Turmoil Week: Plymouth Argyle (Part Two)

Posted by on Jan 29, 2012 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Turmoil Week: Plymouth Argyle (Part Two)

Here, Roger Willis rounds off our ‘Turmoil Week’ with the second part of his Plymouth Epic. Yesterday he focused on the background that led to Argyle’s financial meltdown; today he moves on to bring us right up to date with the key events.

The Supporters Start to Act

There was widespread panic amongst supporters at this stage. The situation seemed hopeless. As the board was indulging itself in a bizarre cross between a Mexican stand-off and staring at its own shoes a supporter, Ian Newell, started a whip-round on the messageboard Pasoti, raising several thousand pounds to try to help the club’s staff as Christmas approached. Peter Ryan, Jim Benton-Evans and Lee Jameson, helped by Supporters Direct, began to establish a supporters’ trust primarily with a view to establishing a Phoenix club should the worst come to the worst. The panic was not assuaged by the club making partial payment of the November wages nor by a slight relaxation of restriction on the frozen bank account. Nor by the arrival of yet another HMRC winding-up, the fourth up to this point, just before Christmas and due to be heard on January 12th.

The civil war in the boardroom erupted into full view when on Christmas Day 2010 Argyle announced that Todd had been “replaced” by Stapleton as the club’s Executive Director and on 27th his ally Sir Roy Gardner resigned as Chairman.

To make matters worse the club announced that it would be unable to pay the money still owed for November’s unpaid wages or those due in December. The PFA agreed to loan money directly to the players in lieu of their wages and the staff had to make do with the donations received in bucket collections, organised by Sue Pollard, and by the money collected through Pasoti by Newell as the campaign to support them gathered strength.

Todd’s departure led to the return of Peter Ridsdale, who promised to work unpaid and made all the right noises about how committed he was to saving the club. Ridsdale promptly sold Craig Noone to Brighton for £300k. Ridsdale said far more though: “race against time”; “we are not heading into administration”; “without immediate cash the club could disappear altogether”; “is it bad? It’s worse than you could imagine”. As Mariner finally left the club there was little hope of there being a Happy New Year at Plymouth Argyle.

2011 started with Réda Johnson being sold to Sheffield Wednesday (£200k) and the immediate need to find £700k for HMRC was met. December’s wages were even paid although the balance due for November was still left owing. The fire sale was on. George Donnelly left for Fleetwood Town (£50k) and offers started to emerge for Bradley Wright-Phillips.

Enough money had been raised to meet the payments needed and the Jan 12th court hearing was dismissed. All that now remained was to satisfy the court on February 9th. Ridsdale claimed that we needed another £267k in order to survive. That would have been covered by Wright-Phillips’ transfer that to Reading, but this fell through. There was still no sign of the funds promised from Japan, so BWP was subsequently sold to Charlton for £100K and Sir Roy Gardner’s position as a director was officially terminated on Jan 21st. At the end of January the wages for players and staff went unpaid.

February 2011 started with more boardroom warfare. The club issued a statement casting doubt on the idea that the promised £2m would ever arrive from Japan and that they were carrying on with the working assumption that it would never arrive. It never did. It now seemed that the three factions involved weren’t even speaking to one another.

As the court hearing on the 9th February loomed ever closer the situation appeared to be that Argyle had, with the help of a controversial £300k mortgage deal with the Plymouth Argyle Supporters Training and Development Trust and 53p from 7 year old Jack Wilkinson, raised enough money to save the day.

PAST&DT had been sitting on a sizeable sum of money following a schism between it and the club several years before. A dispute involving the living accommodation for the club’s apprentices led to the club refusing the support offered by the PAST&DT and resulting in the sale of a hostel. It was to these funds that the club turned and PAST&DT controversially signed over the money secured as a mortgage against the freehold.

The club was now in a position to meet all of HMRC’s outstanding demands but not able to pay the accrued unpaid wages or the tax and NI that went with them. HMRC was, for the time being, placated and the winding-up order was dismissed by the registrar. However the Charity Commission was concerned about the PAST&DT mortgage. Was it legal that it could lend that money? Was Stapleton’s position as both club director and chairman in conflict with his role as a PAST&DT trustee? These questions remain as yet unresolved.

