When April began, Plymouth Argyle was in 14th place in League One, not close to the playoffs but comfortably remaining in the league for next season. Than the wheels fell off, though the club was still in position to stay safe entering the final day of the season, though they would need some help along the way. The ended the day tied at 50 points with two other clubs, and “earned” relegation due to their poor goal differential.
Their play over the final month of the season doomed them to relegation, and they have no one to blame but themselves in coming up just short of remaining in League One. Instead, Plymouth Argyle will return to League Two next season, hoping to put the end of this season behind them.
Here’s a quick look at how the Pilgrims ended up in this position:
What Went Wrong
Let’s examine the home stretch of the season. After a loss on 6 April to Charlton Athletic, the Pilgrims were still in 15th place. The clubs that would end the season tied with them at 50 points – Southend United and AFC Wimbledon – were in 20th and 21st place respectively after playing to draws that day. But that loss to Charlton Athletic was the first in what would be five in a row as Plymouth Argyle raced to the bottom of the table.
While the Pilgrims went 0-0-5 with a -13 goal differential during that stretch, Southend United went 1-2-2, and AFC Wimbledon climbed out of the basement by going 1-4-0. By the end of April, with one match remaining in the seasons, AFC Wimbledon (19th; 49 points) and Southend United (20th; 47 points; -14 GD) found themselves with a leg up on the sliding Plymouth Argyle (21st; 47 points; -25 GD) to avoid relegation.
There were multiple scenarios where Plymouth Argyle could have saved their season, but all involved them winning at home against Scunthorpe United, which the Pilgrims managed to do. They did not close the goal differential gap, so they needed one of the other clubs to finish with less than 50 points. AFC Wimbledon managed a draw against the already relegated Bradford City, giving them 50 points and a three goal advantage in differential. But once Southend United’s win against Sunderland was in the books, Plymouth Argyles fate was sealed as they had the worst goal differential of the three clubs that finished with 50 points.
What Went Right
Though Plymouth Argyle spent most of the season in the “relegation zone,” their start to 2019 was primarily responsible for their lofty position heading into the final month of the season. From 29 December to 23 February, the Pilgrims went 6-3-1 with a +10 goal differential, ending February in 14th place in the table. They would climb as high as 12th before that late season tumble mentioned above doomed their season.
Despite their finish at the bottom of the table, the Pilgrims did manage to outscore 12 other League One clubs over the course of the season. Those 56 goals, however, were offset by the third-worst goal allowed in the league, with their 80 goals allowed trailing only Rochdale (87) and the previously mention Scunthorpe United (83). In a testament to how tight it was bunched near the bottom, Rochdale had the worst goal differential in the league (-33), but was four points better than the Pilgrims in the table (Plymouth Argyle won both matches against Rochdale this season by a combined 7-2 margin as well).
Recent English Football League History
Plymouth Argyle is only two seasons removed from their last stretch in League Two, a six season run that ended in a second place finish in 2016-17. They also qualified for the promotion playoffs the two seasons prior to that 2nd place finish. Overall, in the Premier League era (1992-present), has spent about as much time in League One (10 seasons) as League Two (12, including next season), with six seasons in the Championship from 2004-2010. The club has never played above the second tier of English football in their history.
History is against them for a quick return to League One (see below), but the Pilgrims aren’t a club that slingshots back and forth between the various leagues either. I don’t know if it will be any different this time around, but with how close they came to avoiding relegation this season, you would have to think that they think they are a new manager and some new players away from returning back to tier three.
Who’s Playing Elsewhere Next Season?
The club has already announced that six out of contract players will not be offered new deals, while 12 others – including captain Gary Sawyer – have been offered new contracts for next season. Also set to leave is goalkeeper Matt Macey, on loan from Arsenal, who played 34 matches in net for the club during the season, though with the club’s struggles coming on the defensive side of the ball, a long-term addition of Macey is likely out of the equation.
Overall, after some adjustments to salary because of relegation, there may not be a lot of turnover during the summer on the pitch. More pressing perhaps is for the club to find a permanent manager after Derek Adams was sacked prior to the final match of the season. Ryan Lowe, currently the manager of Bury, appears to top the list (and the betting markets), but other worthwhile candidates seem more available to take the mantle.
Chances of a Quick Return?
Of the five most recent 21st-place finishers in League One, only one did the one season turn-around: Doncaster Rovers, who finished 21st during the 2015-16 season, only to quickly return after a 3rd place finish in League Two the following season. Three others played in League Two this season, and unless the Tranmere Rovers win the playoff this weekend, they will all do so again next season, and Notts County (21st in League One in 2014-15) was relegated to the National League this season.
Based on the esteemed FiveThirtyEight Global Club Soccer Rankings, the Pilgrims would be in the middle of League Two if the season started today. Granted, their rankings this season took a bit of a hit down the stretch, and they may not check in as a mid-table club after offseason moves are factored in prior to next season.
Regardless of where they start next season, they would be pleased to avoid another collapse similar to the one that led to their relegation this season. Whether that means a mid-table finish in League Two is in the cards remains to be seen, but I’m sure the Pilgrims will find a capable manager and a little depth to help pursue that goal.
Until next time…