Friday, December 30, 2005

The McCauley Years

Longstanding Argyle watchers will have their own opinions on Dan McCauley. Here for the record are mine.

I would give him 6/10 for his leadership of PAFC. That will shock many. Why so high? That's the question and I'll try to address it.

Well, he gave us some of the best football a green-clad team have ever played, he laid the foundations (metaphorically) for the redevelopment of the ground, he appointed Paul Sturrock - undoubtedly the best thing to happen to us for many years. When he left he sold out to a loosely-aligned group of gentlemen with the best interests of the club at heart. Genuine supporters all and that is no bad thing. He also at one stage actually invested some fairly substantial cash into the club; something we haven't seen since and had never really seen before.

So why only 6/10? That last paragraph looks pretty encouraging. Bring him back. Why were people so glad to see him go?

There's more. There always is.

McCauley was also in charge for our dead cat bounce, he dragged the club's reputation thoroughly through the gutter on more than one occasion, oversaw more relegations than promotions, sacked countless managers and cast more gloom over the club than had ever been cast before.

Let's go back to the beginning. Or at least near to it - 1992. Current coach David Kemp was the manager. Football as a whole was at a low ebb. Violence raged on the terraces and outside the grounds. Indeed quite often on the pitch the way Robbie Turner played the game. The Hillsborough, Bradford and Heysel tragedies were yet to make the game have a good hard look at itself and where it was going. Gazza had long since cried in Turin.

Argyle were struggling near the bottom of Division 2. Crowds were down to around 4000 on a regular basis. Keegan was appointed manager at Newcastle who, like us, were struggling desperately against relegation with crowds down to around the 10000 mark and Jack Walker was near to realising his dream of turning Blackburn into a top-flight club.

It was against this background that Argyle lost a mid-week match at home to Cambridge 1-0. Playing legend Kemp was sacked at the most crucial stage of the season imaginable and the few hardy souls still attending Home Park were mostly delighted to see the back of his obdurate and pragmatic longball style. I was not one of them. Kemp had to go. That much is true but it was so late in the season that the newcomer would have an almost impossible task. I can't help but feel that this decision put Argyle back years and years and years and caused us to miss the gravy train that professional football was soon to become. One of the worst decisions Argyle ever made. Kemp might just have kept us up and his successor would almost certainly fail.

Still it's darkest just before the dawn they say and the dawn was very bright indeed. To everyone's utter astonishment McCauley pulled a rabbit from the bag and appointed Peter Shilton, no less, as Argyle manager along with co-Forest European Cup winning legends John McGovern and Ian Bowyer who were to be his coaching staff. I can honestly say I have never been as excited by the appointment of a manager. Shilton was/is a true footballing superstar and he was now ours. Unbelieveable. Hang out the bunting and celebrate!!

The optimism didn't last long. In the last game of the season we had to play Blackburn and needed things to go well to stay up. 17000 packed the ground. We scored first through a David Smith (one of Shilton's first signings from Bristol City at £100 000 I think) fluke but Dalglish's Blackburn, and Walker's millions, were much too good for us. David Speedie scored a hat-trick for them and we went down. Possibly as depressing a day as I could remember, up to that stage, as an Argyle fan.

The rebuilding process that followed was as savage as anything ever seen at Home Park. It was also highly impressive. Out went nearly all of Kemp's hoofers. In came players from all over. Steve Castle, Paul Dalton, Gary Poole, Keith Hill, Kevin Nugent, Andy Comyn (our ugliest ever player?), Dominic Naylor and I suspect there were others. A new day dawned. Argyle started to play the game the way it is meant to be played. Possession, ball-to-feet, triangles and more. As the style flowed so did the results. We mounted a promotion campaign. More players came and went and one of my all-time favourites, Mark Patterson, arrived. Steve McCall, Wayne Burnett, Craig Skinner...

Then came another key moment. In an away game at Port Vale their defender Peter Swan made an incredible tackle on Paul Dalton as he looked certain to give us a 2-0 lead. It stayed 1-0. They eventually won 2-1 and pipped us to an automatic promotion spot later that season with a 2-0 win at Brighton as we beat Hartlepoole in as depressing an 8-1 away win as you could ever see.

We played Burnley in the play-offs. Agony. Despair. Injustice. Things would never be the same again.

In the aftermath of that Burnley defeat rumours started to emerge about Shilton's gambling problems. It appeared he had large debts. McCauley waged an astonishing vendetta against Shilton in the press. We even made front page of The Sun. Shilton fell out with longstanding pal McGovern. Good players we had signed stopped playing as well as they had. Performances were dreadful. Results worse. Brentford 7 Argyle 0 (Guilty men: Hodge, Patterson, Swan, Burnett, Evans, Crocker, Comyn, Barlow, Nugent, Dawe, Ross. Subs - Shilton). Relegation loomed once again this time to the unthinkable. To the 4th Division. Shilton sacked. McCall appointed as manager. Results just as bad. McCall sacked. Was it now Russel Osman was picking the team despite being a non-contract player? The inevitable followed and we went down.

Cue Neil Warnock. Our one and only visit to Wembley. McCauley in his big Pilgrim Pete hat. Ronnie Maugé. Glory.