Administration

February 21st 2011 saw the club issue a notice of intent that they intended to appoint an administrator and to seek a new owner. The league promptly deducted 10 points from the club (as the team travelled to an away game they heard the news on the radio) as per the rules and Argyle went to the bottom of Division 1. It was all happening. Paul Stapleton’s immediate response was to go to Dubai on holiday as three potential buyers, as yet unnamed, emerged. Suspicion, which was now rampant, saw Peter Ridsdale deny that he was planning or had ever planned to buy the club or that the existing directors were planning a “pre-packed” administration. (A pre-packed administration would see the club’s ownership transferred to a new company owned by the same directors.) Barclays Bank froze the club’s bank account yet again; the staff and players continued to go unpaid.

And so on and into March 2011. By this stage even Ridsdale had had enough of trying to work with Argyle’s directors and was trying to find a buyer without even bothering to consult them. Kagami’s man George Synan was proposing a plan that involved £1.5m from another Japanese businessman, Koichiro Abe, who had been linked to Kagami before, and then relying upon the mercy of the court. Abe immediately rubbished the plan himself. Possible buyers waiting in the wings wanted to see the club actually in administration before they involved, or indeed revealed, themselves and remained anonymous.

Argyle is Saved by Ian De Lar

Against this turmoil and division HMRC, which had Argyle well and truly in its sights by now, started to play really dirty by springing yet another winding-up order on the club but, crucially, also neglecting to tell them. It was only thanks to Ian De Lar (Argyle supporter and webmaster of the Plymouth Vital website) who spotted the court listing on the London Gazette website the day before the hearing that this latest legal action was noticed by anybody at all. Nobody at the club seemed to know who had filed the action or even why. A barrister was appointed and at 10:30 on the 4th March the proceedings started as Trust member Celia Ellacott tweeted a live commentary from the courtroom.

The word “anxious” doesn’t even begin to describe a day of high tension and drama. Needless to say the morning did not go well for the club and HMRC was straining at the leash to appoint their administrator, liquidate the club, set a precedent and claim both a landmark victim and their spoils. During a court recess for lunch the board of directors finally accepted the inevitable and took Ridsdale’s advice. The P&A Partnership was appointed as administrators with the administration process being overseen by Brendan Guilfoyle. Ridsdale and Guilfoyle were well acquainted having first worked together when Guilfoyle oversaw the administration process at Ridsdale’s Leeds United some years previously. In so doing the board sacked themselves. Guilfoyle’s first act was to employ Ridsdale as the club’s Chief Executive Officer. It was a cosy and strangely circular arrangement between old friends.

The move into administration was greeted with much rejoicing within the fanbase. At least the club still survived and loads of other clubs had wangled their way through, shedding debt in the process… “We might not even go down!” they hoped.

Guilfoyle’s only priority was to cut costs and whittle down the interested parties to a sole “preferred bidder” who would fund the administration process and thus pay Guilfoyle’s fees. Three parties threw their hats into the ring: Paul Buttivant, a figure widely and controversially associated with an aborted takeover at Wrexham; local hotelier James Brent and a still unnamed third party.

At this stage the administration was unfunded, the club had long since run out of money, and nobody had ever attempted an unfinanced administration of a football club before. At the next home game supporters were asked to simply donate money above and beyond the admission fee and club merchandise went on sale at vastly reduced prices. The next step was to make 15 staff redundant, with no redundancy pay, and to close the club’s city centre sales outlet. Administration didn’t seem quite so straightforward anymore.

Meanwhile the efforts of supporters to support the unpaid club staff that remained continued. The donations via the Pasoti website and bucket collections continued and an auction of donated football memorabilia took place organised by a group of local businessmen who became known as the Green Taverners. Argyle manager Peter Reid donated his FA cup runners-up medal to the cause and further enhanced his, already high, status. Reid had conducted himself with huge dignity and positivity through the chaos and had even paid for the club to have heating oil delivered so that the staff could keep warm as they worked in the offices. Paul Stapleton, with crass insensitivity, had “allowed” them to wear hats, coats and scarves as they shivered at their work stations.

