They should never have recovered from the loss of manager Ryan Lowe to Preston North End last season.
Their sensational early-season form bore all the hallmarks of a team playing above themselves who would eventually find their level behind the relentless pace of the two more fancied clubs settled in behind them.
And when they lost their star goalkeeper for the rest of the campaign in a defeat which saw them deposed at the top of the table, that ought to have been the end of Plymouth Argyle’s promotion challenge.
Yet here they are, Steven Schumacher’s side. Back in the Championship after 13 years of toil and struggle of one form or another. A win at Port Vale on Sunday would even take them up as champions, centurions, the side who upset all the odds to see off every last one of the clubs who came at them in a frankly incredible League One season.
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While Ipswich Town’s late-season form has been far more emphatic, and Sheffield Wednesday’s 23-game unbeaten run up to late-March seemed set to push them over the line, Argyle have been stunningly consistent for most of the campaign.
They were four points clear of a brilliantly competitive division after three months, the Ryan Hardie-inspired come-from-behind 4-2 derby victory over Exeter City crowning a wonderful spell, but a run of four winless games got the rest of the league wondering. You see, this was a Pilgrims side which was massively outperforming its xG and whose goalkeeper Michael Cooper was one of the most overworked shot-stoppers in the third tier.
But Schumacher, whose first full-time gig as a manager came the day Lowe walked out of the Home Park exit gate in December 2021, had found a winning formula thanks to the belief he had put in his players to deliver in big moments.
Even when they faced adversity, he was full of faith in his entire squad. The recall of Morgan Whittaker by Swansea City in January at a time when the ace marksman was their top scorer did nothing to kill their buzz, with Hardie, Sam Cosgrove, Bali Mumba and Matt Butcher among those stepping up to net key goals at huge times in the second half of the season. And when Cooper was stricken by a ruptured cruciate ligament in the February defeat away to Sheffield Wednesday, he was ably replaced by Callum Burton, a keeper with 100 previous appearances to his name in a 10-year pro career served at 10 different clubs.
Frankly, the way that Schumacher has guided what many would have regarded earlier in the season to be a talented but slender squad to maintain such a frenetic pace deserves to put him down as the Manager of the Season across all four divisions. It has taken some kind of season to stay ahead of a magnificent Ipswich side currently boasting 97 points, while Wednesday’s 93 already marks them out as the highest-performing third-place side in English football history even with one game remaining. Against that backdrop, this has to go down as one of the greatest promotion campaigns ever.
“It makes me feel immensely proud of the work that I put in every single day since I retired and started coaching,” Schumacher admitted after Saturday’s promotion-clinching 1-0 win over Burton Albion. “To be the manager now of Argyle… it’s absolutely unbelievable. It’s a brilliant achievement and I’m so proud that we’ve managed to do it at this great club because there’s no better place to be for your first job as a manager, and for us to get this club back into the Championship, I’m just delighted. It’s the best feeling ever, it doesn’t get any better than that.
“Throughout the whole of the season we’ve played so well, we’ve been so consistent. The performances at Home Park in particular have been outstanding, and every single week these players and this staff, we’ve given absolutely everything that we possibly could.”
Now, after a tilt at the title on Sunday, Plymouth have the opportunity to show the Championship what many have suggested over the past nine months… that the quality on display at the top of League One is ripe to challenge most of what the second tier has to offer.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change