The car crash that Plymouth Argyle is on the verge of turning into is a strange case, yet many a club might well think that there but for the grace of god go they.
At the beginning of the nineties Dan McCauley had become Chairman, with his predecessor Peter Bloom becoming Vice Chairman. While the club did not have a particularly stable decade on the pitch (three relegations in eight years; seven managers), the club was run reasonably stably, if unsustainably, on a traditional benefactor model. Shortly before McCauley finally stood down in 2001, debts were reported to be £2.7m, with £1.8m owed to McCauley’s Rotolok Holdings. He was also advocating a new stadium, the capacity of which was wound in from 23,000 to 18,000, but with scope to increase capacity. As McCauley explained “An 18,000 all-seater stadium should be sufficient for us in the short-term. But it’s important to have flexibility in the design to cater for success when Plymouth Argyle move up through the leagues.” ’Sufficient’ is an odd choice of word – average seasonal attendances throughout the decade had peaked at just over 9,000 in 1994, but had fallen to around the 5,300 mark. The sort of figure McCauley was speaking of had not been seen at Home Park on a regular basis since the fifties (1).
Reaching the age of 65 in 2001, McCauley found buyers he felt would be good for the club. The new board was led by local businessmen Paul Stapleton and Peter Jones, and included the local MP Michael Foot, and two London-based businessmen, Nick Warren and Phil Gill, all Pilgrim fans.
[Sources for the above paragraphs are newspapers, mainly the Western Daily Herald, and are unavailable on the internet]
Under the new regime, stadium redevelopment proceeded, but hit a snag when the Council declined to carry on funding it (2). Having already spent £2.6m, it felt that it was difficult to justify further expenditure. Argyle Vice Chairman Peter Jones rather ungraciously argued “People should not forget the council are the freeholder of the stadium. Given the fact that a revamped stadium will bring in more people, more income and more rent, they should be prepared to put in a proportion of the £5m we need.“
From a business perspective the early years of the noughties were a success. In 2004 they announced a profit for the third year running (3), and by 2005 the seasonal average attendance had reached almost 16,500, following a return to Tier 2 for the first time since 1992. The ground was purchased from the Council in December for £2.7m (4).
How then did things start to go wrong? The management of players proved problematic. with continuing changes in who was manager. The club managed to maintain their status in the Championship (until last summer, that is), but the fans started to drift away, attendances falling to just over the 10,000 mark on average.
In February 2008 the club recorded a record annual loss of £715,000 (5). Not only were revenues down, but the club had locked itself into some rather expensive player contracts. The wages/revenues ratio, which in 2001/02 had been at a very healthy 43.1%, had by 2007/08 risen to a rather unhealthy 74.4%.
In April 2008 the club announced a surprise new investor – Japan’s K&K Shonan Management Corporation, headed by Yasuaki Kagami who joined the Argyle board (6).
Argyle chairman Paul Stapleton, said: “We are excited about the future possible revenue streams from the Far East in particular and expanding the horizons of Plymouth Argyle. While this agreement has only just been concluded, it demonstrates the considerable appeal that Plymouth Argyle and our region has for companies with a global reach.” I suspect that few outside Plymouth shared this optimism.
Japanese involvement increased when Yasuhiko Okudera was appointed Argyle’s President (7), and there was talk of Japanese players coming to Home Park (8).
By the summer of 2008 things were beginning to crumble; the transfer budget was reported as overspent (9). By March 2009 non-playing jobs were at risk (10).
By the summer of that year there was talk of not only further investment from Japan but also of a takeover (11). Phill Gill sold his shares to Kagami (12), and by July Kagami held 38% of the shares, and his colleagues Sir Roy Gardner and Keith Todd joined the board with holdings of 13%, the trio thus holding a small majority. The appearance of Gardner in particular, a former Chairman of Manchester United, raised hopes for some stabilisation. Paul Stapleton said of Gardner “He’s going to bring a no-nonsense, common sense approach, and a business attitude to everything we do” (13). The challenge was certainly there though – they had, for example, inherited a squad of over 30 players (14).
There was to be no magic wand. In December that year the club was placed under a transfer embargo (15) for what the club dismissed as historic debts, and Kagami rode to the rescue with a loan [sic] of £1.5m (16). Kagami was meantime being sued for £84,000 by former director Gill (17).
2010 opened badly, with the first of a series of winding-up petitions from HMRC (18). In March there was the announcement that the club was to ‘sell off the family silverware’, the only recently acquired Home Park (19). A ‘New World’ was heralded nevertheless (20), involving a 46,000 2018 World Cup stadium – rather than repeat my thoughts on this, see a posting I made at the time called Are we going stark stadium bonkers?. The year’s financial figures, which featured a loss of £2.9m, were described by Gardner, with the kind of understatement that football club Chairmen specialise in, as ‘disappointing‘ (21).
The relegation to League 1 was a bitter pill to swallow given the already worrying state of finances. Gardner however insisted that the new stadium was the way forward: “A new stadium is an essential part of our forward-planning and reflects the scale of ambition at the club” (22). Oh dear, the A-word (ambition). Perhaps the R-word (reality) might have been more appropriate.
The scale of ambition was certainly enormous – last August the board announced plans for a £150m redevelopment of Home Park (23)! The following day, it emerged that the club had not paid their long-serving announcer since late in the previous season (24).
Things have just progressed from bad to worse since then, and I will assume that any reader who reached this point is already familiar with the failed 2018 bid, the further winding-up petitions from HMRC, and the worrying appearance of Peter Ridsdale. I will spare you a repetition of his experiences at Leeds United and at Cardiff City (but see here if you want to read my previous postings on the Spinmeister). Less well remembered are his days at Barnsley – he took over in October 2003 (25); when he left fourteen months later, new Chairman Gordon Stewart explained Ridsdale’s departure “The club was running into a financial position that was less than comfortable and it was clear cash had to be injected” (26).
For the Spinmeister himself to declare the situation at Plymouth as ‘dire and I can’t even find the words to put into context how bad it is. It is probably worse than you can imagine. This is a race against time‘ (27), one can only assume the situation is considerably worse than dire.
With the exception of bringing in Ridsdale as a ‘saviour’ – all I can offer as hope to the Green Army here is the thought that this might just be a case of fourth time lucky, although I don’t think it actually will be ;-( - the situation at Argyle is one that could have happened at too many clubs – ‘benefactors’ who couldn’t or wouldn’t stay the course, overpaid players, cashflow insufficient to pay all staff on time, a high turnover of managers, a serious case of ‘stadium envy’, a casual attitude to paying HMRC, absentee investors, an absence of fan power… It encapsulates most of what is wrong with English football, and offers a very depressing start to 2011.