There was a certain inevitability about the departure of manager Carl Fletcher from League Two strugglers Plymouth Argyle. With only one win in the league since the twentieth of October and his team now just two points above the relegation places at the foot of the table, a defeat away to one of the few sides in the division still below them, Bristol Rovers, was always going to be likely to be the straw that broke the camel’s back for the Argyle owner James Brent, but there is still a hint of sadness about the first managerial departure of 2013. Fletcher himself showed great courage in giving an interview with the BBC soon after yesterday’s loss which is difficult for even the viewer to watch, and his departure from Home Park demonstrates the extent to which modern football is a game which has little truck with sentiment.
When Fletcher took the job sixteen months ago, there were serious questions to be asked about the ongoing existence of the club. Having only just exited administration after having been in it for some considerable time already, Fletcher’s job last season was an uphill battle, to say the least. He eventually steered the club to twenty-first place in the League One table, two points above the relegation zone, but it was clear that such a close club with losing the club’s Football League place was unlikely to be tolerated again. This season started reasonably well, with a three-nil win against a club just as troubled as they had been, Portsmouth, in the Football League Cup in August. Since then, however, Plymouth’s season has stuttered and stalled, with a First Round defeat in the FA Cup at the hands of non-league Dorchester Town being a particular low-light as the team has failed to lift the gloom that has come to settle over Home Park over the last couple of years. New starts, we might surmise, are not supposed to look like this.
For all of the shortcomings that his Plymouth team has displayed this season, however, it would be short-sighted to regard his time in charge of the club as being a failure. Plymouth Argyle might easily have tumbled from the Football League at the end of last season, and the Football Conference is, as the likes of Lincoln City, Stockport County and others have found in recent seasons, a considerably more difficult league to get out of than it is to slide into. There can be little question that when Fletcher took over the position in 2011, this was a club that was just starting to emerge from an existence-threatening period in its history, and that he managed to stabilise it on the pitch even after the worst of this had been overcome is something that should not be forgotten by Plymouth supporters. He was there during the bad times, and that he will not be there for substantially better times for the club is something that may well sadden those who respect him for keeping the club up last year.
Modern football is, however, always looking forward and never looking back, and managers with better records than Fletcher have already been sacked elsewhere already this season. When new owner James Brent took over the club in October 2011, he doubtless saw a mountain of potential, a club with the capability of playing at a considerably higher level than League Two, and whatever plans he had for it at that time are unlikely to have included continuing to bump along near the foot of the Football League. In an era during which money rules over all other considerations within this game, the truth of the matter is that neither Brent himself or Plymouth Argyle Football Club can probably afford the substantial drop in revenue that would come with dropping from the League, and Fletcher’s record this season has offered little indication that things will improve on the pitch to a sufficient extent to guarantee the club’s safety any time soon.
To see one of the managerial game’s good guys lose his job, however, should be no great cause for celebration. There often seem to be precious few enough of them about in the first place, after all. The good news for Fletcher is that he is young – still just thirty-two years of age – and the learning experience that he has had at Plymouth will likely serve him well in the future. It would be a great shame if this budding young manager was spat out by the professional game after just one attempt, and under what were frequently very trying circumstances. The very nature of managing a football club means that the relationship between a manager and their club is a complex one. It is to be hoped that Carl Fletcher finds a club that is a better fit for him as a manager or as a coach in the future. Time, certainly, is on his side.
Plymouth Argyle Football Club and its supporters have had to learn some very hard lessons over the last two or three years about the nature of football, its darker financial side and management, and supporters looking grimly at the League Two table today should perhaps take some solace from the fact that they have a football club to support at all, for there was a period of many months when it looked very much as if they wouldn’t have one soon. Their club was saved and, whilst this is hardly something that supporters should be grateful for, it should at least allow them some perspective on its appearance at the wrong end of the league table. The departure of Carl Fletcher marks a severance with the past, a past that they may prefer to forget, but which should at the very least have taught them about the false gods that football offers in its alternative reality. Their club still exists, and that is something that we should all offer a little thanks for. And if it does retain its Football League status at the end of this season, only the most short-sighted and petulant would try to claim that Carl Fletcher, for all the shortcomings that eventually cost him his job, didn’t have anything to do with keeping Plymouth Argyle alive during its hour of need, both as a player and as its manager.
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