Gary Sawyer wearing the captain’s armband for Plymouth Argyle is a convention that has remained constant at Home Park over the past year, when almost everything else around him has changed, writes Gareth Davies.
A new permanent successor to Derek Adams arrived in Ryan Lowe, quickly followed by a new-look squad which would look to fire the Pilgrims back into League One at the first attempt.
The 2019-20 campaign saw Argyle plying their trade in the fourth tier after a seismic collapse in form saw the side unable to escape the relegation trap door. It also cost Adams and his assistant Paul Wotton their respective jobs.
A pitiful 5-1 reverse at Accrington Stanley saw the Greens go into the final game of the 18-19 season against Scunthorpe with Kevin Nancekivell in temporary charge. Argyle needed to beat the Iron and then rely on results elsewhere – and despite a 3-2 triumph, Southend United managed to defeat Sunderland and Argyle were down.
Sawyer and Antoni Sarcevic aside, the remaining nine Argyle players that trudged off after being sent down had left the club before the next campaign began. Lowe embarked on a rapid but necessary rebuilding programme and despite the disappointment of relegation, the new Pilgrims chief quickly brought the feel-good factor back to Home Park.
It wasn’t just on the pitch where change was afoot either as the Mayflower Grandstand project was well underway and on New Year’s Day, Argyle hosted Swindon Town at a four-sided Home Park again. A new chief executive arrived in the shape of Andrew Parkinson and the highly rated Neil Dewsnip to oversee all footballing matters too.
This was rapid progress that even the most optimistic member of the Green Army would have struggled to have foreseen and as the season progressed, results improved as Argyle remained very much in the promotion hunt. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck and football was halted, with the world in general facing much uncertainty.
With financial implications meaning that League Two restarting again was always unlikely, clubs voted to end the season and to define final league positions on an unweighted points-per-game basis.
Argyle claimed the third and final promotion ticket into League One and for Sawyer, Sarcevic and those that had felt such heartache a year previously, it was a case of redemption for past failures.
For next season, whenever it begins, Sawyer will be the only surviving starter on Argyle’s books from the Scunthorpe match as Sarcevic has left the club after rejecting a new one-year contract.
It was therefore fitting that the 34-year-old, in his second spell with the Greens, proudly faced the media’s glare with a promotion winners medal around his neck on Wednesday.
After the formalities of a socially distanced press conference, Sawyer, Lowe and the Liverpudlian’s number two Steven Schumacher were then presented with a silver salver by the English Football League in recognition of Argyle’s achievements.
But before the muted celebrations could take place, Sawyer was asked by The Independent if bouncing back from relegation at the first attempt came as a surprise.
“It is a quick turnaround but this is what we’ve planned for,” he began. “As soon as we got relegated that was devastating for everyone and certainly one of the lowest points I’ve had in my career.
“The way of dealing with that was that we worked through the summer to try and get ourselves up the year after. We have managed to do that at the first attempt which is great and it’s something to be proud of to get the club back to where it should be.
“It was a frustrating year last year, but we got ourselves out of a hole.”
Although winning promotion ranks highly on Sawyer’s list of career achievements, the cultured defender admitted to being disappointed that Argyle couldn’t go on, like many expected, and win the League Two title outright.
“If we would have won it (the league) then it would have topped anything for me,” he added. “At this age it is just an amazing feeling and it’s what you play the game for.”
Sawyer was one of ten Argyle players out of contract and offered new terms this summer. Despite being in the final throes of a professional career that has spanned almost two decades, the Bideford-born man admitted that he still has plenty to offer after inking new terms for another 12 months – even at a higher level.
“I’ve signed another year now and I wouldn’t have personally signed it if I didn’t think I could contribute and play anymore,” Sawyer mused.
“The gaffer obviously sees what I see or feel as a player. I am arguably as fit now as I have been at any time in my career – I’m definitely fitter now than I was when I was 21 or 22 years old.
“You have to look after yourself when you’re a little bit older and work that little bit harder to keep myself there (in the team). I am playing against people that are effectively half my age now, which is hard.
“It’s a different challenge when you’re older, but it is one I have enjoyed.”