The long pursuit of Emile Mpenza
The one transfer from the Football League that jumped out more than any other before the 1 September deadline was that of Belgium international Emile Mpenza, once of Schalke, Hamburg and Man City, joining Championship side Plymouth.
But the 30-year-old's arrival at Home Park was no rash, last-minute piece of business but rather the conclusion of a long and patient pursuit on the part of Pilgrims boss Paul Sturrock.
The story began, recalls Sturrock, in the Belgian city of Mechelen. It was the late 1990s and Sturrock was the manager of Dundee United. He was over in Belgium on a scouting trip and blown away by two brothers playing for the away team.
"I was very excited about Emile and Mbo but they were like whizz kids and there was no way Dundee United could afford to buy them," Sturrock told me.
Later, while in charge of Southampton and Sheffield Wednesday, Sturrock made further enquiries. Mpenza wasn't having a productive time in Germany and so Sturrock called an agent to gauge the situation only for the figures mentioned to scare him off.
Fast forward to the summer of 2008 and Mpenza had just left Man City after a largely disappointing 16 months. He occasionally impressed but failed to make a regular first-team spot his own. The striker felt he had a point to prove and was keen to stay in England, only nobody was biting and this time it was Sturrock who got the call.
Mpenza and his people travelled to Plymouth and for the first time Sturrock met the striker in person. Mpenza was very quiet; he does not speak much English despite his time at City and did not say much. Nevertheless he conveyed to Sturrock his enthusiasm to sign and a deal was worked out. It is rumoured to be worth £10,000 per week but the effect around the city was immediate. Mpenza was unveiled at the same time as another new recruit, winger Nicolas Marin from French side Lorient. Striker Paul Gallagher also signed on a long-term loan from Blackburn.
Sturrock could not fail to notice the buzz around Plymouth following the signings. The club put season tickets back on sale and hoped that the new arrivals would show the Pilgrims do not lack ambition despite selling the likes of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake, Peter Halmosi and David Norris earlier in the year.
Sturrock will readily admit that attracting players to Plymouth is difficult because of the club's location in the far south of the country. Married players in particular are difficult to sign because their wives often don't want to move to a place so far from everywhere else. In this context it must have given Sturrock great satisfaction to have finally signed Mpenza, as well as Marin and Gallagher.
However, this story is anything but straightforward and, having finally signed Mpenza, the Pilgrims boss found himself confronted by a new problem.
The striker was, in Sturrock's words, "very ring rusty" and yet "the supporters were baying for him every time we played". On top of this Sturrock was savvy enough to acknowledge that "the chairman will slap me about if I don't get him out on a football pitch".
Sturrock was determined not to rush Mpenza, risk him picking up an injury by throwing him into a match before he was ready, but the situation was not helped by Plymouth's poor start to the season. The Pilgrims drew two and lost four of their opening six fixtures and Sturrock's daughter told her Dad that supporters on message boards were calling for his head.
Home form had been particularly poor and Sturrock was desperate to arrest their slump before losing became a habit. Some of the players were struggling to adapt to the way Sturrock wanted them to play and he was unhappy with their attitude. Mpenza had played just 20 minutes as a substitute in the defeat to Norwich on 13 September and was clearly lacking sharpness. The Belgian might have a lot to offer but the boss would have to wait to see him in full effect. The Pilgrims travelled to Watford for a fixture on 16 September and the manager made a decision.
"I picked a very honest team, made seven changes from the team that had lost at home to Norwich," the Pilgrims boss told me. "I picked a team that if I was in a trench in the First World War and I blew my whistle, then they would all run out of the trench with me."
Plymouth won 2-1, their first victory of the season, and it proved to Sturrock that there is no substitute for the right attitude. As he says: "I believe that most times attitude overturns ability."
The Pilgrims have since won two and drawn another to build on the victory at Vicarage Road - and in doing so have pulled away from the bottom three.
Gallagher, more or less match fit on arrival, has made a good start, netting three goals for his new club. Mpenza has been working hard in training, playing a full game for the reserves and encouraging Sturrock to push him hard since his appearance against the Canaries. The striker is pressing his case for his full debut and made another substitute appearance against Bristol City on Tuesday.
Marin wasn't sharp enough either when he arrived but Sturrock reckons the player has put in a lot of effort to make up for lost ground and started giving his boss a steely glare every time he puts on his training kit. Clearly, Marin thought he was ready for action and the French winger made his debut as a substitute last Saturday. But with the Pilgrims in such good form they are having to bide their time as Sturrock keeps faith with the players that have hauled the side out of trouble.
The shaky start seems behind Plymouth and Sturrock is looking forward to the point when some of his flair players do get their chance and start winning games with a touch of brilliance. He expects the higher reaches of the Championship to be dominated by the big-spending teams but he has a proud record to defend.
Plymouth have improved on their league position every season since 2000 and finished 10th in May. With the help of Mpenza and Co it could just be that Plymouth keep on moving in the right direction.