May 2020 marks ten years to the month that Plymouth Argyle last graced the Championship.
The 2009/10 campaign represented the Pilgrims’ sixth successive season in the second tier, coming directly after two top-half finishes from the three preceding campaigns. Troubles off the field proved far too disruptive to make continued Championship survival a reality, but there were still some highly memorable fixtures that Plymouth fans will cherish for the rest of their lives.
A breakdown of Plymouth’s 2009/10 Championship campaign.
The biggest shock
As a result of impossibly-tight resources, the squad was underprepared, and took just two points from the first 27 available after a seven-game losing run. Although the end of September brought about a return of seven points from fifteen, the revival was short lived. Plymouth remained deep in trouble, and their fans expected nothing short of a thrashing at Middlesbrough on Hallows Eve.
A nearly 400-mile trip to Teesside from Home Park is as arduous as it gets, and with Middlesbrough having been relegated from the Premier League only months before, this looked set to be thoroughly one-sided.
The early flow of the game largely went as expected, but Plymouth absorbed Boro’s pressure effectively, going in goalless at the break. The second half was the same war of attrition, but Jamie Mackie scored on the breakaway, beating Brad Jones with a composed finish.
Inevitably, that was the cue for Middlesbrough to pile on the pressure – and miss a penalty shortly after going behind – but the day was Plymouth’s.
A gallant effort
Paul Sturrock was replaced as Plymouth manager by Paul Mariner on 10 December 2009. Initially benefitting from the change in regime, Plymouth saw out the 2000s decade with two wins, away to Cardiff and at home to Reading – coincidentally, the two teams that would lose the following brace of Championship playoff finals.
The 4-1 win over Reading was a particular highlight, with Reading in only their second Championship season after a last-day Premier League relegation in 2008.
VIDEO: Demolished by Plymouth in December 2009, Reading had been a surprise package just three years prior, finishing eighth in the 2006/07 Premier League season.
However, not all of Plymouth’s greatest matches from 2009/10 resulted in victory. Some were simply proof of the club’s fighting spirit, and the Pilgrims’ 4-3 defeat at Bramall Lane in February 2010 was a real classic, contextualised by the current three-division gap between the clubs.
Sheffield United today stand as one of the biggest success stories of the past five years. Deservedly, after an excellent six months under Chris Wilder, the start of next season will see the Blades priced much more favourably within various long-term Premier League betting markets. Yet, it seems only yesterday that Plymouth gave the now top-tier Blades an almighty scare.
Given momentum by a 7th-minute strike from Henri Camara, Sheffield United powered to a 3-0 lead inside just 47 minutes, with Jamie Ward hitting a brace. However, as shown by the match stats below, Bolasie and Mason gave the Pilgrims hope at 3-2.
Richard Cresswell restored the two-goal cushion after the Pilgrims’ second goal, but Plymouth were not through, with the team’s eventual top-scorer for 2009/10 Jamie Mackie getting a consolation.
One last push
Even before the 2009/10 season started, the whole affair reeked heavily of trouble. The previous campaign had seen Plymouth finish as the lowest-ranked survivors, but the Pilgrims’ survival had been largely enabled by some shrewd transfer activity by Paul Sturrock. It is thus fitting that Plymouth’s last Home Park victory in the Championship was a thriller, achieved through goals from two newcomers.
Chris Clark gave Plymouth the lead over Bristol City just after the half-hour mark with an expert volley, and Bradley Wright-Phillips – a free arrival from Southampton in July 2009 – made it 2-0 at half-time with an exquisite overhead kick.
Joy turned to tears after the break though, with Bristol City striker Nicky Maynard hitting a double, getting his second goal of the game with only 15 minutes left to play.
Bristol City were now the team chasing a winner, but Plymouth regained their composure to great effect. Inside the first minute of stoppage time, Carl Fletcher – Sturrock’s very first signing of the prior summer – netted a dramatic winner.
And the rest is silence…
That victory, on top of the two that followed (at Ipswich and Doncaster) ultimately proved to be in vain.
Try as they might to employ tactics designed for survival – similar to those identified before the endgame of 2018/19 – Plymouth ended 2009/10 with a whimper. They lost their last five games of the season, failing to score in four of them, ultimately ending up eight whole points behind the final safe spot.