Are Clouds Beginning to Gather Once Again at Home Park?

Posted by on Aug 28, 2016 in Uncategorized | 16 Comments
Are Clouds Beginning to Gather Once Again at Home Park?

Having initially penned an epic two-parter in January 2012 about the travails of Plymouth Argyle as part of a short series of pieces on clubs in turmoil (which, for the record, featured alongside coverage of Coventry, Port Vale, Portsmouth and Preston North End) Roger Willis provided two updates in April 2012 and March 2014. A couple of years on, Roger returns to the scene to appraise where things stand at the club.

The only certainty is that nothing is certain’ – Pliny the Elder

In October 2016 it will be five years since Plymouth Argyle chairman, and majority shareholder, James Brent rescued the club from the ignominy of administration. In that time Argyle has morphed from a zombie club, dead in all but name, into a League 2 promotion challenger. In the last two campaigns, both of which promised so much, Argyle faltered in the play-offs. While both seasons ultimately ended on a massive low, solace could be taken from on-field progress – the club is no longer anxiously looking over its shoulder at relegation from the bottom rung of the Football League.

Quite what the immediate future holds for this year is currently as uncertain for Argyle as it is for any other club. The team that took the Pilgrims to two near-misses has been dismantled and a huge amount of new players has been recruited in their place – how long it will take them to properly gel is anyone’s guess.

So that, in précis, is where the team has been and might be going but the focus of this piece is off the pitch. Exactly what has happened in the post-administration period to breathe life into this football club? As ever, the story is not quite as straightforward as one might hope…

Mr Brent’s Revolving Loan

In 2010, Mr Brent’s Natatomisam – the company which sits at the head of all of Mr Brent’s others – negotiated a £32 million, 18-year credit facility with Lloyds Bank which partly funded hotel acquisitions. However, the nature of the loan meant that money could be spent for any business purpose within the group and so was used, along with a still outstanding share charge, to settle the secured Lombard mortgage at a cost of £600,000, thus allowing Mr Brent to buy Plymouth Argyle Football Club.

When Argyle came out of administration the last hurdle was the Football League releasing its Golden Share. For this to be granted a business plan had to be submitted for assessment and approval. Job done, seemingly, but the FL’s then chairman Greg Clarke issued a cautionary ‘Leap of Faith’ statement querying whether the plan was achievable. That business plan was predicated on Argyle achieving an ambitious average home attendance of 8,500 for the first season. I use the word ‘ambitious’ euphemistically. Quite simply this was never going to happen and anybody with a reasonable grasp of Argyle’s history, particularly at League 2 level, would have known this. The inevitable happened with attendances falling well short of the target and Argyle continued to lose money with, after all that had happened, its lines of credit non-existent. The shortfall had to be met somehow and so Mr Brent paid £425,000 to purchase a parcel of land next to the ground in order to plug the gap. The fix was only temporary though. More money leaked away and another shortfall had to be met. This time Mr Brent stumped up loans to the club and all seemed well. Until February 2014, anyway, when Mr Brent was no longer able or willing to provide further loans, resulting in Tony Wrathall, a member of the previous board which had seen Argyle nosedive into near oblivion, being controversially reintroduced as a director with the release of a share transaction providing the next required batch of funding to the club.

The following month, it emerged that parts of Mr Brent’s hotel empire had folded. By now Lloyds had sold the revolving loan on to American hedge fund, Cerebus, which in turn sold it on to another company based in the Channel Islands. Somewhere along the way, the loan vanished with 2014 group accounts for Natatomisam witnessing a change in net debt from £44m in 2013 to just £186,000 a year later.

This gives a flavour of the club’s financial stability in the immediate aftermath of administration but as the months ticked by and turned into years one of the key agreements that enabled the exit became more and more pressing. The outstanding football creditor debt, at the outset c. £3.6 million, was payable with 15% paid upfront, 7% paid per year for each of 5 subsequent years and the remaining 50% (around £1.8 million) at conclusion although caveats applied and transfer profits, cup tie income and other unexpected income was to be used to accelerate the payment of the final sum. That final payment loomed large.