Not that it would last long. Warnock wanted more money. McCauley said no. Warnock sacked via mobile phone and his pal Mick Jones appointed manager. McCauley was showing signs not only of being very petty and nasty but actually positively vindictive. Jones/Warnock just like Shilton/McGovern before them found that their friendship wasn't strong enough to survive the McCauley treatment.

It was at this stage that McCauley pulled the financial plug. Jones was given no money. Poor results followed as did relegation as did another sacking by mobile phone. Jones was replaced by Kevin Hodges. Still no money available. Poor performances and uninspiring results. Crowds down to 3000. Hodges sacked. The dead cat was hurtling groundwards and was totally out of control.

Even this is not enough to get a feel of quite how desperate things had become.

  • McCauley would not spend any money at all on the ground.
  • Games went ahead with only the Devonport End and the Barn Park End open because the other stands were unsafe and closed.
  • McCauley had petitioned the FA and announced that he intended to close the club.
  • There were insufficient numbers of directors (McCauley had booted them all out) for the club to meet it's own business rules.

It was all a horrendous mess.

So why 6/10? It's all sounds so much worse than that.

I go back to McCauley's initial appointment. Argyle were skint and a bill had to be paid. There would be a winding up order if it wasn't. Who reached for his chequebook and wrote a personal check whilst everyone else checked out how shiny their shoes were? Dan McCauley.

Quite simply without him there would not be an Argyle now and that excuses much of what was, in all reality, inexcusable.

So Dan McCauley was very much like the curate's egg - good in parts.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Dead Cat Bounce?

Our Lowest Ever Point?

One of the undoubted benefits of following a team like Argyle is the familiarity it brings to both ends of the emotional scale. Joy and despair are dispensed in roughly equal measure (if you are lucky). Over a period of time. Perhaps.

Not for the likes of us is there, or has there ever been, unremitting joy as our gallant representatives in the hallowed Green stylishly wallop multi-hued XIs of hapless losers from the length and breadth of the country week after week. Not for us national or international adulation. Indeed it’s quite an achievement to even be noticed within our own Fair City.

No. Mediocrity and worse. That’s our lot. It’s what we’re used to and it’s what we’ve known for nearly all of our 100+ years of manly toil and endeavour. Inevitably there are peaks and troughs and it’s the troughiest of the troughs that I’d like to recall here.

For many years there was a football trivia question to which the answer was “Plymouth Argyle and Bristol Rovers”. The question? “Which 2 teams have never played in the 1st or 4th divisions” (using sensible language and calling the divisions what they are).

When we had periods of success the ceiling was quite low. Failure never really amounted to more than a few bad results and the odd, mostly, successful relegation battle. Early exits in cup competitions. That was what would have us gnashing our teeth in anguish, tearing our hair out and wailing in woe.

That all changed under the ownership of Dan McCauley (who will get his own entry one day). Suffice it to say that he was in overall control during the period that saw us sink as low as we ever did.

At the time we were all doom and gloom. Our manager (playing legend Kevin Hodges) had been sacked and replaced by Paul Sturrock to widespread indifference. “Who?” We were soon to find out. We were 91st out of 92 in the football pyramid. Fate conspired against us and we were drawn away to Chester in the 1st round of the FA Cup.

I didn’t go. I rarely did in those days. Time and expense have always made me an occasional away fan and the inspiration to travel for hours to distant corners of the country had all but died due to the inevitable sorry defeat encompassing an abject performance before we surrendered horribly to the inevitable thrashing in some grim northern shithole. Instead I listened to the commentary on Radio Devon.

It was, as expected a sorry performance. Captain Craig Taylor was sent off in the first half. Chester scored and were good value, according to the commentary on Radio Devon, at the end for their lead. The home fans were celebrating ahead of a giant-killing win that was surely going to feature prominently in the following day’s papers. Until… Relief. Joy. A little bit of the buzz returned. Echoes of heroic deeds from days of yore. Jason Peake curled a late free-kick up, over and around the wall. The ‘keeper stood no chance. 1-1. A replay to follow.

Sturrock had been a good player in an exceptional Dundee United side who experienced glory in European competition. He had starred in a famous 2-0 win over Barcelona in the Nou Camp back in ‘87. He had played for Scotland when they were stronger than they are these days. He played in the 1986 World Cup Finals in Mexico. He was highly rated as a coach in Scotland so they said (don’t they always?). Paul Sturrock was a 24-carat Dundee United legend. This was the man to turn us around.

Following Sturrock’s appointment it just poured with rain for day after day. Days turned into, first, weeks and then months. Training sessions were restricted to indoor stuff. He had never seen any of the side in a match other than that sorry display at Chester

Fans of the mundane and uneventful would have loved the replay. 3264 made the effort to go. It was cold and wet. Not much happened. There were few chances. Passing was poor. Tackling was enthusiastic and as the minutes ticked by any resemblance to The Beautiful Game was purely coincidental. Non-league (part-time?) hoofers were easily a match for our seasoned pros. They scored. We equalised. The game slipped agonisingly into extra time to nobody’s great excitement or pleasure before the unthinkable happened. Chester won the game. We were out of The Cup beaten by a non-league team. We were 91st in all 4 Divisions. Our Chairman was a megalomaniacal autocrat on the biggest ego-trip in history and for the first time I uttered the words “never again”.

