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League Two

Are Plymouth Argyle the real deal for promotion this season?

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League Two leaders Plymouth Argyle head into the next round of fixtures on a high. Last time out, at home against Portsmouth, they scored a dramatic late equaliser, and now the club are three points clear at the top of the table. They then followed this up on Saturday, with a 3-1 away victory over Newport County. 

The thing is, something similar happened last season. After thirteen games, the Pilgrims were also sitting at the summit of the League Two table. Argyle were on top of the pile for ten of the next fourteen rounds of games, and at one point looked a certainty for promotion back to League One for the first time in five years.

Things turned sour, however, and a dire run of form saw them pick up just seven wins in their final 18 games. This was enough to get them into the playoffs, where they edged past Portsmouth over two legs to get to the final at Wembley, only for them to be beaten by the narrative-laden AFC Wimbledon.

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Will this season be different? Will the club that, just a few years ago seemed almost on the verge of dropping out of the league altogether, be able to finally take their first step back up the footballing pyramid?

Well, thus far Plymouth have looked impressive. They have a mean defence, having conceded the fewest goals in the division so far, with just 12 in 14. They are also scoring a lot of goals and are amongst the top sides in the division in terms of finding the back of the net. Indeed, they have scored in every league game this season, apart from the two games in which they lost.

What is most impressive about the Pilgrims so far is that they have spread the goals around the squad and are not reliant on one particular striker to score all their goals. Midfielder Graham Carey sits atop the club’s scoring charts with five goals, whilst forward Jake Jervis has bagged himself four.

On top of their efforts, eight other players have bagged at least one goal for the side so far. Given the club’s injury issues (more on that later), this is a key aspect of Argyle’s success this season as they are able to mitigate against losses to key players such as strikers.

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One result of the good form of the team on the pitch is the increased support of the Green Army off of it. With more wins, the stands at Home Park have been busier in recent weeks and over 13,000 turned out to see their last home game. This additional support can really provide a boost for the team on the pitch and can make Home Park an intimidating place to go when the fans are in full voice. This can only help the players, giving them more confidence and support in tough games towards the vital run-in.

So far, so good.

One potential problem, however, is the club’s mounting list of injuries that is threatening to derail their season. Five first team players sat out of their 2-2 draw with Portsmouth, and in total only 18 players were fully fit for manager Derek Adams to choose from.

Two are currently out with long-term issues, whilst a further two absentees are actually loanees who’s clubs will not want them rushed back before they are properly fit. This issue is compounded by a change of league rules that prevents sides from bringing in players on emergency loan deals, so for the time being Argyle will have to make do with their thin squad.

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Another might be that the club does not have a goalscorer of particular pedigree in the lower divisions. Whilst it was mentioned earlier that not having to rely too much on one man for goals is a good thing, one might expect a side with ambitions of challenging for the League Two title would have a striker who is capable of hitting close to 20 goals in a season. Jake Jervis, currently the club’s second highest scorer, only bagged eleven last season from 42 games.

All four promoted clubs last season had a player who scored 15+ goals. Jervis will need to step up, or the squad will have to continue chipping in with their fair share if Argyle are going to have the firepower necessary to get out of the division.

Finally, whilst they have been excellent defensively, Argyle have struggled against pacy attackers at times. Now, clearly in League Two there are not too many sides with truly skilful and pacy attackers in abundance, and given their solid defensive record “struggled” might be an unfair term to use, but they have been shown to be vulnerable and this could prove to be a big problem if they get found out.

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So far this season, Plymouth Argyle have an improved record after the first fourteen league games of the season compared to the year before. Now, they are again top of the league and they seem to be in pretty irresistible form. In 2015-16, Argyle’s fourteenth game was an away loss at Oxford United, a team that would go on to win promotion at the end of the season. However, with Saturday’s victory over Newport, they have now bettered their previous achievements. 

They do, though, have a fairly tough run of fixtures coming up, in which the Pilgrims take on a number of upper-mid table and promotion chasing teams such as Grimsby Town and Crewe Alexandra. Get through these games without dropping silly points and the Green Army should be looking at celebrations come May, rather than Wembley heartache.

Featured Image: All rights reserved by dan.westwell

Ben is a fan of Swindon Town. Having lived in Berlin for nearly two years he has now developed a fascination with the eternally cool 1.FC Union Berlin, and an odd love for Eastern European football (Vysheyshaya Liga anyone?). Ben also dabbles in writing about FIFA, match-fixing and football's struggles with corruption.

Exclusives

Exclusive: Adebayo Akinfenwa – Wycombe Wanderers, growth of eSports and League One future

Few players outside of the Premier League command the type of attention and admiration as ‘The Beast’.

