Plymouth Argyle: The Club With The Unknown Owners
Brendan Ambrose Guilfoyle has a ‘complex’ track record in football club administrations – a reputation to which he is living down as ‘lead’ administrator at Plymouth Argyle, it appears. Argyle’s current situation was neatly, if inadvertently, summed up by adjacent headlines on Plymouth’s Herald newspaper web-site, as “Argyle’s creditors agree debt offer as anonymous preferred owner signs deal” jostled for position with ”Argyle acting chairman on fraud and trading charges.”
The subjects of these stories are now Guilfoyle’s preference for Argyle’s future. And given Argyle’s traumatic recent past, this combination of concealment and financial mishap could be regarded as ‘continuity.’ On April 4th, Guilfoyle’s preferences seemed clear, but different. He said in March that “I think I have seen the guy who is likely to buy Plymouth Argyle,” although he declined to add “and his name is…” (as in “I saw rock’n’roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”). He “encouraged everyone to engage with the “Akkeron Group”, the hotel investment business of former Plymouth City Development Council chair James Brent. And a statement from administrators the P&A Partnership encouraged “stakeholders to support their offer.”
So far, so straightforward. Concerns were initially raised that Brent could be linked in one bound to Argyle’s acting chairman, one Peter Ridsdale. But Ridsdale, remarkably, is seen as the safest pair of hands in recent Argyle boardrooms. So, generally, any link with the Leeds and Cardiff failure was seen as a positive (I know, I know…). Brent has consistently portrayed his bid as simply “an alternative to liquidation,” a “back-up option” if there were no ‘suitable’ alternative buyers. There were, Guilfoyle reported, two other potential alternatives.
One was a consortium of “high net worth (and clearly insane) individuals” led by West London Conservative councillor Paul Buttivant. The other was the almost-compulsory “mystery” consortium, this one supposedly led by that fast-diminishing breed, a “Dublin-based property millionaire.” Brent was generally considered a shoo-in for the takeover, despite only offering creditors 0.77p in the pound, a sum which no-one was going to injure themselves by spending too quickly. Guilfoyle had told the High Court in late March that there was “unlikely” to be any money at all for unsecured creditors, so this loose change was an improvement of sorts.
And Guilfoyle failed to take a shine to Buttivant, “ceasing dialogue” with his consortium after they failed to meet an April 11th deadline for providing proof of funds to Guilfoyle’s satisfaction. Buttivant tried again two weeks later, offering a positively luxuriant 3p in the pound, which innocent by-standers may have thought in the creditors’ interests to accept. They weren’t about to get the chance. Guilfoyle refused to accept Buttivant’s “revised bid,” which “proved they had the cash” according to press reports, but was “not in a satisfactory form,” a catch-all phrase covering sins from inadequate finance to papers in the wrong font. The offer was returned, to “seek clarification and transparency in all aspects.”
Buttivant was not impressed, saying Guilfoyle wanted “some additional supporting information regarding the financial status of our bid,” and adding, cryptically, “We are considering the merits of providing that information in light of what we believe is the irrefutable proof of funding we have already provided.” One obvious merit of providing it was that his bid would be rejected otherwise, so clearly Buttivant had major concerns with Guilfoyle’s conduct. And he wasn’t alone. Even Brent – Guilfoyle’s favoured bidder at this stage, remember – smelt a rat.
Guilfoyle had published his proposals for exiting Argyle from administration via a ‘Company Voluntary Arrangement’ (CVA) and called a May 6th creditors’ vote on what appeared to be Brent’s offer. But Brent said on May 4th that “there are a lot of conditions that we have set for our offer that do need to be fulfilled,” including, he admitted, Guilfoyle announcing him as “preferred bidder,” something deemed a formality by most observers. “There’s still quite a long way to go and there’s not a huge amount of time,” he noted, darkly. And Guilfoyle’s formal announcement of the preferred bidder explained why, telling creditors, fresh from applauding their passing of the CVA by the requisite 75%, that the bidder was… (drum roll)… to be revealed on June 14th, the same day he hoped to complete the sale.
Guilfoyle said the bidders had “been given a warm feeling to their plans by the council”, plans which centred on “property development designed to provide an income stream for the football club” and that they had “no previous experience of the football business but have a team with ‘knowledge’ of the game.” The basis of these property developments and the depth (or otherwise) of this ‘knowledge’ remained unclear. And after the gutful of non-transparency they’d already taken, fans were understandably unimpressed – especially those, like the newly-formed Argyle Fans’ Trust – who had responded enthusiastically to Guilfoyle’s plea of not five weeks previously to support Brent’s offer.
Inevitable speculation has followed as to the identity of Argyle’s anonymity-hungry new owners, and precisely why they want to be anonymous. The assumption was that the mystery “Dublin-based” bidders had won the day, which has put pretty much everyone more Irish than Andy Townsend or Tony Cascarino in the frame and tightly stretched the definition of “Dublin-based.” The hopeful speculation centred on John Magnier and JP McManus, the two immediately pre-Glazer Manchester United major shareholders – when Sir Roy Gardner, Plymouth’s chairman throughout 2010, was Manchester United chairman, although neither Cork-born Magnier nor Limerick’s major sporting sponsor McManus could be, or would appreciate being, described as Dublin-based.