The Pavilions and the Civic Centre

After a prolonged period of silence regarding the final payment Plymouth City Council came to the rescue with a loan of £800,000 and with one leap the club was free from financial worry again. It should be noted that the loan was secured against the land that had been sold previously for £425,000 so between March 2012 and September 2014 that land had nearly doubled in value to the benefit of the land’s owners and not the club.

The loan was indicative of what appeared to be a very close working relationship between the Council and Mr Brent. Another strand was their March 2014 deal on the Pavilions, a city-centre leisure facility featuring an ice rink, swimming pool and concert/conference arena. The Pavilions had been running at a loss and was sold to Mr Brent for a nominal £1 with the council gifting Mr Brent a dowry of £2 million to take it off their hands. On re-evaluation following the purchase the Pavilions – which lies at the heart of a far bigger dockland regeneration – was valued at £4 million. Effectively, Plymouth City Council had given Mr Brent £2 million in cash and an asset worth £4 million in exchange for £1. Mr Brent then promptly transferred £900,000 from the Pavilions into his own personal pension fund.

By September 2014, however, the cracks began to appear in the relationship when a £50 million deal to convert Plymouth’s Civic Centre into a luxury hotel fell through. A plan that was largely dependent on Mr Brent securing a grant from the Arts Council, as announced in August 2013, never transpired. The site has since been acquired by regeneration company Urban Splash and remains a project in the planning stage. As to the Pavilions, there has been no sign of the project moving any further forward to date.

‘Higher Home Park’

Another ambitious property deal related to the desperate need for Home Park’s decaying grandstand to be replaced as part of a wider ‘Higher Home Park’ redevelopment scheme, and involved the Council both donating some parkland and then subsidizing costs in perpetuity thereafter. The scheme was also tied to the Pavilions in that it included an ice rink which – as part of the Pavilions deal – Mr Brent was obliged to provide somewhere in the city. The £150 million development would also include an IMAX cinema, hotel and much more yet would have controversially seen Home Park’s potential capacity restricted to less than 17,000 seats.

However, Higher Home Park was effectively rendered defunct by the approval of British Land’s broadly similar intentions for Plymouth’s Bretonside Bus Station and the farrago all but obliterated the relationship between Council and Mr Brent. It remains to be seen whether a political change in council leadership at the last local elections will resuscitate it.

Oldway

As an aside, if a pattern of ambitious schemes which are not subsequently realized is beginning to emerge then the story of Oldway only enhances this. Oldway is a mansion in Paignton, a small south Devon town 30 miles east of Plymouth, and was the home of the Singer family. In September 2012, Mr Brent’s Akkeron Group signed an agreement to purchase the site based on planning permissions obtained for its restoration and redevelopment. However, the project never really left the drawing board and led to much acrimony and legal wrangling with Torbay Council. When the Council challenged Akkeron Regeneration’s ability to meet its financial commitments in court earlier this year Mr Brent was able to use his ownership of the Pavilions to prove that he could securitize a mortgage to release the required funding. However, the whole scheme fell through a fortnight ago with all agreements being cancelled.

Purchasing the Freehold

As part of the sale of Home Park to Plymouth City Council in 2011 there was a clause: every 5 years the club could buy the ground back at a cost of 12 times the annual rent, which would currently be about £1.7 million. To this end, that option could be exercised in October 2016, and Mr Brent seems to be very keen on taking up the deal.

What follows is guesswork and supposition, but I suspect that a company will be established to purchase the freehold. This company will probably appear to be ‘Argyle’ but it won’t be, not exactly. That company will then get the ground re-valued at a higher price (just as a previous Argyle board did roughly 10 years ago, setting in motion the chain of events that led to administration). This will establish an instant paper profit on the deal and as the value of the asset increases over time so too will the parent company’s. The ground will probably be purchased via a loan or a mortgage of some sort. Argyle would pay the interest-accruing loan or mortgage monthly out of income to the lender; likely, in Mr Brent’s own words, not to be a financial institution. Not only will the asset value increase almost immediately and thereafter over time but the liability will reduce with every payment the club makes out of its income. It is a deal almost risk-free and far too lucrative to let slip.

