In this morning’s edition of The Guardian, the unsurpassable David Conn brought the wider world of football up to date with the latest situation from Plymouth Argyle, a club that have featured on the pages of this website several times over the last few months. The decline of Plymouth has been a curious one to watch from the sidelines. There has been no definitive moment of crisis, and there has been no mental image upon which we can hang upon the story. When Middlesbrough were placed into liquidation in 1986, the locked gates at Ayresome Park were a shocking visual metaphor for the state of the club at that time. As quietly as a mouse, it feels as if Plymouth Argyle are being allowed to slip away.
Perhaps, though, that image is now with us. It’s not a full colour, high-resolution image taken with a digital camera, but a faded, black and white photograph. It was taken on New Years Day 1923, and features a small group of Plymouth supporters releasing a “lucky balloon” prior to an FA Cup match against Notts County. Somewhere within this pictures lies some fundamental truth about our lives as football supporters. It’s irrational, arguably superstitious, but the faces of the supporters betray a wry sense of humour at what they’re doing. It also reminds us of the continuity and heritage of what is now under threat. This picture is almost ninety years old, but the feelings of those releasing this balloon are much the same as those that still turn out at Home Park, some, perhaps, against their own better judgement. It is, we might have thought, a timeless image, but there is a chance that this heritage, this culture, this shared belief against most rationality, could be swept away because of the mismanagement of a few.
As at so many clubs that have found themselves in this position, to try and read up upon it is to bring about a set of emotions that sit approximately halfway between bewilderment and sheer, visceral fury. Somewhere along the line, Plymouth Argyle Football Club has gone wrong, and the feeding frenzy may be just about to start. The figures are, of course, insane. They need £3m to avoid administration, and £5m to be able to keep trading until the summer. Financial suitors have come and gone like strangers in the night, while the club has been issued with winding up orders on a seemingly monthly basis.
The latest of these comes from Inscapes, who laid a new pitch at Home Park during the summer. Their costs for this are understood to have been around £500,000 and they are understood to be still owed around £350,000. With Argyle not yet in administration, Inscapes have been left with little option but to issue the club with what is known as a statutory demand in accordance with the Insolvency Act. The demand gives twenty-one days for the debt to be settled in full or ‘secured’ (by which an agreement is reached to repay their indebtedness, for example, in instalments or secured against property) or eighteen days for the club to apply for the demand to be set aside at court. The only alternative to this is for Plymouth to enter into administration, which would offer them protection from further litigation proceedings.
There seems to be little doubt that, barring that increasingly rare phenomenon, the white knight on a charger, administration is the club’s only option at the moment, and the big question facing the club at present is whether it can actually afford to even do this. The fees of an administrator can run up pretty quickly, and these need to be paid. The club’s wage bill is just over £360,000 per month, and this, as a football debt, is not something that can be ignored, even though they haven’t paid the last two months’ worth of it. HMRC debts are continuing to accumulate and non-payment of this liability will most likely only lead to further winding up petitions being issued against them. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, any incoming administrator would have little option but to look long and hard at whether this club is actually financially viable or not. Estimates of the club’s overall debt have risen from £9m to £13m over the last few weeks, and talk of new investment has come to precisely nothing, so far.
This evening, though, we’re not going to look too closely at the figures, the numbers, who did what to whom or what the possible prognosis for what this particular institution might be. It’s too… wearing. Plymouth supporters are now starting to talk again of protest and direct action against those that are clinging on and it is unsurprising that those that are clinging on at the club should be the targets of their demonstration. It feels as if, every time a football club finds itself in this sort of desperate, enfeebled position, the vultures start to circle whilst those the most responsible merely hang on, trying to bleed what they can from their positions before bailing out at the last minute.
Small wonder, then, that the supporters, those that travel the length and breadth of the country to follow their team and who will still be there long after those currently supposedly “managing” the club have become just a footnote in its history, are full of this rage. What else are they supposed to do? Put up and shut up? Merely “get behind the shirts”? The time has clearly come for the club’s support to make its voice heard, and it seems likely that this will happen over the next week or two. It is, to be frank, about time the situation at this club was pushed up our game’s agenda. Perhaps what is needed is a show of solidarity from all football supporters. Perhaps what is needed is a distinct protest that leaves a mark on the game. It should be peaceful. It should be lawful. It should, however, also be as loud as possible. The ongoing issues at Plymouth Argyle deserve a wider audience. It’s time for Plymouth’s supporters to step up to the plate. Whether they should have to do this or not in the first place. It is – and it is a pretty poor reflection upon the state of our game – supposed to be a leisure activity, after all, isn’t it?
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