Plymouth Argyle’s promotion quest looks to be on track

Plymouth Argyle are on a roll; of that there can be no doubt. 10 wins and one draw from 13 so far this season have hoisted the Pilgrims to the summit of League One, writes Colin Bradbury.

That’s impressive enough, but it’s also the quality of the opposition against which Argyle have harvested those points that grabs the attention. In the first five weeks of the season, Argyle beat all three teams relegated from the Championship last season (Barnsley, Peterborough and Derby). Overall, they have played seven of the other nine teams currently making up the top 10 in League One, taking a remarkable 19 out of a possible 21 points in the process. And from a psychological perspective, the win against bogey team Wycombe Wanderers, the first since 2015, has laid a ghost. It also highlighted the Argyle manager’s tactical nous as his major changes to the line-up to deal with what could euphemistically be called Wycombe’s ‘distinctive’ style of play paid off handsomely.

Success on the field has also been reflected in increased crowds at Home Park. At an average of 14,579 so far this season, attendance is already up 11% on 2021-22 and is 40% higher than the previous normal (pre-Covid) League One season in 2017-18. Most impressive is the fact that the average attendance is higher than all but one of the six Championship seasons from 2004-2010. That is also a tribute to the work that Argyle have done to improve the facilities and overall match day experience at Home Park.

The wider world is also sitting up and taking notice of events in Plymouth. The Pilgrims have just scored an awards double, with manager Steven Schumacher claiming the September Sky Bet League One Manager of the Month crown and striker Morgan Whittaker bagging the Player of the Month Award. Schuey has turned plenty of heads with his canny recruitment and sound tactics, while on-loan striker Whittaker has had a remarkable run of games recently, scoring the winner against Oxford United and Ipswich Town, and being instrumental in the comeback against Derby County and the draw with Portsmouth.

Speaking of Morgan Whittaker, he is one of no fewer than five loan players who have contributed mightily to the Pilgrims’ barn-storming early season form. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of them – Whittaker, Finn Azaz, Bali Mumba, Nigel Lonwijk and Sam Cosgrove – have been hugely successful additions to the Home Park squad this season. Should fans be concerned about the prevalence of loan players at the club? Well, given the spending constraints around any club that wants to be financially sustainable – and that is a core part of the Argyle philosophy – if there are systems in place to identify loan players that represent sound value for money, then that is surely a viable strategy.

So could this be the season that sees Argyle finally return to the Championship after a 12-year absence? Well, the League One table is already starting to stretch out, with the Pilgrims nine points ahead of the fourth placed team. Intriguingly, the run of games up to the end of the year is, on paper, significantly easier than those that have already been played. Given that the average current league position of the teams to be faced in the 11 matches up to 29th December is 17th, there are sound grounds for hoping that by the turn of 2023, Argyle could have taken a firm hold on one of the automatic promotion spots.

Of course, nothing is ever certain in football, and a run of injuries, suspensions or just plain bad luck could throw a spanner in the works. While Argyle have been relatively fortunate with regards to injuries recently, the loss of midfield play-maker Danny Mayor, who has been having an excellent season so far, to a calf-tear that will keep him out for at least four to six weeks, is a blow. Apart from that, left wing-back Mikel Miller, who joined in the summer of 2022 from Rotherham United, has been out with a thigh injury since his arrival.

On a positive note, left wing-back Connor Grant, who underwent a groin operation at the end of last season, has been back in action with three substitute appearances since the end of September against Ipswich, Sheffield Wednesday and Wycombe. His return to fitness is a very welcome boost.

As far as suspensions are concerned, central defensive colossus Dan Scarr is facing a three-match ban after his bizarre red card against Accrington, unless the club appeals his dismissal (which is looking unlikely). Scarr has been a permanent fixture in the side so far this season and his loss will undoubtedly be felt.

But overall, Argyle are surely in the best position for some time to climb back to the second tier of English football, matching on the field the excellent work that has been done off it to create a financially sustainable, community focused club. It won’t all be over by Christmas, but there’s a strong possibility that Argyle will go into the New Year as firm favourites for promotion.