2020/21 Preview – Plymouth Argyle

The new league season countdown continues, host of Express FM’s Football Hour and Pompey Live pundit Jake Smith spotlights Plymouth Argyle as part of his club-by-club preview.

Intro: A lot has changed at the ‘Theatre of Greens’ since Pompey last clashed with the Pilgrims over 19-months ago… The largely opinionated, centre of attention manager Derek Adams has since moved on, having been relieved of his duties in April 2019 with Plymouth fighting relegation down to League Two. The Scot is now in charge of Morecambe in the 4th-tier. The club also finally have their new grandstand after what seemed like an eternity of waiting, bringing the fourth and final side of the stadium up-to-date with the rest of the ground and looking much more appealing to the eye of the supporter – the deserted terrace on the bottom-tier of the stand has been replaced by new, permanent seats!

Plymouth Argyle were originally founded in 1886 as Argyle FC, entering both the Southern League and Western League in 1903 as Plymouth Argyle FC. In their early years, the Pilgrims proved to be a strong outfit in those divisions, earning an election into the Football League Third Division in 1920.

Much like Portsmouth, Plymouth is a proud port city, home to its own dockyard and boasting a rich naval history – though it must be emphasised to outside supporters/members of the media: there is no such thing as a ‘Dockyard Derby’ when it comes to football! Neither Pompey or Argyle fans consider their matches to be anything more than a regular fixture, perhaps just played with an extra tinge of bitterness derived from the countless seasons spent in League Two with the clubs coming toe-to-toe and competing against each other for similar league positions.

Argyle have, on twelve separate occasions, won promotion from the division now referred to as League One, finishing as runners-up eight times and winning four titles. In 1984, the club reached its first, and to-date only FA Cup Semi-Final, the same round in which they have never progressed past in the League Cup, twice Semi-Finalists of that competition in 1965 and 1974.

A decade has now passed since Plymouth were last in the Championship, they were relegated from the second-tier at the end of the 2009/10 season despite gaffer Paul Mariner having the likes of Jamie Mackie, Bradley Wright-Phillips and a young Yannick Bolasie at his disposal.

Home Ground: Home Park, Plymouth (Devon), 172 miles (by car) from Fratton Park – Capacity: 18,600

2019/20 Table Position: 3rd (Automatically Promoted from League Two) – 68 points after 37 games with an average of 1.84 points per-game.

Overall Head-To-Head Record: Plymouth Argyle Wins: 25 – Draws: 14 – Portsmouth Wins: 28

Previous Meeting With Pompey: Plymouth Argyle 1-1 Portsmouth, 9th February 2019, League One

2020/21 Fixture Dates:

Saturday 14th November, 2020 – Home Park

Saturday 6th of February, 2021 @ Fratton Park

Manager: On the 5th of June, 2019, Bury manager Ryan Lowe was announced as the new head coach of Plymouth Argyle, moving to Home Park having led the troubled Bury to automatic promotion from League Two in his first full season in management just weeks before.

The now 41-year-old gaffer twice took over as caretaker of the Greater Manchester-based club on two occasions in 2017 and 2018, whilst still fulfilling his role as one of the club’s strikers alongside his new coaching position. Lowe’s final match as a player came in March 2018, retiring to focus solely on his coaching duties – two months later, he was given the opportunity to lead the Shakers from the dugout on a permanent basis, following their relegation to League Two under his caretaker management.

During his two interim spells and year-long stint as full-time Bury boss, Lowe accrued 26 wins from 53 competitive matches, leading the club to a 2nd-place finish in League Two and an impressive EFL Trophy campaign, in which they bowed out eventually to Pompey at the Semi-Final stage – this proved to be the club’s best ever run in the tournament.

