a sign that the recent alarmingly rapid decline of Argyle has now passed its nadir.
It is less than six years ago – on November 24, 2007 – when Peter Halmosi’s goal was responsible for a 1-0 victory at Sheffield United that took them to fourth place in the Championship.
The Pilgrims were still a second-tier side as recently as 2009-10, but the rot had begun to set in by then as a catalogue of poor decision-making and out-of-control spending rapidly debilitated the club: the dalliance with Japanese investment; the appointment of the inexperienced Paul Mariner as manager; the eventually fruitless involvement in England’s doomed bid to stage the 2018 World Cup; off-field leadership lacking in the requisite basic knowledge of how to run a football club.
All this, and much more, saw the club spiral inexorably downwards from disaster to disaster. On the field, the story of the Pilgrims’ last five seasons can be simply summarised: near-relegation, relegation, relegation, near-relegation, near-relegation.
In the middle of that sorry sequence came nearly eight months of insidiously destructive administration that came close to ending the club’s existence in its 125th anniversary season.
Thanks to the Green Army’s support of players and staff who bravely forewent a wage month after month after month to keep the club alive, and ultimately to white knight James Brent, the club survived.
However, it did not survive undamaged by the previous years of negligence, and, although the patient is no longer terminal and in good care, the wounds sustained during the dark days are still healing.
They are healing, though. How much longer the remedial process will take is, of course, an unknown – in the words of one of football’s terrace hymns, the future is not ours to see – but recent signs look promising.
It could so easily have been otherwise. Stockport County – a League 1 side as recently as four seasons ago, and a Championship regular at the turn of the century – recently fell, biting and scratching, into the division two below which Argyle will be playing next season. The Hatters, who a decade and a half ago, were one position away from winning a place in the play-offs for the Premiership, and parity with Manchester United, Arsenal and the like, are now ranked level with Hayes & Yeading, Weston-super-Mare, Colwyn Bay and Bishops Stortford.
To Barnet and Aldershot, commiserations. Sincerely. There but for the grace of God, it would have been us.
The last word of this report can go to Erik Samuelson, chief executive of Wimbledon, ex of the Conference and one of the sides that dodged the bullets that took out Barnet and Aldershot on Saturday.
“Going down would be a massive disappointment, but not a disaster,” he said.
“Having no club is a disaster.”
1 Josh Lillis; 33 D’Arcy O’Connor (34 Scott Tanser 66), 37 Wayne Thomas, 5 Shane Cansdell-Sherriff, 25 Michael Rose; 22 Bobby Grant (32 Callum Camps 75), 7 Jason Kennedy, 4 Peter Cavanagh (capt), 40 Ian Henderson; 9 George Donnelly (39 Joe Bunney 75), 10 Reece Gray. Substitutes (not used):
12 Phil Edwards, 13 Steve Collis, 26 Joel Logan, 30 Jamie Allen.
Thomas 7, Gray 18, Donnelly 64.
1 Jake Cole; 2 Durrell Berry, 4 Max Blanchard, 5 Guy Branston, 14 Onismor Bhasera (26 Anthony Charles 89); 27 Andres Gurrieri (29 Tyler Harvey 83), 17 Curtis Nelson, 15 Paul Wotton, 6 Conor Hourihane (capt), 18 Joe Bryan; 24 Reuben Reid (9 Nick Chadwick 76). Substitutes (not used):
7 Paris Cowan-Hall, 8 Luke Young, 20 Rene Gilmartin (gk), 28 Ronan Murray.
4,272 (1,852 away).
Photos by Dave Rowntree