Plymouth Argyle FC
Following last Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Ipswich Town, Argyle skipper Carl Fletcher has launched an astonishing attack on Argyle’s board, claiming the decision to allow Marcel Seip to play for Blackpool against Argyle, his parent club, made the club seem “Mickey Mouse” You can read the story in more detail here : suffice to say that it is encouraging to see the Argyle players more united than they have been for a while. The photo which aroused Fletcher’s ire, of Kim Stapleton (wife of Argyle vice-chairman Paul Stapleton and mother of Lucy, who is married to Seip) giving a thumbs-up sign to Marcel following his team’s victory over Argyle a week ago, has apparently been pinned up in the Argyle dressing room and has been the subject of much anger among the squad – to say nothing of the fanbase – and it was that picture which prompted Fletcher and the rest of the squad to run to the touchline underneath the directors’ box and raise their own thumbs at Mrs Stapleton and Mrs Seip in celebration of Argyle’s opening goal on Saturday.
In another astonishing development, Lucy Seip has taken it upon herself to criticise the players’ gesture on Saturday in a blog post here Her laudable desire to defend her man, her ma and her pa notwithstanding, Lucy’s whiny comments stick in my craw and, I suspect, the craw of many other Argyle fans too. The decision to allow Marcel to play against us was controversial, to say the least. If Kim and Lucy wanted to support him, they should have done so from the *Blackpool box. As they were part of the Argyle contingent, the least they could have done was sit on their hands, regardless of their relationship to Seip.
As the post goes on, it descends into wilder and wilder conspiracy theory. Lucy is aggrieved that people don’t appreciate the hours Paul puts into PAFC. I suspect Lucy doesn’t appreciate the sacrifices thousands of Plymouthians and Cornish make following Argyle week in, week out: those fans who don’t get to sit in the directors’ box, or join the players on the coach, or enjoy corporate hospitality as normative at football. Those fans who have to sit on cramped official coaches, or beg lifts to away games. Those fans who, because of Mr Stapleton’s inability to take a decision – several decisions- briskly enough, have seen a side with genuine Premiership potential frittered away into relegation near-certainties. And because the nasty players are being mean, all of a sudden Lucy thinks its not fair.
The bottom line is, Seip is a good player – a good one, not a great one – who was below par for much of last season and all of this (we’ve let considerably fewer goals in since he’s been out of the side this term). This is not the first time he has openly defied the manager – and while Luggy remains the manager what he says goes. Lucy and Kim should decide where their loyalties lie – and if that means and end to their cosy meal ticket off the back of PAFC season-ticket holders, so much the better.
In the meantime, now that the gloom at Argyle’s consistent ability to shoot themselves in the foot has lifted, it was very encouraging to see Mariner animated and active on the touchline. Sturrock aside, I was probably the closest person physically to him in the ground on Saturday and he never stopped yelling, criticising and encouraging. (It was also PM encouraging the fans not to throw the ball back too quickly, by the way, which caused Mr Keane’s snarking in the post-match press conference.) That said, his comments today about no more signings clearly indicate that we are in for a long old haul. As if we didn’t know it already.
Following this afternoon’s abject display in front of the Sky cameras and (at least on paper) our biggest gate for five years, I very sadly, and with a degree of reluctance add my voice to those who feel a change in manager is essential at our club if we are to have a snowball’s chance of surviving what is already a desperate relegation battle. Paul Sturrock will always be a legend at Plymouth Argyle, but seven defeats in a row, and four wins in thirty-seven games tell their own story. For whatever reason, this group of players cannot perform for him: he must move on.
In contrast to most of the other games this season, Argyle were woeful and, especially in the second half, played without heart, passion or conviction. Gunter’s goal in first-half stoppage time was a blow we never looked remotely like recovering from. Something has to change now: waiting till Tuesday is no good. Confidence, belief, courage and passion have all gone from the team and ultimately Luggy has to carry the can.
The new Board have commendably and courageously stuck by their man all the while the performances showed signs of positivity and hope. Now they have to show the same courage and make a change. Rumours abound of Paul Jewell, Steve Coppell and others. Thanks Paul, for all you’ve done. But your time is up.
Went with a few Rangers -supporting mates to check out Saturday’s opposition. I could be mean about the corrugated iron roofed stand, the open terrace, the dysentery-threatening loos and the tea shack, but in all honesty it was a thoroughly enjoyable “old-school” experience, spoiled only by the grief I as getting from my mates as the Argyle score came through at half-time.
Anyway – believe it or not – City were unlucky. They easily had the better of the first half and caused the Rs’ defence plenty of problems: they got close to them in midfield, didn’t allow Buzsaky time on the ball, and worried the life out of Gorkss and Stewart by running at them. Stand-out player for the Grecians was their attacking midfielder Bertie Cozic, who was at the heart of CIty’s good stuff and with a little more composure could have had a couple of goals. Apart from a speculative Hogan Ephraim shot that bounced off the top of the bar, and a couple of headers from ECFC defenders that almost rolled in for an o.g., Rangers didn’t really threaten – lots of side-to-side passing, but no real penetration. Routledge, for all his pace and trickery couldn’t deliver a final ball to save his life and for some reason Magilton had Rowan Vine playing on the left wing, where he looked thorougly out of sorts.
Second half carried on much in the same vein – City threatening, Rangers looking dodgy – until a bit of a hoof it and hope ball over the top allowed Routledge to use his pace to get beyond the defence and lob the keeper. For the next ten minutes or so it became a really good game – City upped their attacking endeavours and Rangers began to play with a bit more confidence. A tidy lay-off from Agyemang, who was playing as the target man, gave Routledge a pretty simple finish for number two, which was when the wheels came off for City. A powerful Gorkss header looked to have crossed the line – the ref looked at the lino, who gave a penalty for handball and poor Golbourne was off. Routledge put the penalty away and from thereafter it descended into a training ground exercise. A tap in for Rangers’ new Italian striker (whose name I don’t have – big, lanky-haired, rubbish, wearing 12) and a super finish from Ephraim gave the scoreline a gloss that Rangers hardly deserved.
