Intercepting Perceptions

IN the final part of Chris Groves' Play-Off diary, he reflects on Argyle's Wembley defeat, and muses over what the world actually thinks of us...

It was 6.30pm on Monday, May 30, 2016. As I, along with the Argyle media team, loaded up the car in a rapidly emptying car park, a familiar figure strolled past us, under the arch. 

A couple of hours after Argyle fell short at the Home of Football, there stood Ronnie Mauge: one of many legends in attendance for the match, an idol of the Green Army, and still the only Argyle player to score at Wembley.

It is a goal that has come to define Ronnie, but not necessarily Plymouth Argyle. The definition of Argyle is, to many, saved for much less substantial factors, ill-advised assumptions and blatantly crass stereotypes. However, whilst the Pilgrims may have been second-best on the pitch in the Sky Bet League 2 play-off final, everything else that surrounded the occasion has made me confident that what defines this football club may be changing. 

From a historical and geographical point of view, Plymouth Argyle is not perceived to be a fashionable football club – and as we know, after a while, perception becomes reality to many. It may seem futile but in terms of geography, being positioned so far South, so far away from footballing hot-beds in the Capital and the North West, plays an adverse role in Argyle’s reputation. Fewer media outlets means less attention, which means less respect for a club placed in a part of the country perceived (there is that word again) to be less progressive than other regions. Out of sight, out of mind. 

As for the history: ours is not exactly drenched in moments in the sun. Argyle’s glorious highs and nerve-jangling lows since the turn of the millennium is, perhaps, an intriguing reflection of how our generation is obsessed with short-termism, cramming in more drama over the past 16 years than perhaps the previous 50 combined. Two promotions; two runs in the play-offs; two relegations; administration. And yet, such is the financial stranglehold on modern-day football, even our struggles and flirtations with exiting the Football League or not having a club altogether is not a unique story, and thanks to their past success and/or more central location, the downfall and revival of clubs like Coventry City, Portsmouth and Southampton receive far more publicity. 

Even in this match, Argyle’s most prestigious (I’m attempting to avoid saying ‘biggest’, out of respect to those who were at Rochdale in 2013) fixture for two decades, much of the pre-match talk appeared to be about our opponents. The screens in the vast press box at Wembley broadcasted a preview of the final on Sky Sports, consisting of in-depth interviews and archive footage of AFC Wimbledon... oh, and a few seconds of our fans getting on the coaches. An after-thought. 

Their choice of pre-match guests at 14:30? Crazy Gang alumni Dave Beasant and Lawrie Sanchez. Dave Bassett was in there, too. Argyle ignored. Perhaps that lack of attention and regularity of glory just makes you respect and enjoy these moments even more. The Dons' story must be respected and admired, but 50 minutes before kick-off, as Wimbledon's team were greeted with a smattering of applause shortly before Argyle jogged out to a giant roar from a fan-base easily outnumbering their opponents, it was quite clear what the real story here was. 

Admirable chants from those in blue and yellow were promptly replicated and drowned out by the green and white contingent, some of which taking their seats after milling around the ground since 10:30am - and it refused to relent all afternoon. From local and national journalists alike, genuine shock and awe was clear as day on their faces when we were at our loudest, and the team’s brief moments in the ascendancy during the match almost felt like a direct reaction to the Green Army’s unwavering encouragement. 

Whilst it feels that Argyle are destined at times to be just wide of the spotlight, this match was our moment. This was our day to show we do not just deserve to play matches on the biggest national stage, but we have the desire, commitment and vast fan-base to put on a show on that stage that few others in the country can match. It was a chance to show that Plymouth Argyle Football Club was more than a quirky team in Devon that Paul Whitehouse parodied once, and happen to enjoy a particular pastry-covered culinary delight. 

We know what this football club is capable of. We know that when the club is run correctly and placed in the right hands, like it is now, it has the potential to bring an entire city together. We know that when we are united, we can out-support and out-shout most sides outside of the Premier League – and a few inside it. We know all of that, but many onlookers refuse to acknowledge it. We had a chance to change that and, as 35,000 people acting as one, we took that chance.

Yes, the result didn’t go how we wanted it to go, which is absolutely heart-breaking, and fans should be allowed to feel disappointed in missing out on promotion in such awful fashion. But, when you are ready to take a step back and view the bigger picture of this season, I think it will tell you that some major steps have been taken towards the football club changing its definition for the better. The joyous scenes after Peter Hartley’s header against Portsmouth; the staff pulling together to ensure the perfect experience for all at Wembley; the supporters seeing off the team bus on Saturday; and the sea of green travelling up the motorways, down Wembley Way and into the ground. It all fills me with pride but, more importantly, belief that Argyle will now be treated much more seriously as a football club. We deserve to be in those situations as much as anyone else, and have the stature, sound organisation and vociferous fan-base to put on a better show than most when given the opportunity. 

Shortly after the final whistle on Monday, Derek Adams’ press conference was attended by a number of journalists he had never met before. One of them asked Derek, with more than a hint of surprise in his voice, what the potential of this club has after seeing so many supporters at today's game. He will not be the only one wondering that, with eyes now bereft of blinkers. It may not have surprised us, but it sure impressed a lot of people. I guarantee you that. 

Those who did not take Argyle seriously were now forced to see us, to hear us, and now they might just believe us.