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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sentimental Fools

Nobes on why Plymouth's relegation from the Championship is equally down to too much sentiment, as it is a lack of investment.

Plymouth dispensed with manager Paul Sturrock's services in December

It's September and, after only narrowly avoiding the drop the previous season, Plymouth Argyle, under their Scottish manager, are struggling at the foot of the Championship table.

You'd be forgiven for thinking this is the story of the Devon side's current campaign. It isn't, instead it's the tale of their 2005/6 season.

Back then, Bobby Williamson was at the helm at Home Park, and struggling to turn around a poor run for the Pilgrims that had started at the beginning of the calendar year.

The parallels with Plymouth's fortunes this season are remarkable. Argyle collected just two points from their first five games this term - continuing a dire set of results in 2010 which included an eight match winless run.

The only difference? Four years ago, Williamson was sacked after those first half a dozen games. His replacement - Tony Pulis - made sure his effective, if unattractive, football kept the Greens in the second tier.

The writing had been on the wall for Williamson. He had lost the confidence of the fanbase, and another long, hard battle against the drop appeared to be on the cards.

This time around, with a manager rapidly losing support amongst the Home Park faithful, and with another difficult season ahead, Plymouth decided to stick by Paul Sturrock.

After Monday evening's defeat to Newcastle confirmed Argyle's relegation to League One, the decision to stick with Sturrock for so long has proved to be a terrible misjudgement.

Instead, the club board only decided to replace the 53-year-old in December. By the time the axe did fall on Sturrock though, the team were deep in relegation trouble.

Why then did a club who so ruthlessly - and rightly - dispensed of Williamson's services when it was clear things were not right, not do the same this time around?

Could it be they were displaying a rare example of patience and faith in their manager? Possibly. Although most Plymouth fans would argue that patience had been exhausted long before Sturrock was replaced.

Or could it be that, in a hard-nosed business where money matters now more than ever, Plymouth's board allowed sentimentality to affect their decision-making?

After all, when Sturrock returned to the South West in 2007, he was greeted as a returning hero.

His first spell at Home Park had seen him take the Pilgrims to the League Two title in his first season. A couple of years later, and the team he built had ended Plymouth's 12-year exile from the top two tiers.

Why then could he not not complete the job and take them up to the Premier League? He was taking charge of a team flying high in the division before Ian Holloway opted to leave for Leicester.

It was a run he maintained for the majority of the season - eventually finishing 10th, just six points off the play-off positions. It was Argyle's highest position for over 20 years.

However, the team Holloway built began to be dismantled. Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, David Norris, Akos Buzsaky, and Peter Halmosi were all sold for big money.

Although some of Sturrock's replacement signings - notably Simon Walton - failed to do the business, he was never given the funds to properly replace the players he had lost.

For a club with some of the smallest gates in the division, balancing the books and selling top players was a reality of life in the Championship.

Sturrock led Argyle to two promotions in three seasons in his first spell

However, there was a limit to how many you could sell and not replace, without it harming a team's performance on the pitch. Plymouth had reached theirs.

Argyle finished last season in 21st - just a place above relegated Norwich. Even a takeover at the club by a Japanese consortium didn't seem to affect the manager's position. The new board chose to keep faith with Sturrock.

Even when the team got off to a slow start this term, the board were notable in their inactivity. No proper funding of new signings, and no inclination to change the man who picks the team.

In hindsight, it has cost them dearly. Even when Sturrock's long-term assistant, Kevin Summerfield, was removed and replaced with Paul Mariner, it appeared to be a move from a board unwilling to take the really hard decision and remove Sturrock.

When Mariner did eventually step-up to the top job, time was always against him to turn around the struggling Pilgrims's fortunes.

So, did the board simply have complete confidence in their manager? Or, were they just scared of having to sack the man who had done so much to turn around the fortunes of the club?

Eventually, his departure as team boss was not a sacking, more a move upstairs to a 'business support' role. It's the kind of non-descript title that would make even Iain Dowie blush.

It summed up what had clearly been a painful decision for those in charge at the Devon club.

Freddie Shepherd, the preposterous former Newcastle chairman, once described the decision to sack Sir Bobby Robson as like "shooting Bambi." Plymouth's removal of Sturrock was tantamount to only chopping his legs off.

Most painful for the Green Army, as they prepare for trips to Yeovil and Rochdale next season, is that they will have to look at two clubs who didn't allow sentiment to affect their decision making this term.

Firstly, Norwich, who ruthlessly fired playing legend Bryan Gunn after just one league game. Gunn had failed to save them from the drop the previous term, and the club had little confidence he could lead them to an instant return.

His replacement, Paul Lambert, completed the job Gunn had set out to do at the weekend - with a 1-0 win at Charlton. The Canaries will pass Plymouth on their way up.

The other side is Barnsley. Another team who battled against the drop from the Championship last season. However, after a poor start to this term suggested another relegation fight, the Reds axed Simon Davey.

The Welshman had taken the Yorkshire side to the FA Cup semi-finals in 2008, and enjoyed a close relationship with club owner Patrick Cryne. However, when push came to shove, the club's welfare came before the man's.

His successor, Mark Robins, has kept the Oakwell club up with little fuss. Had Argyle been similarly ruthless, they may have been looking forward to a seventh successive season in the Championship.

Come the summer, the sale of players and various cost-cutting at Home Park - not sacking a manager - will represent the truly painful decisions for Plymouth.

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