Sunday, May 31, 2009

Reserves v Swansea 21/04/09

Argyle (4-4-2):1 Lloyd Saxton; 2 Ryan Leonard, 5 Ben Gerring, 6 Mathias Doumbe, 3 Damien McCrory; 7 Chris Clark, 4 Brian McCaul, 8 Luke Summerfield, 11 Craig Noone (16 Liam Head 81); 9 Rory Fallon (13 George Donnelly 62), 10 Roudolphe Douala (15 Joe Mason 73).

Substitutes (not used): 12 Oliver Chenoweth, 14 Ryan Brett.

Swansea (4-4-2): 1 David Cornell; 2 Matthew Collins, 5 Jamie Grimes, 6 Kieran Howard (16 Adam Orme 84), 3 Daniel Sheehan (12 Matthew Wright 66); 7 Chris Jones, 4 Kyle Graves, 8 Dion Chambers, 11 Kerry Morgan; 9 Joe Harris, 10 Jazz Richards.

Substitutes (not used): 13 Rhys Wilson, 14 Steven Berry, 15 Anthony Finselbach.

Referee: Andy Bennett (Devon).


What better way to fritter away a beautifully warm sunny Tuesday afternoon?

The game got off to a cracking start. Lots of pace, verve and purpose to both teams ~ so much so in fact you might have mistaken it for an FA cup tie. No shots on goal though or chances of any kind until an overly ambitious crossfield ball was intercepted by McCaul who slipped the ball to Noone. Noone went down the right flank and crossed when he approached the penalty area. The cross was inch perfect and evaded the rather small 'keeper Cornell and there was Fallon ghosting in at the back stick to side-foot a volley sweetly into the net from close range. He couldn't've missed really.

It was at this point that I noticed that Doumbé, listed as #6 on the teamsheet but wearing #4, and McCaul seemed to have the wrong shirts on. Never mind. So engrossed was I by this that I wasn't paying enough attention to be sure what happened next but looked up to see the ball arrowing towards the Swansea net's postage stamp, possibly from a Noone shot, and their goalie getting a hand to the ball whilst airborne and horizontal. Great save and just about the only one I recall from the entire afternoon. Moments later P&C arrived.
Noonie scuffed the corner to the near post and then got a second go. Again he scuffed the corner (it's odd how a badly struck corner so often causes confusion) allowing Swansea to clear the ball back to him. Noonie cut inside and fired in a shot which was saved easily by the goalie. OK... so there was 2 saves.

Swansea then had an attack down their left wing and Ryan Leonard at RB rather clumsily bundled the troublesome Kerry Morgan over for a clear penalty. Chris Jones (#7) took the pen and sent Saxton the wrong way but the penalty was coolly slotted and I don't think he'd have had an earthly had he gone the right way.

Douala and Noone then combined a couple of times. Douala looked quick as he belted down the right wing and got a cross over towards Noone but a defender cleared. Shortly afterwards Noone played the ball of the match with a raking pass hammered low and hard from a deep defensive position. It was perfect for Douala, beyond the last man, to run onto but Douala's first touch was shocking. Noone's pass deserved far better ~ Hoddle could have played it no more brilliantly.

Clark then set up our second goal with a cross that Fallon rose powerfully and majestically to power into the net with a fantastic header that gave Cornell no chance whatsoever. Two great goals for Fallon.

Swansea's Fellaini lookylikey Dion Chambers then turned up in our box and helped Kerry Morgan to show good close control and no little skill as he turned and fired in a powerful shot for an equaliser. 2-2. 3 great goals in the 4 scored so far.
There was still time for Doumbé to exhibit hitherto unsuspected skill and ambition as he made a Beckenbaueresque run through the centre. He was clearly looking for a teammate to make a run off him but they did not so he let fly left-footed with as sweet a strike as you could wish for but sadly saw his shot charged down.

The second half started and there was again plenty of competitveness and endeavour but precious little action until a simply brilliant little back-heeled flick from Douala set Noonie through with the defence flatfooted. Noonie shot low past Cornell. 3-2.

The highlight of the game followed soon after. Noone picked the ball up on the left and dinked a ball towards Fallon's noggin. Fallon, with back to goal, took the pace off the ball with a beautiful cushioned header which went around the corner to Douala who ran onto the ball and thrashed a volley into the net from 20 yards or so. If it is on AW watch it. 4-2. 6 goals and 5 of them brilliantly taken.

The result was now in no doubt and Fallon went off and George Donnelly came on. A channel ball, one of few played all afternoon, caught Swansea asleep. Donnelly, who had no marker and was well clear, ran onto the ball and slotted the ball away with his first touch of the ball. He must have been on the pitch for about 5 seconds when he scored.

The impressive Morgan then broke in from the left wing leaving Leonard in his wake despite having a couple of tugs at his shirt. Doumbé stopped him at the clear expense of a free kick on the edge of the box. RB Matthew Collins stepped forward to take it and curled a beautiful shot onto the crossbar with Saxton well beaten not that anybody would have stopped it had it been a tad lower.

Summerfield then showed a lovely bit of skill in midfield (think Gazza v Scotland doing Hendry ~ sort of) before releasing Noone. Noone played in to Douala, Douala laid it back to Summerfield who had intelligently followed play but his shot was nowhere near as clinical as the build up.
Collins then rattled the crossbar again with another free-kick that deflected off the wall but which had been struck with real power. He was desperately unlucky both times. Saxton again had no chance at all.

Douala went off and Mason came on. Mason looked OK but didn't really have much fall his way except when he missed when he should have done better after being set up by Clark who delayed a pass for an eternity before sending Leonard on the overlap, Leonard's cross was great and Mason will be disappointed with his effort. Maybe it was blocked because Mason wanted a corner but I think he was the only person there who thought it was.

Fellaini, sorry, Chambers then made amends for his good work when he had scored and lost a ball carelessly in midfield. It fell perfectly to Donnelly and George wasted no time in making it 6-2. An easy goal but a good finish.

That was pretty much it except for a rather blatant elbow that crocked Noone from #7 Chris Jones. Noone went off soon after allowing the beanpole that is Liam Head to come on and show us the two slowest step-overs you could ever see. I don't think he will ever be a crowd fave somehow and looks exactly the sort of player that will attract much criticism.

That was that. 6-2 and wonderful entertainment for the ecstatic throng that had gathered to watch.