If there’s a message to take from this for Argyle, it’s to play the ball *on the floor*. Gorkss and Stewart mopped up all the aerial stuff without breaking into a sweat, but couldn’t cope when City played through them. If Fletch can dominate Leigertwood, Buzsaky gets isolated. Agyemang is probably their biggest threat going forward; and it might be a job for a canny Paterson at LB to take care of Routledge.
Shame I’ll be away for this one, really
Here we are again – back on the roller-coaster that is PAFC and their League form. There’s a sense that, in the intervening three months since the Barnsley defeat everything has changed: a new Board, a new formation (though we probably shan’t see that tomorrow) and a new team spirit and optimism about the place. However, despite six new signings, (Fletcher, Arnason, Johnson, Wright-Phillips, Judge and Letheren), the starting XI will bear a stunningly striking resemblance to Argyle – last season’s model. At the time of writing, the Alan Gow saga was looking like ending in tears, with the Rangers outcast after more money/somewhere closer to mummy/possibly both. Good luck with that. On the plus side, Celtic striker Cillian Sheridan, whose name sounds more like an eighteenth-century dramatist-cum-laudanum addict than a footballer, is reportedly close to a loan deal.
The much-vaunted diamond will, as I said, almost certainly not make an appearance tomorrow. Instead, it is likely to be the old favourite 4-4-1-1, with, one suspects, MacLean playing off Fallon. Stevie owes us big time – he confessed as much in a recent Western Morning News interview. He *particularly owes those of us who spent much of last season defending him and arguing that his intelligent style of play would, sooner or later, come good. With Aberdeen unable to cover the proportion of wages Argyle were seeking, and with BWP crocked, Stevie has a chance to remedy his misfiring last season that at one stage it looked unlikely he would have. He’s been, by all accounts, our best player pre-season: tomorrow would be the perfect way to show all the doubters that he CAN play and he IS going to score goals. A brace at Selhurst would do just fine.
Another unlikely starter at the end of last season would have been Jim Paterson. Like MacLean the subject of ultimately fruitless enquiries (and unwelcome press comment) from Aberdeen manager Mark McGhee, Paterson has responded well to the competition for places and looks set to start tomorrow on the left side of midfield. Relying more on guile and tenacity than pace, Pato’s steady head may yet prove an important part of our challenge this term , especially if Craig Noone fails to kick on as much as we all hope. Alongside Jim in midfield, I expect to see Fletcher & Duguid resume their central “bulldog” partnership, with Judgy providing the pace and energy wide on the right. That leaves the defence, with Romain unchallenged now that Stack has gone, Saxton is injured and the new man Letheren just in as cover; Sicknote McNamee at RB, Seip and presumably Timar at the heart and Sawyer on the left. An expanded seven-man bench would probably include Letheren (obviously); Mackie, Clark, Arnason, Barnes, Johnson and Noone, covering all bases.
The Eagles look set to be without Claude Davis (work permit), Jose Fonte and Darren Ambrose (injured). A strike force of Sears and John make for a fascinating mix of youthful vigour and aging nous, while Nick Carle provides the energy in midfield for Scannell and Moses to feed off. You’d expect a Neil Warnock side to be up for the fight, so coming away with a point and no new casualties would almost certainly be seen as a positive result. COYG!
Well, here we are again. As I write there are five days to go before the big kick-off (and six weeks till the transfer deadline, which means that as soon as I press “publish” these predictions are out of date). What follows are my own, highly partisan, highly flawed and partially-informed views on how the season might pan out for the second tier (ugh) of English football. Fans of other clubs, who feel I have done their team a disservice, or got basic information wrong, are encouraged to vent their spleen in the comments section. Here goes…
It’s been a quiet pre-season so far for the Tykes. This is alarming: Barnsley survived on the last day thanks to a (thoroughly deserved) win at ours and/or Norwich’s complete loss of the will to survive in the last half-a-dozen games of the season. To have added only a journey man sub keeper (David Preece) and York hot-shot Onome Sodje means either there are more to come or the Yorkies are in some bother. There’s some good players in the squad: Jamal Campbell-Ryce is a match for most on his day, Anderson Da Silva is now starting to win the plaudits his accomplished performances on midfield merit, Jon Macken has a pedigree of sorts – and diehard Tykes will make optimistic noises about the return of Iain Hume. But the defence looks threadbare and aging and the midfield easy to play through. A hard, hard slog for the Tykes.
However the season goes for Blackpool, you can rest assured they won’t be out of the spotlight. Their refreshing/irritating/treacherous weasel (take your pick) manager will keep them firmly front and centre of the Championship focus. Underneath it all, though, ‘Pool have struggled for the last two seasons and this will be no different. Shaun Barker is a big loss at the back and there’s a lack of width on the team not compensated for by the bizarre signing of Jason Euell. Up front, Gary Taylor-Fletcher will need to show more consistency and its hard to see McPhee, Burgess and Ormerod doing anything other than playing bit-parts. Ollie has taken sides down more often than he’s brought them up and unless there are gems to come, the sands of time may be running out for the Seasiders.
I’m aware it’s blasphemy for an Argyle fan to admit this, but I actually quite like the Turnips. When I first became obsessed with this wretched game, they were a First Division (that’s Premiership to all you teenagers) outfit, gamely representing the far-flung corners of the country with players like Gerry Gow, Peter Cormack and an aging Norman Hunter. Gary Johnson is probably the best manager in this league – particularly at making the most out of average talent. Having been there or thereabouts for the last couple of seasons, you’d expect more of the same this term. But all does not seem quite right at Ashton Gate – the signings so far have been a mixture of the past it (Paul Hartley), the unproven (Danny Haynes) the could have been but probably now won’t be (Lewin Nyatanga. The dead wood has been cleared out, but there’s just a sense that Johnson feels he has taken the club as far as he can and if a decent Premiership offer came in he’d be tempted. A tread water season.
