A History of Plymouth Argyle FC
Created | Updated May 6, 2008
Plymouth Argyle hail from the city of Plymouth which is in the county of Devon in the south west of England. This is the furthest you can go south or west while staying in the Football League. Founded in 1886 as part of an all-round sports club called Argyle Athletic, they decided to concentrate on football in 1903 and formed a professional club called Plymouth Argyle FC. The club motto is Semper Fidelis (Latin for 'always faithful') and their nickname is 'The Pilgrims', which derives from the fact that the Pilgrim Fathers left for America from Plymouth in 16201, but it's hardly ever used as the fans prefer to refer to themselves as 'Argyle', which is unique2. The other unique thing about Argyle is that they are the only English league team to have green as their main shirt colour3, and therefore the fans often refer to themselves as the Green Army.
So why 'Argyle'?
There are two schools of thought on this one. Some fans believe that it stems from Argyle Street, where the original committee for the club used to meet. The Argyle Hotel - now owned by Plymouth Argyle Youth Development Trust - is situated where the road used to be, and it points straight towards the club's Home Park ground. But Sam Rendell, club president for many years, claimed that the name Argyle came about because the founders of Argyle Athletic admired the footballing skills displayed by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, then stationed in the area. A letter written in 1934 by a founder member of the team, Howard Grose, casts some light on the setting up of the club:
I recollect holding forth on what our club should aim at achieving in the football world viz:4 to emulate the style of play adopted by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who I believe in the previous year won the Army Cup. I then explained that anyone who had watched them play would have been struck with the excellent team work shown, the fast low passing from backs to forwards, wings to centre followed by short swift shooting at the opponents' goal and we should endeavour to play on the same lines. Then someone said 'Why not Plymouth Argyll? That's the name that could be applied locally.' When put to a vote it was adopted almost unanimously.
The Early Years
Argyle entered the Southern League in 1903, and did quite well despite struggling to draw big crowds, as there were two professional rugby teams in Plymouth at the time. They finished as runners-up in 1908 and 1912 - both times behind QPR (Queen's Park Rangers, of West London) - and went one better in 1913, winning the competition by two points from Swindon and West Ham.
The Roaring Twenties and Beyond
When the Football League was expanded in 1920, Argyle were an obvious choice to join the new Division Three. That became Division Three (South) a year later and Argyle, managed by Robert Jack, competed there with distinction for most of the 1920s, finishing second for six consecutive seasons, from 1921 to 1927. Which was all very well - but in those days of the regionalised Third Division it was only the champions of the North and South Divisions that were promoted. Still, these Argyle sides featured four of the finest players ever to wear the green shirt.
It's said that Sammy Black could turn on the proverbial sixpence5 and he's still the club's record goalscorer, having notched 180 goals during 14 years at Argyle. The prolific Jack Cock, known on cigarette cards of the era as 'Jack of Trumps', scored 74 goals in just 94 games: a record 32 of which came in the 1926-27 season. Jack Leslie was one of the first black players to play in the Football League, and impressed sufficiently to be picked for England - but after receiving the news, his official invitation never materialised and he never played at international level. It is rumoured that, shamefully, some of the selection panel weren't aware of the colour of his skin when they picked him, and rescinded the invitation when they found out. Classy defender Moses Russell, on the other hand, did make it at international level. He played 20 times for Wales and also acquitted himself with distinction on Argyle's 1924 tour of South America6. The rest of the team did England proud, managing a goalless draw against Boca Juniors and beating the national side of Uruguay 4-0.
In 1930, Uruguay went on to win the first ever World Cup. It wasn't a bad year for Argyle either - they finally went and won Division Three (South), finishing seven points clear of second-placed Brentford to ensure their first ever promotion. They struggled in their first season in Division Two, but went on to finish fourth the next year in 1932, which is still their best-ever league placing. But Argyle soon proved themselves incompatible with that kind of success - Black and Leslie were coming to the end of their careers, and the Greens soon established themselves as a struggling Second Division side. They were eventually relegated in 1950, and spent the next decade bouncing between the two Divisions, the high point being another 4th place in Division Two in 1952. When the North and South sections of Division Three were re-organised into two new national Divisions (Division Three and Division Four) in 1958, Argyle had finished high enough to be founder members of the new Division Three. The legendary Wilf Carter (who scored an impressive 148 goals in 274 games) helped them to win it in its inaugural year, 1958 (they ended up six points ahead of Reading and Norwich City) matching Jack Cock's goalscoring record with 26 goals in the League and 6 in the FA Cup. Unfortunately, that would be the last trophy in the Home Park cabinet over 40 years.