Jake Jackman

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Adebayo Akinfenwa
Photo: Getty Images

Adebayo Akinfenwa’s reputation has surged during recent years thanks to the FIFA video game series. He has been ranked as one of the strongest players in the game and earned the nickname ‘The Beast’ as a result of that.

Throughout his career, he has been successful in the lower leagues and this season saw the striker win another promotion, this time with Wycombe Wanderers.

However, it is gaming that has taken him global. In an exclusive interview with The Boot Room, the 36-year-old was keen to make that point when asked about FIFA’s impact:

“Massive, massive, massive, I’d be lying if I said that I could, sat here, say 5-6 years ago saying how my life could’ve gone. The FIFA series, the game community is a world within the world we live in, it’s a community.

It has taken me internationally without even going to these places, of course moments happen, playing Liverpool on tv and I scored and it’s a domino effect. But with how big FIFA is globally there are places I’m known that I’ve never set foot in.

It’s been mindboggling, it’s humbling the way FIFA in itself has changed my world.”

It speaks volumes about the outreach of the gaming community that it has had such a huge impact on Akinfenwa’s career. There are some overlaps between the gaming and football community, but it is the former that has increased the striker’s profile.

A number of prominent YouTubers brought attention to his in-game character and how effective he could be, despite being a lower league footballer.

It is interesting that he notes the domino effect that it has had on the pitch, as opposition teams will be more aware of him and it is likely that clubs have signed him due to his reputation. However, it is his off-the-field activities that have increased due to EA’s popular gaming franchise.

“I mean I interviewed The Rock 4 weeks ago, it’s opened up so many doors. For me I’d say that to get involved with it, at first, you’re going along with it then you realize the doors opening up and the realms it’s taking my life to. It’s mindboggling, it’s opened up so many doors.”

Akinfenwa has been humbled by the way he has been taken in by the gaming community and he has been keen to give something back. Professional gaming is on the way up as an industry and eSports are starting to evolve across the board.

There are no limits to how far it can grow and the influence of people like the 36-year-old can be huge in aiding that. When asked about eSports, the Wycombe striker spoke positively about the industry:

“I think it will be the future, I think that you take gaming which has been around forever, and you take a competitive element and you fuse them together, it can only get bigger and you see it.

“It’s funny because when I was younger my parents were like “get off the computer and get outside” and now parents are like “get on the computer”. It’s the way society is moving and fusing two loves, a competitive edge and gaming. It can only get bigger.”

There will be many within football that fear eSports as genuine competition to the sport. Children may choose to follow in the footsteps of their favourite YouTubers and professional gamers, rather than looking as football as a career path.

The fact that the FIFA eClub World Cup was shown on Sky Sports underlines how gaming has moved into mainstream channels. Meanwhile, Hashtag United has tried to combine football with gaming and are moving into non-league competition in the 2018/19 campaigning.

Football as an industry will see the rise of eSports as a threat, but they should take Akinfenwa’s stance and embrace it. He sees many parallels between the two industries and they should be able to co-exist and thrive.

“I think there’s a comparison to anything professional really or with the desire you want to put in, even if you’re not professional but say you want to get bigger and you’re going to the gym every day, you need the dedication and to put the hard work into it.

“Just because they put the word professional in it – the difference between a professional and an amateur is that the professional didn’t quit and that’s the only difference.

“With the whole Gfinty Elite series, I’m talking to these gamers, and they prepare like I prepare for a game. They’re not half-stepping and just waking up and switching on the computer, playing and hoping, no, they’re honing their skills and training every day, they’ve got their formation that they tweak and change every day, it’s a direct comparison.

“If you want to be the best you can be you’ve got to put in the time nobody can wake up and be the best and that’s the same with these players in these competitive leagues they put in the work. That’s what I’ve noticed the most, their determination and work ethic, it’s the same as a professional footballer.”

The mentality of football and eSports are very similar. Akinfenwa has clearly taken that away from his time spent being involved in both. Those that compete at FIFA professionally have to put the time in and work hard, just like footballers going to training every day. Above, the Wycombe striker refers to the Gfinity eSports Elite Series, which he is directly involved in.

When asked about the competition, Akinfenwa spoke about the quality and how he managed to become a part of it.

“The elite series is the best of the best, they’re not half stepping. The players have managers and with FIFA anyway it’s literally like a last man standing, a team of four, PS4 and Xbox, you pick your best players and you go through a tournament process to the final and the winner is the winner.

“The good thing is you find out about the different players like Gorilla, the best in the world, and there are different teams and players trying to navigate through the series and win in the end.

“Initially, I got approached and knew one of the production managers from my time at EA and he said “well, look we want to do this and think you’ll be a great fit”. I’ve enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to doing more next season.

“I’ve teamed up with Lauren and I felt the chemistry was there, the good thing about it is that I didn’t know much about Gfinity or eSports, I mean I knew, but not much about it.