But then what? The club will be no nearer to getting a new grandstand and the plusses in one part of the Akkeron empire will likely offset the losses in another, and if Mr Brent’s companies were to fail any assets it held, such as Home Park, would fall to… somebody and could be anybody. Buying Home Park looks like a very good deal for Mr Brent but not nearly such a good one for Argyle which will either pay a mortgage for somebody else to own the ground or pay rent to a third party, leaving the club not only stripped of every asset it once had (players, paperclips and brand name apart) but also paying monthly for the privilege.

I’m being alarmist and it can’t happen? Something like it is already happening. Remember that parcel of land once worth £425,000 but now valued at at least £800,000 and transferred to Mr Brent’s HHP Nominees Ltd? The club’s offices and shop sit on it and they are therefore paying rent to… somebody because HHP Nominees Ltd doesn’t appear to own it any more since it no longer lists it as an asset.

This tangled web of corporate entrepreneurialism should be familiar to those who have followed this tale from the start. Everything always seems to be guaranteed, re-structured, re-financed, re-valued and secured against something else somewhere else in a corporate portfolio and future progress depends upon attracting external investment partners to schemes as – or, perhaps more appropriately in this instance, if – they progress. It is very rare that anything is ever purchased outright with one’s own money, and costs are usually loaded against the future income of the corporate branch concerned and if a little, or failing that a lot of, public money helps the deal along then so much the better. The deferred payment of the club’s historic administration debt is an illustrative case in that it was loaded against club income over 5 years and then put off a little longer thanks to the £800,000 council loan.

No doubt a strong argument will be made for the purchase of the freehold. A similarly robust case was made at the outset of Mr Brent’s tenure with openness and transparency promised so that the horrors of administration would never be repeated, yet in the past week the Argyle Fans’ Trust have announced that they will withdraw from any further dialogue with the club’s board following a falling out; an ambitious scheme for the Pavilions was assured but work has yet to begin; the non-delivery of the Civic Centre redevelopment resulted in the loss of that project to a company with a proven track record; grand plans were promised at Oldway but all agreements have been now terminated; and the Higher Home Park scheme lies abandoned. Now we approach a new milestone, who can blame anyone for lacking confidence in whatever Mr Brent has to say about the benefits of the purchase for the club, no matter how compelling a case he makes.

I do not expect Plymouth Argyle FC to purchase Home Park in October in any simple, tangible way but I fully expect Plymouth City Council to sell it to Mr Brent in some way, shape or form. The upshot of which will, possibly permanently, separate the club and stadium in a manner much more fraught with risk to the club than the current arrangement, with what is always likely to be a benevolent landlord in the shape of Plymouth City Council. Quite where this will leave the club in the future is, as Pliny the Elder once pithily observed, certainly uncertain but it is all horribly reminiscent of the methodology that ultimately led to Argyle’s administration and near extinction back in 2010.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League

16 Comments

  1. Site owner
    August 28, 2016

    More rambling from the aluminium hat wearing brigade. Like it or not James Brent is the future of Argyle the sooner you get used to the idea the better. We all know he had no intention of providing any of the promised transparency when he bought the club so why keep manking on about it? The sooner the rest of you jump on the gravy train, get yourself some free perks like the chauffeur and Directors box experience the sooner you will realise that being part of the gang is much better than trying to fight it. I tried that with Stapleton and it got me nowhere, not a single perk, zilch, nada, nothing. Take it from me the only way to get on in this life is to ditch the morals and principles, schmooze up to the bigwigs and bark excitedly whilst wagging your tail because the crumbs from that top table taste oh so sweet.
    JB forever.

    Reply
  2. Jamie
    August 28, 2016

    Interesting article, but you neglect to mention that the Argyle Fans Trust has succeeded in getting Home Park listed as an ‘Asset of Community Value’, meaning that James Brent and PCC can’t just do a deal behind closed doors. http://www.argylefanstrust.com/2016/02/26/home-park-is-granted-asset-of-community-value-status/

    This actually is a double edged sword, because whilst it prevents James Brent buying it in secret, it also means that securing investors will be difficult, because the ACV status means basically nothing can happen without the AFT being at least consulted, and effectively given carte blanche to block any deal. Nowhere in the article does it say where Argyle would be if Brent hadn’t bought it. I don’t remember any other reputable, serious bidders coming forward. Kevin Heaney was allegedly interested but was hampered because he at the time owned Truro City, and look how that turned out. There really was no option, and if people continue to criticise James Brent and put obstacles in the way, there may be no Argyle either.

