‘Underestimated from day one.’ Why Plymouth Argyle continue to fly under the radar.

By Colin Bradbury

The BBC’s Mark Clemmit – lovely ‘Clem’ – is transparently one of the nicest people in sports broadcasting. But, oh dear, he raised a few eyebrows with a comment on last week’s Football Focus during a visit to Home Park.

One of his first questions to Schuey in the interview aired on the Saturday show was how a guy schooled in a football hotbed’ like Merseyside fits in to a culture down here, “which no disrespect – would not be seen as one of the traditional football hotbeds?”

Just a throwaway line, and clearly not meant to offend, but it does say something about the broader attitude to Argyle and football in the south west.

Few people would argue with the view that across the English game as a whole, the Pilgrims are not seen as one of the storied clubs of the football league. There are two likely reasons for this.  

The first relates to Argyle’s location. Although it might be considered a tad impolite to bring it up, Clem was basically correct when he said that the south west is not a ‘traditional football hotspot’. That label surely applies to the likes of the north west, north east, Yorkshire, the Midlands, and London.

Glance at a map showing the distribution of the 92 Premier League and EFL clubs and you’ll see the pins in the board becoming increasingly scarce the further west you go. In the large area of England west of a line from Bristol to Bournemouth there are just two teams in the top four divisions of English football, both of those in League One and both in Devon. Cornwall and Somerset have no EFL teams. Of course, football itself is as popular in this part of the country as any other, with a very active non-league scene. But in terms of the top four divisions – no.

The second reason for the south west’s status as something of a football backwater is historical: outside of Bristol and Bournemouth, the region has never had a top-flight club. Argyle itself, of course, hasn’t played at the peak of the English pyramid and it’s widely stated that Plymouth is the largest English city never to have hosted Division One or Premiership football.

The Devonport End at Home Park in full cry (Photograph: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media)

But don’t despair. This ‘below-the-radar’ status – both for the region as a whole and Argyle in particular – is an opportunity rather than a reason for despondency.

The first big plus is that because Argyle is not jammed into a region with a large number of league clubs, there is significant room to grow the supporter base.

Home Park has the sixth highest average attendance (15,252) in League One so far this season. The teams above us – in order of crowd size – are Derby County, Ipswich Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth. They have one thing in common of course; they have all played in either the old First Division or the Premier League and so have a strong legacy fan base (it’s interesting to note that Charlton Athletic, with a very recent Premier League history, have a lower average attendance, meaning that Argyle is already punching above its weight). 

Most importantly, the potential upside from here in terms of Argyle’s support base is still significant. Measuring that potential is not easy, but one way is to compare attendances to the populations of the clubs’ home cities.

Argyle’s average home crowd is equivalent to around 6% of Plymouth’s population. That is below Ipswich (19% of the city’s population), Derby (10%) and Portsmouth (9%), similar to Bolton (6%), but above Sheffield Wednesday (4%).

When considering potential, the good news is that Argyle’s profile resembles that of Ipswich and Derby more than the other three. Ipswich, like Argyle, is not close to other EFL clubs, which presumably goes some way to explaining the very high supporter to population ratio. Derby does not quite have the same degree of regional exclusivity, but only the Nottingham clubs are within reasonable distance.

So the competition in terms of attracting supporters is much less than for Bolton or Sheffield Wednesday. In the case of the former, its location in a major ‘football hotspot’ provides multiple alternative top-level football options for the people of the immediate area. Wednesday’s challenge is that more than half of their potential crowd has been swallowed up by city rival (higher ranked) Sheffield United. Even for Portsmouth, which has the benefit of a relatively recent Premier League history, the club’s catchment area is limited by the proximity of two top-flight clubs – Southampton 22 miles to the west and Brighton 50 miles to the east. Meaning they’re unlikely to pick up much uncommitted support outside Portsmouth itself.

The lack of other clubs at a similar or higher level also means that Argyle can draw supporters from outside the city limits. A quick back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that including say Tavistock, Ivybridge, Totness, Torquay and Paignton gives an additional 143,000 potential supporters within relatively easy traveling distance of Home Park. To the west, Cornwall’s 550,000 people are even more removed from top-level football, so it’s hardly surprising that Home Park has always attracted a good number from across the Tamar (the club estimates that around 20% of the Home Park crowd come from Cornwall). Including just the main Cornish towns east of Bodmin adds another 80,000 people. Including the population of those nearby areas to that of Plymouth itself (265,000) gives a potential supporter catchment of close on half a million.

The Argyle squad celebrate on the pitch after their derby victory over Exeter City on October 31. (Picture: Colin Bradbury / Cornwall Sports Media)

Success on the pitch is, of course a key driver of attendances but it’s not the be-all-end-all. Good performances combined with a large pool of potential fans and the lack of other clubs competing for support makes the upper limit for crowds at Home Park relatively high. There is absolutely no reason that (capacity permitting!) Argyle’s average crowds shouldn’t rise significantly above the 20,000 level in the coming years. That’s because of, not in spite of, the region’s position outside the traditional football hotspots.

Another benefit of Argyle’s lack of top-flight pedigree is that the club is not burdened with unrealistic expectations. Premier League / First Division history and heritage are wonderful things, but they can become a curse rather than a benefit. Look at Bradford City, a former Premier League club still mired in League Two. Or Charlton Athletic, bouncing between the Championship and League One after seven years in the Premiership.

That history often infects clubs with a sense of entitlement, with elevated status within the football pyramid regarded as a right rather than something that has to be earned, season-in, season-out. Exhibit A – Sunderland. A club that spent four seasons in League One after consecutive relegations from the Premier League and Championship, apparently baffled that cruel fate had condemned them to keep them playing at such a lowly level.

It’s also probably no coincidence that many of those ‘historic’ clubs have suffered from chronic mismanagement through ownership that lies on a continuum from the merely naïve or short-sighted to the downright dodgy. Many have been mired in financial difficulties as a result of trying to spend their way back to the glory days. Money doesn’t always buy success.  

So let the pundits talk about how Argyle will inevitably blow it at the last minute. Let the bookies continue to make the clubs around them favourites for promotion, unable to quite believe that ‘little’ Argyle will still be in the fight at the end of the season. Nothing, promotion especially, is ever certain in football and there’s still a very long way to go. Meanwhile, Schuey and the lads will keep doing what they do, all the while flying under the radar.

As a summary of Argyle right now, Al Pacino’s speech to his young protégé in the film ‘The Devil’s Advocate’ is a pretty good one.

You gotta keep yourself small, innocuous. Be the little guy. Look at me – underestimated from day one. I’m the surprise. They don’t see me comin’.”

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