It’s a well worn cliché that the period over Christmas and New Year is a crucial one for professional football clubs in England. With 5 games played in the space of just two weeks, it can define a season.
Sadly for Plymouth Argyle supporters, 2012-13’s festive fortnight was abysmal. Having picked up just 2 points from the 15 available, the Pilgrims now find themselves in the League Two relegation places.
That it’s come as no surprise whatsoever to the vast majority of fans is perhaps the most frustrating thing about this particular pickle. Despite surviving relegation last term, the Pilgrims looked hopelessly fragile throughout Carl Fletcher’s tenure – whose shortcomings as a manager were plain and painful to see – and opposition to his continued employment had of late developed into a kind of mass hysteria on the messageboards.
Yes, it was accepted that we’d been in administration only a year previous; that Fletcher had steered the club to safety last term; that we were lucky to still have a Football League club to watch; and that he was by all means a good guy. But by the time the board finally made their decision to cast a tearful Fletcher aside on New Year’s Day the fact is that we were once again going backwards on the pitch.
Having had to endure Fletcher’s questionable recruitment, team selection and tactics and the resulting poor results for some 16 months, morale is now as low as it’s been amongst supporters.
Not only has it been a torrid few months results-wise, either. The lack of progress off the field – in terms of establishing a robust infrastructure behind the scenes; facilitating engagement between club and supporters and developing a greater level of transparency – has stalled to the point that the fanbase now appears divided between those who remain resolutely behind and those who are beginning to question the intentions of the board of directors.
Last week the gloom lifted for a short time, however, when it was suggested that Keith Hill might be in the frame to replace Fletcher. Greeted as a panacea to all our problems, here was a well respected former player who – by some stroke of luck – was potentially available following his dismissal at Barnsley. A real Championship Manager, who’d performed a minor miracle at Rochdale, shoestring and all, and who was apparently saying nice things about us. He liked to play football the proper way and was the just the type who’d rouse our thousands of stay-away fans from their armchairs.
But just as those on the messageboards – at each others’ throats for months if not years – came together in agreement as to the way forward, the board went and picked someone else, John Sheridan, on what is thought to be a short-term contract until the end of the season.
Leaked by the press late on Friday afternoon, Sheridan’s appointment was initially met with what can at best be described as a mixed reaction. He wasn’t on – as one commentator termed it – the original alleged list of ‘likely lads’, made up of Hill and those merry-go-rounders such as Phil Brown, Kevin Blackwell and Colin Lee, so supporters hadn’t had the chance to contemplate the appointment. What’s more, some recounted how the previous encounter with Sheridan hadn’t been a positive one, the son of Stretford having brawled with club hero David Friio during a feisty game against Oldham at Home Park back in 2003.
Perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t Keith Hill, who – despite a torrid record at Barnsley– many had pinned all their hopes on.
But over this past weekend, as the dust has settled and as rumours have circulated concerning Hill’s apparent unavailability – for a combination of reasons – any supporter with a sense of reason must be wondering whether this might, in fact, be a pretty neat move for all concerned.
Acknowledging that the other names – most particularly Phil Brown – would have represented the same kind of lack of imagination shown by so many Football League boards; that fellow applicant Kevin Blackwell apparently interviewed particularly poorly; and that Sheridan actually has a strong record at this level – winning the division two season ago with Chesterfield – some might even venture to say that Argyle have done well to attract him.
Indeed, with next to no budget available for new signings, poor training facilities, a demotivated squad to pick from and a fairly demanding set of supporters watching his every move, it would have been a far from attractive proposition for prospective managers of any standing.
But, having resigned from his position at Chesterfield earlier this season under mysterious circumstances, and having been sacked by Oldham – his employers previous to the Spireites – following a forgettable night at the dogs in 2009, Sheridan’s name and reputation is perhaps as tainted as the club he is joining, suggesting that he needs this appointment to work out as much as his new club does.
While there are significant differences in the circumstances and a comparison is facile, parallels do exist between now and October 2000, when Paul Sturrock took over at Argyle – then at a similarly low ebb and struggling badly in the fourth tier – after having earlier resigned at Dundee United just two games into the season. After sweeping the club clean of dirt and residue, eight years of upward mobility followed. Argyle fans must now hope that Sheridan is similarly handy when it comes to using a broom.