The Modern Age
Relegation in 1968 set a pattern that would continue for years to come. A brief spell in Division Two, followed by a long struggle to get out of Division Three - over and over again in an endless cycle. The bright spots in this period were two cup runs - Argyle reached the semi-finals of the League Cup for the second time in 1973-74, beating a host of First Division clubs on the way before losing 3-1 to Manchester City over two legs. But arguably the club's finest hour came in 1984, when an Argyle side struggling in the Third Division reached the semi-final of the FA Cup, and achieved an honourable 1-0 defeat at Villa Park against Graham Taylor's Watford side.
Post-war Argyle Legends
The star of that FA Cup side was Tommy Tynan, a blond-haired chancer and lower-league footballing legend with a Liverpool accent and a deadly finish. Possibly one of the best strikers never to quite make it into the top flight, he scored 144 goals in two spells for Argyle, and was a hero in Plymouth even if he never achieved national fame. Plymouth's most famous footballer, on the other hand, never played for Argyle - Trevor Francis signed for Birmingham City at the age of 16, and has never shown much interest in affairs at Home Park. But a few stars have turned out for Argyle over the years. Tony Book came from non-league Bath City in 1964, left for Manchester City in 1966 and was voted English Footballer of the Year in 1969, winning the FA Cup along the way. Striker Paul Mariner played in Europe for Ipswich Town, and represented England in the 1982 World Cup, but he started his League career with three happy years at Home Park. And two international goalkeepers with (ahem) interesting financial affairs played for Argyle in the 1990s. England legend Peter Shilton joined as Player-Manager in 1992 and created a fine passing side before things went terribly wrong for him on and off the pitch, and he was sacked in 1995. Former Liverpool and Zimbabwe 'keeper Bruce Grobbelaar also turned out between the posts in the 1996-97 season, before retiring to spend more time with his lawyers.
Tommy Tynan was instrumental in the club achieving another promotion to the old Division Two in 1986, and this time Argyle managed to avoid the inevitable relegation back to the Third Division. The main reason for this was the great Premiership swindle of 1992, when the big boys decided to take their ball home and start their own game. So the remaining three Divisions of the Football League were renamed7, and it came to pass that Argyle were relegated from Division Two to Division Two.
The Bargain Basement Years
After a lifetime as one of only two clubs to have always been somewhere in Divisions Two or Three8, Argyle fans were expecting to remain somewhere in the middle two Divisions when the creation of the Premiership effectively promoted everyone by a division. It didn't work out that way: Argyle were relegated to Division Three again in 1995 - but this time it meant they'd finally sunk to the depths of the bottom division of the English league. This inadvertently provided the Greens with one of the biggest days in their history, bouncing straight back up again with a play-off final victory at a Wembley stadium memorably half-filled with green, black and white. However, surprise surprise, they stayed in Division Two for just two years, and took another three to get out of the Third again. This time they did it in style, Paul Sturrock's team breaking the Division Three record in winning Argyle's first championship of the 21st Century - 102 points: five ahead of second-placed Luton Town.
Sturrock also laid the groundwork for Argyle's second Championship in two years - the club went on to win Division Two in the 2003-04 season. But 'Luggy' was poached by Southampton FC of the Premiership in March 2004, and reluctantly departed Home Park for the big time leaving behind a team with a wonderful work ethic and a highly-impressive record under his charge of Won 85, Drawn 47, Lost 46.
Bobby Williamson was appointed as his replacement in April 2004, and his first game in charge reaped the twin rewards of promotion and the Division Two championship. However, Argyle were still destined never to play First Division football - under another rebranding scam, Football League Division One was renamed 'The Championship', and the division Argyle had just won became 'League One'. On the plus side, the team successfully avoided relegation to First Division football in their first season back in the English Second Tier.
To find out more about Plymouth Argyle - especially the modern-day outfit - read the companion piece to this entry, entitled Plymouth Argyle.
The visit of Plymouth Argyle will be best remembered by the outstanding personality and genius of Moses Russell. His effective style, precise judgement, accurate and timely clearances, powerful kicking and no less useful work with his head.....one of the most wonderful backs and one of the brainiest players ever seen on the football field.7As the Premiership had replaced the old First Division, Division Two clubs suddenly found themselves playing in Division One, Division Three became Division Two, and Division Four turned into Division Three.8Bristol Rovers were the other, but they went down to Division Three themselves in 2001.