For almost as long as I can remember I have been a supporter of Plymouth Argyle FC popularly known as ‘The Pilgrims’ and as the football season has just come to an end, it’s time for reflection. Why Plymouth you may ask? Well it dates back to my childhood. My father was born in Newton Abbot in Devonshire, some 30 miles from Plymouth. His father was a carpenter working in the dockyards in the city, and despite two other Devonshire teams, Exeter and Torquay (which were a lot nearer) we always followed the fortunes of Argyle. From memory Plymouth was usually regarded as the top team in the County and rivalry between the three clubs was legendary especially between the two cities. I’m not quite in that league, being an outsider and I’ve always had a soft spot for the other two Devonshire clubs, but my first loyalty was and is to ‘The Pilgrims’.
The first time I saw Argyle was when I travelled up on my motorbike (a James 150cc) from the family home in Sutton, in Surrey, (some 14 miles from central London) to watch them play Leyton Orient in East London in an evening fixture on Tuesday 3 September 1963. It was a League Division 2 game (now called The Championship). Plymouth played in a very smart continental looking strip of white, green and black and despite the fashionable turnout they lost one nil.
The next game I recall was Argyle’s home game against Southampton on 7 May 1966 in the penultimate match of the season (the World Cup started a few weeks later). Not wishing to drive all the way to Plymouth and back, I motored to Southampton from Horsham, in West Sussex, where I was living and working and travelled down on the home supporters train. It was a big game for The Saints who were driving for promotion to the First Division (now called The Premiership). For Plymouth it was a matter of pride for this was a south coast derby. The train journey down was an experience in itself. I must have been the only Argyle supporter on board, surrounded by a sea of red and white clad Southampton supporters. In those days teams often travelled by train and I recall seeing such legends as Terry Paine, and Jimmy Melia wandering up and down the carriages! The game itself was a pulsating affair in front of nearly 19,000 fans. Argyle twice took the lead but were well matched by Southampton who who drew level. Then a slip up by Plymouth’s goalkeeper, John Leiper (which I can still vividly recall today) saw the ball roll under his body following a shot from the veteran Melia giving them a three goals to two lead. Argyle could not get back into the game in the remaining 35 minutes or so and when the final whistle went a number of joyful Saints supporters invaded the pitch. They were now only one point from promotion with one game to go and duly won it as runners up in the Division. I don’t remember much about the train journey back except for a lot of celebrations by the fans in red and white!
Eight months later I took my parents in my white mini, resplendent with my Plymouth Argyle sticker, to Millwall in East London to watch the unbeaten for 59 home games Docklanders take on Argyle. The atmosphere at the Den was overpowering from the kick off, but little did we know that this match would tear up the home team’s unbeaten record as Argyle emerged the winners by two goals to one. Many of the home supporters could not contain their rage at the opposition’s shock win. Some Argyle players were attacked as they left the pitch after the final whistle, while others were manhandled as they sought shelter in their dressing room. We made a quick exit from our seats in the stand making our way back to the car, unaware that the coach that had brought the west country team to the ground from Paddington Station had been attacked, and some its windows smashed and the windscreen damaged. We only learned of the extent of the damage when we read about it in next day’s national press, but appreciated that the violence was down to a minority of Millwall supporters. For us the unexpected victory was an achievement to be proud of.
As it was seventeen years later when on 14 April 1984 Argyle met Watford (who were managed by Graham Taylor) in the semi final of the FA Cup at Villa Park in Birmingham. It was a first for us and I was lucky enough to get a ticket along with a friend of mine from Bristol who was a long-standing Watford supporter. It was my friend Geoff who left the ground a happy person having seen his team clinch a one nil victory over The Pilgrims. Played in front of nearly 44,000 fans it was a wonderful occasion and Argyle were by no means the underdogs. In fact they were brilliant and might just have pulled off the shock of the decade if a couple of shots had not just shaved the post. But Watford’s goal, scored just before the game was 15 minutes old, was enough to secure them a visit to Wembley the following month, where they were beaten two nil by Everton.
The following season when watching Argyle play away to Leyton Orient I came across the journalist and socialist Paul Foot sitting in the away fans’ stand. There were not many of us there. It was a miserable, wet October night and we lost three nil. But from then on I was often in his company at away games. I first met Paul (nephew of Michael Foot) in 1974 when I worked at the International Socialists printing works in East London, where he worked as a reporter for the weekly Socialist Worker. The following season I travelled down to Reading (who were top of Division Three) with Paul and Michael Foot (Paul was driving) to watch the clash between the two clubs at Elm Park. It was a memorable day. On the drive down Michael talked about the time he heard the one-time leader of the Liberal Party and prime minister Lloyd George speak at the public meeting and the electrifying effect he had on listeners. Michael himself was a brilliant public speaker and of course a life-time supporter of Plymouth Argyle and MP for Plymouth Devonport for ten years from 1945. His father took him and his brother to his first match in 1923 when he was eight years old. He remained a passionate supporter right up until his death in 2010 (Paul sadly died six years earlier). If the journey was an amazing experience so was the game. Argyle were leading two nil at half time and within minutes of the restart scored a third. All of us felt confident of a great away victory, even when Reading pulled one goal back through a penalty. How wrong can you be. In the last ten minutes of the game Reading scored three goals to end up winners by four to three. We were as shocked as some of the Reading supporters were surprised! No triumphal journey back to London but the lively conversation made up for the disappointment.