Like many, I suspect, I shed few tears at the spectacular bottle-job that was the Bluebirds’ end to the season. Dave Jones is the epitomy of ungraciousness: whiny and sulky, just generally lacking in class. How the team will react to their nosedive will be interesting. Roger Johnson has nipped off to Birmingham for an excessive £5 million and it is awfully nice of Sheffield Wednesday to offer Darren Purse a home given that he’s a) knocking on a bit and b) has the mobility of an oil tanker. But Mark Hudson and Anthony Gerrard as replacements? Chopra has signed on a permanent deal, which presumably means his form will desert him. Ross McCormack wants out: so does Joe Ledley and they haven’t gone yet which means that if they do, replacements may be harder to come by. Unlikely to challenge.
Something has gone badly wrong at the Ricoh. It’s probably not Chris Coleman’s fault, but the squad is threadbare, confidence has gone and there remain rumours of serious financial issues surrounding the stadium. Watching us put four past them at Home Park was probably the home highlight of the season – it also tells its own tale. Sammy Clingan and Michael McIndoe (assuming he signs) are competent enough but the loss of Scott Dann and Daniel Fox weakens an already porous defence and without strikers who can score at this level (Freddy Eastwood – ouch) Coventry look like prime candidates for the mantle of This Years Ex-Prem Club To Go Down.
Disappointingly, Palace have chosen to dispense with the retro ‘Peru-style’ white home kit, in favour of the more mundane Barca-imitation red and blue stripes. My enthusiasm for Neil Warnock notwithstanding, Palace’s season may be a similar let-down. Yes, the kids are all right; yes, Freddie Sears on a season-long loan is an exciting bit of business. But Stern John is not exactly the sort of striker to fire a play-off challenge, nor Darren Ambrose the sort of midfielder to set games alight. There’s every possibility Palace’s bright young things could be tempted away (I believe the technical term is “Bostocked”) and if so, even a searing Freddy may not be enough to steady the buffs. Could struggle.
Nigel Clough’s appointment to his dad’s old job last season smacked half of sentimentality, half of desperation, and half (yes, I know) of courage and insight. Clough has learned his managerial trade the hard way, and his success at Burton Albion was justly rewarded with a shot at the big time. And gradually he is building a team to help Rams fans live down the nightmare that was Paul Jewell. There’s a mixture of solid high-end Championship performers (Hulse, Lee Croft, Claude Davis, Kris Commons), enterprising youth (Miles Addison, Giles Barnes) and some signings just wiating to catch light (Luke Varney, Chris Porter, Dean Moxey). Shaun Barker is a solid addition at the back and with Gary Teale enjoying a revitalised second half of last season, as well as Commons, Croft and Barnes, the Rams are not short of creativity. It’s hard to be totally enthusiastic about any club prepared to employ Robbie Savage but Derby are oozing ambition at the moment and are an excellent bet for automatic promotion.
Everyone’s prediction to go straight back down last season – including mine (though I did say it would be nice if they stayed up). Six points from Argyle certainly helped, including a 3-0 humbling of the Greens at Home Park that had us chasing shadows all afternoon. Whether they are prime candidates for second-season syndrome (tm, Colchester United/Luton Town) remains to be seen. The loss of Richie Wellens to Leicester is almost as big a blow as that of Matt Mills to Reading and if Brian Stock’s itchy feet lead him away from the Keepmoat then all of Donny’s pretty passing may not be enough to save them a second time around. Without a striker to call their own (of any note, anyway), they may be overly reliant on glorious 1-0s again. Could be sticky.
Lazy journalists (Tony Cascarino, I’m talking to you) have Ipswich down as serious promotion challengers purely on the basis of their employing Roy Keane. This is delusional. Keane’s brooding management skills fell apart at Sunderland when the money ran out and there’s been little to suggest anything could change at Ipswich. Lee Martin, Colin Healy, Damien Delaney??? are not signings of which Championships are made – if Delaney is the answer to Ipswich’s problems at the back, then Keane clearly didn’t read the question paper properly. Granted Jon Walters hasnt left yet; granted Owen Garvan’s return to form courtesy us could galvanise an otherwise mundane midfield, but relying on Jon Stead to get you goals enough for the play-offs is unwise. Top half, but no more.
Leicester became an awful lot easier to like once Holloway had taken up his pay packet and walked/was pushed/stumbled out the door. Their brief stay in League 1 was, in the main, a serene procession to an inevitable return and, as a bonus, a fantastic opportunity for players like Matty Fryatt to rediscover their form and confidence out of the harsh glare of the Championship. Now factor in the development of a number of *very useful young players (Andy King, Max Gradel and especially Joe Mattock) and you can make quite a compelling case for relegation having benefitted the Foxes a good deal. Traditionally, one side coming up always makes a fair fist of things in this League and all the signs point to it being Leicester: a lot of the dross has gone and Nigel Pearson has made one or two astute and ambitious signings – Richie Wellens still has a lot to offer at this level and Wayne Brown may not be all that quick, but it’s a long way round him. Could be promising.
