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The Rub Of The Green- The Rise, Fall & Rise Again of Plymouth Argyle

The Plymouth Argyle club badge (via Wikipedia)

Plymouth Argyle have made a relatively decent effort at reacclimatising to the Championship, after finally making it back up under Steven Schumacher following thirteen long seasons away. But new boss, and former Al Ettifaq assistant, Ian Foster will doubtless be hoping for a return to the comparative glory days of his near-namesake Holloway, not to mention Paul Sturrock’s first spell at Home Park. 


Foster swapped Dammam for Devon in replacing Schumacher, who departed once Stoke dangled the promise of a bigger playing budget under his nose, after similar overtures were made to tempt Alex Neil from Sunderland before him...


The Ian Holloway and (Second) Paul Sturrock Eras


But let's stick to pasties over the Potteries! My own, initially casual, interest in Plymouth began five games from the end of the 2007/08 season. When on a visit to my brother at university in this particular corner of the West Country, and following probably the most scenic walk to a Football League ground- through a leafy Central Park before arriving at Home, we arrived for a spot of pre-pub second tier football. A 2-1 defeat for the hosts as meted out by visitors reeling from Premier League relegation the previous campaign, was not enough to stop them finishing in a creditable tenth place, one above the 11th in which Ian Holloway had left them before jumping ship to Leicester, a move which he later claimed to regret.

“I had a year out of football and had to think about what went wrong in my life. I was given some decent values from my mum and dad in our council house, and one of them was honesty and trust and loyalty. And I forgot to do all that at Plymouth. I left them, and I made the biggest mistake of my life.“

Having been parachuted in to replace Tony Pulis, who went back to Stoke in mid-June 2006 after just eight months in the Home Park dugout during which he managed to save the men in green from falling back into what is now League One, Holloway set about shaping much of the team that would take the field against Charlton. Although, that day they did so under the (returned) architect of the success which culminated in getting them there, though he most likely regretted his return...

Where Sturrock had relied on just one recognised striker in Nick Chadwick, Holloway was quick to augment him with a blend of youth in the shape of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, a Manchester United youngster signed for just £200,000, and lower league veteran Barry Hayles from Millwall for just half that price. The senior of the two top scoring with fourteen goals to the younger man's ten as Plymouth raced into sixth after fifteen games, though a season-ending knee injury for captain Paul Wotton contributed to a rapid slide downwards as a lack of squad depth began to bite. 


That January saw the loan market played to its maximum, as a young Scott Sinclair arrived from Chelsea alongside the Hungarian pairing of Krisztián Timár and Péter Halmosi from Ferencvaros and Debrecen respectively. The latter two would do enough to earn permanent moves come the season's end, the club's third at Championship level attracting a degree of optimism alongside a growing concern over whether the then- owners had the financial clout to bankroll any possible push higher...

They would at least receive something of a cash injection when local boy Dan Gosling moved to Everton for £1.5 million in the January of 2008- a first million pound player departing after just twenty-two games- having been promoted from the reserves alongside Gary Sawyer and Luke Summerfield. Luke McCormick also did enough to displace the popular Romain Larrieu between the posts while the Frenchman was out injured, as Holloway had little choice but to put his faith in youth before his own acrimonious exit on November 21st 2007.

A second spell for Sturrock then began with a 2-1 home defeat to West Brom, Jermaine Easter bagging a late consolation. December opened with a 3-0 win over Scunthorpe, again in front of a Home Park crowd as Ebanks-Blake, Timar and Nadjim Abdou finished off The Iron.

A week later they would show just why sections of that very crowd might have considered a cheeky outside bet on a play-off push, in beating Norwich 2-1 at Carrow Road, and not dropping a point until a 1-0 defeat at Cardiff on New Year's Day 2008. Amazingly it would take another month before they lost again, a February 2nd home loss to Hull doing little to derail the sort of consistency that had drawn admiring glances Ian Holloway's way.

But those very same fans who might have deliberated another trip to the bookies, in anticipation of giving out a few more bloody noses, would've been left tearing up their slips by the end of 2008/09. A wretched thirteen wins and twenty-one defeats from their forty-six games saw them go the other way and only just manage to haul themselves above the precipice and avoid a return to League One, loanee Paul Gallagher from Blackburn finishing as top scorer in the league on thirteen goals from his forty games.

Given the swift nature of the decline, the fall off the cliff most likely came as little surprise to even the hardiest of Janners, Sturrock lasting until 10 December of 2009. Before new chairman Sir Roy Gardner, who'd replaced Paul Stapleton, brought in former player Paul Mariner to steady the ship- a gambit which started terribly with a 2-0 loss at Preston in his first game two days later!

The following weekend he'd have similar luck on the turf he'd previously graced, Coventry ruining his homecoming by winning 1-0. But though they were inconsistent, it was arguably only a run of no wins from their final five games which sealed their fate, victory at Doncaster on April 3rd the last time they'd bag three points before the fall from merely being on the ropes to slumping to the Championship's floor.


Plummeting to the 4th Tier and Fighting Back


As if that were bad enough, the appointment of Peter Reid to lead the charge back up from League One ended instead in a further plummet into League Two, largely thanks to a ten point deduction handed down by the Football League for going into administration in February 2012. A raft of player sales were forced upon the club in the January, because of a winding up petition from HMRC- Bradley Wright-Phillips departed for Charlton, Craig Noone packed his bags for Brighton and Reda Johnson headed north to Sheffield Wednesday.

Chairman Gardner was also off, to be replaced by local businessman James Brent as of December 27th. After, at best, middling fortunes under first Carl Fletcher and then John Sheridan, perhaps the new man in the boardroom was thinking along Sturrockian lines in appointing Derek Adams from Ross County. And it very nearly paid off in spectacular fashion as his new charges reached the play-off final, however, a 2-0 defeat to AFC Wimbledon ensured at least another season in the doldrums. Second place the next season (2016/17) ensured a route back to hopefully recapturing former glories, which was followed by an unlikely run to seventh and a finish just outside the League One play-offs bought him a little more time to emulate his fellow countryman.

But, following a flirtation with relegation in their second season back, Adams was gone, replaced with Ryan Lowe and Steven Schumacher as his assistant, who alongside another new chairman in Simon Hallett, got Plymouth back into League One for 2019/20. However, on December 7th 2021, Lowe resigned, leaving the Greens in fourth place before taking over at Preston North End. 

Schumacher stepped up for a highly impressive season in sole charge before December 19th of last year saw him swayed to Stoke and Foster confirmed as his replacement on January 5th 2024, having been persuaded to return home from Saudi Arabia to lead what chairman Hallett has called a “ next five- year vision”...

Whether that means Championship consolidation, following a record 101 points haul to get back to the second tier, or a push for the Premier League having got a thirst for success back, remains to be seen- hold onto your Ginsters!

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