Just about every other Irishman linked with recent football takeovers has been linked with Argyle, too, probably based on nothing more than typing ‘Irish businessman football club takeover’ into an internet search engine. There’s Tom Anderson, a potential Southampton owner for half-an-hour back in 2009, various members of the Drumaville consortium which ran Sunderland and gave Roy Keane a job with responsibility, and Luke Comer, a potential Aston Villa owner who could have out-operated that ‘great’ operator Doug Ellis, given a following wind. More serious speculation has surrounded the possibility that the consortium somehow included Gardner, Argyle’s ex-executive director Keith Todd, and their “Mastpoint” consortium of “high net-worth individuals” who stood to lose oodles of cash by voting for the pittance offered by the CVA.
Leading this speculation was the Guardian newspaper’s Matt Scott, whose record at smelling proverbial rats in such matters is a pretty good one. Scott found it almost Ken Bates-esque (and that’s never in a good way) that Gardner and Mastpoint should support a CVA which would cost them £2m of their various Argyle ‘investments.’ Mastpoint Limited, Mastpoint Finance Limited and Gardner personally had £1,791,283 of unsecured monies owed. And the CVA relegated £2.5m of secured debts to Mastpoint and Gardner to the bottom of the list of secured creditors, limiting their chances of seeing that money again even if Plymouth’s Home Park ground, against which these millions were secured, was sold at market rate. On May 11th, Scott speculated as to the investment Gardner and Co. stood to lose, based on Mastpoint’s annual return, which “appeared at Companies House this week.” He arrived at a figure on nodding terms with £3m.
Gardner admitted they had lost a significant sum. But he seemed sure of little else, suggesting that Scott’s £3m “bore no relation to what I believe (my emphasis) to be the case.” He also claimed that he had offered this support to people whose identities he did not know (“Sound familiar?” asked Scott, rhetorically, in another sentence including the word ‘Bates’). Gardner’s ignorance had company; a super-injunction couldn’t have kept the consortium more anonymous. Plymouth City Council leader Vivien Pengelly said “I don’t know who it is” despite the consortium having “been in to see” council planning officers. She added: “I’d prefer not to know”, for reasons not explained. And even Guilfoyle ridiculously admitted that he didn’t know the identities of everyone involved. One can only hope none of the consortium wake up one morning thinking “who am I?” Because no-one in Plymouth could tell them.
However, Scott’s speculation gained credibility from identities which were revealed. Typically in such tales, more key information has come from readers’ comments on local press articles than the articles themselves. And with pinches of salt on-hand, just in case, it was interesting to note that “substantial areas of land in Central Park,” where Home Park lies, “are actually leased long-term” to… former Argyle directors Todd and Paul Stapleton.
The desirability of further Central Park development is disputed, with opponents dismissed as a “dog-walkers mafia” who want the park to themselves, even (perhaps especially) at Argyle’s expense. But the long-term leaseholders’ identities are a matter of public record. And Mastpoint’s willingness to write off their Argyle investment has a rationale in the context of potential future Central Park development. Pengelly this week claimed Todd’s 2010 development plans, designed to help fund Home Park’s development into a possible 2018 World Cup venue, would never have got past the council’s planning stage, as they were “outside the local development planning framework,” although whether she ever told Todd isn’t immediately apparent. However, even Pengelly admitted there was scope for development, such as “a hotel at the back of the stand.” And there is a belief that this “scope” is significantly wider.
Still, Ridsdale believes that “getting the CVA approved is an absolute celebration,” even though he doesn’t know “very much about the preferred bidder.” He does know that “it is likely I will be given the task of certainly helping the club through the summer.” And he has asked for “the approval of the administrators to sell season tickets.” Ridsdale sought this season-ticket selling approval in the same week he was charged with fraud over… season-ticket selling at Cardiff last season, when he encouraged fans to buy 2010/11 season tickets early to fund January 2010 transfer window purchases. But the money instead paid an outstanding tax bill…and Cardiff were under a transfer embargo because of that bill.
Ridsdale is, of course, an innocent man in this regard, at least until the case is heard on July 22nd. But for him to be allowed near a season-ticket selling operation, let alone run one, seems outrageous. Still, if any administrator can, Guilfoyle can, with his ‘complex’ track record in football club administrations; which is, of course, where we came in. Argyle’s exit from administration is progress. And while Peter Reid has his critics as a manager (myself included), his fortitude and generosity this season – paying heating bills out of his own pocket, for example – has been exemplary. But until the preferred bidders are known, no-one can judge their intentions or wherewithal. And the Football League cannot judge their fitness and propriety to run Argyle. So whether events after June 14th will be progress remains to be seen.
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