Happy birthday, Plymouth Argyle – though you may not see another one.
Arsenal are celebrating their 125th anniversary this season. Despite their recent trophy drought and current malaise, the Gunners remain one of the most successful clubs in English football history, behind only Manchester United and Liverpool in terms of league titles won. Earlier this year, the US business magazine Forbes ranked Arsenal as the third most valuable soccer team in the world, worth around £724 million.
Plymouth Argyle are also celebrating their 125th anniversary this season. The club has never played at the top level of English football, coming closest in 1953 when it finished fourth in the old Second Division. Earlier this year, Argyle went into administration with debts of almost £18 million, and now faces a genuine threat of liquidation unless a protracted takeover attempt can be completed in the coming days.
In January 2009, Arsenal and Plymouth met in an FA Cup third-round tie at the Emirates Stadium, with the visitors backed by 9,000 travelling supporters on the day – truly a Green Army. Only two goals separated the sides, the hosts running out deserved 3-1 winners.
Now, just over two-and-a-half years later, Arsenal are said by some to be ‘a club in crisis’, with their depleted squad and under-fire manager battling to qualify for the Champions League group stages and to avoid a potentially painful conclusion to the summer transfer window. Argyle, on the other hand, lie 22nd in the fourth tier, with barely a penny to their name and the prospect of becoming the first Football League club to go to the wall in 19 years.
So Argyle flickered briefly on Arsenal’s radar not so long ago. So they share an anniversary. You may be thinking: so what?
It’s a fair question. Why should the Gunners fanbase give two hoots about a provincial club several divisions below their own and based nearly 200 miles away from north London? Why, for that matter, should any body of supporters other than Pilgrims fans care about Plymouth Argyle?
Sorry tales of misguided ambition and irresponsible business practice, such as the one that has unfolded at the Devon club, have become increasingly common in the modern game. The likes of Leeds United, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Portsmouth have all teetered on the brink of oblivion in recent years, only to be pulled back from the edge – some at the 11th hour. There are many more examples of clubs in administration or who have entered into CVAs to save themselves.
Whilst feeling sympathy for the innocent parties caught up in these dramas – such as staff, players, supporters, St John Ambulance and local traders, to name a few – there is relatively little that can be done to help, from the outside looking in. For every new club that is admitted to football’s casualty ward, most might feel pity, but some may feel a degree of compassion fatigue as well.
Like Argyle, Maidstone United were victims of their own ambition too, going bankrupt in August 1992 just three years after winning promotion to the Football League. The Stones folded just two days after the first-ever Premiership season was launched. Since then, several former Football League clubs have folded, but only after being relegated from the League – namely Scarborough (2007), Halifax Town (2008), Chester City (2010) and earlier this year, Rushden and Diamonds. All have been ‘reborn’ to some extent, with phoenix clubs rising from the ashes and placed or entered at various lower echelons of the pyramid.
It may not have to come to that for Argyle, who are the only professional club in England’s 16th biggest city and would therefore represent ‘shock value’ on the back pages. Their predicament is somewhat complicated but in a nutshell, their administrator must secure a buyer willing to take on the day-to-day running costs of the club and who meets Football League approval before the next wage packets are due to be paid to players and staff. The characters in this drama are as follows:
The administrator – Brendan Guilfoyle, who managed to guide Crystal Palace out of a similarly nerve-wracking administration process this time last year. Guilfoyle faces a different final hurdle in Plymouth to that presented in south-east London 12 months ago. Should the hurdle prove insurmountable, Guilfoyle’s boss at The P&A Partnership (a firm of independent business support practitioners based in Sheffield) will instruct him to liquidate Argyle.
The preferred bidder – property developer Kevin Heaney and his Bishop International Ltd consortium (BIL). To seal the deal, Heaney, whose Cornish Homes business went bust in 2008, must strike an agreement with key creditors (around £2.1million) and come up with a further £3.2million. He recently claimed this money was tied up in a separate property deal, but now insists the full amount can be produced by Friday’s deadline. However, there is a major additional complication. Heaney is also the chairman of Truro City FC, recently promoted to the Blue Square South. Football governance in England prevents Heaney from having control over more than one club, which is why he is proposing to sell the football side of the business for £1 to…
The acting Chairman – Peter Ridsdale. From Leeds to Barnsley to Cardiff and then Plymouth, Ridsdale’s name has become inextricably linked with football clubs in a parlous financial state – yet he would always argue that he is more saviour than sinner. Ridsdale needs to convince the Football League to give its approval to the BIL takeover plan, with Heaney taking Argyle’s land assets and Ridsdale taking on the liabilities of the club. BIL intend to provide funds to cover Argyle’s predicted shortfall, but the plan may contravene the rules on ownership.
In recent days, Ridsdale has begun blogging on football finance and other matters at peterridsdale.com. He told one visitor who posted a comment relating to Argyle that the club was still ‘in real danger of folding due to poor management and a head in the sand mentality” before adding that Heaney was “the only viable solution’. Despite this, the Argyle Fans’ Trust continues to propose an alternative takeover plan backed by local businessman James Brent, should Heaney’s bid fail – but the tight remaining timescale means that deal may struggle.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, Peter Reid’s threadbare, youth-heavy squad (seven members of the starting line-up in Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Gillingham were aged 22 or under) fight on, and in the Home Park offices, the staff members who have deferred their wages for a staggering eight months continue to put in the hours. All are hoping for positive news in the coming days, but all realise the club is essentially on life support and that cannot continue indefinitely.
For the rest of football, the passing of Plymouth Argyle would constitute something akin to the death of a famous musician. Everyone’s heard of them, many have seen them live, most knew they were in a bad way, and few would fail to be shocked by their demise – but the beautiful game would carry on, with or without them, phoenix club or not. On the padlocked gates of Home Park, an epitaph, perhaps that which adorns the headstone of comedian Spike Milligan: ‘I told you I was ill’.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The uncertainty and financial strain of administration is painful enough without the aching hole that would be left by liquidation.
For Pilgrims fans, their fondest memories – such as Pele’s visit to Home Park with Santos for a friendly in 1973 that attracted over 37,000 fans, a 1984 FA Cup semi-final against Watford at Villa Park, a Wembley play-off final win in 1996, divisional titles in 2002 and 2004, that trip to play Arsenal, and more – will never die. But 125 years of history will sadly count for very little if football’s grim reaper comes calling for Argyle.
Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle Blogger
Jon tweets at @jonboy79