The search for a buyer went on. A company called Affinity was set up as a purchase vehicle linked to Terry Pritchard, who had unsuccessfully tried to buy into similarly stricken Portsmouth, came and went. Rumours that the disgraced directors were still trying to muster a pre-pack deal continued. A mysterious foreign-based British investor was allegedly interested. Truro City chairman Kevin Heaney was linked to that investor and then vehemently denied any involvement.

The February hearing resulted in an incensed HMRC instigating a failed legal action to challenge the Football League’s “golden share” rule as it tried to avoid being treated the same all the other unsecured creditors once again. HMRC has repeatedly been foiled by the Golden Share rule and has challenged it frequently. It will, I am certain, continue until it is successful and snares a club somewhere.

“Work For No Pay”

Administrator Guilfoyle’s next move was to present the still unpaid staff with an ultimatum: either agree to defer all wages for two months or leave. Most of the stunned staff signed up. If they hadn’t then the club would have had no choice but to fold because there was no money to pay them.

It appeared that Guilfoyle was having problems in securing a buyer willing to fund the administration. The club was a financial basket-case and our best players had been sold. From there the news went from bad to worse. The ground, the asset on which all hopes rested, turned out to have no fewer than four mortgages secured against it: the initial purchase agreement with Lombard; a loan from the Todd/Gardner part-owned Mastpoint; another from Gardner himself; the PAST&DT loan. These were all based on the ground being valued at £7.5m when the club was doing well in the Championship. Quite what it was worth with virtually no team and when bottom of League 1 was anybody’s guess. A loan from Ticketus, another company linked to Gardner, secured against future season ticket sales also emerged. Not only had every last asset been mortgaged beyond the hilt but so too had projected income in the years to come.

April 2011 began with the sale of promising apprentice Jack Stephens to Southampton. A desperately needed £150k for him kept Argyle afloat for a little longer as the search for a buyer dragged on. And still the players and staff went unpaid. A crumb of comfort was offered by Guilfoyle in the shape of a 15% cut of the wage due at the end of April being offered to players and staff. The players, presumably being supported by the PFA, decided that all of that money should go to the staff who were still reliant on supporters’ fund-raising efforts for any “income” at all.

At long last some progress seemed to arrive in the shape of the proposal for a Creditors’ Voluntary Agreement. This consisted of an offer of 0.77p/£ (i.e less than 1%) of the money owed to the unsecured creditors. If over 75% by value accepted the offer the club would shed more than £7m of the debt hanging over it. The offer was accepted and a host of businesses (and HMRC) lost a lot of money. Leaving: the four mortgages secured against Home Park totalling around £5m; around £1.2m to Ticketus; over £3m in unpaid wages; on-going legal fees and administration fees accrued, at £250/hour, amounting to around £228k (so far) that P&A where charging still to be settled.

May 2011 began in horribly familiar fashion. 2010-11 came to end with our relegation being confirmed. Replace Newcastle’s black and white stripes with Southampton’s red and white equivalent, and exactly the same thing happened again. Our relegation made all the harder to swallow yet again by the sight of jubilant away fans acclaiming their exit from the division’s opposite end.

Creditors’ Voluntary Agreement

Off the pitch progress at last appeared to be made and James seemed to be on the verge of being nominated “preferred bidder” in preference to Paul Buttivant who was unable to give suitable guarantees that he had the financial backing for his bid to proceed. At the last moment Brent’s “offer of last resort” was gazumped by an as yet unnamed third party who agreed to pay for anonymous exclusivity. The process was helped along by the agreement of a Creditors’ Voluntary Agreement (CVA) with the outstanding non-secured (i.e not mortgaged against the freehold) creditors. Since the offer effectively meant “take this pittance or get nothing at all and be responsible for the club’s liquidation” the bullet was bitten and the 75% majority (by value of debt owed) was obtained.

