Despite a two-month hiatus from competitive football, Argyle Director of Football Neil Dewsnip is still as enthusiastic as ever about the prospect of gaining promotion back to Sky Bet League One at the first time of asking.
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic forced the EFL to suspend its league programme in mid-March, with Argyle sitting in the third and final automatic promotion place.
With resumption of the season at League Two level looking less likely as time goes by, the Pilgrims are edging towards a return to the third tier on the basis of the EFL’s proposed points-per-game model, which stands to be ratified by an all clubs vote sometime in June.
Dewsnip, who joined the club in the summer after a lengthy spell working for the English FA, said: “I think we are all very excited at the prospect of getting promoted – which was obviously the target that we discussed as a staff back in Spain [during the pre-season tour of Alicante].
“We don’t know yet, although there is a very strong indication that will happen – we’re sitting on our hands, slightly, but I’d be telling lies if I didn’t think that it was a very strong possibility.”
With nine games remaining in the regular season, Argyle hold a three-point cushion over local rivals Exeter City in fourth. Despite taking satisfaction from a job well done, Dewsnip says that manager Ryan Lowe and his coaching team are disappointed that they may not get an opportunity to fight to win the league title outright.
“Ryan is a very ambitious manager, as you would hope and expect, and we have had that discussion a number of times,” said Neil, whose impressive footballing CV includes spells in charge of the Everton Academy, as well as several England international teams at youth level.
“We’ll be delighted to go up, but slightly disappointed that we didn’t get the opportunity, in the last nine games, to have won the league. That has been our goal all season, and we would argue that we were just coming into quite a rich vein of form.
“I think that we were right on course for achieving the goals that we had discussed at the start of the season. I think every season is like a sea journey - you go up the waves when you’re playing well, but there’s also some low moments. At those points, you need to show what you are about, be resilient, and stick together. Bradford City away strikes me as one of those moments.”
The Greens suffered a 2-1 at the hands of the Bantams just a fortnight before the season was suspended. A first-half red card for skipper Gary Sawyer, followed by another for midfielder Antoni Sarcevic, left the Pilgrims 2-0 down with ten minutes to go, before Ryan Hardie pulled one back for nine-man Argyle.
The result saw Lowe’s side slip to fifth in the table, but the desire on display during that second-half fightback served as a perfect primer for the two crucial home games which followed.
Recalling the trip to the Utilita Energy Stadium, Neil said: “It was a bit of a doom and gloom moment. The pitch was our worst nightmare, circumstances in the game went against us, but, even then, with nine men, there was some real resilience shown towards the end, and we were not far off getting a result. We reminded one another after the game what we are made of. The players bounced back and did great after that point – at it proved to be such a crucial week.”
“Doesn’t it seem so long ago, already? It was a bad day, we bounced back, showed great resilience as a staff and a team. Ryan made one or two excellent tactical decisions which got us a goal, threw caution to the wind a little bit, and we nearly got a point out of it. What it did do, though, was set the tone for that final week, where we gathered two huge results to put ourselves in the position that we find ourselves in now.”
Neil is keen to ensure that, in the midst of speculation and media commentary on the current crisis that envelopes football, the incredible achievement of the backroom staff at Home Park does not go unnoticed.
“I would broaden that group of people – from Simon [Hallett, Chairman and majority shareholder], the board, Andrew Parkinson [Chief Executive Officcer] and Zac [Newton, Club Secretary], who we deal with on a daily basis, and not forgetting the supporters. Everyone contributed in their way to, hopefully, getting us promoted.
“Ryan and Schuey [Assistant Manager Steven Schumacher] had come from a winning environment, having been promoted at Bury, and John Lucas [Head of Fitness and Conditioning] and Jimmy [Dickinson, Performance Analyst] came with them as well. They just carried on – as did some of the players who came from Bury, that was probably very important.”
“Quite quickly, we were able to turn the group into a team who believed they could win. The lads who suffered a relegation previously were hurting, but very quickly they sensed that it was different. We won that first game at Crewe 3-0, and, suddenly, they believe everything. The start was crucial, and it set the tone for what is, hopefully, a successful season.”