Who did well? Everybody really. Saxton had very little to do. Leonard had a tough time that I do not think he would have enjoyed much (apparently he was sent off for punching his man in the away game and funnily enough had a hand heavily strapped during this one. McCrory was steady and competent. McCaul looked to get involved and struck me as extremely mature for his years ~ I think we might have a gem there. Gerring was untroubled and did well. Doumbé always looks more than comfortable at this level and must be pleased to be playing CB for once; that comment about Beckenbauer earlier was not a dig at him at all. Clark tucked in nicely but I have seen him be more influential but his pass to Leonard was bettered only by Noone's to Douala. Fallon scored twice and set up another. Douala scored a blinder and looked threatening every time the ball went near him. Noone would have been my MotM and was constantly involved. Mason and Head weren't on for long enough to say much about them and Donnelly scored 2 coming off the bench and got a couple of hopeful headers in too ~ what more could he have done?

How good were Swansea? Their team was on the young side but seemed more mature than recent reserve opponents. The muscular Joe Harris looked like a good shout for the future as a target man; Kerry Morgan was always a threat; Collins obviously takes a wicked free kick. Argyle were relatively callow this time too with Leonard, McCrory, McCaul, Gerring, Summerfield, Noone, Donnelly, Mason and Head all being youngsters too. If we can keep them and bring them on then the future looks to have plenty of promise.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Paul Sturrock Revisited

I was very critical of Sturrock once he had left us for Southampton and you can read what I thought of him then here.

In my Review of the 08/09 season I said that I was unreservedly behind him now. Read that here if you like.

“That’s very contradictory” you may say to yourself. Well I don’t think it is. Never once have I doubted Sturrock’s ability as a manager. In that earlier piece about him I said that I believed that he could be our Shankly, Revie, Busby, Clough or Stein figure; that he could be the one to transform us from 100+ years or mediocrity into something special and my major gripe about his departure was that I was robbed of the opportunity to find out. I also felt that he had made an extremely poor career move for all of the wrong reasons and I think that time has borne that out. I was so angry with him not because I doubted his ability but because he had chosen to prove that ability elsewhere ~ and he did in the end. Twice.

But that was then and this is now.

“How can you forgive him and forget what he did” you may well ask and I’d argue that I have not forgotten at all but I most certainly have forgiven. You have every reason to wonder “Why?”.

I guess that just boils down to who I am and how I think. I am all for giving second chances (maybe more) if somebody actually admits to the error of their ways in a genuine and sincere way and Sturrock has done just that. Here is a quote from him on his return:

This will be the hardest job I've ever had to take over but I am very, very pleased and looking forward to the challenge. The bottom has been out of most of the clubs' trousers as far as the position they are in the league - all of a sudden, I'm taking over a team that's fourth in the Championship and flying. It's a difficult one. I do feel I have taken a difficult job because of the expectation-level. Plus, there's also the old onion that you should never go back to try again. But I feel very comfortable with coming back. I think I can fit right back in again, and the chairman and I have a relationship that means I am looking forward to working with him again. I'm just hoping to be honest, to make sure supporters know where I'm coming from. There was no way I would have left for any other standard than the Premier League. I've been to the Show. I've had a wee taste. I've pitted my wits against the top men. I think everybody has that ambition in them. Had it been even another Championship team, I wouldn't even have contemplated leaving because I have a dream for this football club, a long-term dream to take it where it would like to go. From then on, politics has been very much a part of my problems at every football club. The one good thing that I have done since I've been away is that I pride myself that I have left teams I took over in a better shape than when I took them over. So, at least I've done a professional job at every club. At Southampton, I had Rupert Lowe, who things didn't work out with; at Sheffield Wednesday, I got promotion and then had a taste of the naughty side of football. Then, at Swindon, it's been very zany, getting promotion and then having four months of turmoil when people have been taking over the football club, then not taking over the football club. Finances were very low, there was an embargo of players so you can't sign anyone - then, you wake up last Sunday and, lo and behold, we're three points outside of the play-offs.

The glowing way he refers to Stapleton, the pledge of a long-term approach and the very fact of his return are all tantamount, in my mind, to him admitting that he had made a very bad mistake in leaving in the first case. His return reminds me of the Biblical parable about The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32 (New International Version)):

11Jesus continued: "There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them.

13"Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17"When he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.' 20So he got up and went to his father.

"But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21"The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.[a]'

22"But the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' So they began to celebrate.

25"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'

28"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'

31" 'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.' "

Sturrock is our Prodigal Son. He has returned. Get the fattened calf ready. I forgive him. If it is good enough for Jesus it is good enough for me.

Despite our success under Sturrock I still honestly believe that we just do not realise quite what a brilliant manager we have. In half of Dundee he is basically enshrined as the Greatest Living Scotsman. Now that might not be entirely surprising giving the unprecedented success The Arabs enjoyed when he was a player for them but it ignores the affection for him throughout Scottish football. His one-club playing career and loyalty did not pass without remark. Most players of his ability (and we forget, or perhaps in some cases just didn't ever realise, that he was a truly brilliant player) end up either "down south" or, and in many ways this is worse, playing for the Old Firm. Not Luggy.

As a rookie manager he had transformed St Johnstone from perennial losers to a competitive top flight club passing his apprenticeship with some panache before returning to Tannadice. I think in his mind he was committed to being an Arab until he died but ill health saw his tenure as manager come to an end and he had to move on. Luckily he rolled up down here where instead of being "A Legend" he was "A Who?".

From there we know the story intimately. People who have been critical of the club in various ways, like Peter Jones, have no hesitation in acclaiming Sturrock for the success that we have enjoyed. It's been ever upwards for us and almost the same for him. I'll never agree that he did anything other than sin by becoming a Saint but he has shown repentance by returning and that'll do me.

His record as a manager is incredible:

St Johnstone (Promoted as Champions)
Argyle (Promoted as Champions ~ arguably twice)
Sheffield Wednesday (promoted via play offs)
Swindon Town (promoted)

As a player and as a manager he has never been relegated except for at the very start when he took over a St Johnstone side that was already doomed to relegation. Every club he has managed would gladly have him back tomorrow. Even if you point at Southampton and say “he was sacked there” (which he was not) “and failed” then his record there was better than any manager who has had the job since in terms of points per game and that includes the highly esteemed Harry Redknapp. Not at al bad for a “failure” and Southampton fans as one would have been delighted to see such performance since.