“It’s let me dive into their world, see how seriously you need to take it and have dedication. I went along this year as a novice and now I know much more and I’m looking forward to next season.”

Despite being 36, Akinfenwa isn’t looking to end his playing career anytime soon. That said, he will have one eye on what he can do once he does hang up his boots. If eSports continues to grow, there is no reason why he can’t become more involved and become an ambassador for many more projects like this one.

Wycombe are the focus of his attention for now after he was rewarded for his form with a new contract earlier this season. He will remain at Adams Park for the 2018/19 campaign, which will see him given another chance to make an impact in League One. The powerful striker believes that the Choirboys are ready to push on at a higher level.

“Yeah, outside the Wycombe team, the fans, the board, we weren’t favourites to go up but in-house we aspired to that and wanted to achieve and it’s the same.

“When you get promoted, consolidating and staying up is the key. I think most managers and players will say that first and foremost is hitting the benchmark that you’re not going to get relegated. As soon as you can hit that benchmark you can kick on. We’ll try and hit our goals as early as possible and kick on from there.”

Akinfenwa hasn’t played in the third tier since the 2013/14 season, in which he played 34 times for Gillingham. It was a solid if unspectacular season as he contributed ten goals and five assists. A similar return would go a long way to seeing Wycombe establish themselves in League One.

Over the course of the last year, it can be argued that Akinfenwa has matured and found a consistency that has been absent previously. During the promotion-winning season, the striker contributed 17 goals and 14 assists, which is a remarkable impact.

“I rate it up there as one of my best seasons, I believe that I needed the players around me to help me get my numbers. As long as I enjoy the game and I feel fit I’ll go out there and I know what I can do and what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at and I stay away from that.

“This season, as a club and a team we concentrated on what I was good at and therefore got the numbers both for goals this season and minutes played.

“It’s always nice to get acknowledged for the work you’re putting in but for me I’m glad we got promoted. Individual accolades are good, and I won’t knock that.

“When you retire you can look back on it, but collective accolades mean ten times more so for what I was nominated for and being in the team of the year; if we didn’t get promoted, personally it would’ve counted for nothing. It was nice for it all to culminate into a promotion and then get the accolades.

(Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

“For me, people would argue it should be my best season to date in my football career – It’s hard to argue because my stats say that. For me I’m enjoying it, numbers and stats take care of themselves. As long as I’m enjoying it I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

It is refreshing to hear Akinfenwa talk about the importance of team achievements over individual awards. Through the exposure supplied by the FIFA series, the attacker has got a lot of recognition as an individual, but he hasn’t let that affect his on-pitch performances.

He remains an excellent lower league striker and that is why he is rarely without a club for long. Last season, Wycombe benefitted from his goals, but it was his unselfish hold-up play that made him indispensable to the team, as underlined by his assist tally.

The 36-year-old will know that it will be tough to replicate those figures in League One, but if he can continue to deliver consistent performances, he will continue to offer something to the team. The growth of eSports is certainly proving to be exciting off the pitch, but Akinfenwa doesn’t plan to stop playing in the immediate future.

“Mentally I’m as good as I’ve ever been, and I feel fit I’m playing more minutes than I’ve ever played especially over these two seasons. But I think growth plays a massive part in the experience, I know what I’m good at and when you’re younger you’re trying to find what you’re good at.

“I’ll always say as soon as you can find out what you’re about, the better you will be – that’s what, especially in the last three years, I’ve found out what I’m good at.

“I’m not trying to do step overs and beat 4 players and I’m okay with the player I am. Some people will be for me and some will be against me but ultimately, I’m comfortable with who I am and what I’m about. As long as I stay fit and as long as I’m enjoying it, putting my body through this, I’ll keep playing football.”

League One defenders will be worried to hear that. Despite getting towards the end of his career, Akinfenwa remains as dangerous as he ever has been thanks to his power and physical frame.

He has the ability to dominate any defender in that division and, over the last couple of seasons, he has added intelligence to his game. The striker knows his own limitations and that has helped him get the best out of his ability.

It will be interesting to see how he and Gillingham fare next season. They have a bright, young coach in Gareth Ainsworth and they have a team that appears to enjoy playing together. Akinfenwa has played a huge role in that and few would back against him making an impact again during the 2018/19 season.

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League Two

Notts County ready to move for former Premier League midfielder Joey Barton

The 35-year-old could be set to link up with ex-Newcastle United teammate Kevin Nolan.

Jake Jackman

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Joey Barton
Photo: Getty Images

Notts County are heading in the right direction under Kevin Nolan and are one of the teams competing for promotion at the top of League Two.

That would represent a great season for the Magpies and it appears that their manager has the ambition to push them on further over the coming years.