One of two things will happen to Boro this season. Either, as their fans and most of the allegedly neutral commentators think and hope, they will walk the division without breaking into a sweat, statues of Gareth Southgate will be erected outside the gates and all will be well; or they will totally fail to get to grips with the unpredictable, take-no-prisoners, respecter-of-no-reputation nature of the Championship and be reduced to Alan Pardew-style whinging about how unfair it is that all these nasty lower-league teams gang up on his lovely players and stop them playing. While Boro have too much class – even after the high-profile depatures of Downing, Mido and Tuncay – and too much money not to be ultimately in the mix, promotion is far from assured and Boro fans expecting an easy ride had better get used to it. They aren’t famous any more – and this league, and the one below, are littered with clubs who thought the Prem guaranteed them a living for life. Boro beware.
Hands up all those who are already bored of Newcastle? If the relegation of the Prem’s most soap-opera like club had a downside, it was that we here in the Championship would be saddled with endless pieces bewailing, bemoaning and analysing their fall from grace, with a cynical and tedious presumption that the rest of us give a damn. Having been here before with Leeds, it’s just dull. And, like Leeds, we have to suffer endless solemn pronouncements about how “the best fans in the country don’t deserve this”. Actually, they do. In fact, apart from Leeds, I can’t think of a single group of fans who deserve it *more. Their tendency to idolise former players and managers to deity status is as annoying as it is delusional – especially when you look at these idols. Alan Shearer. Kevin Keegan. Malcolm flipping MacDonald. And this goes way back. I bet even Wor (or however it is you spell it) Jackie was an annoying thug as well. As for their prospects, I confidently expect them to blunder around the mid-reaches of the league with a sort of bewildered expression gradually replaced by petulance and then heart-rending sobbing as the realisation dawns: they’re not in Kansas any more. Too bloody right they’re not.
Forest’s transfer activity has been so frenzied, you wonder whether they’ve been renamed Shopaholics United without anyone realising. Billy Davies may be an objectionably charmless goblin, but he’s a canny objectionably charmless goblin. Which makes some of his signings all the more bizarre. Dexter Blackstock’s stock has fallen faster than house prices; Chris Gunter manifestly wasn’t ready/good enough for the leap to the Prem; McKenna is yesterday’s news; David McGoldrick did precious little at Southampton to suggest he would be worth in excess of a million, which is apparently what Forest paid for him. In short, the squad is full of unfulfilled promise. Davies may well be the man to get that promise out: he is, after all, something of a specialist in getting teams of average players up. But this Forest side? Can’t see it.
Having earned the gratitude of the whole football community for keeping MK down, it now seems appropriate to go back to being rather snobbish about Posh. Their Loadsamoney approach has irritated plenty of clubs higher up the pecking order: it is, as we know, the duty of those lower down the food chain to allow their up and coming stars to be snapped up at the first opportunity by their elders and betters. Wolves in particular have been peeved at Darragh McAnthony’s refusal to countenance a bid for Aaron McLean. It’s not as if McLean is even their best player: some of us (modest cough) were raving about George Boyd while he was still at Stevenage. Darren Ferguson has adopted the “I’ll trust the team who got us up” approach and has played his transfer cards close to his chest, relying on his knowledge of the lower leagues to pick up a few gems. Could be an interesting season for Posh – the Championship may take some adjusting to, but they should be safe enough.
It’s amazing what a period without football will do to a supporter. Following Argyle’s timid and sputtering survival as a Championship outfit, the Suicide Squad were out in force. Relegation was assured; Sturrock was the worst manager since Mick Jones/David Kemp/Mike Kelly/whoever; half the side were useless and the other half belonged to other clubs; administration was a matter of weeks/days/hours away. There was an almost ghoulish enjoyment among some sections of the fanbase at predicting a disastrous season for the Greens. Fast forward three months, and the same supporters are finding plenty of reasons to be cheerful. A succession of promising (let’s put it no stronger than that) signings: Carl Fletcher, Icelandic midfielder Kari Arnason, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Benin international centre-back Reda Johnson have signalled an intent to progress – so too has a conscious change in formation and approach. Word is, at home at least, the ball is going to be played more on the floor. Football, apparently, is coming Home Park. Add into that an apparently reborn Steve MacLean and a penitent Puncheon and you can see why the Green Army are beginning to dare to dream. And if Alans Judge and Gow do indeed arrive, as is rumoured, then who knows what dreams may come?
Internal restructuring helps of course, but not as much as cash. And while the new Board, running things on behalf of a Japanese/American consortium, seem to have a little to spend, Argyle still can’t compete with the ex-Prem and assorted other heavyweights that litter the Championship. The squad is still top-heavy and needs to lose at least four players to stop the sort of haemorrhaging wage costs that crippled us last season. And this is undeniably a tougher league than it was twelve months ago: a revitalised Leicester, a hungry (and talented) Peterborough, Newcastle, Boro, West Brom, plus a Forest side spending money like an African dictator, Sheffield United with quality all through the squad, Derby and Ipswich looking good – this is a tough division this year. All the pre-season promise counts for nothing on August 8 when we run out against our old friend/enemy Neil Warnock.
Grounds then for cautious optimism, but strong warnings against complacency. Argyle will not trouble the top six this season, but ought to be safe enough all things being equal (which of course they never are). They may well be at longish odds to finish in the top half – you might just care to pop a spare tenner on that. It might pay dividends.
Preston North End
Alan Irvine is my kind of football manager: passionate without being annoying, articulate and committed to enterprising and entertaining football. His PNE side outdid themselves last season, and with a little more luck could have faced Burnley in an all-Lancs play-off final. Irvine is too shrewd to let his Lilywhites cry into their beer for long (despite their perennial bridesmaid albatross) and all the signs are that they will be there again come the end of May. Paul Parry’s arrival from Cardiff should go some way to replacing McKenna’s creativity (yes, I know they’re not like-for-like, before you start) and apparently Irvine wants two or three more. Another striker, and PNE could well be in business again.
