10 Matches in the Rise and Fall of Plymouth Argyle
Plymouth Argyle were granted a 63 day adjournment in the High Court on Wednesday after having been served a(nother) winding-up petition by the HMRC for stalling on tax payments of £780,000. The decision should be greeted as good news in the short-term, but the spectre of administration, and worse, continues to bear down on Home Park with fans wondering how times have got so bad, so quickly. Reportedly between £7-9m in debt, the Pilgrims have gone from being one of the best-run clubs in the country to the bottom of HMRC’s Christmas list in the space of a mere few years.
Yet Argyle have been anything but cavalier in their spending over recent seasons, leaving many to wonder when and how exactly things went from bad to worse. Numerous articles have appeared on some of the best football blogs in weeks gone by explaining the extent of the debt and the immediate issues that have led to the Pilgrims’ demise, but in providing a background to the club’s rise and subsequent fall in relation to 10 specific matches across the past ten years, this (inevitably sizeable) article seeks to provide something of a broader context.
1) Saturday December 2nd 2000 Vs Exeter City (Away)
Ian Atkins or Paul Sturrock? That was the decision facing the much-maligned Argyle chairman Dan McCauley in October 2000 after he had handed Kevin Hodges his P45 following a disastrous start to the 2000-01 Division Three campaign. Few would have anticipated the magnitude of the decision; the Pilgrims had dropped into the bottom few positions in the Football League after a decade or so of decline punctuated by a couple of false dawns, and the new man’s brief would, above all else, involve keeping the club in the 72.
The decision wasn’t exactly unanimous, but the board opted for Luggy, who’d left Dundee United earlier in the season. The club was ailing, and confidence was muted; just 3,264 supporters turned up to Sturrock’s first game in charge at Home Park, a 2-1 FA Cup First Round replay defeat against Chester, and it was clear that more than just a few training sessions would be required to turn this shower around. Money had been spent trivially over the past 10 years and the well was dry, so the Scot set about overhauling a tired squad from the off with a host of unattached players.
The remainder of the season was essentially spent establishing a side for the next term, but this Devon derby at Exeter sticks in the mind. Making their debuts were David Worrell and a certain man of Lorraine, with fellow ex-Valence teammate Romain Larrieu watching on from the stands. The unpopular Sean McCarthy may have bagged the goals in this encouraging 2-0 victory, but it was the arrival of Friio et al that was of real note that day. McCauley still cut a familiarly malevolent figure behind the scenes, but the building blocks for the Pilgrims’ day in the sun were being put in place on the pitch.
2) Monday August 27th 2001 Vs Rushden and Diamonds (Away)
The enigmatic rich list dweller McCauley had, for many, held the club back for years through his despotic reign, and glimmers of a brighter future were twice extinguished when the Rotolok owner fell out first with manager Peter Shilton in 1995, and then his successor Neil Warnock a couple of years later. The local media were locked out when his actions were challenged, and fans feared that the club would continue to be beholden to McCauley until new investment was sourced.
Thankfully, and to McCauley’s credit, this happened on the eve of the 2001-02 season when he agreed to hand control to a group of Argyle-supporting businessmen led by Accountant Paul Stapleton. It would take another six months for ties between McCauley and the club to be severed completely, but the impetus was there as Argyle looked to build on a promising end to the previous season. With three sides of Home Park grounded ahead of the redevelopment of the stadium, this was a new era with the four footballing elements – board, players, fans and lady luck – all working in harmony.
Not that it didn’t take the Pilgrims a few weeks to get going in this, their Division Three title winning season. Collecting just one point from their first three games, Argyle went to Max Griggs’s Diamonds on a low and at 2-0 down following a Duane Darby brace further disappointment looked likely. Yet something clicked in this team, even though it was shorn of talisman Friio and his inbound central midfield partner Jason Bent, and Brian McGlinchey clinched an incredible turnaround midway through the second half with a goal that still tingles to this day. Around 850 Argyle fans made the trek to Irthlingborough that day, and to a man they knew they’d witnessed something special.
