How Plymouth Argyle did the impossible and returned to the EFL Championship from the verge of liquidation

Published on 19 February 2024 at 16:30

On the 19th of April 2010, Chris Hughton’s Newcastle United ensured their victory in the Championship title race, with a comfortable 2-0 victory away against Plymouth Argyle at Home Park, thanks to goals from Andy Carroll and Wayne Routledge. This however wasn’t the only major outcome from that result, with the loss confirming the Pilgrims relegation to the 3rd tier of English football after a 6-year stint in the Championship.


Moving on to the next season, with Peter Reid replacing Paul Mariner as manager, Plymouth were expected to struggle to make the much-desired return to the Championship many of their fans expected, with a mid-table finish being the common prediction. Plymouth Argyle however could not find any consistency with their results, partnering this with losing star forward Bradley Wright-Phillips to Charlton in January, the Pilgrims fell to back-to-back relegations, and this was not the main of their worries, with HM Revenue and Customs on their tails for unpaid taxes, which led to a 10 point deduction which ultimately relegated the club.


With the club in a dire position financially, a 3rd consecutive relegation which would’ve put them into the Conference League would have also most certainly put the club who were already in administration into liquidation. With the fans already deeply worried with the future of their club, the players struggled to lift these concerns, failing to pick up a win in their first 9 games of the season, seeing manager Peter Reid sacked in the middle of this dreadful run, being replaced by Carl Fletcher. Throughout the following months, form slowly started to pick up, with the club having a very successful second half of the season, seeing them survive relegation on the final day despite a 2-1 loss to Cheltenham. This survival led to James Brent’s Akkeron Group acquiring the club on the 28th of October, dawning a new horizon for the South-West club, with the dark times now in the past.


The next ten years saw the club floating around between the 3rd and 4th tiers, with the only real opportunity to return to the Championship coming in the 17/18 season, where the club finished just 3 points shy of the play-offs thanks to consecutive losses at the end of the season. This came after a horrid start to the season seeing the Pilgrims win only 1 of their first 14 in the league, this being a 2-0 home win against Charlton in the second game of the season. The rest of the season looked bleak for the Green Army; it looked as if they’d go straight back down after being promoted the season prior. Derek Adams, manager at the time, didn’t see it this way however, stating the club would get the playoffs. With the introduction of the likes of Jamie Ness and star signing Ruben Lameiras, the clubs form swiftly changed, losing just 4 of the next 30, picking up 18 wins along the way. This largely being down to the clear star quality of Lameiras and Graham Carey. They sadly couldn’t keep this up however, with the club being relegated just the next season, seeing Derek Adams lose his job.


A fresh start in the EFL League 2 saw Ryan Lowe take charge after he had to leave former club Bury due to their expulsion from the Football League. Lowe brought along 5 players who had helped him achieve promotion with Bury, these including Dom Telford and Danny Mayor. Ryan Lowe was coming into a tough job, losing star players such as Carey and Lameiras before he even had a chance to manage them. Despite this, he managed to secure the 3rd promotion slot based on the club’s points per game due to the season's early cancellation due to the Covid 19 outbreak.


The following season Lowe managed to keep the Pilgrims in the 3rd tier quite comfortably, finishing 18th, despite a very poor finish to the season. It was the next season however where Argyle finally managed to look like the team the fans were expecting in 2010, as they were top of the table pushing towards Christmas, losing just once in their first 17, that being on the opening day of the season. Despite a poor end to November, Ryan Lowe got his big move and became the new Preston manager, with Steven Schumacher taking over as Plymouth Argyle manager as he was promoted from his assistant manager role. Although they went off the rails following the loss of their manager, they picked up their form again and were sitting in 4th place with 7 games left. At the time automatics were still a slim possibility but the main goal which felt as good as secured was playoffs. The Pilgrims ended up picking up just 6 points out of the last 21 available, and with a humbling 5-0 home loss to MK Dons on the final day of the season, they finished 7th and missed out on playoffs. Steve Schumacher was in no way happy about this, even going as far to cancel the end of season awards, as they didn’t deserve it.