We have, quite simply, the very best man we could possibly wish for as our manager; he has a great relationship with the Chairman; he promises evolution and not revolution; he offers no quick fixes and makes no outlandish promises; he is happy to work with the constraints that Holloway was not prepared to accept and many would never even consider; he completely understands us as a club; he carries out his duties with huge dignity.None of that is good enough for some who want to slag the man off and abuse his coaching staff. Which leads me to 2 more quotes:

I just don't believe it. - Joni Mitchell

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone - Victor Meldrew 

A few more points:

We are told there are 10 better out there who would apply if the job was advertised. If they are that good why are they out of work? Pardew? Keegan? Dowie? Magilton? Tisdale? (Some of those suggestions are likely to be laughable if you come back to this in 3 years time.) Are you genuinely serious? Of course he could be easiily replaced but easily replaced with somebody who would want our job and who we could afford and who has as good a CV? I don’t think so. Replaced by somebody better? Impossible unless we got very, very lucky indeed which of course we might. What might the odds be? 10-1? Longer I suspect and it would be a reckless gamble.

"Only good enough at a lower level". I don't actually agree with this at all but if he is not good enough at this level but is at a lower one and we were to be relegated then we have the best possible man at the helm already to get us back up, don't we?

There is no way in the World that Sturrock should ever be sacked as Argyle manager on the grounds of his ability and I doubt very much that any other grounds will ever transpire. He should have a job here for as long as he wants it and we should be rejoicing in the fact that he is ours and that we are lucky enough to have him. After all he has achieved, and hopes to achieve, here it saddens me deeply that there is so much hostility towards him from some of our fans. They are in real danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. You should always be very careful about what you wish for ~ sometimes you might get it and not like it very much when you do.

Season Review 2008/09

There you have it. I could stop there. The graph says it all really.

I don’t think anybody is sad to see this season finish. It has been an almost constant struggle and at times it has been an appallingly ugly constant struggle. Looking back at the Season Preview I wrote (and which you can find on this blog if you look for it) then the obvious question that needs addressing is where did it all go wrong? What happened to that prediction of 12th place?

Well if we look at the players who played and the goals they scored what can we deduce?

Appearances Subs Goals
Marcel Seip 42 0 3
Romain Larrieu 42 0

Karl Duguid 41 0 2
Chris Barker 40 2

Paul Gallagher 37 4 13
Jamie Mackie 36 9 5
Craig Cathcart 32 1 1
Chris Clark 31 6

Luke Summerfield 29 2 2
Rory Fallon 27 19 5
Mathias Doumbe 21 3 1
Alan Judge 15 2 2
David Gray 15 0

Krisztian Timar 14 8

Simon Walton 13 1

Gary Sawyer 13 0 3
Carl Fletcher 13 0 1
Steven MacLean 12 11 2
Ashley Barnes 12 3 1
James Paterson 8 10

Yoann Folly 7 5

Jason Puncheon 6 1

Graham Stack 6 0

David McNamee 5 5

Craig Noone 3 19 1
Emile Mpenza 3 6 2
Jermaine Easter 3 2

Nicolas Marin 1 5

Roudolphe Douala 1 1

George Donnelly 0 2

44 Total

The obvious 2 facts that stand out from that to me are:

1. 44 goals is far too few;

2. 30 players is far too many. Not even Luggy wanted 30 playeres at the start of the season:

I would like to think we will have several more players coming to the football club before the window closes. There are some talented players I would like to bring to the football club - ones that have played in the Championship, as well. I envisage four or five players still coming in, which would take us up to the 22 we need.

If you look at the graph above the season breaks down into these categories:

1. A poor start;

2. A recovery;

3. A steady decline.

Let’s get back to just before the beginning of the season. Here’s a quote from Luggy:

We have had a look at this system [4-3-3] now over two or three games and I'm reasonably happy we could change to it if need be. I have got a lot of food for thought over the next couple of days, generally, on how we are going to start the season. The 4-3-3 system is difficult when you are forcing people to be passers when they are not passers. You need people who are comfortable taking the ball when they have got their back to players. Unless you have the right concoction, it's a real difficult one.

It wasn’t the only quote like it. Luggy wanted the team to play to a certain style with the ball being played to feet. Here’s another quote from the pre-season training camp in Austria.

Asked to describe the qualities the centre-forward in a 4-3-3 needs to have, Sturrock replied: “The boy Koller, who plays for the Czech Republic, is ideal, or you need a very cute linkage player. Somebody who can take the ball, hold it, and feed it to the team. It's good to have pace either side of that player, and somebody who is prepared to run beyond him. You can simplify everybody's game, because they all have a certain job to do.” The other key position is that of the central midfield player and Sturrock added: “He is probably the most important player in the whole system, he has to go on the ball and make some passes.” Flavien Belson and Yoann Folly had taken it in turns to do the job on Tuesday and Sturrock said: “In the first half, we just lumped it to Rory. In the second half, Yoann got more of the ball and we were able to link up with our wingers. They're key players in the system too. It's a system that people like playing, and it means that your back four is left very solid. It's very adaptable, because you can play two central midfielders and one off the front. 4-2-1-3 instead of 4-1-2-3. You can change between the two very quickly.

So there you have an idea of the pre-season planning and tactical objectives. The season started versus Wolves with this line-up:

Graham Stack, Karl Duguid, Marcel Seip, Mathias Kouo-Doumbe (Krisztián Timár), Chris Barker, Jamie Mackie, Luke Summerfield (Jason Puncheon), Simon Walton, Chris Clark (Jim Paterson), Jermaine Easter, Rory Fallon. Substitutes (not used): Romain Larrieu, Steve MacLean.

They battled away to win a point in as thrilling a curtain raiser as you could wish to see but it didn’t last and a succession of poor results followed. We lost to a terribly weak Luton side (they could barely field 11 players at the time) in the Carling Cup and in 3 out of 4 League games League games including a desperately poor pair of performances against Swansea (on Sky TV no less to add to the humiliation) and Norwich (after Timar got himself recklessly sent off early on). By the time the team travelled to Watford there was rebellion in the air. There were rumours about discontent within the ranks and personal issues seemed to be causing friction. Luggy read the riot act, made 7 changes and we won at Watford.

At this stage the pre-season planning lay in ruins. All talk of 4-3-3 and balls to feet was replaced by 4-4-2 and “blood and snotters” and for a while it worked with Timar, Walton, Stack, Easter, Puncheon, MacLean and Folly being the players who for one reason or another bore the brunt with Stack seemingly set to never play for us again.

That started our best run of results of the season. We won at Palace and beat Forest at home. We played Bristol City off the pitch for 45 minutes at Ashton Gate but couldn’t keep it up and ended up drawing 2-2 and we walloped Wednesday at home in some style.