3) Wednesday October 22nd 2003 Vs Sheffield Wednesday (Away)
That Argyle team would go on to rack up an almighty 102 points, finishing five clear of their nearest rivals, Joe Kinnear’s Luton. Key defender Graham Coughlan had been gracelessly labelled as a ‘Joe Soap centre-half’ by Kinnear after a bad-tempered Argyle victory early on in the season, but his leadership at the back alongside the born and raised Janner Paul Wotton formed the bedrock for the Pilgrims’ ascension. Despite numbering just 15 or so regular first-team players, the modest squad that Sturrock had put together screamed solidarity, and it was no surprise to see its nucleus remain in place for a pop at Division Two.
An impressive 9th position was achieved in 2002-03 as Argyle held their own in a division dominated by a nouveau riche Wigan, but the signings of southpaws Tony Capaldi and Peter Gilbert from Birmingham, together with right-sided midfielder David Norris from Bolton would prove to be key. All three were watched closely by Sturrock before they were signed, with Gilbert and Norris both spending time on loan in the South West prior to their moves. Reflecting a cautious approach to acquisition, Argyle were anything but flush with cash, but with such an effective backbone already in place Sturrock could afford to go about his business with a degree of diligence as contented fans afforded their manager time to build towards his next wave of success.
They didn’t have to wait for long, however, as Argyle recorded their second Championship trophy in three seasons, topping the Division Two table above QPR, a club who’d seemed like footballing royalty a season earlier upon Argyle’s elevation and the R’s demotion to the third tier. Wins were chalked up across the season, but October 2003 was the month in which it all came together. Shortly after dispatching with Tranmere 6-0 and Port Vale 5-1, the Pilgrims travelled to Sheffield Wednesday for their first game in 12 years against the Owls. Playing in front of over 20,000 paying spectators, this was dreamland for supporters accustomed to trips to Macclesfield and Rochdale, and a thoroughly straightforward 3-1 validated hopes and expectations. This was, quite simply, a club on the up.
4) Tuesday March 2nd 2004 Vs Sheffield Wednesday (Home)
“Sturrock Set for Southampton” is a headline that will forever remain etched on the memory of a generation of Argyle fans. It was perhaps inevitable that Luggy, who had been linked with Watford some time before, would leave the Pilgrims but the timing of his eventual departure was unfortunate, coming as it did 12 games before the end of the season. Ironically the announcement came on the back of a 2-0 victory against Wednesday, the very team that Sturrock would take up the next season following his dismissal at St Mary’s.
Even so, Sturrock left Argyle in a healthy position, four points clear of Bristol City at the table’s head, and if Caretaker Kevin Summerfield could keep the team chugging along then they would go up. The ex-Argyle player made a good start, winning two of his first three, but a decidedly patchy run of results pushed the board, riding until then on the crest of Sturrock’s wave, into action and Bobby Williamson was poached from Hibernian for the last three fixtures. Argyle sealed promotion in his first game, that match against QPR, and won their remaining two to move into the newly branded Coca-Cola Championship with a spring in their step. Paul Stapleton and his fellow board members, who had heeded Sturrock’s advice by giving Williamson the job, came out smelling of roses once again but there’d been a shift. Would Argyle, deprived of the man who picked the club up from the floor and gave it its dusting, be able to hold their momentum and establish themselves back in this, their habitual stomping ground?
5) Saturday August 27th 2005 Vs Hull City (Home)
No they wouldn’t. Though the Pilgrims started well, gaining 10 points from their opening four games at this level, the club fell slowly down the table in a similar manner to present day Millwall. The core of the Division Two title-winning squad remained intact, but a number of new faces arrived and the squad began to look bloated for the first time in years. A small, close-knit group isolated in an inaccessible corner of the country had forged an enviable team spirit over the past few seasons, but that togetherness was chipped away by a bundle of new signings, and the departure of midfield lynchpin Friio two thirds through the season following a bust-up with Williamson went down like the proverbial lead balloon.