The club was now effectively ‘in hold’ whilst the 28 day period for appeal against the CVA passed. Peter Ridsdale met with the mystery backers but insufficient progress was made to allow the basic preparations for the following season to go ahead. The deals to set season ticket prices and arrange kit suppliers, shirt sponsors and ground advertising could not be made. A club that was dead in the water couldn’t even begin to plan ahead for a future it might not have or sell season tickets for matches it might not ever play. All of the out of contract players, bar Stéphane Zubar who eventually left anyway, were released.

It did, however, emerge that the unnamed potential buyer might be Irish and had agreed to pay £1m in instalments for the status of preferred bidder and so fund the administration from this point. The preferred bidder had negotiated a confidentiality clause precluding their identity from being revealed. Brendan Guilfoyle, an appointee and agent of the court and responsible for adherence to legal insolvency procedure remember, claimed not to know who the mystery bidder was. Later he admitted that he had known who they were all along and had been forced to lie in order to avoid revealing the preferred bidder’s demanded anonymity. This cloak of secrecy was eventually ripped away in astonishing fashion. That same cloak did not sit well with the powers that be in the Football League who needed to approve a new owner as “fit and proper”. How could such approval be given if the identity of that party is unknown? At least the initial payment allowed a partial payment of 75% of May’s wages due to the staff, and some of the players, to be made.

Kevin Heaney

Gradually some of the proposed details of this mystery deal began to emerge. Essentially, it was similar to the one proposed by Brent in as much as the football club and the freehold were to be separated. Brent hoped to sell the freehold back to the council and own the club; the “Irish” buyer wanted to buy and redevelop the stadium and the land adjoining it and sell the football club only to Peter Ridsdale (“I didn’t come here to buy a football club ~ this is not a transaction that I sought or contemplated”) for a nominal fee of £1.

As part of this deal another new company, PAFC 2011 Ltd, was registered. This company coincidentally shared an address with Kevin Heaney’s Truro City FC. PAFC 2011’s only director was named as Julia Sincock who was in a relationship with Kevin Heaney. The company’s address was then transferred to Plymouth and registered at the same address as that of ex-chairman and, until recently, current director Paul Stapleton’s accountancy business. As Stapleton, unbelievably, denied all knowledge of the company fears amongst the supporters that the old board were planning some sort of covert pre-packed administration which would see them cut their losses and maintain control began to grow ever stronger.

May ended with Stapleton giving a self-serving interview to the local press. Even though he was an accountant by trade and had run the club for years he blamed the other directors for the club’s incredible mountain of debt. He himself was culpable only for taking his eye off the ball as he waited for the other directors to exercise their share options and buy him out. Apparently the £500k for the pitch and the £1m spent on the World Cup bid and an annual wage bill now up to £8.5m had not troubled him anymore than the previously announced accumulation of £12m of “other operating costs” or indeed the £50k p.a. fee paid to his accountancy firm for consultancy. “Eye off the ball” indeed.

June 2011 saw the first real fears surrounding the “Irish” takeover emerge as an instalment of the agreed £1m did not arrive on the promised date. Guilfoyle did not seem overly bothered and insisted that he was confident that the funding was in place. A fortnight late, the first, and what proved to be their only, payment of £300k arrived. Off the pitch yet another player left as Yannick Bolasie joined Bristol City for £20k. Back in the Argyle offices Ridsdale claimed League approval, much to the League’s surprise, for the take-over plans and Kevin Heaney categorically denied any involvement with the, now apparently Gibraltar-based, bid. The club’s future continued to be sold and Argyle’s promising schoolboys Lloyd Jones and Dan Barrow went to Liverpool and West Bromwich Albion respectively, which saw another £80k in the coffers of the administration.

An Amazing Coincidence at Breakfast

Remember that “curtain of secrecy” surrounding the buyer? As the anonymous party set about the deal various meetings were held. They were not the only people holding meetings. Parallel to the official administration process an ever-sceptical and alarmed supporter base was beginning to organise itself. The bucket rattling and auctions had seen the emergence the Green Taverners. The GTs had been formed primarily to raise cash to support the club’s staff, who by now had not been properly paid for over 6 months. It was the club staff’s unstinting commitment to the club that saw the club survive this far. If they had simply all left or stopped working then there would have been no working club anymore. This was recognised by the GTs and in co-operation with Pasoti and Sue Pollard tens of thousands of pounds was raised. The nascent Argyle Fans’ Trust was also gaining momentum as a voice for the fans. Initially Graham Clark and later Chris Webb were readily available to front the Trust as it maintained an increasingly vocal and critical commentary to events in the local media.