With a young manager, a young squad, and only just missing out on the play offs the season before, many would believe that team to be favourites for automatic promotion. This however wasn’t the case, with many predicting a mid-table finish, or if they were feeling generous maybe they’d put them as scraping playoffs. Schumacher, however, wanted more than this, and set his team for a title fight with an incredible summer transfer window. Bringing in Bali Mumba on loan, the EFL League One young player of the year who should have been playing Championship football instead, bringing in Whittaker on loan who was arguably the league's player of the season until Swansea recalled him and then the very smart loan signings of Azaz, Lonwijk, Cosgrove and the useful permanent acquisitions of Matt Butcher and Mickel Miller. With an already strong squad consisting of the best keeper in the league Michael Cooper, a very strong back 3 and good goal scorers with Ennis and Hardie, Schumacher had bigger ambitions than just fighting for playoffs.


After a difficult start which saw them win 2 home games yet lose two away games including a 5-1 loss to Charlton, the club went on a huge unbeaten run that ran all the way until the 20th game week, seeing them sit at the top of the table, with Ipswich and Sheffield Wednesday just closing the gap. Disaster seemingly struck however when Swansea recalled Plymouth’s at the time top goal scorer Morgan Whittaker. Although he was quickly replaced with Ben Waine and Tyreik Wright (neither making a major impact), the prospect of finishing such a competitive season was daunting for the green army. But with additional important signings such as Matete and Callum Wright who could each impact the team to win games, it was still Plymouth’s to lose.


With Barnsley also hitting great form and Ipswich and Wednesday not looking to slip up, the underdog Plymouth Argyle side were considered imposters by many, although still first many didn’t take them seriously for the title. The Pilgrims, however, kept picking up wins, even when Ipswich and Wednesday had their difficult periods, Plymouth found a way to scrape through nearly every game, with their fair share of late winners and deflected winners. This incredible form and Sheffield Wednesday’s late drop off has now ensured that the Green Army are guaranteed automatic promotion and can even pass the 100-point mark winning the title on the final day. Not bad for the underdogs.


For a season with so many ups and downs, it was hard for many Argyle fans to be truly confident it would finish in such a terrific way. From the huge victories in the first half of the season including the monumental comeback against title rivals Ipswich and the thumping 4-2 Halloween victory against local rivals Exeter, to the huge Papa John’s Trophy final loss to Bolton at Wembley, the embarrassing 5-2 defeat at Peterborough and what felt like the end of the season when star man Cooper had his season ended in a 1-0 away defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, the Plymouth fanbase will be relieved they’ve finally managed to see their task through.


Commiserations must be felt for Sheffield Wednesday, as any other season they would have easily finished in the top 2, as it looks like they’re going to finish 3rd with 96 points. Last season that would have been more than enough for the title, yet this year it’s not even 2nd. This is evidence that the top teams in League 1 are separating from the lower half of the table, this being clear by the quality of sides around the top. If you remove Plymouth Argyle, the top 6 would be Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday, Barnsley, Bolton, Derby, and Peterborough. Bar Barnsley and Peterborough (who were both relegated from the Championship the season prior, there would be no shock seeing any of those teams in the Premiership, the fact they are in the 3rd tier shows more quality coming down from the top division, with league one now being a league with much higher quality teams.


In such a hard division, Plymouth Argyle didn’t ‘bottle,’ the wheels didn’t ‘come off,’ they finally saw it through against the odds, and there is not a more deserving fan base to experience such an exciting period they’re only just at the beginning of. 


Now being well past the halfway point of their first season back in the second tier, the Pilgrim's have been through countless up's and down's, from the strong first few months including a huge 6:2 victory against Norwich which saw Argyle looking comfortable for survival/mid table push, to the horrible downs of losing all loan players in January, losing Steve Schumacher to Stoke and falling back into the relegation fold with Ian Foster at the wheel. The Championship definitely hasn't disappointed for Argyle fans, and many will hope this downward spiral is just a small blip in an otherwise successful season back in the Championship, and the club will keep building and stay in the league for years to come.


Mac Anderson


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