Crowds were, however, about as good as they could be, and the club possessed enough drive to survive their debut season. Yet, results had become increasingly patchy through Year One and question marks were being raised over Williamson’s tactical approach. Players were brought in throughout the season to try to plug holes with mixed success, but few supporters held much hope of anything more than hanging on for dear life by the time Williamson’s second full season in charge came around. Popular loanee Ákos Buzsáky had been signed permanently, but the signing of Taribo West suggested a manager with a straw in his mouth, and it was no surprise to see the Scotsman depart on the back of a most atrocious 1-0 home defeat to newly-promoted Hull. With the attendance down to the 12k mark and the likes of West, Rufus Brevett and Bjarni Gudjonsson holding down starting places, drastic measures were required to steer the ship back on course.
And that’s exactly what happened when the board pulled a masterstroke by hiring Tony Pulis to ‘do a job’. Elliott Ward, Lilian Nalis and Vincent Pericard followed, and the Pilgrims no-nonsensed their way to safety for the second successive year. However Pulis, who publically complained that chairman Stapleton cancelled dinner plans to go out with his old friend Sturrock, never appeared to feel any love for the club and he was off to Stoke by June 2006, where he made a start on finishing what he started a few years earlier. Argyle were on an even keel, but the search for a new man to bring momentum was back on.
6) Saturday August 12th 2006 Vs Sunderland (Away)
It may have taken a few months, but supporters were reinvigorated by the news that Ian Holloway would be the next man to have a go at knocking Argyle into Championship shape. ‘At least we’ll go down laughing’ was a sentiment shared by more than a few of the Green Army, whose undivided attention had begun to waiver after a stoppy-starty couple of years. Holloway started as he meant to go on, securing the inspired signings of Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Barry Hayles to add much needed guts up top following the retirement of club legend Mickey Evans, who’d led the Pilgrims’ line with admirable guile since Sturrock brought him home in 2001.
In amongst building a team capable of continuing the club’s upward momentum, Holloway also fell off a chair, but if actions such as those painted a picture of a loveable joker, then his offer to buy those fans who’d made the long journey to Sunderland a pint on Plymouth’s Barbican sealed the deal. The Green Army were smitten, particularly so following a 3-2 win against Niall Quinn’s men. It helped that the football was good; with Buzsáky given a licence to roam, the Pilgrims easily finished in mid-table, the sixth time in a row that the club had improved upon the previous year’s finish. But could Argyle make it seven the following season?
The average attendance was in decline as fans became accustomed to seeing the likes of Sheffield United and Wolves at Home Park, so doubts lingered over the club’s wherewithal to fund a promotion push under Holloway given that a break even figure of an average of 15,000 fans hadn’t been met for the second season in a row. Rory Fallon was brought in from Swansea towards the season’s end to offer a different type of option in attack while Hungarians Peter Halmosi and Krisztián Timár joined for modest fees after promising loan spells. With budgets tight, would pragmatic signings such as these do the job and if not, how would the board go about remedying the dilemma?
7) Tuesday, October 23rd 2007 Vs Charlton Athletic (Away)
The answer, several directors believed, was to develop new revenue streams in order to expand earning opportunities beyond a mere 23 days a year. Phase Two of Home Park’s redevelopment had been shelved for a few years now, and there was a strong belief that the back end of the club should be prioritised ahead of the team. Plans needed to be chivvied along, and a core group of directors believed that the purchase of the ground’s freehold from Plymouth City Council would help them push through the final phase of the redevelopment, which would comprise the club’s conferencing and hospitality facilities.
Five wins on the trot at the end of the 2006-07 season suggested that the right team was in place for a promotion push the following year, but the purchase of Home Park for £2.7m had already been sewn up in the December, necessitating a strong focus on off-field issues. The decision divided the boardroom, and several directors including Michael Foot, a strong advocate of putting the team above all else, subsequently stood down. Money was ploughed into planning the development of the South Stand, and with crowds continuing to disappoint at the beginning of the 2007-08 season, supporters began to wonder exactly how the club planned to simultaneously manage progress on and off the pitch.