You just couldn’t predict which way any game was going to go. We lost at Derby and Ipswich but beat Wednesday (again ~ away this time) and Preston at home. We lost at Sheffield United, drew at home to Charlton, won at Coventry and put the Sky humiliation behind us with a home win v Cardiff with Mpenza getting what turned out to be the winner. (More about him later.) We then drew at Southampton.

And then the wheels came off.

It had all been a gloriously unpredictable roller-coaster ride to this point. Some varying displays matched the varying results but it was all kind of OK but chickens were about to come home to roost.

Various players were either not performing or not being given a chance to perform and apart from the chosen B&Sers the others were frozen out. At this stage we were relying on Larrieu, Doumbé (at right back), Cathcart, Seip, Barker, Duguid, Summerfield, Clark, Fallon, Gallagher and Mackie. That left MacLean, Walton, Paterson, Folly, Timar, Noone and Marin largely kicking their heels in frustration. There are a few names missing here and they were either injured (McNamee, Sawyer, Mpenza) or out on loan (Puncheon, Barnes, Bolassie) or double-Guinaned (Stack).

Quite simply we asked too much of too few for too long. It couldn’t last and didn’t but as we hit the end of November we still probably hadn’t been able to field the best possible starting XI out of the players who ought to have been available. We lost in depressing fashion at home to Blackpool which heralded the start of a run of 16 games in which we only beat Southampton at home on Boxing day until we most unexpectedly won following a goal in the opening seconds at table-topping Wolverhampton in February’s last match. It wasn’t pretty.

That long run dominated and defined our season. Try as we might we just couldn’t buy a result and at times we didn’t seem to be able even to score a goal. We played well at home against Birmingham and put them under huge pressure only to lose 1-0 (they did that to lots of teams on the way to 9 other similar wins out of their 29 binary scorelines which included 2 against us). For the Cardiff away game we were hit by a flu bug which saw us forced to field the most bizarre line-up of the season with 6 (!) central defenders in a game that also featured a rare appearance from Jason Puncheon. Against Bristol City at HP we matched them stride for stride until they scored at which point heads dropped and the players visibly shrank an inch or two. We were a team that was in desperate need of a break but none was forthcoming. At Ipswich we battled away for a 0-0 which might have been a 1-0 if a late Mackie goal had not been disallowed for a dubious offside. We seemed to rattle the woodwork at least twice a game.

When we started the season, we couldn’t buy a win and couldn’t buy a goal. Then for 14 games we grasped the cudgel and took ourselves from the bottom of the league to fifth top. Now, all of a sudden, we have reverted back to the way we started the season

The lowest point of the season, for me, came in the game at home to Derby on a bitterly, bitterly cold afternoon.We lost 3-0 with Gary Teale scoring with a spectacular shot from distance and Jamie Mackie thwacking the ball against the crossbar from absolutely miles out when the game was still up for grabs but Derby’s opening goal, a spectacular but speculative thrash from Gary Teale who never did anything like that for us while he was here, killed us completely. Not only were we rubbish there was no fight. It was just too painful to watch and I left the game early for the first time ever and took refuge in a nice warm pub where I watched England play rugby. Physically it was far nicer but emotionally it was a horrible thing to do.

For 44 minutes, we were very competitive. The one that hits the bar for us, they go down to their end and it hits the bar and goes into the back of the net. Where the real disappointment is...30 seconds into the second half we changed system, we were ready for the challenge, but there's a calamity of errors and they finish with the ball in the back of the net which really kicks the wind right out of our sails. It just epitomises the problems we are having at home at the moment. It just seems that every mistake we make finishes up in the back of the net at this minute in time. When things are not going right for you in front of goal, it seems to kick you in the teeth at the other end. If you look at our away form and the points we have taken, we're very competent with the rest of the league. It's quite a good tally we've put together away from home. The problem is our home form is going to make us struggle at the bottom half of this league until we turn it. We cannot keep losing these silly goals. The second goal was a complete and utter killer. There's nothing else you can say about the game, you need to lift yourself and then the goal came so early. They had a fighting spirit, they kept at it right to the end.

Something in the wind changed during yet another defeat at home to Palace. We were 3-0 down at HT and the crowd could easily have turned on the team but the very opposite happened and everybody seemed to pull together. Sawyer scored and we ended up losing 3-1 but the vibe was very different to that which had preceded it. In many ways the season has been very ugly and the role of the fans in some home games has been the ugliest. Various players have borne the brunt of some disgusting abuse and Fallon, Summerfield and MacLean have been on the wrong end of plenty. MacLean so much so that his reaction after scoring against QPR was utterly astonishing as was a kick at a dugout which knocked a hole in it when he was not brought on as a sub. He did not help himself much with some comments made whilst being a guest commentator for a home game v Sheff Wed which really did make one wonder where his loyalty really belonged as did a non-celebration of another goal when he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win at Hillsborough.

Fallon seemed to get the stick for every long ball that was belted hopefully in his direction which always struck me as being unfair. If he had been the one booting it then maybe but he was not but the long ball was a definite feature of much of the poor run and it was not working as results showed. Fallon is actually very good at winning his share of the high balls but it was a bugbear of mine that the team as a unit sat too deep with the midfield and back four too compressed leaving Fallon and A.N. Other isolated and up against it with little hope of success or support. Everybody seemed to know it. Luggy mentioned it in interviews and captain Duguid even said it during the post-match jollies in the Pyramid Suite after the win against Cardiff but it still happened time and time again.

There were 2 consistent bright spots throughout the season though and one was Jamie Mackie’s energy levels and commitment. He impressed Paul Jewell so much that during a stint on SSN he said “this boy would chase a paper bag in the wind” and he was right. The other was the obvious skill and eye for the spectacular shown by Blackburn loanee Paul Gallagher. Some of the goals he scored where breathtaking with an overhead effort at Wolves and a strike from distance at Derby heading the list. A fine player at this level and I would love to see him sign for us. Blackburn appear to be letting him go so it comes down to money and the word on the street is that the coffers are empty and that the club is losing money at an alarming rate which given that we averaged only 11533 which is 1500 0r so down on last season and a staggering 6358 down on the division average is not surprising. Only Blackpool’s crowds were lower which meant that even Doncaster beat us for bodies through the gate (and twice on the pitch too).

