FEATURE: Plymouth Argyle – The Pilgrims Taking The High Road to Success Once More?

They may have lost out in the Devon derby to local rivals Exeter City on Saturday but with around a third of the season gone it’s been a good season so far for Plymouth Argyle. That defeat, saw their lead at the top of League Two cut to just two points but there has been much for the Pilgrims’ support to be pleased about.

The defeat to Exeter, coupled with the draw at home to Leyton Orient on Tuesday night, means it is just one win in their last five matches but given that run included exits from the F.A. Cup and the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, it hasn’t hit them too hard in the league. This recent dip was preceded by a run of just one defeat in eight – the other seven all wins – hence the reason they find themselves top of the pile despite being 18/1 outsiders for that spot at the start of the season. Last season’s play-off semi-final losers are looking to go a couple of steps better this season and have, until the recent blip, gone the right way about it under the guidance of new boss Derek Adams.

The Glaswegian, Adams, has followed a similar path to a previous manager at Home Park, Paul Sturrock. The current Yeovil Town boss came to Plymouth in 2000 having gained a good reputation in Scotland, managing St Johnstone and Dundee United. A Scottish First Division title in 1997 with St Johnstone was the pinnacle, but he shocked all concerned when moving down to Devon just three years later. His arrival saw the start of one of the best periods in Plymouth’s history that would culminate in them spending six seasons in the Championship.

Sturrock left for Southampton in 2004 after guiding the club to the Championship but returned for a second spell in 2007, via Sheffield Wednesday and Swindon Town. He enhanced his folk hero status by guiding them to a tenth place finish in the 2007/08 season, their best for over 20 years, before the slide started. By 2009 Sturrock was gone again and within two years Plymouth found themselves in League Two, a spell in administration in 2011 adding to the supporters’ woe. The slide almost took them all the way down to the Conference, only arrested by the arrival of John Sheridan as manager at the beginning of 2013. The former Chesterfield boss staved off the threat of non-league football that season before almost guiding the club to a League Two play-off spot in 2014, and then going one better last season. The Mancunian left last summer, citing family reasons for moving back north, though only recently found work again at League Two rivals Newport County, in South Wales.

With Sheridan departing the Home Park club went looking in Scotland once more, appointing Adams who, like Sturrock came with a reputation – though not all of it good.

Glaswegian Adams started his playing career as a youth at Aberdeen but as player it was at Motherwell and Ross County where he made his name. After a second spell at the Highland club, Adams moved into the dug-out first as player coach and then, in November 2007, as player manager. Success quickly followed his appointment as manager with the Scottish Second Division title won in his first season followed by an appearance in the Scottish Cup Final two years later. The Dingwall based side ended up losing 3-0 to Dundee United in that final but Adams reputation was already enhanced, having disposed of two Premier League sides on their way to Hampden, including the mighty Glasgow Celtic.

Adams briefly moved on to Hibernian – one of his victims in that cup run the season before – as assistant to Colin Calderwood in November 2010 but was back in the Highlands by the end of the season. The move saw him join up once more with his father George, the Director of Football, at Ross County, Adams senior having been in that role during Derek’s previous spell too.

It was like he’d never been away with the Scottish First Division title following the season after, won by a huge 24 points from second placed Dundee. That feat helped Adams to win the manager of the season award in Scotland that year, his stock was definitely on the rise. That standing rose further the following season in the Scottish Premier League, any thought that the little Ross-shire club would struggle were dismissed as a fifth place was achieved, three points short of securing a spot in Europe, finishing ahead of the likes of Aberdeen, Dundee United and the two Edinburgh clubs. A tougher season followed the next year but still saw a creditable seventh place, however by then Adams was earning a different reputation – as a hot-head.

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Touchline spats with fellow managers were becoming common, with Terry Butcher – then manager of Highland rivals Inverness Caledonian Thistle – the most vehement of foes. Adams would later claim it was all for show, that they were trying to liven up Scottish football a bit, stoke up the rivalry between the two clubs, stating that they are the best friends with Butcher helping him with his C.V. recently.

He would have needed plenty of help with it too. As well as the touchline spats stories of unrest amongst his players wouldn’t go away either. Those rumours claimed fights, shouting matches and ill-treatment of the players, those above seemingly turning a blind eye to what was happening given the success he was delivering on the pitch. The discontent then spread into the non-playing staff at the club too and so it was no surprise that just four games into the 2013-14 season Adams, along with his father, was sacked after an alleged falling out with the chairman.

It is significant to note that despite the success he brought to Ross County on the pitch Adams remained out of work from that point until Plymouth came calling in the summer. He was linked with several high profile jobs north of the border, but perhaps put off by the off-the-field rumours and the touchline rows the clubs in question clearly thought twice before appointing him.

The move to Plymouth is probably one of the furthest between two professional clubs, it is over 650 miles between there and Dingwall, but it seems a move to England – however far south it took – was perhaps Adams’ best option. It gives him the chance to rebuild his reputation as a good manager on the pitch without being put under the spotlight for his previous off-field misdemeanours. It also gives him the chance to prove he can do it on his own, without the influence of his father above him – as had always been the case at Ross County. So far it has worked out well for Plymouth, and Adams.

The 40-year-old former midfielder has made his side difficult to beat, especially at home, where in the league they have lost just once, before the Exeter defeat, and won six. They have been just as successful on the road with six wins from their nine away games, the latest coming at struggling York City the weekend before last.

The Pilgrims have relied heavily on the goals of striker Rueben Reid over the last couple of seasons and much the same was expected this season especially when last season’s second top scorer, Lewis Alessandra, returned to his native north, signing for Rochdale. The Home Park faithful needn’t have worried though thanks to two new signings, Jake Jervis and Graham Carey. Both are currently outscoring Reid’s six goals, Jervis with ten in all competitions and Carey just two behind him. This has meant that Argyle have not had to rely on Reid as much as they have previously, which is just as well given he has been out with a hip injury since the middle of October.

Both Jervis and Carey followed Adams from Dingwall, proving that not everyone had fallen out with him up there, with fellow new signing Gregg Wylde not put off working with the Glaswegian despite having played the last couple of years north of the border following his release by Bolton Wanderers in 2013. It seems, so far, that Adams has shed the Mr. Angry act in his new role, and there have certainly been no reports of him trying to liven up the Devon Derby by taking on the dapper Paul Tisdale in the Exeter dug-out!

Injuries to other players, as well as Reid, have not helped recent results with Adams feeling the lack of the experienced heads of Luke McCormick, Peter Hartley and Carl McHugh contributed to the reverse to Exeter at the weekend. How he copes with the continued loss of these key players and how he manages their return will be decisive in turning what has been a very promising start – for both club and manager – into something more.

With Oxford and Northampton Town just two points behind and both on seven match unbeaten runs – the Cobblers shading it with six wins to Oxford’s five –  and both with winnable games on Saturday, it will be a true test of Adams’ managerial credentials to keep Argyle in the running.

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