Cast your mind back exactly three months to the start of January, and you would find Plymouth Argyle sitting firmly in the driving seat at the summit of the League Two table. Nine points ahead of Bristol Rovers in fourth place with less than half the season to play, it would have been a fair assumption that Argyle would be comfortably heading up to League One come May. Unfortunately for the Pilgrims, the last three months haven’t quite played out like that.
Instead, the early runaway leaders have only managed to pick up 16 points in their last 13 league games; to put this into perspective, relegation-threatened York City have picked up more points in this period of time. This drop in form has well and truly opened the door to the chasing pack that were, back at the start of the year, over ten points adrift.
After their damaging home loss to title contenders Northampton in early January, Plymouth are starting the month on the back of a nightmare run of results in March. Out of a possible 18 points, Argyle only managed seven, failing to take advantage of key matches against promotion rivals as they lost at Accrington Stanley and only drew at home to Oxford United. To compound matters even more, in their last time out against fierce Devon rivals Exeter City they let a one-goal lead slip in the last ten minutes to lose ground on Oxford; with Bristol Rovers also comfortably beating Cambridge United, Plymouth dropped out of the top three for the first time since October.
It’s arguable, however, that this recent run of form has been caused by the distraction of Northampton Town, who have come from nowhere to gather an almost unassailable lead at the top of the league. With only one loss in 27 league games since early December for the Cobblers, Argyle can be forgiven for trying to keep up with them and trying to keep one hand on the title. However, this battle for the top spot has perhaps left the Pilgrims ignoring the advances of Oxford, Bristol Rovers and Accrington lurking behind their shoulders.
A Kemar Roofe-inspired Oxford have capitalised on Plymouth’s inconsistency and catapulted themselves above the Pilgrims into pole position in the race for automatic promotion; with six to play, they sit two points ahead.
A huge turning point in both of these sides season’s will come in the next two games, with Oxford returning to League Two football on the back of a disappointing defeat in the Johnstone Paint Trophy final at Wembley. Any cup final hangover could let Plymouth hunt them down, and could even leave Oxford looking over their shoulders at Rovers and Accrington and the prospect of the playoffs instead of automatic promotion.
With games running out between now and the end of the season, how can Plymouth turn it around?
More than anything, it’s important that the team doesn’t start to panic. After being in the top three for so long, and being so comfortable for such a prolonged period of time, it would be easy to think that there’s no coming back. At present, the gap between them and Oxford was only two points, and they’re only below Bristol Rovers courtesy of goal difference; one game and everything can change, so Plymouth just need to re-find some early season composure.
Another factor that could shape how the season pans out is the fixture list that each promotion chasing team has – Argyle are fortunate enough to have the majority of their games against mid-table sides, who don’t particularly have anything to play for. Compare this to Bristol Rovers, who have to play a Northampton side wanting to seal the title and a Stevenage side fighting for survival, and you all of a sudden would rather be in the boots of Argyle.
Perhaps above all is the main factor that comes in the shape of Reuben Reid, perennial Argyle goal-scorer who has just ended a fifteen game goal drought in their victory against York. In his past two seasons in League Two Reid has reached the 20 goal milestone, and although he hasn’t quite hit these heights this season his goal against York might have lifted a huge weight off of his shoulders, and he could start playing with the confidence that is synonymous with his usual self.
If Reid starts scoring, it would be very hard to see Plymouth not making the top three.
To answer the question posed in the title of this article, it would be silly to suggest that Plymouth have completely blown their promotion chances just yet – after all, an awful lot can happen in six games of football, especially in a situation as tight as the League Two promotion race.
Yet four doesn’t go into two, meaning two sides will be left bitterly disappointed at the end of that sixth game in May. When things start to go down to the wire, the cliché of tearing up the form book becomes true, and that could work in Plymouth’s favour; it’s time to forget about their previous results, it’s time to want it more than any other team, and, for them, it’s time to get the job done.
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