But then we won at Wolves and hope was re-born. What followed was not a great run of results but in comparison to what had gone before they were a revelation: WWDLLLWW. That gave us 13 points out of 24. Not bad at all but our league position remained precarious as everybody else seemed to start getting better results too. The last of those wins was a 4-0 walloping of Coventry on April 11th which actually won us the points we needed to stay up. We were safe, although we did not know it) with 4 games to go.

From that point our season petered out disappointingly with nerves jangling at every stage. We got what seemed like crucial points at QPR and Birmingham and lost in abject fashion at home to Doncaster. It all came down to the last match ~ nearly. Norwich had played Reading on the preceding Monday and had lost 2-0 to take the last relegation spot and so we could relax at last. We started that game well against a Barnsley team racked with tension and took an early lead. Barnsley needed Norwich to lose to be safe and as news came through that they were then so they improved and they won what was ultimately a meaningless game 3-1. In that game we started with:

Romain Larrieu, David Gray, Marcel Seip, Chris Barker, Gary Sawyer, Alan Judge (George Donnelly), Karl Duguid (capt), Carl Fletcher, Paul Gallagher; Ashley Barnes (Craig Noone), Rudi Douala (Jamie Mackie 50).Substitutes: Krisztián Timár, Chris Clark.

(Only 3 players who started against our first match v. Wolves started our last v. Barnsley! In many ways the Barnsley match summed up our entire season.)

I think it all went awry for us this time last year when we didn’t actually sign a central midfield player to fill one or more of the gaps left by the absence of Buszaky, Hodges, Nalis and Wotton. We were left with a midfield that was just too weak which left us with little option but to by-pass it. We were also not helped much by injuries to 2 players who I am sure were key to the intended playing style and tactics of the team: Mpenza and McNamee. I am sure that they both offer plenty but neither actually delivered very much in terms on minutes on the pitch and as a result the team never evolved into a unit capable of allowing a player like Nicolas Marin (another that I liked the look of but who disappointed and wasn’t to see the season out with us) to perform. The pick up at the end came when Sawyer, Gray (another loanee from Man Utd who was injured for much of his stay with us), Judge and Fletcher came into the team. We suddenly looked much better. Was it all down to Fletcher in midfield? Probably not but he clearly added strength, experience and leadership where it was most badly needed. What might have been had we started the season with Larrieu, Gray, Sawyer, Barker, Duguid, Fletcher, Judge, Mpenza, Gallagher and Mackie? It has not been a vintage season and it will not be remembered happily by anybody really but I am sure that lessons have been learned. We cannot progress by hoofing it up the pitch, the back four need to get up the pitch more and the midfield needs to support the front men more and the signs were there that these lessons had already been taken on board at the end of the season.

Just to round up on a few other things. This season has been one characterised by criticism. It has been relentless. Fans have criticised players, tactics, selections, the board, signings and non-signings; players have allegedly criticised the club, the manager, each other and the fans; the manager has clearly been unhappy with certain players and has pretty much said so. None of it is good and it will ultimately destroy us as a club if it doesn’t stop sooner rather than later.

Here’s brief round-up of our players and the season they have had.

Romain Larrieu
The Last Of The Legends and a deserved winner of Player Of The Season. That a goalkeeper won that award speaks volumes.

Karl Duguid
Bought as a right back but pressed into duty in the midfield. He has been steady but unspectacular. One of those players appreciated rather more by teammates than by fans I suspect.

James Paterson
He has been missing for most of the season. He was brought here as a left back and hasn’t played there much at all and has been pressed into central midfield in an attempt to cover obvious deficiencies there. I like him but he is not popular with the fans and doesn’t seem to be favoured by Luggy.

Simon Walton

Just hasn’t lived up to the billing. Was signed to be the defensive lynchpin of our midfield but appears to have been found wanting in that role. He has a reputation as a hard man but all we have seen is some rather reckless play and his sending off at Barnsley was amongst the most stupid I have ever seen. Maybe it is all in there somewhere. If it is it needs to emerge soon. I’ll be surprised if he is here in August.

Krisztian Timar
At the start of the season he was definitely off the pace which is understandable bearing in mind his horrific injury at the end of last season. Hasn’t featured regualarly and appears to be suffering from lack of regualr 1st team football. He has never been the quickest and needs regular games. We have not seen the best of him this season and his sending off was very unprofessional.

Chris Clark
He seemed to be the next David Norris but he fell out of the team and out of favour towards the end of the season. He has always looked good to me but possibly lacks the necessary strength.

Yoann Folly
Barely has he featured and when he has he has not particularly impressed. Towards the end of the season he couldn’t even get a reserve game. I don’t think we will see him in green again.

Steven MacLean
I think he is a good player who needs a footballing side around him. For much of the season that has not been us and he has suffered as a result. He is not a crowd favourite and it would probably be best for evrrybody were he to go.

Jermaine Easter
He hasn’t looked up to it since he arrived. He works as hard as anybody I have ever seen but just lacks what is needed at this level. He asked to leave then decided to stay and has been out on loan. He needs to be in somebody’s 1st XI (but not ours).

Paul Gallagher
He has been brilliant.

Green Army

At home they have sometimes embarassed me but away they have been as good as ever. Did we lose 10 home games because of this or did those defeats cause the losses. Desperately needs to improve or we will go down

Mathias Doumbe
He doesn’t appear to have the Luggy’s trust to me. Hasn’t been helped by playing out of position at right back or by getting plenty of advice from the crowd. I still think him and Seip could be as good a partnership as any in the division but that is obviously not going to happen. He’s been a loyal servant and the longest-lasting of Williamson’s acquisitions but he needs to be in somebody’s 1st XI (but not ours).

Rory Fallon
I think he has done well over all. Many of the complaints aimed at him are, I feel, misplaced. He needs more goals and less fouls.

Chris Barker
He has quietly gone about his business and has proved himself to be an excellent no fuss defender at both centre and left back. Doesn’t offer much offensively but is clearly a Luggy favourite.

David McNamee
He has been injured so much that it is impossible to judge him. I think he is probably the best right back we have when fit.

Craig Noone

Excites in every reserve match and scored a crucial goal at Coventry. Has the potential to be a real crowd pleaser.

Gary Sawyer
Injured for the first part of the season but has been a fixture at left back since he got fit. Has scored a commendable number of gaols too. I have always doubted him but he is winning me over.

Marcel Seip
Very rarely makes a boo-boo and the CB next to him always looks good. A class act.

