The Green Army’s patriotism for Plymouth Argyle has been sorely tested in recent months – and they continue to march into the unknown.
There may be no ‘pledge of allegiance’ for football fans, but stumping up hundreds of pounds for a season ticket to watch your club must come pretty close to an equivalent oath of loyalty. No one can question your commitment when you hold that little plastic book or card. You’ve made a statement, akin to: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of (insert name of Football League outfit here) for at least 23 home fixtures. Even if I can’t make a match, I’ve paid for it, and I’ll get priority on cup ties and away games too. One club under the chairman, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all’.
Of course, that last sentence, paraphrased from the American original, would stick in the craw of many supporters – none more so than the foot soldiers of Plymouth Argyle, stationed at the league’s most south-westerly outpost. Their football club and stadium are poised to be split between two unpopular chairmen; the fan base remains loyal, but divided on several issues; and liberty and justice appeared to set sail from the Hoe many months ago.
The picture was very different nine years ago, when Home Park was truly a fortress. Argyle went unbeaten at the stadium for 12 months and more as they battled their way out of fourth-tier obscurity. Although subsequent home skirmishes were occasionally lost, the confident Pilgrims were winning the war and they conquered the third tier in 2004, earning themselves a place in the rebranded Championship. Three-quarters of the ground having been renovated, the average attendance was over 16,000. Managers and players came and went, but Argyle remained upwardly mobile, posting over £1million profit as the team finished 10th in May 2008. However, the events that ensued should serve as a cautionary tale to any club striving to reach the top-flight – for Argyle were Icarus, and they flew too close to the sun.
That 2007/8 campaign represented a pivotal season for Argyle, the apex of their ascent. The inspirational Ian Holloway had defected to Leicester in November, several star players were also lured away in January, and the average crowd had dropped to 13,000 – despite the fact the play-off path to the Premier League’s promised land lay just four points away in the final reckoning. As Hull went up, the albatross marked ‘biggest English city never to grace the top-flight’ passed to the neck of Plymouth, where it shall surely hang heavy for several years to come (how apt that another maritime location should have inherited that particular burden). And despite the books recording a profit that summer, the weight of financial pressure was already bearing down on Argyle.
In December 2006, the club had bought the Home Park freehold from the city council for £2.7 million – a deal that seemed to make good business sense at the time. Yet it also accelerated the need for external investment in order to complete the stadium project. To that end, the Argyle board – a group of local businessmen, headed by Paul Stapleton – agreed in April 2008 to sell 20% of the club’s shares to a company owned by Japanese multi-millionaire Yasuaki Kagami, with the aim of widening the club’s global profile and ultimately achieving Premier League status.
With a wealthy investor now on board, the club pushed the boat out and splurged on the wage bill. Striker Emile Mpenza was one such addition, at around £10,000 a week – a colossal salary by Argyle standards. But in December, funds promised from Japan failed to materialise, setting a trend which would continue for the duration of their involvement at Argyle. The financial situation worsened so quickly that in March, the board realised they could not even afford to follow through on a unanimous decision to sack manager Paul Sturrock. The cost of making the change was beyond them. The club hung on to their Championship status that season, finishing 21st – five points above Norwich. Two years later, it would be the Canaries celebrating promotion to the Premier League, while Argyle would find themselves right back where they started the century – in the basement division.
The Pilgrims were now in financial quicksand, scrabbling for a financial foothold. Two helping hands were proffered – they belonged to telecommunications entrepreneur Keith Todd CBE, and former Manchester United plc chairman Sir Roy Gardner. Todd met with Kagami and a plan was hatched. The Japanese stake would rise to 38%; Todd and Gardner would acquire 13% between them; and the remaining local businessmen would retain 49%. Stapleton later said:
‘To pass the baton on to people with some of the best CVs you could get…we thought we couldn’t have picked safer hands. But we wanted to stay involved. The dream was: ‘We’re the boys to take the team to the Premiership’. We could be part of it and we thought we had the right people to make it happen. We thought Sir Roy was our knight in shining armour’.