On the morning of 16th June 2011 a quite amazing coincidence occurred that shattered much of the pretence surrounding the preferred bidder’s anonymity. As luck would have it a few supporters, including some from the Trust and the GTs, had planned a breakfast meeting in the local Holiday Inn. As they walked into the hotel restaurant they saw Truro City Chairman Kevin Heaney and some associates sitting at a table. The supporters walked over to introduce themselves and saw that Heaney had architectural plans laid out across the dining table obviously of Home Park and its environs. When questioned, Heaney admitted that he was in Plymouth prior to a meeting with the council concerning development plans around the stadium. The following day a statement was issued confirming that Heaney was acting as a consultant for the mysterious “Irish”/Gibraltan buyers.

An event which unleashed a whole host of problems for the proposed takeover. Heaney was still the chairman of Truro City. There are clear rules prohibiting anybody having an interest in more than one club. Apparently this could be dealt with by Ridsdale’s purchase of the football club but Ridsdale himself was under something of a cloud and was facing a court case concerning his previous involvement at Cardiff City. Did either of these people actually satisfy the “fit and proper” test at the time? (The case against Ridsdale was later dropped.)

The second instalment of the £1m exclusivity payment was now long overdue as the involvement of Rose Project Services in the “Irish” bid emerged. Rose Project Services had previously worked with the club and ex-director Keith Todd by drawing up plans for the club’s proposed stadium development as a part of the World Cup bid. As reports circulated that at least two of the previous directors had contacted Peter Ridsdale with a view to joining the new club’s board the prospect of the pre-pack administration grew ever more likely.

By now the club’s playing squad was diminishing in number almost by the day. Kari Arnason was the next to go. Not released, as such, this time. Or sold. He simply refused to sign a deferral of wages and his contract was summarily terminated then and there. In an emotional interview with the Daily Mirror Arnason let it be known that the players, and not just the staff, were facing real hardship and that cars had been sold and that mortgages were in arrears. It is worth remembering that the money that sloshes around the upper reaches doesn’t trickledown very far down the leagues.

July 2011 began with Bondz N’Gala leaving on a free for Yeovil Town and local boy Joe Mason joining Cardiff City for £250k. Promises that the takeover deal would be completed by the end of the week were made. It was only dependent on Football League approval for the “Irish”/Gibraltar/ Heaney, by now known as Bishop International, bid. This seemed to be ambitious on many levels. Bishop International was yet to obtain agreement with the council for its plans which were thought to include building a multiplex cinema and student accommodation.

These proposals blatantly contradicted covenants on the parkland surrounding Home Park. The football club’s business plan also relied upon 12 months of financial support from Bishop International which was also problematic given Heaney’s involvement with both Bishop International and Truro City. The latest instalment on the preferred bidder’s £1m was still noticeable by its absence. The staff were asked to defer payment of wages yet again. Needless to say this proposed deadline, like so many others, slipped by with a deal being no closer to completion despite a “legally binding” contract agreeing a £5m price now being in place and Guilfoyle again unsuccessfully asking the League to release the club’s Golden Share.

Yorkshiremen Everywhere

Murky waters grew ever muddier when Plymouth Vital’s Ian De Lar discovered names connected to Bishop International used addresses in Batley, Yorkshire. Coincidentally Guilfoyle’s P&A have a head office in Yorkshire and Ridsdale is a Yorkshireman.

Off the field the recruitment of new players began in a farcical fashion with the signing of Liam Dickinson. He didn’t stay long. Once he realised that he was unlikely to be paid in the near future he cited “personal issues” and promptly left for Southend.