Luke Summerfield
He’s got bottle by the bucket-load as shown by his stepping forward for penalty duties and will need it to flourish under the pressure put upon him by some in the crowd. I think he needs to leave for his own sake but that almost amounts to him being hounded out of the club and that just has to be wrong. He’s not as good as he would like to be and not as bad as some make out.

Graham Stack
Bad boy #1 if rumours are true. He’ll never play again for us as long as Luggy is at the club but impressed in our first few games.

Alan Judge
Small, busy and effective. Like Norris but with end product.

Ashley Barnes
Came into the 1st Team and did well. Gets right in the faces of the opposition and will chase everything; if he can deliver 10 goals next season he has a bright future.

Jamie Mackie
From the moment he scored twice after coming on as a sub last season he has been a firm crowd favourite. He scored the goal of the season versus Reading and has played in nearly every game. He needs to score more and if he is to continue playing out wide he needs to be able to beat his full back and I don’t think he has done that all season.

Yannick Bolasie
(on loan to Barnet )
I haven’t seen him play but he seems to have featured regularly for Barnet

Lloyd Saxton
Difficult to comment. Has played 1st Team football and has been in a dominant reserve team when I have seen him play.

Carl Fletcher
Added exactly what had been missing to our midfield.

Damien McCrory
I have never seen him play.

Dan Smith
Has been released which is a shame. I hope he finds a club because he has always looked good to me.

Emile Mpenza
Scored a couple of goals which turned out to be very important but has not justified his reported £10k/week wage . We will never see him again in green.

David Gray

Has looked solid but unspectacular. Perfect right back material.

George Donnelly
Very, very raw. Needs 12 months.

Roudolphe Douala
He came, he saw, he got subbed, he was released.

Nicolas Marin

Was never really given a chance and was released. How different the season might have been had he thrived.

Jason Puncheon

I have never seen him play. Signed from Barnet, played a couple of times and was dropped. Loaned to MK Dons where he played every match and seemed to do well. Came back and straight into our team. Dropped. Back to MKD. What is going on here?

Paul Sturrock (Manager)

Needs to do better next season. This season clearly did not pan out as he had hoped and not only were tactics jettisoned but he wasn’t able to play what was probably our strongest possible line-up which would have probably included Stack, Walton, Mpenza and McNamee at the start of the season once which could not have helped. His biggest problem has been the lack of leadership in the midfield. I can’t help but think that if he knew then what he knows now that Paul Wotton would not have been released. There was rumoured to be long pursuits of 3 players who did not arrive: the Austrian Saumel (went to Torino in the end), Man Utd youngster Darron Gibson and Carl Fletcher. We can only speculate as to why none of them came but maybe Luggy was let down by the budget? Who knows but that lack of recruitment in that area has haunted us all season more than anything else and probably lies at the root of all of our problems.

If we are to strengthen, and surely we must, then players will have to go to free up budget and we might be unhappy about some of those who do leave. I think we will see a team built around Larrieu, Barker, Sawyer, Seip, Mackie and Barnes which leaves plenty of scope for recruitment.


The season has been one where we have been tested almost to destruction but we have come through. We are horribly under-resourced compared to most of our competitors and every season that we spend in this division is to be commended. We stayed up and we stayed up with 5 points, 4 games, 3 weeks, 2 (can’t think of a “2”) and 1 place to spare. It would be nice for the barrier to be a bit bigger next season.

There I got all the way to the end without once mentioning Arsenal.

[I have to give credit to Greens On Screen/Semper Viridis as the source for most of the facts and figures. There is a link on the right hand side of the page.]

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

2007/8 Squad Compared To 2008/9 Squad

I wrote this back on 13th August 2008:

How does the squad compare now to this time last season?

I have compiled a list of every player that played for us in a competitive match last year. There was 38 players used by us in total last year in total with Paul Connelly (no longer with us) leading the way with 42 league appearances and Ryan Dickson the lanterne rouge as they say in the Tour De France (lanterne verte, perhaps?) with one substitute appearance in the League Cup.

Here is the complete list of starting and substitute appearances for last season:

Start Sub
Paul Connolly 42 0
Peter Halmosi 41 2
Krisztian Timar 36 2
Lilian Nalis 35 5
Marcel Seip 32 2
Luke McCormick 30 0
Gary Sawyer 28 3
David Norris 27 0
Nadjim Abdou 22 9
Lee Hodges 20 7
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake 19 6
Jermaine Easter 20 12
Barry Hayles 21 2
Romain Larrieu 15 0
Rory Fallon 13 16
Steven MacLean 14 3
Russell Anderson 14 0
Mathias Doumbe 10 2
Akos Buzsaky 8 3
Lee Martin 10 2
Chris Clark 8 4
Gary Teale 8 4
Luke Summerfield 5 2
James Paterson 7 1
Nick Chadwick 3 6
Dan Gosling 5 5
Paul Wotton 5 3
Jamie Mackie 4 9
Lukas Jutkiewicz 1 2

The purpose of this is to compare this season with last so many of them arrived during the season so I’ll remove them and the fringe youngsters. That leaves 23 senior pros:

Start Sub
Paul Connolly 42 0
Peter Halmosi 41 2
Krisztian Timar 36 2
Lilian Nalis 35 5
Marcel Seip 32 2
Luke McCormick 30 0
Gary Sawyer 28 3
David Norris 27 0
Nadjim Abdou 22 9
Barry Hayles 21 2
Lee Hodges 20 7
Jermaine Easter 20 12
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake 19 6
Romain Larrieu 15 0
Rory Fallon 13 16
Mathias Doumbe 10 2
Lee Martin 10 2
Akos Buzsaky 8 3
Luke Summerfield 5 2
Dan Gosling 5 5
Paul Wotton 5 3
Nick Chadwick 3 6
Bojan Djordic 1 1

Most strikingly obvious is that 3 of the top 4 (or 4 out of the top 6) in terms of appearances are no longer here. Indeed many are no longer here. Just who do we have left?

Start Sub
Krisztian Timar 36 2
Marcel Seip 32 2
Gary Sawyer 28 3
Jermaine Easter 20 12
Romain Larrieu 15 0
Rory Fallon 13 16
Mathias Doumbe 10 2
Luke Summerfield 5 2

We now have only 9 (!) of the players who started last season and there has to be apprehension as to the prospects of 2 of them.

There is little point in comparing those players to themselves though. None of them has age as an issue so I will assume that they have benefited from experience and training and are actually slightly better players than they were this time last year.

So what about those who have left since then and their replacements? I have matched them up type for type and assessed as best as I can.