The former Premier League player is keen to use his connections to bring in some quality and experience, with Joey Barton being one of the names linked.

The two men played together at Newcastle United and were part of the team that won promotion back to the Premier League in 2010.

In a recent interview with BBC Radio Nottingham, Nolan said the following when asked about Barton:

“Me and Joey are good friends. He is a top player, a top lad and I really get on well with him. We will always be in touch so let’s see what happens.”

“Joey is probably going to want to play at a higher level. And if that doesn’t come to fruition then I am sure there will be a conversation in the summer.

Although Nolan admits that he is unlikely to land his former team-mate, it shows his value to Notts County in the transfer market.

His presence at the club makes it possible to target quality players that have played at the top of the English game.

(Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images)

Since he arrived at Meadow Lane, he has used his Newcastle connections to sign Shola Ameobi and the striker has been a good player for the club

However, it would be an even bigger coup to land Barton, who was last seen playing in the Premier League for Burnley last season.

A lengthy ban from football due to gambling meant that the midfielder hasn’t been able to play this season, but at the age of 35, he still has something to offer the game.

Before his ban, he was a key player for Burnley and played 14 times in the Premier League after re-joining the club in January 2017.

It was a huge shame for Barton that he received a ban, as he was beginning to thrive at the highest level again.

The time away from football will have an effect on him, but he will be determined to finish his eventful career on a high.

It would be somewhat interesting if Barton did sign for Notts County this summer, as he came close to joining their local rivals a few years ago.

Reports in the Mirror, in 2015, suggested the midfielder wanted to join Nottingham Forest after he left Queens Park Rangers, but a move didn’t come to fruition.

Now, he could be offered the opportunity to play in the city, albeit for the side lower down the Football League.

At the time of writing, Notts County are in the play-off positions in League Two and they have a good chance of winning promotion this season.

Their chances of signing Barton will increase if they do go up a division, but his relationship with Nolan means they will be in the races regardless of promotion.

It could be that Barton is motivated by a project rather than money or exposure and the opportunity to join Notts County could be an appealing one.

He would get the opportunity to work with one of his good friends in the game and his ability would allow him to stand out at that level.

Supporters shouldn’t be getting excited about the rumoured signing yet, as it is only speculation at this point, but it is encouraging that Nolan has declared his interest on the record.

Barton may be a controversial figure, but he has won promotion on three occasions during his career and his experience would be invaluable to an ambitious club like Notts County.

If they manage to get this done, it would be one of the eye-catching transfers of the summer.

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League One

Are Portsmouth making Tottenham Hotspur regret Luke McGee decision?

The former Tottenham Hotspur goalie has been in fine form for Portsmouth recently.

Mathew Nash

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In the summer many Tottenham Hotspur fans were left surprised by the club’s decision to let goalkeeper Luke McGee leave the club. The young stopper had just had an excellent loan spell at Peterborough United and many felt he was the perfect option to play third-man to Hugo Lloris and Michel Vorm in North London.

Instead, he was allowed to join Portsmouth in the summer for an undisclosed fee, joining on a three-year deal.

Judging by his recent form Portsmouth will be very pleased Tottenham decided to move McGee on. The 22-year-old has been in excellent form recently, as Portsmouth forge a late charge for the League One play-off places.

Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres (R) watches as Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper Luke McGee (L) makes a save during the International Champions Cup football match between English Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur and Spanish club Atletico Madrid in Melbourne on July 29, 2016. / AFP / Paul Crock / –IMAGE RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE – STRICTLY NO COMMERCIAL USE– (Photo credit should read PAUL CROCK/AFP/Getty Images)

His form is even more impressive when considering Pompey manager Kenny Jackett made a decision to replace him in January. Portsmouth re-signed former keeper Stephen Henderson on loan from Nottingham Forest and the Irishman went straight into the starting XI ahead of McGee. But the injury-plagued Forest stopper suffered a thigh strain that ruled him out for the rest of the campaign. McGee came in and, in the next game v MK Dons, put in a man-of-the-match performance.

Since then Portsmouth fans have been very pleased with the performance of their goalkeeper, who has played 39 times for the club in League One this season.

PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND – DECEMBER 02: Luke McGee of Portsmouth in action during the Checkatrade Trophy Round 2 match between Portsmouth and Northampton Town at Fratton Park on December 2, 2017 in Portsmouth, England. (Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images)

Tottenham meanwhile look like they could lose Michel Vorm in the summer and with only Paulo Gazzaniga in support, the presence of McGee could have been a brilliant bonus for Tottenham in the future.

The young stopper is proving at Portsmouth that hard work and patience can pay off. With a little bit of luck thrown in, he has been showcasing his brilliant ability over the past two months.

Now he will have his eyes on moving one step closer to joining Tottenham in the Premier League, by getting Portsmouth into the League One play-off picture.

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