The Sorcerer's Apprentice

CHARLIE Hempstead is an Argyle fan exiled in the south-east, and made a rare foray to Home Park on Saturday - so we asked him to give us his view on the 1-0 win over Newport County.

Argyle and Newport were both in the market for a new manager during the summer, and both faced the same dilemma when deciding on a replacement – old hand or young buck? 

Given the received wisdom that there is no substitute for experience, it should be a foregone conclusion. However, if jobs only ever went to experienced people, no-one would ever get started and the average age of a football manager would be about 73.

Newport’s vacancy arose because Justin Edinburgh (young buck) had moved to Gillingham during the 2014-15 season and his temporary replacement, Jimmy Dack (even younger buck), had not wanted the role full-time. Dack, for the record, never played a professional match, so would not have even made the shortlist for the job on the ‘go for experience’ line of thinking. 

The Exiles’ solution was to go to the opposite end of the spectrum by appointing old hand Terry Butcher, the holder of 77 England caps, a UEFA cup winner’s medal, three Scottish League titles and two Scottish League Cup wins, not to mention a managerial record of 559 matches across three countries, including two stints at the highest level of English football. The phrase ‘been there, done that’ springs readily to mind.

Argyle’s hot seat was vacant because John Sheridan (old hand, 33 international caps, League Cup winner) had moved on following the club’s brush with the play-offs. Despite much talk of a return for Neil Warnock (oldest hand around), the Pilgrims went for young buck Derek Adams, a man who had won precisely no trophies as a player, and the same number of international caps. He had however achieved the unlikely feat as a manager of gaining promotion to the Scottish Premier League with Ross County, a club for which the epithet ‘unfashionable’ could almost have been designed.

Today’s joust would not prove conclusively which club made the right call – no individual match ever could – but it made for an interesting backdrop to a game that already had added spice on two counts. Firstly, Butcher achieved his major managerial successes with Ross County’s greatest rivals, Inverness Caledonian Thistle. Secondly, he appointed Adams as his captain while manager at Motherwell. Very much a case of sorcerer and apprentice, master and pupil.

With the two teams separated by only two places last term, the playing field for the experiment was about as level as it could be. That said, the early form in this fledgling season pointed to an Argyle victory on paper, but as a wise man once said (all together now), football is not played on paper. 

As each manager chose a different formation, it was quickly apparent that there was a fluidity to Argyle’s play that rendered talk of formations irrelevant. Graham Carey popped up wherever there was a space, while full-backs Gary Sawyer and Kelvin Mellor were as big an attacking threat as anyone and the so-called holding midfielders, Hiram Boateng and Carl McHugh, were the catalyst for much excellent attacking play. With Craig Tanner and Jake Jervis playing as touchline-hugging wingers and Ryan Brunt providing the muscle to give the Newport defence a distinctly uncomfortable afternoon, this was as attacking a line-up as has been seen in these parts for many a long day. 

When Peter Hartley opens up the opposition’s defence with an inch-perfect 50-yard pass and Curtis Nelson skips to the byline and delivers a delicious cross with his left foot, you know you are watching something a bit different. These days, the trend is to say that the manager has given the players the freedom to express themselves. In the 1970s, it was called total football. Whatever you call it, it makes for a fine spectacle.

If Argyle’s inspiration came from Johan Cruyff, Newport’s was more Mr Micawber – just keep going and hope that something will turn up.
In fairness, for all the home side’s dominance, something very nearly did turn up for the visitors, when Lennell John-Lewis powered past Curtis Nelson and forced Luke McCormick into a fine low save.

While the hosts were busy expressing themselves and being prepared to take the extra touch – and sometimes the extra risk – in the search for openings, the visitors were focused on just hanging in there. One clear sign of their manager’s influence was the readiness of the centre-backs to pick out the man in Row Z whenever danger threatened, and sometimes even when it didn’t. The Butcher’s hook, as a Cockney might call it.

The County boss would certainly have been mightily impressed with the fortitude of his centre-back Aaron Hayden, who stopped a Jervis piledriver with a part of his anatomy really not designed for the purpose, but immediately leapt back to his feet to recover his defensive position until the ball went out of play. When it did, he crumpled into a heap inside the goal netting and received the delicate treatment that his clear discomfort merited. You could almost hear Butcher say “that’s my boy!”

The old hand in the away dugout would have been less enchanted with his midfielders’ inability to pin down the elusive Carey or to close off the service to Sawyer, who was continuing to enjoy the freedom of the Lyndhurst side. 

Even so, half-time would have been reached with the scores still level, had Carey not come up with an absolute belter in the 43rd minute, just reward for the home side’s enterprising approach. 

Butcher’s response was to change formation and personnel for the second period in order to tighten up the midfield and deny Argyle space. Initially it made no difference, as Carey continued to pull strings and tie Newport in knots. Neither Hayden nor his centre-back partner Kevin Feely were looking at all comfortable with the ball at their feet, being much more at home when asked to be destructive rather than constructive. 

Their no-nonsense approach did not extend however to winger Medy Elito, who wasted a promising counter-attack through over-elaborating and received a fearful shellacking from his manager for his pains. 

The old hand still had one trick up his sleeve, though. When full-back Danny Barrow limped off injured, Butcher replaced him with central midfielder Josh Laurent, and the visitors finally succeeded in closing down the space that Argyle had been enjoying. 

Although there was a feeling that the Pilgrims could score again at any moment, and if they did, more would probably follow, Newport were still in with a shout for as long as there was a single goal in it. Man for man, they were no match for Argyle, but their sheer bloody-mindedness meant that the home side were living on their nerve-ends for the last few minutes, during which John-Lewis should have scored and Zak Ansah (who received a pleasingly warm reception when introduced as a late substitute) was unlucky not to.

Like Ansah, Carey also struck the bar in a frenetic finish, so frenetic that the roar which greeted the final whistle was mingled with a collective sigh of exhaustion more than relief. 

Ultimately, the young buck’s adventurousness had just – and only just – overcome the doggedness of an inexperienced team that showed all the hallmarks of the old hand in their dugout. 

The Devonport end may have dubbed the Pilgrims’ boss the ‘Scottish Mourinho’, but if Argyle maintain their current form, it won’t be long before the Chelsea fans will have a new song to sing to their beleaguered manager, to the same tune:

“Portuguese A-a-dams, Portuguese A-a-dams”.