He then jumped ship to Plymouth Argyle, swapping a promoted side for a relegated one, meaning he had to endure League Two all over again with an entirely new team. This never seemed to faze the young manager, who took the Pilgrims straight back up to League One at the first time of asking, finishing 3rd in League Two after unweighted points-per-game was applied. Lowe has won promotion from the 4th-tier twice and has only spent two full seasons in management, therefore big things are expected of him in League One this coming season.

Big names in world football such as Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez are said to have influenced Ryan Lowe’s managerial style. Lowe is keen to play attacking football at every given opportunity, which is how he took Bury to become one of the Football League’s highest-scoring teams in 2018/19. His strategy on the pitch often reflects a 3-1-4-1 formation – all guns blazing to outscore the opposition.

Will the third-tier prove to be a step up too far for Lowe to handle or will he be able to carry over momentum from 2019/20 and lead Argyle to another successful campaign?

One To Watch: 23-year-old Scottish striker Ryan Hardie is my highlighted ‘One To Watch’ at Plymouth Argyle this season.

The Blackpool loanee scored 7 goals in 13 matches for the Pilgrims during his second-half of the season loan spell at Home Park, which began brightly with a 45-minute hat-trick on his debut.

Standing at 6’ 1” tall, the target-man has been handed the No. 9 shirt for the new season, his seventh in the professional game since signing his first professional contract with Rangers in 2014.

Hardie is no stranger to a loan spell, having been shipped out to Raith Rovers (twice), St Mirren and Livingston during his spell at Ibrox, which saw him make just 13 appearances for the 54-time Scottish First Division champions.

The striker has also represented Scotland at youth international levels, up to and including the Under-21s.

Signing of the Summer (So Far): Another 23-year-old and another player who spent time last campaign on-loan at Argyle – George Cooper – has been picked out as Ryan Lowe’s signing of the summer thus far.

Over the course of 2019/20, before the season was suspended, Cooper recorded 12 assists and 3 goals in just 27 appearances, a statistic made even more impressive when pointed out that the midfielder played the majority of the campaign at left-wing-back!

The Crewe Alexandra academy graduate, who went on to make over 100 appearances for The Alex, linked back up with Argyle on September the 2nd, having been transfer-listed and banished from Peterborough United’s ‘Salary Cap Squad’, alongside George Boyd, Jason Naismith and Louis Reed.

Cooper, who signed a 3-year deal at Home Park last week, has been handed the No. 32 shirt for the new season.

Season Expectation: There are encouraging signs aplenty in Devon this season, promising manager Ryan Lowe leads his side into battle in League One as one of the four newly-promoted teams from League Two, arguably one of the better-equipped of the bunch too.

The first priority of any promoted side is to ensure survival in their first season up, however for Argyle fans, relegation seems to be a foregone conclusion, with pressure on Lowe to deliver a much higher finish.

I certainly believe that the Pilgrims will settle straight back into the third-tier in 2020/21 and should not be too worried about falling into the drop-zone, though I also feel a top-half finish is the best possible scenario given the quality of the teams, on paper, toward the top of the division.

My Predicted Finish: 15th

Grand Expectations – Previewing the Pilgrims

Nick Saunders Smith, Editor of Argyle Life, has higher hopes for the club he has supported since 2006: “Maybe we’re being naive, but I don’t think anyone is thinking about League One safety at this point – the club should never have been relegated in 2019 anyway.

“Going into the season, Argyle Twitterati (when Twitter polled) seem content at finishing in the top-half of the table. Given they are usually the most outspoken of fanbases, that says a lot about how content the fans should be if we have a simple, inconsistent, mid-table season. My head says that we’ll finish 4th, not too far from the automatic promotion places, though I really only say that because of the quality of the manager and the identity now at the club.” – Nick explained, dreaming of another promotion push this season.

“If we get a sniff of the Play-Offs”, Nick continued, “then the inconsistency will no doubt become frustrating and grumbling will return. We know what the team wants to achieve, how they want to play, but also that they have a plan B. Without Lowe, I’d be feeling less confident.”

