Plymouth Argyle Supporters in Need of a Reason to Believe
In a brief exchange towards the end of last season, myself and then Argyle Fans’ Trust Board Member Gareth Nicholson celebrated how supporting the Pilgrims had suddenly become less of a burden. For the first time in a number of years we were more relaxed; for once, not entirely convinced that doom was about to befall the team as we approached one of the final fixtures of another 46-legged slog.
Safety had practically been achieved and – before the slate was wiped ahead of another season – we were intent on enjoying the last couple of games instead of watching from behind our fingers.
Yet, since the end of last season, that precious, care-free mentality has seemed increasingly fleeting and where there was once despair and dread there is now apathy and – in some quarters – anger driven largely by underwhelming player recruitment.
2-0 down at Oxford in our third league game the weekend before last, Argyle pulled a goal back with 15 minutes to go through beefy full-back Robbie Williams; yet, rather than sparking a late rally, the strike – depressingly – did little to change the game as the home team ran out comfortable winners. The away supporters – all 1,000 of them – appeared inured to the same old course of events; the strangely muted celebration of Williams’ goal indicating a fanbase that’s grown weary and has been given too little cause for optimism for too long now.
Saturday’s 3-2 win over Northampton marked a change in fortunes but – coming via a half-time deficit – the game still provided an opportunity for critics to air their grievances as the team were booed off after the first 45.
The same disgruntlement was displayed on the main internet forum, PASOTI. Indeed, the following collection of quotes is a summary of the most extreme comments that were posted between the time of Northampton’s goal and Argyle’s leveller: “time starting to run out”; “time for Brent to smell the Nescafe, and have some town halls”; “shot-less bunch of useless players who don’t sound as if they could score even if their opponents didn’t bother to play without a goalkeeper”; “GET RID OF FLETCHER NOW, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE”; “Fletch out I’m afraid”; “Fletch standing in the dugout biting his nails wondering why his ‘ideas’ aren’t working…”; “time for him to realise he won’t cut it as a manager”; “Time to get the useless Fletcher out of our club.”; “Get that useless Feeney off the pitch!”; “Quite obvious that a lot of the management and playing staff do not either have the ability or commitment, or indeed both..”; “1,017 less than the last game. Says it all.”
One should never read too much into comments posted on internet football forums but such out and out vitriol was far from unpredictable, many users of this particular website having doubted manager Carl Fletcher’s suitability for the job almost from the very beginning of his tenure in September 2011.
Just how had we got here exactly, three and a half league games into the new campaign?
Last season, fans grouped together to support impoverished employees and to defend the club from those who sought to take advantage of its precarious position. By the end of the season our average attendance was 6,915, the fourth highest in the division despite it being our worst ever Football League finish; supporters were widely applauded for their loyalty and stoicism in the face of adversity; alliances were forged, most particularly with Brighton fans, via Fans Reunited and the future seemed to promise better things.
But over the summer this sense of fellowship has – to my mind – all but dissolved and we’re back to where we were when the club began to tumble down the leagues a few years ago. The negativity emanating from vocal critics questioning the renewal of manager Carl Fletcher’s contract and calling for more funds to be directed towards the team has taken a hold within the fanbase.
This is a call for perspective.
In September 2011, we set up http://www.uptheline.org in the club’s darkest hour. With a crisis unfolding off and on the pitch, we genuinely believed that the site would become an obituary to a club we love, albeit from afar. But as the 2011/12 season unfolded, the club rose from its lowest ever point to financial and footballing survival and, more importantly, a sense of unity developed which left even the most cynical supporter with bright hopes for the future.
After four games of the new season, we have beaten a weakened Portsmouth side to reach the League Cup second round, drawn one and lost two of our League Two games. To those of us with memories of unpaid players threatening to strike, of the fire-sale of all but a skeleton squad and of what felt like certain relegation at Christmas last year, this feels like an adequate return. The squad seems settled, blends youth with experience and will benefit from loan signings when the transfer window formally closes making players on the fringes of Championship squads more readily available. One thing is for certain: this is no time to panic.
And yet comments on social media and via the toxic cauldron of ‘fan’ forums make evident that those with long memories are in a minority. There seems already to be a growing consensus that this is a squad doomed to be relegated: that a change of management is needed; that money we don’t have must be spent to improve midfield creativity and to sharpen our strike force. It is not yet September but for many the writing is on the wall.
This has to stop. Quite apart from the fact that it is too early for any fan to make a meaningful judgement as to what the season may hold, ungrounded pessimism and unrealistic expectations are the greatest threat to our present and to our future. We are rebuilding with a solid foundation, both commercially and on the pitch, a process that takes time and which must be encouraged and not reproached. We do not call for blind optimism or for fans to lose their voice – rather it is in hope that we may all temper the urge to fear the worst, to keep instead a sense of perspective and to remember at all costs that every game, even every defeat, is precious and to be savoured.
