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Leeds United v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet Championship

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Fan Focus: Plymouth fan Aaron is predicting ex-Sunderland man Bali Mumba to score the winner!

Ahead of Sunderland’s latest match, we spoke to Plymouth fan Aaron Hocking of Argyle Life, to find out what we can expect from Ian Foster’s side. Who should we be wary of?

Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

I guess we have to start with the December departure of Steven Schumacher to Stoke... how did fans react to him leaving?

Initially - badly. Steven Schumacher gifted us some of the greatest memories we’ve had as a fans of our club. We’ve not got the same storied history as yourselves, but winning any league with 101 points - especially one while up against huge clubs like Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday - is phenomenal.

‘Schuey’ did it in style too. One of the best managers in the entire EFL for in game changes, he galvanised our squad and got us over the line; all on a mid-to-lower budget in that league.

Back to the question itself, the initial reaction was fierce. We’ve come accustomed to people leaving us for ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ in recent years and I think in time the feelings will mellow and the fanbase as a whole will be able to look back at him and his time with us with huge fondness.

It also says a lot about the club too - if players and managers keep getting poached it means we’re continuing on that trajectory that’s seen us rise back up from League Two.

The man to replace him was ex-England U20 boss Ian Foster, how did his appointment go down with supporters?

Mixed, I think. There were some names banded about that we were never going to approach; mainly due to budgets and philosophies but when supposed shortlists and interviewees were banded around social media Foster’s name came to the table late.

In truth, no one really knew who he was or how he’d managed to land a Championship gig, but he’s already shown he’s more than capable.

He’s only been in the role for around a month and already been nominated for the Championship Manager of the Month for January - Foster? Good call.

Plymouth Argyle v Leeds United - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round Replay
Ian Foster was Steven Gerrard’s assistant at Al-Ettifaq FC before taking the role at Plymouth.
Photo by Harry Trump/Getty Images

Looking at results so far, Foster has yet to lose any Championship match - what has he changed to improve results?

Under Schumacher we’d not won away all season - in fact we’d actually not won a Saturday 3pm kick-off since mid-October 2022, which when you consider the league title triumph is baffling. Foster was open about this when he came in - yes, we’re overachieving but that doesn’t meant mean we can’t improve too.

He’s instantly made us a lot tougher to break down, we used to rely on outscoring opponents and while it’s still far too early to draw conclusions, we’re now not only doing that but also conceding far less. We don’t throw as much caution to the wind, but we’ve not yet lost anything going forward.

Foster has years of experience as an ‘out-of-possession’ coach at varying levels of the England setup too - bodes well for us.

Bought for just £1 million this summer, Morgan Whittaker has now scored 16 goals and assisted six in the league this season.

How has he developed into one of the best wingers in the league this season?

We’ve a new rule down here now; if Swansea fans don’t rate them, buy them!

Maybe he didn’t work hard enough to ‘play the Swansea way’ or something? Who knows, but Morgan has thrived more than even the biggest Whittaker-fan could ever imagine.

We don’t expect him to be in the game too much - he’s not one to dictate the attacking play, he’s silent, waiting, watching. Flashes of brilliance are what sets him apart. He may only have a few touches per game but he’s leaving with a goal and an assist.

January saw him, seemingly alongside Jack Clarke and Johnny Rowe, wanted by a host of clubs including Everton, Luton, Fulham, Brentford and West Ham - all while little Plymouth Argyle turning down an approach from Champions League Lazio for a rumoured eight-figure sum is hilarious.

He and his partner have both been very vocal in their desire to stay in Plymouth, where they say they feel they belong, and for a player of his quality to repay their faith like that is genuinely heartwarming. If only some others we’d given huge opportunities too felt the same way.

Buying Whittaker could have been a huge gamble for us though he, alongside South Shields’ finest Bali Mumba, are our joint-record transfer fees - ever! Just having £2m, never mind spending it, is just unheard at Plymouth Argyle.

Leeds United v Plymouth Argyle - Emirates FA Cup Fourth Round
Linked with Sunderland in the summer, Morgan Whittaker like Jack Clarke also received interest from Lazio before the January transfer deadline.
Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

Looking at your January business, Finn Azaz, Luke Cundle and Kaine Kessler-Hayden were all recalled by parent clubs, do you think that will dissuade the club from loaning so many next year?

No - not at all. I think we understand the perils of utilising the loan market and while we’re putting in one hell of a shift to both improve and showcase other clubs’ talents, we also realise where we are in the pecking order financially too.

There’s no way we could have afforded a player of Azaz’s quality straight on a permanent without testing him on loan first.

To replace them, Ashley Phillips (CB), Darko Gyabi (CM), Alfie Devine (CAM) and Lino Sousa (LB) all came in on loan, with Adam Forshaw (CM) and Matthew Sarinola (LB) coming in permanently.

What have they brought to the table?

Although it didn’t feel great at the time, the aforementioned recalls of Cundle, Warrington and Keeler-Hayden - alongside the change in the dugout - have actually worked out incredibly well for us.

We freed up 4 loan slots and wages by dispursing some players from the fringes and Ian Foster instantly got on the phone to bring in a gaggle of young men he knows from his time with England.

Ashley Phillips is just the defender we’ve needed all season. He’s only 18 or so, but he plays like he’s 28. I’ve never been so sure a player will play in the Premier League - and the lads only played 4 times for us!

Adam Forshaw was a mainstay in Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds side so he’s more than good enough for me. Alongside him Darko Gyabi was prised away from Manchester City for £5m, so he’s not half bad either. A lot of his work has gone unnoticed thus far - but he holds his position incredibly well and can, if needed, excel in the 6, 8 or 10.

Sorinola’s first start against Leeds fills me with promise too - he looks hungry, tenacious, willing and, unlike previous incarnations to play there, can defend.

Bar Finn Azaz, we’ve managed to upgrade in every position without spending a penny on transfer fees. Huge credit must go not just to Foster, but the whole recruitment and analytical team who seem to pluck gem after gem after gem out of thin air.

Leeds United v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet Championship
Signed initially as a right-back, ex-Sunderland midfielder Bali Mumba has played predominantly on the left-wing this season.
Photo by George Wood/Getty Images

Elsewhere in the squad, Ryan Hardie and Bali Mumba are two players I will be keeping my eye on — who are the unsung heroes for Plymouth this season?

Ryan Hardie just keeps getting better and better and better. We signed him in League 2 with less than glowing references alongside a lack of minutes at every club he’s been at. Every season he seems that little quicker, leaner, hungrier, while running himself into the ground most games - you can’t ask for anything else.

Hardie has notched 10 already in the league this season while he’s also only one strike off Paul Mariner’s goal tally for Plymouth Argyle too. He is, without doubt, deserving of a Scotland call-up.

I think it’s safe to say that Bali Mumba hasn’t hit the Championship quite as hard as we’d hoped. That’s no real slight on his performances, he’s been great at times - but we’re still hoping he can unlock the player we saw in League One.

Having played in centre-mid for yourselves, right-back at Norwich and right-wing for Peterborough, he really found a home as a left-wing back with us - although Foster has switched him back to the right recently, and it seems to have rejuvenated him. Back him to notch up in his native North-East this weekend.

I’d be here for hours praising everyone but last mention has to go to Conor Hazard. A man-mountain, Northern Ireland International, Hazard has been the man to deputise while Michael Cooper is out injured and he’s taking that chance incredibly well.

While we all would agree his distribution could do with some work, his shot stopping is draw-droppingly brilliant. Get yourself to YouTube and check out his world-class stop to deny Jerry Yates.

Plymouth have a dreadful away record, but did win against Swansea on the road last week - how do you think Foster will set up tactically?

Before our win in South Wales, it had been 5,054 days since our last Championship away win - the celebrations at the full-time whistle were of both jubilation and disbelief.

As already mentioned; we’re far tighter under Foster and less gung-ho really. We’re still as direct and still utilise a 3-4-2-1 but the main difference, I think anyway, has been the upgrade in personnel and the work off the ball while out of possession.

Sunderland v Plymouth Argyle - Sky Bet League One
When Sunderland last beat Plymouth at the Stadium of Light, Dan Neil and Nathan Broadhead scored in a 2-1 victory.
Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images

After playing 120 minutes in the FA Cup in midweek against Leeds, which players do you think Foster will start?

We had 8 players missing for Leeds and we couldn’t fill the bench - not that you’d know from the BBC One pundits who failed to mention it.

It’s likely the 6 who were either cup-tied, illegible for the first leg or on loan from the opposition will come straight back in on Saturday.

Early line-up prediction would look something like; Hazard; Gibson, Galloway, Phillips; Sorinola, Sousa; Forshaw, Gyabi; Whittaker, Devine and Hardie.

Sunderland won 2-1 in Plymouth’s last visit to the Stadium of Light - what is your score prediction for this time around?

I don’t really want to be travelling 800-odd miles for a defeat.

Do us a favour; let us get back-to-back away wins and we’ll put Mick Beale’s head on the chopping block for you. 2-1 to Argyle. Bali to bag off the bench.


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