By now there was widespread and open scepticism amongst supporters that the Bishop International deal would ever go through, despite Guilfoyle giving repeated assurances that it would. An attempt at putting together a rescue plan should it all go wrong began at a meeting attended by a handful of concerned supporters, the GTs, council leader Vivien Pengelley, James Brent and local MPs.

As the beginning of the next season drew ever nearer, and another pre-seaon friendly was played against Truro City, at least some of the off-pitch basics appeared to be in the process of being sorted. Season tickets had gone on sale and a shirt sponsor was signed. The club even managed to buy a kit to start the next season in. But only enough shirts for the squad of players; there was no pre-season sale of the shirt intended to celebrate the club’s 125th anniversary as a football club. As the expiry date for the “legally binding” contract with Bishop International loomed the Football League demanded to know exactly who “Bishop International” was. As Guilfoyle’s lawyers remained “comfortable” the Football League remained silent and Ridsdale said that this had been “the toughest challenge he had ever faced” and that “both the PFA and the Football League feel that the club is lucky to be alive”.

The start of August 2011 saw the Bishop International deal look ever more ropey. The next inkling came when it was revealed that Heaney was reliant on funding that would be realised by a completely separate unspecified deal following the withdrawal of support for his bid from Japanese businessman Koichiro Abe. Abe was, of course, yet another link back to the discredited ex-board having first been connected to Argyle through Yasuaki Kagami. Guilfoyle then wrote to Bishop International asking for the next instalment of the fabled £1m exclusivity arrangement fee needed because “there is no money left in the pot”. That fee never arrived despite Guilfoyle taking Bishop International to court in a failed attempt to get it.

Yet another company linked to the deal was established as Heaney assured all and sundry that finance was no problem at all; the name this time was Plymouth Retail Park Ltd which proposed to build bars, restaurants and a cinema around Home Park. The staff were asked to accept another deferral of wages for August and the apparently “legally binding” deadline was extended from 12th to 26th August.

The Vigil

By now, the only people who expected Bishop International to complete the deal were Heaney and Guilfoyle. There appeared to be a complete impasse with no other option being explored due to the exclusivity agreement and so despite public expressions of interest by both James Brent and Paul Buttivant neither was approached. Trust member Warren Bowden helped to organise a candle-lit vigil at the ground and fans camped outside Home Park undeterred by thunderstorms as the next perceived deadline approached. Numbers at the ground steadily grew and support came from various quarters in the form of drinks, food and donations for the staff (by now over £80k had been raised for them in total). The vigil was widely supported directly and indirectly; it was publicised in the press and TV news bulletins both local and national. The vigil gathered momentum and applied huge pressure to Guilfoyle and Heaney who hardly welcomed the glare of publicity.

Late afternoon on 26th August 2011 Peter Ridsdale read out a statement to the supporters gathered at the vigil. “It’s all OK! We have the money! Argyle is saved!” (I paraphrase.) The gathered TV crews produced a bottle of champagne. The cork was popped, the bubbly was sprayed and some people, not the supporters I hasten to add, should hold their heads in shame for what happened that day. The money was not there. The deal was not done. The club was not saved. The vigil was ended though. No more embarrassing publicity. Job done.

By now even Peter Reid, who had been a dignified and positive talisman throughout the sorry process, was beginning to admit that he was feeling the strain. The hotchpotch of youngsters and free signings, all actually unpaid of course, had just lost 6 games in a row and the club was bottom of the Football League pyramid. Something had to give.

September began with yet another wage deferral looming. Team captain Carl Fletcher admitted that everybody was close to breaking point. Club captain Romain Larrieu, who had been an unexpected guest of the Trust’s inaugural meeting, joined Fletcher in a press interview where they condemned the administrators for repeatedly misleading them throughout the process. Speaking on behalf of both players and staff they admitted that a players’ strike was being considered. Guilfoyle agreed to pay them 40% of the following month’s wages and a strike was averted. A week later saw Guilfoyle release a statement that claimed he was able and willing to meet other potential investors. Heaney’s Bishop International deal, despite the latest of his many his protestations that funding was in place and that there were no problem, was dead.