Queen’s Park Rangers
The WestEnders saga just gets weirder and weirder – a bit like Brookside in its dying days. With all the wealth at their disposal, Bernie and Flav decide on Jim Magilton as their new manager/marionette – a man who won nothing as a player and even less as a manager. A man whose eye for a player can be summed up in agreeing to pay 2.75 million for David Norris. Nothing is certain in this league, save the fact that QPR will have a different manager at the end of it than the one they started with. The Times Championship Predictions (laughably inaccurate and under-researched though they be) have QPR fans crawling all over them in high dudgeon at being predicted to come 18th. Hoops, you’re not going up. Not even going to get close. Expensive signings from overseas and Italian loans – did you not learn your lesson last season? Even a fit Buzsaky cant hide the fact that the squad is average, the defence pedestrian and the attack misfiring. Oh, and the manager’s clueless. Did I mention that?
The first season of the post-Coppell Reading era sees a Royals squad substantially changed from hitherto. Doyle, Kitson, Lita, Hahnemann, Murty, Duberry, Sodje plus a handful of bit-part players have all gone, with only Chelsea young ‘un Ryan Bertrand and Doncaster’s Matt Mills to show for it. Brendan Rodgers’ reputation remains high everywhere apart from Watford, however and if he persuades Tommy Smith to follow him over, Reading may yet mount a challenge. There remains the talent in the squad and Rodgers is clearly capable of extracting it – it seems to be merely a question of precisely how big the Coppell/play-off failure hangover is.
Like Peterborough, everyone loves Scunthorpe for keeping MK down. And now they’ve done their bit for the Championship, they can quietly go back whence they came. Iron fans (some of them) remain sceptical about Adkins’ tactical ability at this level, and the fact that their squad was far more recognisable from two seasons ago than I was expecting speaks a good deal. There’s an argument (called the Charlton argument) that says, now they know how this League works, expect them to make a far better fist of it this time around. Sadly, its not a very persuasive one. No money, uninspiring signings, thanks Scunny, see you in another few years.
Some serious money (most of it one assumes West Ham’s) has been splashed around at Bramall Lane. Ched Evans, Lee Williamson, Bromby, Kyel Reid to name but four have arrived and will only add quality to what is already one of the solidest (is that a word?) squads in this League. Brian Howard got better as last season went on; Henderson, Ward and Sharp make up with Evans a quartet of attacking intent unrivalled at this level and with the £10 million from Spurs for two unproven full backs, one of whom (Kyle Walker) has been immediately loaned back, even if the Blades don’t get off to an immaculate start they have the ability to strengthen when necessary. Champions.
Unfashionable, uninspiring – just the sort of side that ought to do well, quietly getting on with it while the big guns blow themselves up. The trouble is, though, I just don’t see it. Brian Laws is a smart enough manager, though veering on the edge of smug, with a reasonably well-drilled squad of reasonable players. It’s just that, none of them really excite. Marcus Tudgay? He’s OK. Jermaine Johnson? He’s OK. Richard Wood/Marc Beevers? He’s OK. Who’ve they signed? Darren Purse. He’s OK – old and slower than Taribo West, but OK. You get the picture. They’ll be OK. Probably. Just about.
To hear some people talk, watching Swansea last season was like it was 1971 and Ajax were laying all before them. Jordi Gomez, apparently, is Johnny Rep and Neeskens rolled into one and Jason Scotland the living breathing incarnation of Rob Rensenbrink. Hmmm. Be that as it may, the “shock” departure of Roberto Martinez for Wigan (not Chelsea? Really? Really.) along with Scotland also to the JJB (despite Roberto promising he wouldn’t come back for any Swans players) has blown a sizeable hole in their assault on the Premiership, which apparently is their due and just desert (Alan Green says so, so it must be true).
I’m sorry. The truth is, for purely personal reasons, I have a grudge against Swansea which no amount of pretty football can assuage. Having been subjected to the violence of their fans, not just on my own account, but along with a party of primary schoolchildren I was taking on a trip to Home Park, the scars run deep. I hope you’ll forgive my clumsy sarcasm. Even so, with my ruthlessly objective hat on, I still can’t see Swansea repeating their success of last season – and a relegation battle is a distinct possibility, however much Swans fan may protest that “Gorka Pintado is better than Scotland”. Yeah, whatever.
Still sore after a bruising campaign and Brendan Rodgers’ defection to Reading, ‘Orns fans are less than optimistic about the coming season. In Malky Mackay the Watford board appear to have gone for a) the cheapest option b) the option that buys them a little bit of time with the fanbase. Nonetheless, it’s hard to see him lasting the season out: it’s not as easy to win things with kids as it used to be and although Ross Jenkins may be the dogs, it could easily be a gig too far for some of the other youngsters being bandied about as the future of Watford. Malky’s buys amount to Danny Graham from Carlisle and Scott Severin from Aberdeen, which are presumably the best he could get for his money, but if that’s it Watford fans can put the vertigo tablets away as of now.
West Bromwich Albion
The country’s premier yo-yo club, Albion need to shore up their defence if they are to challenge this season. Last time they were down here, they still managed to ship a barrowload of goals and they couldn’t have been more generous to the Prem if the back four had turned out in Santa outfits and wooly beards. Tony Mowbray’s departure for the easy life, or SPL as it’s better known has left Roberto DiMatteo to carry forward the baton and predictably he’s mainly been signing strikers – Simon Cox from Swindon and ex-Pilgrim Reuben Reid from Rotherham. Provided he can keep the rest of the squad together – especially Koren, Brunt and Greening – they’ll always be in with a shout, but that defence – oh dear, oh dear.