The next time I met Michael was in May 1996 when Argyle reached the Division Three Play Off Final in Wembley against Darlington. Some 22 of us met up in an Italian restaurant near Finchley Road underground station. During lunch I got every member of the party to sign my copy of Harley Lawer’s 1988 book ‘Argyle Classics’ which recorded memorable moments in the club’s history. The book’s forward was written by Michael. After the meal and in high spirits we boarded an underground train to Wembley Park. It was a short but eventful journey with many passengers wanting to shake Michael by the hand. “You’re the best Prime Minister we never had” was one of the many compliments paid to him by complete strangers! Michael was at ease with all of them. On arrival at the stadium Michael and one or two others departed for the VIP seats while the rest of us made our way to the Argyle section of the stands. That season, we had missed promotion to Division 2 by one point and the 35,000 or so Plymouth fans felt that victory was in our grasp. They were right, we won the match one nil, thanks to a fine headed goal by Ronnie Mauge in the second half. We left the stadium in high spirits with pride. It is a day I will never forget and I still have the match programme!
I returned to Wembley (the ‘new’ Wembley as it was now) on Saturday 30 May 2016, twenty years after our last appearance at the national stadium for another play off final, this time against AFC Wimbledon, in the revamped Division Two (previously Division Four). In that time both Paul and Michael had died, as previously mentioned, and the club had nearly gone bust in five years before, but our fan base was still strong. Whilst Wimbeldon’s home attendances at their Kingston upon Thames ground was just under 5,000, they managed to bring 25,000 supporters to the game. With a total attendance of nearly 58,000 that day, Argyle fans outnumbered those from the south London club, but it was the Dons who won the day. For the first 75 minutes it was a reasonably even, but unexciting game, and although we had the greater possession, we could not make it count. Wimbledon got the break-through in the 78th minute when Lyle Taylor beat our defence and scored from a well aimed cross. Well into injury time ‘The Dons’ got a second from a penalty and it was all over. But for Wimbledon victory was well deserved, not just on the play that day, but because of their remarkable story. It was their sixth promotion since their formation in 2002 by fans of the old Wimbledon FC following their controversial and very unpopular move to Milton Keynes. An achievement against the odds and down to ‘fan power’ and determination. Next year they are moving back to Wimbledon from their present temporary home in Kingston, Surrey.
Two years later we were back in Division 1 (having left it in 2010/11 season) but last autumn things looked grim. In October we were bottom of the League and looking a likely candidate to return to League 2 after having just been promoted. The turning point came at the away game at Wimbledon (them again) on 21 October. Despite our poor league position there were over 700 of us willing and cheering Argyle on and we got our reward, a hard earned one nil victory. From then on the only way was up and due to a remarkable turn-around we ended the season in seventh position, just three points away from the play offs – a tribute to manager Derek Adams and his hard working and committed small squad of players. What a season it has been and what a club.
Thanks for the memories Plymouth Argyle. I’m looking forward to many more and maybe with a strengthened squad, promotion to the second tier next season?
Post Script (written 29 December 2019): My optimism was misplaced. At the end of the season Argyle was relegated to Division 2 and the manager sacked. So what to look forward to in the 2019/20 season? A new manager, Ryan Lowe appointed from financial mismanaged and bankrupted Bury Town FC in Lancashire, who themselves having just been promoted to Division 1 before they hit a financial storm were expelled from the Football League. With the season at the half way point Argyle is seventh in the League, in the play-off zone and with a couple of games in hand over the leaders, but predictions on promotion are unwise.
For me the highlight of 2019 was the naming of the Boardroom in the new £8 million-plus Mayflower Grandstand at Home Park, in honour of Jack Leslie the first black player to be named in the English national team. The year was 1925, but Jack never kicked a ball for his country. He was one of only two black footballers playing in the Football League at the time. The other Eddie Patrick became the first black player to play for Wales in 1931. Shortly after receiving the news of his selection as a reserve, Jack subsequently received communication cancelling his call-up and, when the squad was formally announced, Billy Walker, of Aston Villa, had taken his place. Jack never again was given the chance to play for his country. It had nothing to do with his footballing skills; he was just the wrong colour for the FA.
In ‘Tribute to a Pioneer’18 December 2019 the Argyle web site states: “Years after the incident, when he was part of the backroom team at West Ham United – his local team – Leslie claimed that: “They [the selection hierarchy] must have forgotten I was a coloured boy” as the reason why he was dropped.
He said: “I did hear, roundabout like, that the FA had come to have another look at me. Not at me football but at me face. They asked, and found they’d made a ricket. Found out about me daddy, and that was it.
“There was a bit of an uproar in the papers. Folks in the town were very upset. No one ever told me official like but that had to be the reason; me mum was English but me daddy was black as the Ace of Spades. There wasn’t any other reason for taking my cap away.”
Simon Hallett the Club’s owner is determined that the Club should play their part in driving racism and other forms of discrimination out of football in England. He commented: “One of the club’s values is respect, which means that we will do our upmost to eradicate discrimination on any grounds.
“Discrimination on the grounds of race is something that is close to my heart and to my wife’s heart and something that my children have been active in trying to fight.
“So, I think it is important that Argyle as a value-driven club demonstrate that we are committed to stamping out racism and that commitment starts at the very top hence naming the Boardroom – where the big decisions at Argyle are taken – after Jack Leslie.”
John Francis (Jack) Leslie played for Argyle between 1921-1934 a total of 401 games scoring 137 goals. He died in Gravesend, Kent in 1988.