The Argyle Life Editor recalls the moment he well in love with the sport and, more specifically, Plymouth Argyle: “I wasn’t that interested in football until 2006, then all of a sudden I got the bug. I vividly remember a 3-1 victory against Derby County as the moment I became hooked. The FA Cup run and the feeling the club were going to reach the Premier League really excited me and, from then on, I’ve been addicted.”

In 2013, planning permission was granted and Plymouth Argyle were given the green light to revamp their old, decrepit main stand, which was built in 1952. The Mayflower Grandstand houses the club’s main offices, the boardroom, the changing rooms and media facilities too – work finally began to redevelop it in 2018 and was completed around a year later.

Nick re-lives the moment he first watched on from the grandstand at Home Park: “The atmosphere was amazing when I first sat in the Mayflower Stand, with a stoppage-time winner against Stevenage to boot! Even more so, it felt like a special moment. I grew up standing in the Mayflower before we were forced to relocate in 2010. It was a nice reminder of the Championship years and gave me a positive feeling that the club is heading back to that level, hopefully sooner rather than later.

Insistent that nothing needs to change heading into League One this season, supporter Nick further stressed how Argyle’s demotion in 2019 fails to represent where the club are really at both on and off the pitch: “That was a fully wasted season. Lowe came in as a very promising manager, along with a host of players that gave off the same impression that I had as an outsider looking in when Paul Cook took over at Pompey – the club looked like a League One side in waiting.

“Now that we’re here, we have signed well again and started the season superbly with a 3-2 victory against Queens Park Rangers (Carabao Cup – First Round). We’ve got more quality and depth since we were last in League One, a clear identity with a squad to match, and a manager who can improve the players at his disposal. If anything, the fanbase is currently growing increasingly confident that we could sneak into the Play-Offs.”

It’s fair to say that Ryan Lowe has rejuvenated the Pilgrims since taking over the helm. Nick shares his views on the gaffer’s style of play: “With Bury and with us, it’s been a 3-5-2, but not quite as you would imagine it. Wingers at wing-back, attacking-midfielders in central-midfield. Some clubs play with a back five but Argyle would more accurately be described as playing with a front six.

“The attack is fluid: George Cooper, Ryan Hardie and Danny Mayor have all been mentioned, but there’s also Luke Jephcott who has emerged from the academy as a goal-poacher, Frank Nouble who is a powerhouse (think along the lines of Romelu Lukaku), the underrated and versatile Byron Moore and even then I’ve still left a few out.” – he added.

“The team has the sought-after ability to adapt too. They can dominate possession against a team that sits back but play quick, counter-attacking football against a more capable opponent. We used both styles to mostly equal effectiveness last season. Even at the back, all the defence is comfortable with the ball and Michael Cooper is good with his feet. We struggled at the start of last season when Northampton pressed us so high that we couldn’t pass out from the back, but the team evolved.

“Now, when faced with that, they just look for a long-ball cushioned into the exposed spaces and build from there. It’s probably more effective than playing short from the back. I’m not fussed anymore about the team having less possession because we are still a threat on the counter, the risk will be how badly our defence leaks against higher-quality attacks. The back-three looks stronger going into the new season, but we’ll have to wait and see if the club needs to acknowledge that we can’t be as attacking as last year.”

Nick then progressed on to his feelings towards manager Ryan Lowe and how far he believes his career will take him: “In terms of how far Lowe can go, at this point I won’t be surprised if he is managing in the Premier League one day, but he’ll fully know there’s a long way to go before he could get there. If he doesn’t make it to the Championship at least, I’ll be surprised, but we all know that league can chew up promising, young, lower-league managers and spit them back out, so that’s the hurdle he needs to clear before reaching the top-flight.”

So, Nick is confident of his gaffer one day managing at a higher level, but does he see a similar path for his team, Plymouth Argyle in the near-future?: “Off the pitch, the club quite possibly has never been stronger. The wage cap probably helps the club too because there will be fewer options who can subsidise ridiculous spending levels at small clubs.