1. Sheffield United
2. Derby County
3. West Bromwich Albion
5. Preston North End
7. Leicester City
8. Newcastle United
9. Nottingham Forest
10. Ipswich Town
11. Queen’s Park Rangers
12. Plymouth Argyle
13. Bristol City
14. Cardiff City
15. Doncaster Rovers
17. Peterborough United
18. Crystal Palace
19. Sheffield Wednesday
20. Swansea City
23. Coventry City
24. Scunthorpe United
Hello, hello, I’m back, I’m back, as a matter of fact I’m back. Dodgy provenance but the right sentiment. And (closes eyes, crosses fingers and touches wood) that might just apply to PAFC as well. In the wake of last season’s survival (more a stumble over the line than a Houdini act), some significant changes have been happening at Home Park. Here’s a summary:
i) Japanese/American consortium assume majority shareholding in the club. Sir Roy gardner appointed chairman, with Paul Stapleton remaining on the Board. Director Phill Gill leaves. Internal restructuring means the position of CEO is abolished, with current incumbent Michael Dunford leaving as of 31 July;
ii) New Board rumoured to begin development of the South Stand at the end of the 2009/10 season;
iii) Argyle sign striker Bradley Wright-Phillips from Southampton, Icelandic midfielder Kari Arnason and Carl Fletcher, with Zoltan Szelesi currently on trial. Rumoured targets include Rangers duo Alan Gow and Charlie Adam and (less likely) David James. Jermaine Easter (MK Dons, £200,000) an Graham Stack (Hibs, we had to pay them) have both left the club.
I hesitate to use the phrase, but the green shoots of recovery could be around the corner. Word on the street seems to be that Argyle’s pre-season has been considerably better than last year’s, with Steve MacLean, Jim Paterson and Rory Fallon standing out. I’ll be better able to judge after Wednesday, when i get my first sight of the Argyle (in the new kit – ugh) 09/10 edition in their friendly against Hearts. Jason Puncheon has returned from his loan at MK Dons apparently up for the challenge and the whisper is that rather more football is being played than hitherto. That’s not a criticism of Sturrock, incidentally: we played a fair amount of pass and move stuff last year. What happened over and over again was that as soon as we went behind, panic set in, confidence was lost and we resorted to the lump-and-jump, usually without any tangible success.
Gow and Adam would be useful signings (my suspicion is we may get one but not both). I think we are still shy a centre-back, especially if Doumbe (MK Dons) and Timar (Blackpool) make their rumoured moves. But the squad is starting to shape up. And while we cant compete with some of the silly money being thrown around at the moment, we might just be gelling a team together that could, at least, keep its head above water.
A full pre-season preview to follow: for now, sit back and enjoy the ride!
A first home win since Boxing Day was greeted by the Home Park faithful with roars of delight and no little relief. Like Saturday, the results of the teams around us meant that the three points were vital just to stay out of the drop zone: and the beating of a team with relegation worries of their own was thus doubly vital. But the bare statistics aside, Argyle and the ‘Orns played out an entertaining encounter in far from ideal conditions which, in the end, Argyle deservedly won. Before the match, Bob The Pessimist, who sits behind me, informed us all that his mother-in-law had called the last three games correctly and had told him before he set off that, “You’ll win – it’ll be a bit tense, but you’ll be OK”. So it proved.
Sturrock opted for just one change – the ‘other’ on-loan Blackburnite Alan Judge in for Chris Clark. The bigger surprises were sprung by Rodgers, whose decision to leave out McAnuff, Cork and most bizarrely of all Tommy Smith was mystifying to say the least. But Watford had the early pressure, with both Hoskins and Cowie whipping in dangerous crosses from the right in the first three minutes leaving the Argyle defence statuesque. By this time Mike Williamson, the former Wycombe centre-back, whom Argyle had once been rumoured to be on the point of bringing in, was in the book for a walloping challenge on Barnes and as the half wore on Argyle grew in confidence and – heavens preserve us – actually began playing some football. Barnes was giving Williamson a torrid time: his low centre of gravity and speed of turn (sic) making him a real handful. Carl Fletcher was dominating Lee Williamson and Jenkins in midfield. Alan Judge was pacy and committed and Mackie had the beating of Jon Harley every single time. In short, we were all over them. Barnes hit the bar with a stunning turn and shot from the edge of the area: and then did it again five minutes later with a header from a Gallagher free-kick. In between, the howls of protest from the Green Army reached fever pitch as Williamson flattened Gallagher but was given, instead of the second yellow and red he undoubtedly deserved, an absolutely final final warning by referee Nigel Miller. It looked, for all the world, as if it was going to be one of *those evenings again.
Just as the conspiracy theorists were dusting down their evidence, though, Judge burst through on the left. His powerful run took him into the box: and just when he seemed to have run out of room, Gavin Hoyte inexplicably decided to slice him in two, leaving Miller with no option but to point to the spot. Gally grabbed the ball and, after waiting for the whistle with his back to goal, slammed it into the top right hand corner. It was the very least we deserved. Malky Mackay was sent from the dugout for reasons not immediately clear and Argyle played out the last ten minutes of the half in some comfort.
Unsurprisingly, Rodgers chose to replace the willing but limited Hoskins with the talismanic and talented Smith. Immediately Watford looked a different proposition: we always struggle against genuine pace, and while Smith has that in abundance, he is also one of the League’s most skillful and tricky players. Jamie Mackie could learn plenty from him. The pitch also seemed to be taking its toll: suddenly the youthful Jenkins was quicker to the ball than the aging Fletcher and Duguid and Argyle were being forced on to the back foot, with the ball coming straight back at us every time we cleared our lines. And then, right on cue, one of those calamitous defensive errors which we really ought to be down at the Patent Office protecting our copyright on. Cathcart dithered; Seip slipped; Cathcart looked at the ball and Smith, with almost literally a cheery wave of thanks, dived in, rounded Larrieu and fired home. The crowd slumped into that far-too-familiar attitude of heartbreak and resignation and you could see the confidence and the belief drain out of the men in green. All Watford now: surely only a matter of time before they scored again.