He wasn’t, and the 2009/10 campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Todd concentrated most of his efforts on Plymouth’s World Cup 2018 host city bid, a project with potential for huge transformation to Home Park and the surrounding area – if only FIFA executive committee members smiled favourably on the bid as a whole. As it transpired, global football politics would kill off that particular pipe dream in December 2010, by which time at least £1million had been wasted on stadium planners and consultants by Todd. His partnership with the hands-off Gardner had been heralded as a ‘New World’ for Argyle, using the iconic image of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower ship setting sail for uncharted territory, namely the Premier League. Instead, former crowd favourite Paul Mariner, lured back to Devon from the US to replace Sturrock, could only pilot the vessel to 23rd place and League One.
Another winding-up petition was then dodged, but with relegation resulting in a TV revenue drop of £3million and a wage bill around four times that of Oldham’s, it was clear that Argyle were in dire financial straits. The club’s bank account was frozen; payments to staff and players were at first sporadic and later dried up, resulting in months of considerable hardship for many. By the end of 2010, Argyle were estimated to be around £7million in debt and HM Revenue and Customs were pushing for liquidation. Todd and Gardner headed out, the Japanese contingent promised money that never arrived and Stapleton had to turn to an old friend – Peter Ridsdale – in an attempt to attract investors, study the books and save the club. However, a desperate January fire sale of the Pilgrims’ best players only raised enough funds to stave off the taxman and on March 4, the game was up. The administrators were officially called in, and Argyle’s humiliation was complete. The final debt figure was over £17million.
While the Green Army rallied around the club, with fans’ groups The Argyle Trust, Green Taverners and PASOTI raising money to assist the unpaid staff, Peter Reid and his players were ultimately sunk on the pitch by the 10-point Football League penalty, resulting in a second relegation in two years. With many creditors being Argyle fans, and the club’s survival uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, a CVA offering just 0.77 pence in the pound was approved in early May. Those voting expected local businessman James Brent to be named preferred bidder for a takeover, but administrator Brendan Guilfoyle then revealed he had chosen a mystery consortium instead.
After weeks of denials and speculation, the aforementioned fans’ groups unmasked the frontman of that consortium – Truro City chairman Kevin Heaney, a property developer once riding high on the Sunday Times’ Rich List until his Cornish Homes business was liquidated in 2008. With ample development opportunities aroundHomePark, his motives for involvement with Argyle are obvious, which only serves to make the level of secrecy surrounding his consortium Bishop International Ltd (BIL) all the more peculiar. The company is registered in Gibraltar, where the names of its owners and money-men can be concealed behind nominees. Professing that Truro remains his footballing passion, he plans to sell the football side of the Argyle business to Ridsdale for £1. As for the identities of those investors, Heaney’s claims of a joint venture with a “heavyweight” Irish property developer remain unproven and at the time of writing, only £300,000 has been handed over by BIL. The £5million earmarked to complete the takeover is reportedly tied up in a separate, uncompleted property deal; the Football League have allowed Argyle to register new signings but are holding fire on giving approval to BIL; an increasingly exasperated Guilfoyle has issued Heaney with a warning that the club needs money now; while Ridsdale’s comment on the situation was “‘s long as the cheque clears, I don’t care’. The fans’ groups, fearing the worst, continue to work on a contingency plan, with the assistance of Brent.
Undoubtedly, some regular match-goers (and more casual observers) will have walked away from Home Park for the last time, either on principle or because they perceive the product to be poor. For others, it’s a Catch-22 – they know the club (and specifically the staff) are relying on season-ticket money coming in, but feel proferring it at this stage amounts to a sanction of the shady consortium and Ridsdale’s stewardship. The majority of season-ticket holders appear to have taken that ‘pledge of allegiance’ and renewed (nearly 3,000 have been sold, at a competitive £340 for adults) even though the words and actions of Heaney, Ridsdale and Guilfoyle continue to engender suspicion and distrust. At least this money has been ring-fenced, just in case the takeover collapses.
For the rest of the fan base, it’s a case of attending when finances and circumstances can afford it, like most supporters, and the Green Army is certainly well served by its ‘reserve force’. A 1,600 sell-out could even be possible in the Shrewsbury away end on the opening day – and that’s because, for the average Argyle fan, “his first avowed intent is to be a Pilgrim” (as John Bunyan’s hymn has it) and cheer on his team. Just don’t expect him to cheer on the commanders in chief.
Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle Blogger
Jon tweets at @jonboy79