    Reply
  3. Glenn
    August 29, 2016

    As a Pompey fan this should serve as a reminder to anyone that very few can be trusted to run a football club with the view for the long term or to give the fans something to be proud of.

    We are very lucky to have the trust as a very large stakeholder in the club coupled with high net work Pompey fans. I hope Plymouth don’t have to endure anymore pain of money troubles anytime soon.

    Reply
  4. Site owner
    August 29, 2016

    @Jamie it’s Mr. Brent to the likes of you. And just a few facts to strengthen your argument, JB (as I like to call him as he’s a real mate) didn’t buy the club he got given it by the council after me and a couple of mates set the dogs of war on Heaney, Posties favourite Buttivant (chortle) and anybody else, and there were a few believe me, set off with their tail between their legs when they saw the sheer spite and venom directed their way. JB couldn’t have done it without me and me old mate CW who incidentally copped a well cushy title to stick on his LinkedIn page as a reward for finishing the Trust off. Since then we have been trying to ward off attacks like those seen from the freaks who wrote the never again piece but buying the most popular fans forum and deleting libellous comments ,eg. Anything anti JB, isn’t enough these days. As for FB and JL neither of them come from Plymouth or anywhere near it. What makes them think they are worthy of having an opinion on the club they have supported all their lives. JB is being well frosty and because of all this I may lose my AA pass, I’m off to feed the dogs this doesn’t end here.

    Reply
  5. babararacucudada
    August 29, 2016

    I reply to Jamie about the ACV: It does not apply retrospectively. The deal between Argyle and PCC is done. Nothing the ACV can do about it. Should Home Park’s ownership change from that point it does kick in.

    As for what might have happened sans James Brent… We’ll never know one way or another but I did hypothesise about just that in my own blog here: http://babararacucudada.blogspot.co.uk/2015/05/some-journey.html and you may find my take interesting.

    I could have included the omissions you cite by many might feel it is plenty long enough already!

    Reply
  6. Site owner
    August 30, 2016

    Well, well, well, GC, JL, BF, BBCCRRDD, Suffered since birth, PR and all the freaks on ATD and Freechat you took one hell of a beating! Game set and match to JB. I can smell that associate directorship now! Once The boss told me to lay off the proles and let them talk freely on the boards, with a big wink I may add, I knew the old fox was up to something. Unnatural as it felt and although we had to reign Dazzer in a couple of times all we had to do was wait until Tuesday, release the brilliantly worded “Board Statement” and the freaks are silenced, all their points met, what can they say? James was sounding pretty smug tonight when he congratulated me personally this evening via a video conferencing call on my iPhone, well I say video conference it was only me but the pilot was trying to edge in from the side, I was having none of it, snidely little toad. Anyway it wasn’t a real video call I just videoed myself receiving the call but it made me feel pretty pleased with myself.
    Anyway me and the mods are off for a curry, nice freebie paid for by Bob the donkey and the Emerald Publicans.
    I love my job.

    Reply
  7. Site owner
    September 1, 2016

    Just a word to the wise, you’ve had your transparency don’t expect any more. Me and the WOR dogs will be keeping a close eye on anybody, AFT, EW’s or anybody that thinks it’s big or clever to question James and the board. That includes the upcoming trust meeting on the 10th. You have been warned.

    Reply
  8. Site owner
    September 1, 2016

    Need any more proof that fan engagement is dead? This from THE ONLY FANS FORUM THAT SPEAKS THE TRUTH!

    Director Simon Hallett is asking for more questions…..

    Quote:
    To #pafc fan site admins: could you ask members to send follow up questions to the address in our announcement, please. More are coming. We will gather them all up and answer on a regular basis. Too much to deal individually. Sorry!