L McCormick GK Stack equal
P Connolly RB McNamee now
L Hodges LB Barker now
P Halmosi LW Puncheon then
L Nalis MID Walton now
D Norris MID Clark then
A Buzsaky MID Paterson then
D Gosling MID Folly then
P Wotton MID Duguid equal
S Ebanks-Blake CF MacLean then
N Chadwick CF Mackie now
Martin loan Cathcart equal
N Abdou

B Djordjic

B Hayles

I would say we are now stronger in 4 positions, weaker in 5 and the same in 3. I have matched Cathcart and Martin due to then both being Man Utd loanees.

There are 3 places unfilled but how much impact did any of them have on last season? It could be argued that they do not need filling although noises from HP suggest that more players may yet follow and I am confident that the 3 replacements for them will be better footballers. Is it asking too much for them to provide the flair that old favourites did?

So despite the incredible churn rate, the illnesses, the agents, the mismanagement of Holloway, the tragedy… In fact despite it all we are currently looking in a not dissimilar position to last season. We have lost the flair that Halmosi and Buszaky brought to the side but we have gained much in other areas and we may yet get that flair back.

It looks like a good squad to me but what we really need is the icing on the cake. We need to find players to provide the spark that Buzz, SEB and Halmosi provided. Will we see that from Puncheon, Clark or MacLean? I don’t know but neither dies anybody else.

If we do not add to the squad still further I think the year on year improvement that we have enjoyed will come to end but there is no way that I see this squad of players as being in danger of relegation.

I don’t like predictions much but I'll make one regardless. I think we will finish 12th if we do not add to the squad.

With the prospect of Japanese players to be added in January could it be that we have another season on the fringes of the play off race. If we do will we be able to make that step up this time?

That was updated to on 2nd September 08:

It looks like a good squad to me but what we really need is the icing on the cake. We need to find players to provide the spark that Buzz, SEB and Halmosi provided. Will we see that from Puncheon, Clark or MacLean? I don’t know but neither dies anybody else.

That was a part of my summing up on the earlier post comparing the squads. On balance I felt that the squad was stronger but had less spark, verve and quality at the upper reaches. We were down on numbers too with Abdou, Djordic and Hayles not yet matched up.

That has since changed somewhat with the arrivals of Craig Noone, Paul Gallagher, Nicolas Marin and Emile Mpenza (and yes I did have to look up their Christian names). Each of them bursting with promise.

Time will tell whether or not they deliver but there does seem to be quality there. Gallagher has been knocking around the premiership for some time now; Mpenza has over 50 caps and has played 25 games in the PL last season and is a hard running, very direct striker with not a little pace; Marin is on the fringe of the French team and there is a simply brilliant goal that he scored on youtube (please excuse the French commentary):

Noone? Another with pace and promise.

We have lost quality in the squad with the departures of Halmosi, Buszaky, SEB and Norris but we seem to have matched that with the arrivals of Puncheon and the recent arrivals.

Against the backdrop of all of this then it appears that we are on the brink of losing Jermaine Easter and Rory Fallon appears to be the only option as a target man. To be honest I think both would struggle to figure other than as subs anyway. Easter, in particular, seems to be another Chadwick and despite busting every sinew to deliver he just doesn't quite have it in him. He has been straining as hard as he could to do what he has done so far and that is precious little.

Fallon? He remains an enigma. He has the equipment and his goal scoring record is good but he does not inspire much hope that he could bang in 20 a season and his ball retention, and marking at corners, is lacking.

No matter. I think the new additions have been expertly judged and very welcome. We have abundant formation options and despite still being weak in the centre of midfield the prospect of Japanese reinforcements in January may give us a boost and there is an enduring Glen Whelan rumour which just will not go away and Stoke seem to have hoovered up every availably midfielder and so Whelan has slipped down their pecking order.

All of a sudden the future looks very promising and improvement on last season is very possible and (dare I whisper it?) we do not have to go on very far to hit a play-off spot.

Fleece the bookies and get your money on Argyle being an end of season play-off team now!

I’ll review what I wrote back then at a later date.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


“Ambition” must be very near the top of my pet hates. “The club has no ambition” they say; “The Board has no ambition” they say; “Stapleton has no ambition” they say; “You have no ambition” they say. What a load of old poppycock.
I’m sorry to lapse into football cliché-speak but any ambition beyond “taking each game as it comes” and “trying to win every game” is little more than hot air. Naturally there is a bigger picture to be considered than that and the club should always be planning towards it and quite simply that has to be to always improve both on and off the pitch. This is easier said than done too and relies upon resources and a strong case can be made to prioritise investment in the playing staff, the stadium, the training facilities and the scouting network. The sad truth is that we need massive improvements in all of those areas but we do not have the finance to do it all at once.
We need to assess “ambition” in terms of short-, mid-, and long-term goals so I’ll lay out exactly what I would like to see from Argyle in terms of “ambition” to fit those criteria.
Short-term ambition: Fulfil the clichés I have already mentioned ~ anything else is ludicrous to set as a goal of any sort. We should always try to win the next game.
Mid-term ambition: That has to be to get to 52 points as soon as possible because 52 points should see us safe from relegation. If/when we get there we re-assess and see if the secondary target of a play-off spot is possible. If it is then how can we get from there to a promotion slot. If we get there can we win the League?
Long-term ambition: Ultimately where would I like to see the club? That is easy. I want Argyle to represent far more than the City of Plymouth; I’d like to see it represent Devon & Cornwall and maybe even the entire SW peninsula or the entire Westcountry. I want to see us at the very top of everything and when we get there I want to see us stylishly grind everybody else into dust. I want to see Argyle winning the League Cup, FA Cup, Premier League and Champions’ League and when we have done that I want to see us do it again but add the Charity Shield and that silly FIFA thing where the Champions of Europe play the Champions of South America, Asia, Africa etc too. I want JJB to sell Argyle shirts in the Trafford Centre and beyond. I want kids on the streets of Exeter, London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere to play their park football in an Argyle kit. I want those same kids to mercilessly rib the locals about supporting a bunch of has-beens like Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea and shrug off jibes about being “Plastic Wannabes” without so much as a second thought. I want Argyle to be the Pride Of Singapore and Shanghai. I want to see us play in a 100 000 capacity all-seater stadium (possibly bigger) that is also used for England’s home games. I want us to be spoken of in revered terms like the Busby Babes, Billy Wright’s Wolves, the Spurs push-and-runners, 1970 Brazil, Holland’s Total Footballers or Celtic’s Lisbon Lions (in fact like the Lisbon Lions I would also like to see the team comprised entirely of players born within 30 miles of Plymouth too) and I would like the 2nd best team in the country to be our Reserves.
I think that should be enough to show those who say I have no ambition that they could not be more wrong.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