With Mackie increasingly isolated on the right hand side and Williamson now winning his battles against Barnes, mainly because the balls being played to him were above his head rather than at his chest, Sturrock made a positional switch. Mackie up front, Judge to the right, Gallagher to the left. Within a minute the magic had worked. Judge came inside, slid the ball across, Mackie dummied exquisitely and there was Gallagher to take a stride and sidefoot home past a despairing Loach. Surely this time, we could hold on. Rodgers, to my despair, threw on Rasiak: in a fit of superstition I bit my tongue and refused to say out loud, “He always scores against us”. And in all truth, bar one almighty scramble at the end with Cathcart doing his utmost to turn the ball into his own net and the Watford players and bench screaming for a penalty (for what precisely none seem able to divine but they), it was a relatively panic-free last fifteen. It sure didn’t feel like it though.
The emergence – utterly unexpected – of Barnes as a starting striker is probably the biggest plus point of our season to date. Our bloated squad clearly needs culling, and up until last Friday I would guess that he would have been high on people’s lists to be out the door. No longer – at least on the evidence of last night. That may be bad news for MacLean and Easter – but it is great news for us. He needs a longer contract NOW. As far as the relegation picture is concerned, it just gets murkier by the week. Only Blackpool, Barnsley and Charlton failed to win either of their games Saturday and Tuesday and us, Saints and Forest won both. Watford showed plenty to suggest they will still be here next season: if we are to join them, we need 11 more points. Three wins, two draws. Ten games. Come on. COME ON.
Well well well. A long-overdue and unexpected triumph at Molineux (and necessary, given the fact that no few than FIVE of the bottom seven won on Saturday) has lifted the atmosphere around Home Park and injected just a little more belief into the beleaguered Pilgrims. Saturday’s performance was, so they say, solid and committed, with Ashley Barnes a revelation on his full debut, Gallagher back to close to his best and Chris Barker a stand-out in his battle with the much-lauded Kightly. From the bare stats – a 1-0 win after a goal in the opening 40 seconds – you might imagine it was a case of backs-to-the-wall from there on in, but apparently we had several chances to extend our lead and Wolves rarely threatened, a couple of Ebanks-Blake misses and dubious penalty shouts aside. At the final whistle, we celebrated as though we had won promotion: that and the recent innovation of the post-match huddle ought to have settled any doubts about the strength of unity within the team.
Tomorrow’s game is massive, no question. Watford have been among the strugglers all season and having taken a while to adjust to Brendan Rodgers now, frustratingly for us, have found some form at the crucial time – three wins on the bounce, the latest being a routine disposal of virtually the same Palace side that stuffed us at HP a fortnight ago. I have here for you the lowdown on the ‘Orns courteousy of Watford fan (and author) Matt Rowson:
“Scoring goals hasn’t really been a problem all season, but we’ve been awful defensively and as you’ll be aware that just mashes a team’s confidence after a while.
One of Rodgers’ first signings was Mike Williamson from Wycombe. Despite our reputation as a big ugly team, we actually didn’t have a six footer in the back four before his arrival. Now… he’s six foot four, wins every bloody thing in the air and isn’t bad on the deck. He’s brought the best out of Demerit, who always looked better alongside a “senior” partner and suddenly we’ve kept four clean sheets in five league games since Williamson’s arrival (the other away at Wolves, coincidentally).
So…Loach in goal, a good stopper but doesn’t command his area enough. Mariappa probably right back, a very good defender, consistently impressive despite chaos around him this season. Doyley at left back – our longest serving player, terrific defensively and would have been at a higher level had he been able to pass water. But Rodgers seems to have instilled some confidence in that regard, hence the new “Lloydinho” nickname. Doubt over Demerit… if he’s not fit Mariappa will play CB, Doyley (who is right footed) to RB and your mate Jon Harley at LB. He’s a nasty bugger, but he’s our nasty bugger…. alternatively, with Doyley impressing on the left, solid but unspectacular Arsenal loanee Gavin Hoyte in at RB.
Midfield… another Rodgers signing, Jack Cork is the main man in the centre. He looks like a real player, and there’s as much chance of us signig him permanently as there is of me swimming to the moon. Alongsside him… Ross Jenkins (no relation, but WHAT a name for a Watford youngster) who IS our player and looks magnificent. Cork is nineteen, Jenkins eighteen, Colin tried to rough them up on Saturday predictably enough with little effect.
On the right… Don Cowie, another recent signing from Inverness. Not an out-and-out winger, he times his runs well and gets through a lot of work. On the left, McAnuff who was a boo boy a couple of months ago but – again – has been rejuvenated by Rodgers and looks like the player we thought we’d signed eighteen months ago.
Tommy Smith will play just off the main striker; Player of the Year last year and probably this, he may well be off in the summer but we’re surprised and delighted to have held onto him this long. Tamas Priskin will probably come in after suspension and replace Rasiak, a great finisher, terrific touch, doesn’t impose himself enough but another who has improved enormously under Rodgers.
And for the first time in ages we have strength on the bench… probably Lee (GK), Hoyte, Lee Williamson, Hoskins and either Rasiak or Mat Sadler.”
Thanks Matt. As for the Greens, I expect Luggy to make changes – four games in 11 days is not clever, and we have been poor this season at coping with games coming thick and fast. So, despite his plaudits, expect to see Fallon in for Barnes and possibly Noone for Mackie. The back four should stay the same, assuming no new injuries. That would mean a side looking like:
As I said, four games in 11 days. Assuming 53 points to be guaranteed safety (no team has ever gone down on 53), Argyle are 14 away. Two wins and two draws over the next four games would do an awful lot to calm everybody’s nerves and settle us down. Tomorrow night could be a real rip-roarer, both teams going for it in an attempt to put some clear blue water between them and the dogfight below. We *really need to build on Saturday. Don’t let us down, boys.