New Buyer Needed

A host of names emerged to show an interest. Brent and Buttivant had obviously never really gone away but were now joined, seemingly, by Terry Venables, Uri Geller, ex-Michael Jackson bodyguard Matt Fiddes and Terry George. Even Mohammed Al Fayed, amongst others, was mentioned. Eventually on September 16th 2011 James Brent was confirmed, if not as “preferred bidder” (he had always refused to fund the administration process from the very start) but as the only serious one as far as Guilfoyle was concerned. Council leader Viv Pengelley issued a statement that PCC was to consider whether or not the council could help by buying back the freehold.

The latest bombshell in what had become a ceaseless bombardment was about to explode, however. On 18th September Guilfoyle and Ridsdale announced that Peter Reid had been sacked following 9 successive defeats. The football world was aghast but Reid responded with true grace and wished the club well as it struggled to survive. I think even his natural ebullience could take no more and he was glad to be rid of the stress. He will always have a place in the heart of all Argyle fans everywhere. Reid was replaced by Carl Fletcher as caretaker manager, to be assisted by Romain Larrieu.

Fans Reunited

I can’t begin to describe how demoralised the support in the stands at Home Park had become by this point. Argyle’s team of hapless youngsters and cast-offs was desperately struggling. The effort was there but the confidence was low. Out of the blue came a fillip from nowhere.

Years ago in the 1996-97 season Brighton had been in similarly desperate straits. They were on the verge of relegation from the Football League and the liquidation that would surely have followed. An Argyle supporter came up with the idea that there be a Fans United day where supporters of any club should turn up to support Brighton just to boost their income a bit. The day was a massive success, as supporters from nearly every club in the country turned up to witness them beat Hartlepool United 5-0.

And now 14 years later they repaid the compliment and organised Fans Reunited. Did it save Argyle? No. What it did do was lend the club and supporters some momentum when it was most needed. BHA and its fans, who turned up in their coach loads, made many friends in Plymouth that day.

Brent Takes Over

As James Brent’s takeover started gathering ticks in boxes, over 400 contracts needed to be negotiated before it could be finalised and some rather surprising spanners got thrown into the works.

Guilfoyle, not for the first time, threatened to simply close the club. This time his P&A Partnership was worried about having to pay the next month’s salaries to the players and staff. The vigil had had the necessary effect of making another wage deferral unthinkable and money would have had to be found to pay wages. Guilfoyle’s offices in Sheffield were bombarded by telephone calls and emails by desperate supporters, rallied by the Trust’s Chris Webb, and the threat to liquidate the club was withdrawn.

Ridsdale, meanwhile, had flown to Monaco where he had a meeting with ex-Oxford United chairman Firoz Kassam, apparently to raise the finance that Heaney had been unable to secure. It all came to nothing. There was a third scare when some of the club’s disgraced directors threatened to block the deal to settle some of the secured debt, which presumably involved the Mastpoint mortgage. Stapleton’s accountancy business was proposed as a target for a vigil in its garden and a bombardment of its email and telephone systems was suggested; that late obstacle was quickly withdrawn.

So eventually the paying of the four secured debts was somehow agreed and at the very last only three parties remained in need of settlement: ex-manager Peter Reid, Tony Campbell (another of Kagami’s representatives) and Guilfoyle’s administration costs. Agreement was reached and September ended with the announcement on the 29th of an “agreement in principle” between Brent’s Akkeron Group and Guilfoyle’s P&A for a sale and purchase agreement. Quickly the council agreed to support the bid and to buy back the freehold, at a far lower price than they sold it for back in 2007. Fletcher was confirmed as permanent manager. October 31st 2011 saw the Golden Share returned. Administration was over.

A New Dawn?

So is it a happy ending? I suppose so. Of sorts. As I type Argyle has escaped a relegation spot for the first time in months and results, although not great, have improved. But a nasty hangover lingers; where there was once trust between fans and club there is now a much more measured version of loyalty.

What now of the main players in all of this?

Reid is working as a TV pundit; Mariner has returned to the USA and is coaching; Sturrock is chasing promotion as Southend manager.