If we are to battle relegation again – and who says we will? – it should be with the spirit of community and togetherness that was forged by last season. Our fan base, home and away, is the envy of the division and last season proved that, channelled positively, this support can make the difference between survival and unthinkable collapse. Now is the time to remember what we have, what we almost lost and to rekindle the positivity which made last season one of the greatest in our history.
Keep the faith – and keep it green.
Given the level of dissent and the writers’ dig at the messageboards, it didn’t exactly go down well – at least amongst those online – with the correspondents mocked as wannabe journalists and even accused by some of being in the club’s employ.
More to the point, various people were at pains to point out just why they’re so hacked off, citing the particular awfulness of the team’s attacking play in its first few games; the inexperience of the management team; our likely position behind Exeter and Torquay in terms of Devon bragging rights; the continued high cost of going to games compared to the frequently dire quality of football on offer; and – vitally – the yawning gap between the multi-million property developments that are afoot at Home Park and what seems set to be another lowly League 2 finish.
Yet on the other side of the fence there have been strong arguments, too, the more patient of Pilgrims pointing out the fragile foundations upon which the club currently rests and emphasising how we still exist in a period of struggle and austerity in which debts must be gradually paid off and books rebalanced. As Roger Willis highlighted in a post for us earlier this year, Argyle’s deferred debt upon James Brent’s takeover totaled over £4m and the club must therefore operate under close scrutiny from the Football League, who expressed concern about the proposed business model when Argyle’s Golden Share was released last season.
Rather than a series of lectures, however, it would seem that the only temporary remedies to this division would be consecutive victories – something that Argyle have failed to achieve since April 2011 – or an ambitious signing or two of the type that supporters expected when told that Carl Fletcher had a ‘competitive budget’ in the summer.
As John Lloyd, member of the Plymouth Argyle Supporters’ Association London branch, told me: “The ‘we’re lucky to still be here’ mantra is wearing thin now. After such a long period of decline and disappointment, it’s impressive that as many as seven thousand fans continue to keep the faith. There’s a Springsteen song called ‘Reason to Believe’ with the line ‘At the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe’. Argyle fans really need one now. They deserve to see a chink of light at the end of this dark tunnel we’ve been crawling through for three or four years now. Patience will soon wear thin if there isn’t.”
I put to this Chris Allen, one of the authors of the aforementioned letter and his response was that “uptheline.org would never call for blind optimism. But for every Southampton there are so many clubs that haven’t learnt that you need some stability before you can start to rebuild. If this season sees is surviving in relative comfort, it’s a good result. Next season is when true optimism and a push back up the leagues should begin.”
Many supporters would agree with this sentiment – only a misguided few truly expected anything more than a mid-table finish this season at best. Yet having been told by the club earlier in the summer that Carl Fletcher had a ‘competitive budget’ at his disposal and still, in our hearts, more accustomed to seeing Argyle take on Birmingham and Bristol City than Burton, our general lack of ambition has been a disappointment.
If some of the rumours that I’ve heard about players we’ve missed out on, or those who are set to join later this week when the loan window opens are true, then this article would to some extent be made redundant; those supporters who haven’t been able to resist laying into the club would most likely be pacified, at least for a time.
Yet there’s a sense that there is a wider point to all of this; that we – as a group of supporters – seem at the moment to be particularly sensitive to the intentions and actions of the board and the way in which the team is being managed. Having suffered so miserably for near enough the last four seasons through relegation, the failed World Cup Bid, administration, relegation and the austerity imposed on the club ever since, there is a danger that – if some form of success or ‘Reason to Believe’ isn’t achieved in the short term – the club risks further alienating the supporters who remain.
So, while the efforts being made to improve the match day experience and to put plans into place for the South Stand redevelopment are appreciated, the one thing that is bound to bring back momentum is a competitive team.
A war chest isn’t required: no one wants to see a return to the days of panic signings in the mode of Steven MacLean and Kenny Cooper. Rather, supporters just want to be surprised a little – to see us picking up the types of players that Torquay and Cheltenham, to name a few, are doing so well out of – and to turn up for a game because they want to, rather than out of some sense of fidelity or, dare I say it, charity.
Some have already made up their minds in regards to the manager and will use every disappointing result as another stick to beat the club with. Yet the vast majority of supporters are still with Fletcher and understand the need to give him time and space to flourish.
However, the board would be foolish to ignore calls to direct further investment towards the playing staff; having given Fletcher the opportunity to develop in the role, they should back him accordingly where possible or risk harpooning his career before it’s really started. Given how very little we’ve had to cheer in recent times, it really won’t take much to get supporters going, but James Brent and his co-directors must understand that it works both ways and that stability need not necessarily go hand in hand with total abstinence in the transfer market.