The result was that Holloway was beginning to feel as though he had one hand tied behind his back. A bright start saw the Pilgrims flirt with the play-offs, but something was amiss behind the scenes and in the know messageboard posters began to fan the flames. The team, however, continued to impress and a Tuesday night 2-1 win at recently-relegated Charlton saw Greens all over the world puffing out their chests in pride the following morning. Even so, a dark cloud was had its eye on Argyle. The game was to mark flair man Buzsáky’s final game in a green shirt as he agreed a move to QPR. The money ostensibly paid for the signature of Wycome’s League Cup hero Jermaine Easter, but signs of the events that were to follow were already in place.
8) Tuesday March 11th 2008 Vs Scunthorpe United (Away)
Argyle supporters won’t need reminding but for those unfamiliar with the club’s modern history, Holloway departed for Leicester in November 2007. Key players Norris and Ebanks-Blake as well as youth prospect Dan Gosling also scrammed for millions of pounds, leaving fans dazed, confused and angry, but ultimately distraught at the realisation that their best team in years had been pulled apart over the space of a few short months.
Paul Sturrock, our Messiah, returned only to be met with a mixed response. Many were touched by sentiment on the back of Holloway’s desertion, but more than a few doubted his old mate Stapleton’s decision. Were other candidates even considered? Swansea, a breathing example of the need to hire along the lines of footballing philosophy, have demonstrated that continuity is king but the Argyle board showed naivety in going for a man whose approach could not have contrasted more with Holloway’s. The points dried up as the panache and guile that Holloway had fostered became a distant memory, but a good run of results in the February, catalysed by a heartening win at Leicester, put the Pilgrims back in touch. A calamitous 1-0 defeat at a hopeless Scunthorpe side, though, knocked Argyle’s play-off hopes into a cocked hat. Left back Lee Hodges ended the game in goal, and with that came the acknowledgement that this was no top six side.
9) Sunday May 3rd 2009 Vs Barnsley (Home)
Sturrock had in the January 2008 transfer window reacted to frenzied calls from the Green Army to bolster a squad shorn of Ebanks-Blake and the rest, but the signings of Steve Maclean, Yoann Folly, Chris Clark and Jim Paterson, all on decent contracts, did more harm than good in the end. Jamie Mackie’s capture was a sliver lining, but the Pilgrims finished the season on a low and with the beginning of the stadium development still nowhere in sight, Argyle were crying out for new investment towards the season’s tail.
The Westcountrymen should have been careful what they wished for, however. With due diligence out of the window, Stapleton and his fellow board members snapped up Japanese businessman Yasuaki Kagami’s offer at the mere sniff of his cash in April 2008. The deal had come about via local suit Tony Campbell, who had ongoing business relationships in Japan, and supporters were told to expect the establishment of the Argyle ‘brand’ in the Land of the Rising Sun with Japanese players set to arrive at the end of the J-League season. Reason enough to worry about the legitimacy of Kagami’s intentions, I’m sure most would agree.
On the pitch, the Pilgrims went into 2008-09 with scant hope, and it took until the eve of the new season to sign the dogged central midfielder that Sturrock had been after since releasing Nalis and one club man Wotton at the beginning of the summer. Simon Walton arrived with fanfare from QPR as the club’s record signing; fans recognised him as the teenage prodigy who’d gone off the rails, and high hopes were generated amongst a set of supporters in need of a new talisman. It wasn’t to be, though, as a terrible start to the season led Sturrock into dropping most of his new signings and stripping the team down to a core group of trusted individuals. Argyle went on to record four wins from five matches and Walton’s card was already marked by the time he was granted another opportunity. One stupid sending off at Barnsley later, and his chance was gone as supporters confirmed their suspicions that the Yorkshireman had been another expensive mistake.
Lest we forget, Emile Mpenza was also brought in during the same season on astronomical wages, and it was around this time that the majority of supporters came to realise that this lavish spending was killing the club. With a host of loanees arriving to help boost the options available to Sturrock, the club’s profits were heading in one direction only as Argyle became overloaded with players, many of whom were on fat contracts. The football continued to be awful, and it was a minor miracle that Sturrock managed to keep his team in the Championship by virtue of Norwich, Southampton and Charlton’s awfulness.
