Another relegation battle was not expected
9 February ~ Even the most pessimistic of Plymouth Argyle fans couldn't possibly have thought the team would be struggling at the foot of League Two for a second consecutive year. There is a distinct contrast this time around, though. Despite having taken one point from the first nine games in 2011-12 amid the fear of liquidation, there was a positive air around the club. Supporters had dug deep to help pay staff wages and a Fans Reunited day had kick-started a revival that saw safety reached with games to spare.
This season, there was a general feeling that anywhere between tenth and 18th would be fine – the club wasn't ready for a promotion attempt after four seasons of struggle. Carl Fletcher had been handed the position of manager in September 2011 by virtue of being the most experienced senior player in the dressing room. He lasted until the first day of 2013, with the team in 21st place having won only five games out of 24, but many felt his time was up early in the season. While he clearly wasn't ready for the job, as a person Fletcher deserves a lot of credit for standing by the club as players went unpaid and eventually leading the revolt when the team threatened to refuse to play at Burton in September 2011. That forced the hands of the administrators after eight months of false promises and saved us from the moneyless chancers circling the club.
Chairman James Brent was the self-proclaimed "reluctant bidder" who took over the club after they came out of administration in October 2011. The optimism triggered by his arrival has now evaporated as Plymouth fans look at other clubs who exited administration recently and see Port Vale, for example, charging ahead. When Plymouth beat Barnet comprehensively in October there was an 11 point gap to the relegation places which has now disappeared. The bottom of League Two has become a mini-league of six vying to stay up and Argyle are only out of the bottom two on goal difference. Of that small knot of strugglers, Bristol Rovers have an upward momentum and only Accrington seem to be similarly mired.
John Sheridan was nobody's choice of manager to succeed Fletcher. He was willing, having been out of work since being sacked by Chesterfield in August, but whether he knew what he was taking on is unclear. We were unbeaten in his first three games but they were also all at home. Faced with a core of players who have known nothing but times of struggle, Sheridan has been busy using the loan system to add youngsters from higher divisions, a touch of lower-league experience and most importantly, a new outlook. He has tightened up a weak defence but today's trip to Aldershot – one point and one place ahead of us – is his first away test.
This has the makings of being a pivotal match. Going down to the Conference wouldn't be the end for Argyle but we might take a long time to get back. Meanwhile, it's rumoured that unrealistic budgets were set by the present regime and that the club is again losing thousands of pounds a week. Relegation will not be decided on a Saturday in February but the "us against the world" spirit of last year has long gone. Home Park is a melancholic place right now. Steven East