“The club is launching a new transfer strategy too that will attempt to mirror what Peterborough do: sign promising, younger players and sell them on at a profit before repeating. Nobody knows for sure what the future will bring but, writing at this moment, the club feels like it’s heading in the right direction. We are better run behind the scenes compared to when Argyle last returned to League One and a relegation battle would be a shock to virtually all at the club.”

The implementation of the salary cap has affected football clubs in the lower-depths of English football in a magnitude of different ways. Plymouth Argyle appear to be one of only a handful of sides who are managing to have a successful transfer window despite the restrictions in place: “Most fans are in agreement that this has been our most impressive transfer window since the financial turmoil at the start of the last decade. It helps that George Cooper has taken a pay-cut to join the club, but that was the pull of the club and the manager which convinced him to make the switch.

“Our chairman, Simon Hallett, has spoken out to an extent against the salary cap, given how the club could organically spend more than other clubs if the wage cap was based against each club’s income. Yet, there is definitely a feel that this is far better than the alternative – spiralling wage bills during a pandemic with the threat of another lockdown looming. The other upside is that the club will now make a profit each year, and that profit can be reinvested in the club rather than be thrown at the wage bill in a bid to compete.”

Ryan Lowe has bolstered his squad ahead of the new league campaign, which kicks off in little over 48 hours. Additions include George Cooper, Luke McCormick, Frank Nouble, Lewis Macleod, Panutche Camara, Ben Reeves, Jack Ruddy, Ryan Hardie (loan) and Kelland Watts (loan). Nick reckons that George Cooper, who spent the closing stages of last season on-loan with the Pilgrims, will turn out to be the club’s smartest signing of the window: “Only two players (Exeter’s Randall Williams and Crewe’s Charlie Kirk) assisted more goals than him in League Two last term and they both started at least ten more games. Had Cooper finished the season, he would have almost certainly overtaken them.

“Even more impressive was the impact of these goals. He scored or assisted nine opening goals, leading to eight victories. This is not to mention his highly influential role in the opening goals in victories against Leyton Orient and Cheltenham Town. No other player came close to being that involved in opening goals, which is all the more important when you consider that Argyle failed to win only one game in which they scored first, but only won one game in which the opposition opened the scoring.” – he went on to explain, indicating how important Cooper will be for Plymouth in 2020/21.

Looking at other names who are likely to cause problems in League One, Nick spoke highly of 29-year-old winger Danny Mayor, who played under manager Ryan Lowe also at Bury: “He is a superb attacking-midfielder playing in a deeper role. He often sets the tempo of out attacks, can dribble past anyone and has incredible intelligence. He can thee the game a few phases before most others. This team is far more balanced than in previous years when it was essentially ‘Graham Carey FC’ and there really are a whole host of players who I could mention as having the potential to go under the radar.

“Ryan Hardie, who I suspect is less known than he should be, arrived to little fanfare and a bit of moaning when the fans were expecting a proven goalscorer to arrive. How wrong they were! Hardie scored three goals in his first 45 minutes in green, coming off the bench to score a hat-trick. He finished the season with seven goals, one every 81 minutes, but could have has even more with a bit of luck.

“Why Blackpool let him come back to us on loan, nobody is really sure yet.”

To wrap up our conversation about all things Argyle, Nick hesitantly had a crack at a prediction to where his side will finish come the end of May: “Do I go for my realistic prediction, the 60% probability one, or the optimistic one, with 20% probability? I’m definitely not going for the last option, a relegation battle!

“You know what, why not try to do what plenty of promoted sides have done before: back-to-back promotions. I’ll go with 4th and a Play-Off victory.”

You can follow Nick on Twitter – @Saunders_Smith – as well as the unofficial Plymouth Argyle supporters’ blog of which he runs – @ArgyleLife1886

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