Safety was somehow recorded with a game or two to spare, so supporters went into the season’s finale at home to relegation-threatened Barnsley hoping that their side could make another set of fans miserable for a change. Having taken the lead through Gary Sawyer, it all seemed to be going well enough but promising news from elsewhere boosted Barnsley’s confidence, and the Tykes strolled to an easy 2-1 victory, making the feckless home side look well out of their depth. The Pilgrims had just about staggered over the finishing line, but the nature of this final day defeat suggested that it was surely time for a clean sweep.
10) Saturday December 11th 2010 Vs Exeter City (Home)
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. A board room shake-up occured over Summer 2009 with Keith Todd and ex-Manchester United chairman Sir Roy Gardner incoming, and Sturrock was deemed a safe pair of hands for the time being. Supporters, many of whom were still raw from the way that the former board handled the events surrounding Holloway’s departure, seemed quietly encouraged by the changes off the field, and hopes for the development of Home Park were reignited again.
However, it soon became clear that the stadium was just about all the new men were interested in and a bid for hosting games in the 2018 World Cup became the sole focus. Taking their collective eye off the ball, the board failed to act when it became clear that Sturrock wasn’t up to the task of keeping the Pilgrims in the second tier, and the Scot remained in charge even after he’d lost seven on the bounce between August and September. The directors also showed incredible naivety in their approach, and little of their much-vaunted business acumen was on show when defender Marcel Seip was loaned to Blackpool and allowed to play, and score, against his parent club, leading to an ugly stand-off between Seip’s family-in-law and a number of players.
Sturrock did eventually go, albeit after a botched attempt at supporting ‘Head Coach’ Paul Mariner, brought in on the back of Plymouth’s World Cup bid, but Argyle were never going to stem the tide, and relegation was confirmed as Newcastle fans celebrated their title win on the Home Park pitch. Argyle’s rise through the leagues had been characterised by a collective effort from a small squad on affordable wages, but by the time of their downfall the playing roster was top heavy with big earners on long contracts, who the club would never be able to flog. Debts had crept right up on Argyle, and players went unpaid several times during the season. As if that wasn’t enough, a winding-up order had been placed on the club in January and, to round things off nicely, a transfer embargo was slapped on Argyle at the season’s end.
Rookie Mariner would never be able to deal with such an array of issues, so the board did the right thing in pushing him aside at the season’s end. Even so, in stipulating that any new manager would have to work alongside Mariner and his sidekick John Carver, the board showed a lack of guile yet again, reducing the potential pool of interested candidates in one stroke. In the end, Peter Reid was confirmed as Argyle’s new man, and the football has been as unspectacular as one might have expected in the ensuing six months. In truth, the supporters’ focus has instead been on off-field matters with attention divided between the (failed) sale of Home Park to an investment group set up by Todd and Gardner, and the latest round of non-payment of wages and winding-up orders. As one fan put it, ‘they’ve forced us to become interested in the things that they are most concerned with – property portfolios, SPVs, share options, land values and development opportunities. Along the way, we’ve all become barrack room lawyers with a workable knowledge of tax issues, company commercial law and accountancy. For that, I abhor them.’
So almost 10 years to the day on from that 2-0 win at St James Park, Argyle once again line up against their Devon rivals. The Green Army had practically forgotten about the Grecians in the intervening years, who’d been lining up against Farsley Celtic as they’d been taking on Leeds, West Ham and Newcastle, but the Pilgrims go into Saturday’s game as underdogs. Broken and betrayed, Argyle fans now have to deal with the consequences of having lived the dream without ever really living it. Hostility towards the board boiled to the surface 10 days ago as news of the latest winding-up order broke, and the establishment of a Supporters’ Trust will hopefully go some way to rallying fans around a solution should one be required from outside the current board’s circle of power. More questions than answers remain about their intentions now that the World Cup is going eastwards, but with Todd and Gardner seemingly scrambling for new investment it appears that a fan-led voice will be needed sooner rather than later.