After many had wrote them off at the start of the season, Plymouth Argyle have their eyes set on a second successive promotion. In this month’s EFL piece, Ross Bramble takes a closer look at The Pilgrim’s turn in fortune and how an unpredicted play-off finish could see The Green Army climb back into the Championship after eight years away.
It’s been quite a season for fans of Plymouth Argyle. Maybe even more emotional than last season, and that’s saying something. The Pilgrims returned to League One after a six year stint in the lowest professional tier in England, coming second to eventual league winners Portsmouth in a League 2 title chase that went down to the wire.
It was a long overdue promotion, masterminded by former Ross County boss, Derek Adams. During his two stints with the Scottish outfit, Adams took County up from the Scottish Second Division and then up from the First Division as champions after a brief assistant managerial stint with Hibernian. When he took the reigns of Plymouth in 2015, there was a fervent hope he could be the man to take Argyle back into the upper reaches of the EFL pyramid.
The club finished 5th in the 2015-16 season and were beaten in the play-offs by Portsmouth, who as previously mentioned would then pip them to the league title a season later. That said, the elation of promotion probably abated the misery of missing out on the silverware. Pundits and fans disagreed on exactly how Plymouth would find life back in League One, but the consensus, especially after the Michael Eisner takeover and appointment of Kenny Jackett, was that Portsmouth were the better placed of the two.
Fast forward to the 2017-18 season and for the opening three months of the campaign, it seemed for all the world as though Plymouth were dead meat on a stick. A mere four wins from their opening 19 league fixtures left the club stranded at the foot of the League One table, and the natives were more than a little restless. The Green Army’s social media following began to question the safety of Adams’ position and even called for his removal; the Plymouth Herald newspaper were certainly fielding their fair share of fan frustration, too. The League One honeymoon was well and truly over by the time November rolled around.
But look at the League One table now and you’ll be staggered by the standings. Argyle now sit sixth, a point in the play-off places ahead of nearest rivals Peterborough. That run of four wins in 19 has since been replaced with a run of one defeat in 16. In that spell came a six-game winning streak, which this weekend was boosted to a seven-game unbeaten run after a 1-1 draw with a club heading in the opposite direction, Fleetwood Town. It’s a staggering turnaround that has Plymouth genuinely dreaming of the bright lights of the Sky Bet Championship.
A shade over eight weeks ago, the Pilgrims were 5000/1 to win promotion to the Championship – the same odds that Leicester City faced in their title winning season, only those odds were offered with an entire season for the Foxes to prove the bookies wrong in. Plymouth, however, have transformed themselves and the entirety of League One’s play-off and relegation pictures in just 16 games.
Adams has always been known as a manager who prioritises a solid back-line on which to build his attacking line. While the style served Plymouth so well in League Two, as it did Ross County for so many seasons, it didn’t quite hit the heights in League One. In a recent interview, Adams pointed to a slew of suspensions and injuries that hampered the opening to their campaign, but he is not a manager to hide behind excuses. In League One, just as with the Championship and League Two, it doesn’t take much encouragement for a rolling snowball to grow – one win can turn into seven before you know it with the relentless Saturday-Tuesday scheduling in the lower divisions.
Plymouth are almost undoubtedly the greatest turn-around story of the season in England’s top four divisions, barring a late season miracle at the Stadium of Light. And while the play-offs may still seem a little “pie in the sky” to some members of the Green Army, they would be wise to cast their minds back to 2016 when the exact same story was written by Barnsley. Paul Heckingbottom’s side were the divisional whipping boys and found themselves rooted to the bottom of the league as they entered December. But a staggering run of results later saw them sneak into the play-off places. A famous Wembley victory saw one of the most unlikely promotions in recent history made reality, and now, two seasons later, we could be set for an encore.
Plymouth’s astounding mid-season run is another example of the sheer unpredictability of the English Football League that has turned so many heads away from the ever-divisive Premier League. I have, unfortunately, grown something of a reputation of delivering the kiss of death to the teams I discuss in my monthly contributions to this parish (Oxford, Barnsley and the MK Dons have all struggled after my respective columns hit the screen), but perhaps Plymouth are the club to buck my own personal trend. Who would dare bet against them now, anyway?
Follow Ross on Twitter @rossbramble
Read all of Ross’ articles on the EFL