Trees. Conker trees. Or to be more accurate Horse Chestnut trees are wonderful, wondrous things. I‘ve always loved them ~ perhaps rather more than is logical ~ going all the way back to that mad scramble for the conker that fell naturally from the tree in our school playground all those years ago. We used to gather beneath the tree and await yet further proof of gravity’s intransigent effects (Apples? Sir Henry Newton? Pah!!) and we did so with all the fervour and expectancy that only the exuberance and unfettered hope of early childhood can bring. The modern day obsession with health and safety was not for us as we risked life and limb, or at least a nasty bang on the noggin, firstly by being struck by the much sought after nut as it plummeted with ever increasing velocity along a course the randomness of which could only have come from a series of ricochets earthwards and secondly in the madcap scramble to be first to pick it up as it bounced away shedding bits of outer shell like shrapnel as it did. Just one false move and the race was lost as was the prize which went elsewhere.

Loads of kids. One conker. It was a metaphor in many ways for a lifetime as an Argyle fan. The long wait, the hope, the thrill, the occasional wondrous victory and the more common feeling of disappointment as one of the bigger boys barged me out of the way before claiming the prize. “Never mind” I would tell myself. “There’s always next time".

As I got older and conkers became less important to me the trees on which they grew began to lend a not inconsiderable influence on my childhood. I climbed them and sheltered under them from both rain and sun with the foliage offering equally good protection against each. I guess the great indigenous deciduous trees are similar in many ways but the conker tree was always the greatest out of them all. OK ~ so oak trees have acorns… Great. Sorry not even the glimmer of a buzz about that fine though they may be. Beech trees? Lots of nuts. Popular enough as they are, and I’m sure that they have their own supporters, but they just do not compare. I am neither a pig nor a squirrel and they just merge into the background with all the rest of our native deciduous trees and don’t even get me started on conifers. Conifers are always the same. What is the point of them? Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull! Begone you nefarious interlopers you play no part in this tale!!

Conker trees just grow so big. I mean really big. Often not just the tallest tree in the forest or park but usually the one that spreads it’s branches the farthest too. Does the oak tree have a “Macarena” (a song with a dance to match that is) of its own? No it does not and neither do any of the others. It offers the most delicious shade on the hottest of days in the summer and keeps the rain off, too, for about half of the year. If you spit on a leaf and squish it up a bit it oozes a soapy slime that will do to wash your hands too should an emergency arise and the wood is just perfect for carving a Long John Silver style wooden leg should you need to but I digress...

The conker tree for me defines the passing of time and relates intimately to the rhythms of each football season as each passes through its own pre-ordained cycle just as it must in order to justify its very existence.

The start of the pre-season sees the conker tree at is mightiest and most powerful. It is a truly majestic sight and stands proud just as our hopes for the coming season do. Full of swagger and bravado as each and every tiny breeze ruffles its leaves just as each leaf somehow, magically, inexorably tracks the sun on its celestial journey. It is at this time that the tree is working at its hardest as its root structure acting as a scouting network as it searches out every last precious drop of moisture just as a football scout searches for every morsel of talent. That Special One must be out there awaiting discovery and the bigger the scouting network the better just as the biggest and best root system divines for the precious water that will sustain the parent tree.

Gradually over the course of the close season the conkers start to appear on the tree. Small at first their shells eventually turn from green to brown and start to get spikey as they enlarge. The nut inside the outer shell swells as it packs as much of the energy siphoned from sun and soil as it can into its kernel. In a way the tree is doing its pre-season training. It is the work done now that will pay off in due course. That conker needs to be fighting fit if it is to germinate and produce a new sapling.

The small boys delight in the conkers that fall in September and October and progress for the rest of the season can be set in these two months for any team. A few good wins and anything is possible. Several defeats and a long, hard struggle awaits. The turmoil and upheaval of these months is really quite spectacular and the difference between winning a game and losing is huge with so few points posted at such an early stage. If we are lucky the points will fall upon us just as the treasured nuts fall onto the autumnal pastures beneath the trees that performed the miracle that produces them.

The tree then begins to shed its leaves. There is a sadness about this time of the year as the days get shorter, darker, cooler and wetter. The fallen leaves mulch, line gutters, block drains and make roads slippery but all is not doom and gloom because it also means the FA Cup is about to start and the 1st Round of that must surely add a spring to the step of any true football fan.

The long, hard slog for both football fan and tree that is winter follows. More horrid weather and ever shortening days. Gales and foul weather abound as the tree is beset by wind, rain and frost. The tree bears it all with great stoicism just as the football fan does. Just as surely our brave boys are battling against their own adversity as every team strives to get a jump on the other twenty-two and the twenty-two are all hell bent on doing all they can to foul it up for the one that is ours. The conker tree is at it’s leanest at this stage. No buds, flowers, leaves or conkers as it stands dormant and thinking solely of its own survival. Nothing extraneous with which to over complicate the job in hand. Nothing to place greater strain upon it than needs be. The tree will bend and give in acknowledgement to the greater powers that beset it but it still stands defiant knowing that better days are soon to come.

Eventually the first sticky buds arrive, the days begin to lengthen and the FA Cup hits Round 3 and as it does so it signals the sharpest end of the football season. Will it be glory or disaster? Just as fate of our team hurtles headlong into destiny so the tree goes into overdrive. First buds, then leaves, then the flowers which will drop their tiny little pink petals all over your car and make it all sticky if you park beneath it at the wrong time. The flowers on the tree come with the end of the season for the ordinary football team, player and supporter. There may be a summer tournament but they usually happen overseas oblivious to the eternal cycles of birth, death and rebirth that are so familiar to football fans, arborealogists and little boys alike. Slowly, almost imperceptibly the conkers, hidden by the millions of leaves are born.

Next time you stroll up through Central Park from the Barn Park entrance and wander through the avenue of conker trees wonder at them too. Beautiful though they are in any season their life cycle is part of yours and of our club’s. In the struggle for both success and survival they echo each other more than you might think just as that mad playground scramble for the fallen conker echoes our hopes and dreams.

Sadly there is a sting to my idle musing. I have regularly walked that path for decades man and boy and not once have I ever seen a conker from any of those trees. Perhaps there’s a metaphor there too.