Stapleton, Wrathall and Dennerley remain in the Plymouth area. Wrathall recently attended a match day corporate function at Home Park but the reaction was such that he is unlikely to do so again. Dennerley has been unobtrusively sitting in a stand with the rank and file to no obvious objection. If Stapleton shows up at a match there is likely to be something of a scene.

I don’t know what Messrs Todd, Gardner, Kagami or Synan are up to and nor do I care to try to find out. It is unlikely that we will ever see any of them again.

Peter Ridsdale has left the club to take over as chairman at Preston North End. Brendan Guilfoyle has made a rather gnomic statement about lessons learned during the first, and probably only, unfunded administration of a football club that anybody has ever attempted. I’m sure that Guilfoyle will spin the process as a triumph for himself and his company. Supporters will remember his involvement rather more critically.

James Brent is setting about rebuilding the profile of the club and has appointed popular ex-director Peter Jones (completely untainted by association with recent troubles) amongst others to a new board which is promising to place Argyle at the centre of the community and to create a new ethical management model unlike that currently seen in English football.

Brent has also offered the Trust a 20% share of the club and proposed that there be a “Fans Advisory Board” to liaise between club and supporters that would consist of representatives from the Trust, the Green Taverners and others. The Trust is about to hold elections and the way forward for it remains unclear now that its bogeyman has gone.

Chris Webb has been appointed as President of the club. Ian De Lar still runs the Plymouth Vital website.

The staff and players go about their duties and are being paid in full and on time. Brent paid them 14% of the back pay owed immediately when he took over and will pay the balance owed in instalments over a period of no more than 5 years. Ian Newell, Sue Pollard and the GTs continue to fundraise to try to pay this money back more quickly.

As I write, Argyle sit second bottom in League 2. Remember that enduring indiscipline? It has seen 10 players dismissed so far this season as the tension has never really gone away. The Football League is keeping a beady eye on the club’s finances and is ensuring that the club keeps to the 55% salary/turnover cap and Argyle is still honouring some contracts agreed when the club was in the CCC. In some cases, Argyle continue to pay good money to players performing for other teams.

If Argyle manage to avoid relegation from the Football League for the first time in its history at the end of the season it will be the club’s greatest ever triumph. At the end of this season the expensive contracts will expire and as a big fish in the small League 2 pond the future is potentially very bright.

It is expected that Brent’s Akkeron company will build a hotel next to Home Park and that the archaic grandstand will eventually (“imminently”?) be replaced as a part of that plan. On the other hand if Argyle is relegated…

If This Happens To Your Club

My advice to supporters of clubs that may find themselves in Argyle’s position is for them to organise themselves as early as possible. They must engage with the media, contact MPs and councillors and question everything and take nothing at all at face value because people will knowingly lie, lie and lie again to them.

They must take direct action in ways that embarrass but they must not break the law. The supporters of any team are the only ones who can claim the moral high ground and it is a position that must be exploited clinically and relentlessly. The game changer at Argyle was the threat of a players’ strike. Without that threat Heaney/Bishop International was able to string Guilfoyle’s P&A along without fear of serious challenge and as that happened situation for the staff and players and club and fans continued to get worse and worse.

We will never know what the outcome would have been if the staff and players had simply said “no” earlier. Quite possibly the club would have folded but it just might have seen Brent’s bid get accepted in time for Argyle to properly prepare for the start of this season and Argyle might not be in real danger of relegation for the third consecutive year.

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

1 Comment

  1. Roger Willis
    February 3, 2012

    I received this via email from an old friend who stumbled across my effort:

    I’ve just read your account of the whole Argyle horrorshow online at the Two Unfortunates site. At the (low) risk of making you blush, it’s the best thing I’ve read in ages. I’ve been looking for a detailed and comprehensive, but clear story on this for ages because I’ve been out of the loop and blow me who writes it – it’s you. You’re a loss to sports journalism, mate.

    I actually feel a bit ashamed because I never donated to the wages fund (didn’t even know about it!) and I was stunned at the heroics of the supporters – I must keep up with events more in future. Hope you’re well etc and thanks again for the piece. Let’s hope a corner is being turned.

    All I can say is that I had a good editor!

    Reply

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