The vultures are circling. Sky expected Sturrock to be sacked last night, following another home defeat, this time to Neil Warnock’s Palace. And sure, one win in 15 is sackable form. Maybe he will go. Maybe he will be given Saturday’s game at home to Sheffield Utd to try to pull something out of the fire. I haven’t been since the 2-0 defeat at home to Bristol City – not out of protest, you understand, but because of a couple of cracked ribs making it impossible for me to move, much less cheer. But if I possibly can, I will be there on Saturday, doing my bit for my team.
You see, this isn’t a piece debating the merits or otherwise of a change of manager. It isn’t even a debate on who should take over the reins, should Stapleton decide a change is needed. Nor – unusually – is it a trenchant critique of the financial restrictions under which the manager has had to operate. It’s simply a statement of fact. I’m Argyle till I die. Come what may. Regardless of the quality of the football, regardless of the league we play in, regardless of who is in charge, I’m a Pilgrim and for me, that means turning up. That’s what it means to be a fan. Logic, sense, even sanity don’t come into it. For better or worse, I’m Argyle. And being an Argyle fan has affected everything about who I am: where I choose to live; the work I choose to do; how I bring up my kids; what I spend my money on; everything. This club means something to me. Yes, it lets me down. Yes, it is unbearably painful to watch at the moment, as years of progress and hard work slide down the toilet. But that is football, and that is Argyle. I’ve experienced relegation before: I expect to experience it again. If we go down, it won’t change how I feel about my team; won’t change my desire for going to watch them; won’t change my passion.
Now, some would say that that attitude is deluded. Some might say that there comes a point when it just isn’t worth putting yourself through the misery and frustration, the heartache and the disappointment, just to be let down time and time again. Some might draw clumsy analogies with failing personal relationships, likening Argyle to a partner who repeatedly cheats on you, lets you down and still you stay with them. To all of those, I say, Yes, you’re probably right. But being a football fan is precisely about the pain and the heartache, the disappointment and the sheer blind delusory behaviour of continuing to go, come what may. And to all those now publically announcing they are through with Argyle, I say simply this. Bye then. But when you come back, when times are better and we are actually winning a game or two, remember this. The ecstasy and the delight that you may feel at our success will *always be tarnished for you by the knowledge that when times were hard you packed it in. You can’t, in your heart of hearts, enjoy it as much because you know you aren’t a fan. Just a good time girl with the same loyalty and commitment.
It saddens me, that people who sat through the Hodges years, the Kemp years, the Kelly years are saying that they have *now had enough. Saddens, and mystifies me. If we go down, we go down. But even if we don’t win another game this season, we have still seen worse – far worse – days than this. Why bail now – when our fate is *far from certain, when with a change in fortune we can still pull ourselves out of this? It doesn’t make any sense to me. But then, the number of people with “second teams” has always been a mystery to me too – perhaps the two things are related in some strange way…
Whatever happens over the next 13 games, I will be living and dying every minute of it – in the flesh as much as possible. I’m MORE likely to go to away games I’d previously ruled out for financial reasons than I was before our predicament got so severe. And I will be there in League 1 if that’s where we end up next season. Even if I’m there on my own. Sane or not; reasonable or not; come what may, I’m Argyle till I die. And I’m not doing a runner because of one shitty season.
Following two creditable away points, at Ipswich and PNE, expectation levels have risen to, oh at least cautious optimism. Described – as so many of our games now are – as a ‘must win’, tomorrow’s clash at Home Park with the Rams will undoubtedly have a nervous edge to it. Derby are, perhaps a little surprisingly, down among the relegation candidates and the new regime under Nigel Clough has yet to bed in properly. But Pilgrims beware: Derby are a team with quality players, if not yet a quality team; and they will have been hugely buoyed from their come-from-behind Cup win over the annoying Billy Davies and his upwardly mobile Forest side. In Kris Commons, Rob Hulse and Paul Green they have players capable of winning a match on their own and with Nathan Ellington, Luke Varney and new capture Chris Porter plenty of options in attack. It’s at the back where they look vulnerable – former Argyle booboy Paul Connolly was always good for one moment of madness per game during his time here; Jordan Stewart similarly so at Watford and I’ve never been totally convinced by Lewin Nyatanga or Dean Leacock, either.
Argyle are injury-ravaged, with Gray and McNamee definitely out, Seip, Cathcart, Barker and Gallagher doubtful. The new formation, with Mackie and Fallon up top, appears to be working though and it’s hard to see Sturrock changing that too much. Walton appears to be being given an extended run in the side, which is no bad thing: but he needs to deliver on his undoubted potential an above all, CALM DOWN DEAR. Some are seeing the partnering of two ‘combative’ midfielders in Walton and Duguid as an essentially negative approach – for me, it’s more Luggy returning to his roots and placing the emphasis for creativity on the wide men. During his previous spell here, he invariably played Frio with Adams or Hodges: and only those who never saw him play could describe Frio as a playmaker. Walton can certainly do the box-to-box thing (though he is overdue a goal). Meanwhile, at this level, width is increasingly dependent on fullbacks getting forward to support wide midfield players – and there’s no doubt that (eg) Clark at RB and Sawyer at left back would be better options than Doumbe/Barker.
Even with everybody fit, I can see Timar retaining his place and being detailed to look after Hulse. Other key battles will be Green and Walton in the midfield and the extent to which our fullbacks, whoever they may be, being able to cope with Commons and Teale. Above all, we need to take the game to Derby early on: if we give them time and space they will kill us. All this then points to a squad something like:
There remains some residual doubt about the game being on – apparently Derby have had to alter their plans to fly down and come by coach. Some forecasts also have heavy snow in the Plymouth area overnight. The groundstaff are apparently confident of being able to cope. Let’s see.