    Email questions to argyle@pafc.co.uk. Please provide your questions by email by 5pm on September 21, writing ‘Fans’ Forum Question’ in the subject box, and provide your name.

    The AFT is finished, we are the horses mouth from now on, a good day for democracy! LMFAO.

    Reply
  9. Site owner
    September 1, 2016

    PL2 3DQ wrote:

    Maybe it’s time for one or two rank and file fans to be associate directors or a liason between the board of directors and the fan base.

    They can never speak for or repesent the fan base, that would be impossible but they could be the eyes and ears of the fans, field questions from the fans and be a crucial link between the board and the fans without committees, votes and political issues.

    Music to my ears! Old Doris is a berk but he has his uses. Might have to upgrade the Beemer what with the upcoming promotion?
    They don’t make days like these!

    Reply
  10. Site owner
    September 9, 2016

    I see the the freaks are trying to diss me with this message board from the 90’s now. https://web.archive.org/web/19970724143138/http://www.argyle.org.uk/terrace/356.html
    For your information hating gays was compulsory as a boot boy in the 90’s and Illogan Highway is clearly within earshot of the dockyard siren and stirring up dissent against Dan Macauley is not the same as the “politics” employed against my boss JB.

    Reply
  11. Site owner
    September 9, 2016

    Somebody has asked me about this comment,

    As for poofs and bi-sexuals, you really are a PC pratt, if I want to call, let’s say, Ronnie Jepson a ginger haired gayboy, then I will, you or your sort object, tough titty.

    So Mr Moss, stick that up your jacksy, and lump it.

    I didn’t say that, I was hacked, my kids wrote it when I left my computer unattended and/or it was someone else posing as me, I know the site says it was genuine email and ID but as any Pasoti mod will tell you it’s laugable to think that you can believe anything written on the Internet.
    When will these attacks on my character stop?

    Reply
  12. Site owner
    September 15, 2016

    I tell you I’m about to blow now. After working day and night with the boys to stifle and steer the never again debate by those nerdy do gooders JL and GC, launching an all out CHARIDEE offensive (with feck all of worth to sell due to the club being a bit frosty these days) I thought it was time to talk about the football again and I’d have more time for my “normal” pastimes, nudge, nudge, look out nerds snigger, lol, handclap, wave bye. Then to my utter disbelief I see the new statement from the ADHDAFT! FFS I’ve had to cancel all mod leave and me and the pilot are working double shifts to try and keep a lid on this, when will this attack on THE SAVIOUR end?

    Reply
  13. jack mayflower
    September 15, 2016

    Well, it’s getting to that time of the cycle, as greedy owners of free money borrowed under legal ltd. pseudonyms hoover up hard earned public assets and much cherished municipal football grounds for their own profit , under the guise of prudence and fiscal proberty. arf arf
    We all know the old ruse, and the site owner and his ilk will be happy at the steal about to happen.
    It’s a good job we’ve got Bob and his Plymouth fans’trust on the job keeping an eye on this Brent banker character. Without them, Brent would get away with his nefarious plans.. lol..

    Reply
  14. Site owner
    September 16, 2016

    Things are getting back on track nicely now with the “dont talk about the freehold” project, flogging a photocopied wonky picture of Home Park, memo to self must phone Phat Phuk in Bangkok and order more, and it’s already up to £120! The pensions coming on nicely to boot, early retirement beckons, is it any wonder I’m so smug?
    Nice to see the saviour doing his bit with the fantastic video where HE comes across even more articulate than in real life personable and competent not to mention the auro of trust that emanates from his every pore. The passion with which he talks of Argyle is reminiscent of a young Martin Luther King or maybe Ghandi. Anyway the video is slipping down the listings a bit so im off to sticky James arse, there’s one for the wank bank.

    Reply
  15. Plymouth Argyle: James Brent's "Five Year Plan" | Twohundredpercent
    November 3, 2016

    […] especially) that I’d all-but-finished my article when I read Roger’s. Here’s Roger’s:   http://thetwounfortunates.com/are-clouds-beginning-to-gather-once-again-at-home-park/. I highly recommend […]

    Reply

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