ON January 5, 2013, John Sheridan sat among the crowd at Vale Park and watched Port Vale thrash Argyle 4-0, as the Pilgrims slumped into 22nd position in Sky Bet League 2.
After the game, he met the well-beaten players; two days later, the Green Army was told that the former Republic of Ireland international midfielder was the club’s 37th managerial appointment. He was given a contract until the end of the season, his aim and brief clear: keep Plymouth Argyle in the Football League.
The ex-Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers and Oldham Athletic dove straight into the January transfer window, bringing in experienced free-agent centre-back Guy Branston to steady up Argyle’s defence and added Ronan Murray on loan from Ipswich Town for more firepower up-front. John’s first game in charge saw him guide Argyle to a morale-boosting 2-1 victory at Home Park against Morecambe, with Conor Hourihane and Paris Cowan-Hall scoring the Pilgrims’ goals early on.
John had to wait 14 days until his next game in charge, in which time he added Northampton Town’s Anthony Charles and loanees Gozie Ugwu, from Reading, and Reuben Reid, from Yeovil. Argyle managed a 0-0 draw against Accrington Stanley at Home Park, and ended January by adding Jason Banton on loan from Crystal Palace.
Argyle again played out a home goalless draw in Sheridan’s third game in charge, against Dagenham & Redbridge, before a Jason Banton double fired the Pilgrims to a crucial win away at fellow strugglers Aldershot. This made it two wins and two draws from Sheridan’s first four games, yet Argyle were still very wary of the drop.
Amidst this season-long struggle to keep out of the relegation zone, the Pilgrims did taste a sweet victory against Exeter City at Home Park as a Jason Banton goal resulted in a 1-0 Argyle win.
With the league season coming to a close and Argyle’s status as a Football League club still unsure, Sheridan’s Argyle returned, on April 16, to Chesterfield, where he had previously been manager for three seasons. Argyle won 2-1 with Joe Bryan, who was added on loan from Bristol City in March opening the scoring, and Curtis Nelson adding to Argyle’s lead before a Branston own-goal gave Chesterfield a lifeline.
Argyle finally secured their status as a Football League club after a nailbiting final day of the season at Rochdale. The Pilgrims were reduced to ten men after Max Blanchard was sent off early on but, thankfully, other results meant that Argyle were safe and finished in 21st position, with 52 points.
After accomplishing his first task as Argyle manager, John signed a new three-year contract and prepared for a more successful season in charge of the Pilgrims. In the summer transfer window, John most notably added Lewis Alessandra, Rommy Boco, Dominic Blizzard, Neil Trotman and Reuben Reid, again, on a season-long loan.
John had promised not to be fighting at the bottom of the table in the 2013-14 season and he kept to his word. Argyle did, though, spend the first half of the campaign in the lower reaches of mid-table before turning on the gas at the halfway stage. Banton returned to Home Park in January, this time signing on a permanent basis, and, after subsequently winning four matches out of six, including a 4-0 victory at Fleetwood followed by a 5-0 home triumph over Morecambe, Argyle found themselves occupying the final play-off place.
The season fizzled out, however, with Argyle winning only one of their last nine games and ending up in tenth place. In John’s eyes, the season was not a success as the Pilgrims failed to reach the play-offs after looking, at one point, like they might. However, there were many positives to be taken – Luke McCormick returned to Argyle’s goal; the strike partnership of Reid and Alessandra scored 33 goals together; and – most importantly – Argyle were on the up once again.
John eyed another progressive season for the Pilgrims and set the play-offs as his minimum goal for 2014-15. Argyle had a solid base to work on from the previous campaign to which the manager added a host of new players: James Bittner, Kelvin Mellor, Lee Cox, Ollie Norburn, Carl McHugh, Peter Hartley, Reuben Reid, who signed permanently from Yeovil, and Anthony O’Connor, who joined on loan from Blackburn Rovers.
Argyle took a little while to find their feet again after beating Exeter 3-0 on the second weekend of the new Football League season but did eventually get into the swing of things and held a play-off position for a majority of the season, just as the manager had wanted.
John loaned Bobby Reid from Bristol City ten games into the campaign, and the young centre-midfielder was impressive, holding down a first-team place for the rest of the season. Ryan Brunt joined from Bristol Rovers in January, and John landed O’Connor on a permanent basis after his release from Blackburn Rovers.
The Pilgrims did the double over Exeter City, with the second, 3-1, victory coming in February courtesy of a Reuben Reid hat-trick at St James’ Park before they all but secured their play-off place with a 3-2 victory over Tranmere Rovers at Home Park, relegating Rovers and ending their 94-year stay in the Football League in the process.
Argyle still needed to travel to Shrewsbury Town, who had been prolific at home, on the final day of the season and avoid a drubbing in order to prevent Luton sneaking into the play-off places through the back door. The Pilgrims played brilliantly, though, and won 2-0, with Bobby Reid and Kelvin Mellor getting on the scoresheet.
John had said from the start of the season that he wanted to be in the play-offs and he had delivered. In the semi-final, Argyle were drawn against Wycombe Wanderers, who had finished 13 points ahead of the Pilgrims in Sky Bet League 2, with the home tie coming first.
An unfortunate first-half left Argyle chasing the tie, with Wycombe going 2-0 up despite having less of the game. The Chairboys took control in the second half and scored a third, which should have ended the tie. However, roared on by a 14,000 crowd, Argyle struck back in the final five minutes firstly, through Zak Ansah and then Jason Banton, making it a memorable night and an unforgettable atmosphere despite the 3-2 loss.
John had the big decision of whether to stick with the reliable Alessandra and Reuben Reid or twist to game-changers Ansah and Banton for the second leg. He stuck with the former pairing.
In front of 2,000 travelling Argyle fans at Adams Park, the Pilgrims put in an out of sorts first-half performance – possibly their worst half of the entire season – leaving them with three goals to score in order to level the scores. Brunt pulled one back but it was not to be for John Sheridan’s Argyle.
“I’m not going to pick things out and blame anyone,” said John, after the game. “I will look at myself as well. I will reflect on tonight because I’m down at the moment. We are all down in the dressing room.
“I will reflect on it and think about my position as well.”
I have been here two years now and I know I have got another year on my contract. I’m 100 per cent with the club and I really do believe I could get them out of the division.”
“Obviously, the club wants to go forward and be successful. Whether I’m the right man, I don’t know. We will wait and see.”
That was on May 14 – yesterday, 14 days later, the waiting ended.
John Sheridan’s first Argyle 11 (v Morecambe, H, Saturday, January 12, W 2-1): Rene Gilmartin; Durrell Berry, Curtis Nelson, Guy Branston, Onismor Bhasera; Paris Cowan-Hall, Conor Hourihane, Maxime Blanchard (Luke Young), Jamie Lowry (Paul Wotton); Warren Feeney (Tyler Harvey), Ronan Murray.
John Sheridan’s last Argyle 11 (v Wycombe Wanderers, A, Thursday, May 14, L 2-1): Luke McCormick; Curtis Nelson, Carl McHugh (Ryan Brunt), Peter Hartley; Kelvin Mellor, Anthony O’Connor, Bobby Reid, Dominic Blizzard (Jason Banton), Tareiq Holmes-Dennis; Lewis Alessandra, Reuben Reid (Zak Ansah).
John Sheridan’s 61 Pilgrims: