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League One

Plymouth Argyle: Schumacher's at the Wheel

20 December 2022

When Preston North End unveiled Ryan Lowe as their new manager in December 2021, Plymouth Argyle fans were understandably concerned about the impact his departure would have on the Club, having experienced a period of sustained progress.

But they needn’t have worried. Lowe’s understudy, Steven Schumacher, was ready and waiting to step into the hotseat after almost four years as an assistant.

Fast forward 12 months, he’s got the Pilgrims primed for a promotion push in Sky Bet League One.

“Going to Preston was definitely a consideration because when Ryan was offered the job, there was a deal in place to take me with him,” Schumacher admits. “But once this opportunity came from the owner, Simon Hallett, and the CEO, Andrew Parkinson, I just felt I was ready for it.

“I’m a big believer in taking risks. I backed myself to try my hardest, to learn and to improve every day – that’s all I can do. If it doesn’t work, then at least I’ve tried.

“So far, I’ve really enjoyed it. As far as first years in management go, it couldn’t have gone much better, apart from maybe getting in the Play-Offs last season.

“Although that was a disappointment to miss out, I think it was a big learning curve and highlighted pretty quickly what we needed to do in the summer to try to take that next step.”

As a player, Schumacher made 461 appearances for six EFL Clubs in a career spanning 14 years at League One and League Two level.

As an assistant manager, he has back-to-back League Two promotions on his CV, having worked as number two to his fellow Liverpudlian Lowe at Bury and Plymouth.

Now, the 38-year-old is eager to be a success as the main man in charge.

Having completed the 2021/22 campaign just three points adrift of a Play-Off berth, Argyle have put themselves firmly in the conversation for promotion to the Sky Bet Championship this term after producing a run of 15 league games unbeaten from the middle of August to the start of December.

“It feels pretty good,” says Schumacher. “To have got so many points in what’s been a really competitive League One is a brilliant achievement and shouldn’t be underestimated.

“When we got the fixtures drawn out in the summer, we expected to have a tough start for the first 10 games, but the players stepped up to the challenge and we got a great haul of points.

“More recently, it’s been hard because we’ve had a few injuries to some important players, but credit to the lads, they haven’t sulked about it and have been grinding out results.”

In spite of his relative lack of experience at the helm, Schumacher is clear in his vision and has already implemented many of those beliefs.

“As a number two, I learned to be a good grass coach – that’s what I consider to be my strength,” he clarifies. “I’m good with detail, session planning, game planning and trying to get a message across to the players. I’m hands on and I want to make sure our team is organised.

“We’ve got to play with energy, first and foremost. We’ve got to be fit and we’ve got to play with an intensity that teams might struggle to handle. We like to pass the ball forward with speed and utilise the players that have the attacking prowess to hurt teams.

“We’re going to be a Club and a team where the players get a lot of power and ownership. It’s important for me to give them that trust to work out how we can get the better of the opposition, and for them to have an understanding of the game.

“There are six or seven of our players going through their UEFA B coaching course, so I think they’re interested in how things work and the coaching process.

“We also use analytics quite a lot, not only in recruitment but also game planning. We look at information every week from our full-time data scientist. The modern-day game demands more detail. It’s not enough just to see it with your eyes and get a good feeling anymore. If the information is there, you should definitely be using it.”

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The Argyle boss isn’t the only first-time manager to enjoy recent success in the third tier.

Neil Critchley took Blackpool up in his first full season as a first-team boss in 2020/21 and Mark Bonner steered Cambridge United to their highest league finish for almost three decades last term, while Kieran McKenna has turned Ipswich Town into promotion contenders this year.

Schumacher, who also has a degree in sports journalism and broadcasting, believes the level is perfectly designed for young managers to gain invaluable experience.

“Football pitches, facilities and training grounds have all improved, so if you’ve got a clear idea of how you want to coach a team, the facilities now are enabling you to do that,” he explains.

“I think the trend of young managers getting opportunities is important because we’re the future of the game. We’re coming into the job with enthusiasm and different ideas to the older generation.

“The opportunity is there in the EFL and hopefully us younger coaches can take those chances and build teams with styles and reputations that the Premier League Clubs eventually start looking at, like Graham Potter and Eddie Howe have done.”

Likewise, Schumacher has showcased a willingness to put faith in young players, utilising the Papa Johns Trophy as a platform to integrate many of Argyle’s talented Academy prospects.

Most notably, seven teenagers featured during the Club’s Round of 32 victory over Charlton Athletic, with 17-year-old Caleb Roberts even getting himself on the scoresheet.

“The EFL Trophy is a great platform for the young players to play and shine in front of a crowd,” he comments. “We made a conscious effort this year to field teams that would help the young players, fielding them alongside really good senior professionals to guide them through games.

“The pathway is definitely there and the lads in the Academy are all doing a great job, from the Under-8s to the Under-18s. When the young players come to train with us, they don’t look out of place and that wasn’t the case when we first came down here.”

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Plymouth have also been astute in their recruitment, exploiting the loan market to their advantage, with Norwich City’s Bali Mumba, Swansea City’s Morgan Whittaker, Aston Villa’s Finn Azaz, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Nigel Lonwijk and Birmingham City’s Sam Cosgrove all impressing so far.

“In the summer, we concentrated on trying to bring in players who were going to be the difference for us,” he notes. “We didn’t increase the numbers of the squad from last year, but we definitely increased the quality.

“The loan system was crucial for us in doing that. We highlighted targets that had been out on loan before and displayed attributes that would improve our team. I would’ve loved to sign all five of those players permanently but realistically, we just can’t afford their wages.

“The lads have all contributed massively and have been a huge part of our team and hopefully they’re enjoying the experience.”

It’s not just on the pitch where Schumacher has helped to establish a winning formula.

The Pilgrims have increased their levels of engagement with the local community, including player visits in schools, the provision of courses and programmes for a wide range of disabilities, and the launch of Project 35 – an initiative designed to support those in need during the cost-of-living crisis, with tens of thousands of lunches being delivered across the region, as well as thousands of schoolchildren participating in free sports, health and wellbeing sessions.

Even the Club’s Under-18s squad have showed their community spirit by undertaking a litter pick around the area and donating to a local foodbank.

“The Club, over the last four or five years, has definitely created stronger links and relationships with the community,” he says. “We’ve made a conscious effort to get out there, do things properly and be a good example for the city of Plymouth.

“We’re seeing the impact of that in the attendances we’ve been getting. People are proud to come and watch us again; we’re selling out every week and the atmosphere is buzzing. It’s an intimidating place to come and our home form has been brilliant, with a Club-record nine wins in a row.

“For the young players, getting involved with the community work is part of their education. They’re young footballers and they’re all doing great, but they’ve got to understand that there’s a long way to go and them being out in the community and setting good examples is really important.”

Only a year into the job, but already in the driving seat for automatic promotion, it seems Plymouth are on the right track with Schumacher at the wheel.

This feature originally appeared in the Winter 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.


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