Pick the odd one out: Swindon, QPR, Sheffield Wednesday, Wimbledon, Rotherham, Millwall, Leeds, Colchester and Doncaster. Championship spods will have no problem answering this, but for those less accomplished in Division Two studies, it’s Donny for being the only side to have escaped relegation after propping up the league on Christmas Day since a Seth Johnson-inspired Crewe did so in 1998/1999. The catalyst for Rovers’ remarkable turnaround was a 4-2 reverse at the City Ground, which cost faltering Forest boss Colin Calderwood his job and triggered a patch of title-winning form with an impressive seven wins from eight league games.
This year it’s Plymouth, and the chances of a Donny-style U-turn look dubious. The faint-hearted have stayed well clear of Home Park since Ian Holloway upped sticks in 2007 as the club has struggled to manage the upheaval and disharmony that it has been engulfed by. In no particular order (take a breath): those remaining from the 2003/2004 title-winning squad were finally shown the door, a crop of attacking diamonds were enticed away by bigger boys, transfer records were broken on sub-standard replacements, the club’s first-choice goalkeeper was imprisoned, Holloway’s replacement, Paul Sturrock, revealed that he is battling Parkinson’s and, finally, there’s been a messy board room takeover that has already turned a little nasty. There’s been scant respite from the misery (what little joy was provided courtesy of Paul Gallagher last season) and I’ve worried that we were set to ‘do a Rotherham‘ for a while. While Sturrock had to contend with emotionally-raw fans and changing goalposts in the board room for the duration of his second spell, it seems that he was the wrong man for the job. The then directors thought that the club needed to lick its wounds after being dumped by Holloway, so Sturrock, who vowed he’d never, ever leave us for a second time, was handed the keys and with that Argyle sinked back within themselves and once again became a little club punching above its weight: all too easily accepting of defeat against better resourced clubs. Cavalier away performances under Holloway which yielded wins at the likes of Sunderland, Norwich, Hull and Charlton became a thing of the past as the squad was stripped of its attacking prowess and style replaced with shape and substance. Out went creativity and adventure and in came inhibition and, dare I say it, fear. Shackled by the manager’s ‘stifle ’em’ tactics, home form has been affected, goals have become hard to come by and self-belief has flatlined to the point that it’s been nearly two years since Argyle last came from behind to win.
Sturrock’s unsuitability for the task at hand was apparent for a long time before he was finally ushered upstairs a fortnight ago, and most fans expected to see changes made in the summer after the club limped to survival. However, a drawn out board room takeover put paid to any chance of a managerial change and Sturrock was left put as a safe pair of hands in the hope that continuity would stabilise the playing side of the club while the suits wrangled for power and built towards their World Cup 2018 host city bid. Sturrock was, though, given a meagre transfer budget with only the so-far disappointing Alan Gow being brought in for a fee pre-season and what was supposed to be continuity quickly morphed into inertia. Fans were, regardless of Sturrock’s hands being tied financially, quick to make their feelings known this season and there were calls for the manager’s head as early as August after a dismal display against Cardiff. Yet, with the board’s minds focused elsewhere, the much sought-after managerial clean sweep never materialised and as the club spouted ‘evolution, not revolution’ the decision was made to replace first-team coaches John Blackley and Kevin Summerfield with club legend and face of Plymouth’s World Cup bid, Paul Mariner. Described as a ‘fudge’ of a decision from the outset by many fans, the set-up always appeared awkward and despite an initial upturn in form the Sturrock-Mariner partnership quickly lost its momentum.
Three utterly hopeless 1-0 defeats on the bounce finally put an end to Sturrock’s stewardship a fortnight ago, and Mariner is now in charge for the foreseeable future with John Carver alongside him as helpmeet. Supporters hoped that there’d be an immediate shift in the way the team approached games with an emphasis now being placed on attack, but performances in the Lancastrian’s first two games in charge have been mixed-to-wayward and have only served to extend the Pilgrims’ grim losing streak. Mariner’s wish to play 4-3-1-2, implemented before Carver’s arrival, has left many commentators addled. The lack of width in the middle means that left winger Craig Noone continues to be neglected despite being the best attacking threat the club possesses, and in his stead the strategy caters for the huffers and puffers that have been driving crowds down for two seasons. It is, of course, early days though and it’s nice to see someone with zesty passion and energy on the sidelines for a change. This squad, bloated with journeymen and bad attitudes, needs more than a hearty slap up the backside, though, and whereas Doncaster had a philosophy and bedrock from which to elevate from this time last year, Plymouth’s foundations are a bit of a shambles. A 5-year plan has just today been outlined for the long-term objectives for the club, but it appears that Argyle will have to first contend with League One before they take a shot at promotion to the Premiership within 5 years.