The guilty men:

Hodges, Fleming, Beswetherick, Taylor, Wotton, Phillips, Barlow (Gritton 109), Ledbitter, Peake (Stonebridge 69), Guinan (Wills 81), McGregor (who scored – for what it’s worth). Unused subs: Sheffield, Barrett.

I went home cursing all the way and so fed-up words just can’t convey. This was not the normal pessimism and gloom following a disappointing defeat. I’d known that feeling all too often. This was something very much more profound. “Never again”. It started to feel good. It was a relief. I could join the ranks of those who have lapsed and offer cynical wisecracks sheltered from response by a veneer of disinterest. I wallowed miserably in my own self-pity and disillusionment.

Later it was my wife who snapped me out of it. “Nonsense. Don’t be stupid. You can’t stop going. It’s been a part of your life for too long. It’s a part of what and who you are. You’ve got to go to the next game. It’s like riding a bike – if you fall off you just have to get back on again.”

I did.

The very next game? Exeter away. Won 2-0. Next home game? York. Won 1-0. 3830 turned up this time.

We had teetered on the very edge of the abyss. We had looked down and felt that queasy ebbing and flowing feeling in the pit of our collective stomachs.

When you hit the bottom the only way is up. And this was not a dead cat bouncing.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Why Plymouth Argyle?

Apart from the obvious fact that it was the only way to watch regular live football when I grew up there is the very real excitement and anticipation of matchday and it's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I first started going with my brother and we had season tickets in the Grandstand - you didn't really want to be on the terraces with a small child in those days - when we used to wear the Green Arsenal/Hibs kit. Dave Provan, Jim Furnell, Steve Davey, Jimmy Hinch, Bobby Saxton spring to mind. Circa 1973 I'd guess. Wednesday afternoon off school to see us play Manchester City in a League Cup semi-final during the 3-day week period of Ted Heath's government is one of the earliest real memories that I have.

I used to play football in Central Park with my mates and we'd all desperately hope to score a goal as the team did and so hear the roar of celebration from Home Park across the muddy fields of the park as we celebrated having slotted one between the jumpers. We also couldn't wait until we were old enough to be allowed to go to Argyle on our own.

My brother moved away when I was a small child but luckily my Mum ran a corner shop in Quarry Park Road (long since closed and converted to housing), we lived more or less opposite, and home games were always eagerly anticipated. The shop would stay open late for evening games; there were extra pasty deliveries for Saturday afternoons - the smell was delicious. Parking was a nightmare although I was too young to care.

Argyle's marketing department in those days used to send out a poster detailing all home games (reserves too in the Combination League back then but more of that on another day) and inside the poster was a pair of complimentary tickets. Dad was never much into football; Mum worked in the shop; my brothers had moved away; so one of our neighbours got a free ticket and took me along once a month.

What memories there were. I was 10 when Mariner and Rafferty led us to Promotion under Tony Waiters's managership in 1975. We beat Colchester 1-0 to go up. I was there when Jim Furnell saved a last minute penalty from Terry Venables in a Cup match v. Palace... Big crowds and electric atmospheres.

I guess the bug had bitten.

Attendance whilst I was at school was semi-frequent. My Mum sold the shop so the free tickets dried up, money restricted when I could go but I went whenever I could. After school I moved away and went to college in Gloucestershire and it was in my first year there that I really became hooked and there was no going back.

Living away from Plymouth the only contact I had with old friends was when we arranged to meet at matches. Christmas and Easter games became must-sees. Away games were chosen with a view to a studenty stop-over whenever possible and then came arguably Argyle's finest hour the run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1984. The impact of all ofthis on me as a young man was immense and my strongest and fondest footballing memories stem from this period.

By the time we won promotion under Dave Smith in 1986 I was a lost cause.

Still the good times didn't last long. A series of disastrous managerial decisions led to Argyle sinking to their lowest ever position before there was improvement and then came the glory of the last few years.

Why Argyle? Who else could it possibly be?

Monday, December 12, 2005

What will be here?

I'm not sure really.

I suppose most of it will be Argyle-related with occasional musings on other things as they seem appropriate.

A few personal details would probably be useful so that you have an idea as to where I am coming from and they can be found on my profile.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Why "Serendipity"?

"The art of finding something by looking for something else"


"Good luck in making unexpected and fortunate discoveries"

or, perhaps most simply

"Good luck".

Should anybody ever stumble across this stuff I'd like to think that they consider themselves fortunate - even if only in a very small way.

"Serendipity" was also the name of a character in the film Dogma (highly recommended - very funny) and she was played by the beautiful actress Salma Hayek...

It's a word I have also introduced to football circles by using it as a name for any fantasy football teams which I run.

Time to stop; I'm getting nerdy.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hello World

I don't know what I'm doing and only fell into this by accident.

Will I ever keep it up and will anybody ever care?

Time will tell.