It must seem like a life time away since “The Sturrock Revolution” that saw the club go through its most successful period with two Division titles in three years, bringing a long with it records and prestige that every single soldier of the Green Army could hardly have believed.
The euphoria of reaching the Championship carried the club to the highest position in 20 years of 11th under, what was then the perfect man for the job, Ian Holloway. The stark reality of how adrift Plymouth are from ever being a solid Championship club with the potential to sit amongst the kings of the Premier League, could be seen last season and finally came to a head this season. Relegation was inevitable, even after small glimmers of hope with the thrilling 3–2 win over local rivals Bristol City, the inspiring 2-0 at Portman Road against Ipswich Town, and the jaw-dropping 2-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers. This would always be for nothing as the disastrous home form always cropped up. Monday night against Newcastle United was always going to be lose-lose situation. Asking a young back line, which had only just begun to gel and understand each other, to deal with the likes of Andy Carroll, Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton, player’s with Premiership experience and quality, was too much. Trying to score against a team that has only conceded 33 games all season and have a goalkeeper, Steve Harper, at the height of his career who’s kept 25 clean sheets in all competition’s this season., Jamie Mackie and Bradley Wright-Phillips gave it their best shot and if it had been any other keeper, Argyle might still have been in with a shot of escaping the relegation battle that had lasted six months.
The six year stint in the Championship was always with its problems. Finding quality players with the money managers, Bobby Williamson, Tony Pulis, Ian Holloway, Paul Sturrock and Paul Mariner had at their disposal was a tall order. Plus to any potential player, the daunting geographical remoteness of the South-West club which is pretty far from most places makes it quite hard to persuade good players to come to Devon and stay there. Of course there have been the few exceptions that have lit up Home Park, but they have had their price. When Williamson brought in former Nigerian international Taribo West in 2005 eyes were definitely raised. With World Cup experience and having played for Auxerre and Inter Milan, and at only 31 the player seemed to good to be true. He was, with only four appearances and two defeats to his name West was not good enough for new manager Pulis and was let go. Paul Sturrock’s return to Plymouth was a welcome sight and brought it one of the most unlikeliest signings. Having been released by Manchester City in the summer, it was astonishing Emile Mpenza decided to join the club on a one year deal. However their was a cost. With reports of £10,000 wages it was always to good to be true, and with constant bouts of injuries and illness it became all to obvious the Belgian striker was milking Argyle for all its worth and fans were glad to see the back of him after only 9 appearance and 2 goals all season.
Holloway’s employment came with colour and optimism, so when the Bristol man brought in Sylvain Ebanks-Blake from Manchester United for £200,000, fans had every right to believe the Pilgrims could go on to even bigger heights. With 10 goals in the first season and 11 in the second, things seemed unbelievably good, but Argyle was only ever a springboard for the striker and when Wolves activated his release clause by bidding £1.5 million, that was that. Winger Peter Halmosi was of the same aspiration, joining on loan initially in 2007 before moving to Devon permanently the next year. The Hungarian scored 12 goals in 59 league games in those two years which attracted Hull City who moved on for £2 million.This has always been a problem. Having to watch players move on to a bigger club, meaning Plymouth can never be that big club. Not without money. All of the managers that have graced the helm of Argyle’s time in the Championship have had to let fantastic players go like Dan Gosling, David Norris, Tony Capaldi and Akos Buzsaky and bring in either average league players, or up and coming players who have yet to be anywhere near their potential.
The team has always had to be bolstered by loan players, which though at times very successful like Paul Gallagher, Alan Judge and David Stockdale, it is not how a team should be built. A team can not fully mould together season after season when different players are dipping in and out of them. So maybe League 1 is the perfect solution to Plymouth’s problems. A shake-up is required. Dead-weight players such as Steven MacLean, Marcel Seip and Simon Walton who are clogging up the wage bill, can be let go. It will also mean players who do not care for the Argyle cause can leave if they want. Then the team will be stripped to its barest form. With teams of lesser quality Plymouth will be able to get back to winning ways not just away from home, but at Home Park as well. What Paul Mariner, if he is still at the helm come next season, must do if the Pilgrims are to bounce straight back up, taking a leaf out of Norwich City’s book by signing a striker, guaranteed to score 30 goals in a season. In Grant Holt the Canaries got just that, who is currently joint second of the goal scoring charts with 24 goals, helping them to clinch an immediate return to the Championship.
Plymouth Argyle may not be Norwich City or Newcastle United, but with the infrastructure properly sorted, a solid squad playing for the Green Army and Paul Mariner, the Pilgrims may soon be gracing the Championship with its presence once again, sooner then people might think.