The Continuing Take-Over Woes Of Plymouth Argyle
One takeover has happened. One is due to happen by the end of the month. One is on-and-on-going. And one might not now happen at all. But however far down the takeover line Plymouth Argyle, Stockport County and Port Vale are – and even Rangers, who have nominally crossed it – none will be able to file their 2011/12 preparations under ‘ideal.’ Later this week, we’ll be looking at how the moral high ground is proving so elusive to all sides in the Port Vale affair. Next week, we’ll be looking at “Scottish entrepreneur” Craig Whyte’s hotly-contested Rangers takeover (more hotly-contested than the SPL title, some Rangers fans might think) and this June’s potential Stockport County takeover, after last June’s takeover failed to halt the Hatters slide into non-league football. But first, Mark Murphy has episode 95 – or is it 96? – of Plymouth’s saga.
Plymouth has proved something of a “told you so” for some of us, as Peter Ridsdale appears on the brink of taking over the club, if not the ground or the adjoining land, which will remain in the hands of the “preferred bidder” for Argyle who are… erm… well, not even the administrator who “preferred” them seems to know, even though his latest target date for a sale is July 4th. And if you are wondering how the “lead” administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle of The P&A Partnership, could “prefer” somebody he cannot identify… join the club… a club with a large, expanding South-West England branch.
Argyle’s Home Park ground and surrounding land is about to be sold to a “mystery” “secretive” Irish consortium led by a Dublin multi-millionaire, via a company registered in the tax haven of Gibraltar. The club is to become a separate entity, a set-up which has proved soooooo successful at other clubs. And the club will be “100%” Ridsdale’s, a set-up which has proved soooooo successful etc… Back in February, this website wrote “we could yet see those ‘Ridsdale set to takeover’ headlines again, although only an unremitting cynic would suggest that is why he’s been there all along.” And now we have.
As with much of Ridsdale’s football career, his Plymouth involvement has attracted instant Stalinist revisionism. Already portrayed as Argyle’s saviour, even though nothing from this sorry South-Western shambles has been saved yet, Ridsdale has some support for his role as club owner. “Let the experts like Peter Ridsdale get on with the job,” wrote one reader of the Plymouth Herald newspaper, apparently seriously. A recent Ridsdale article on this site prompted a response from the man himself, whose current PR-efforts include forming his own company, the Fearless Partnership, specifically to portray him as a football success. However, Ridsdale is now just co-starring, alongside an increasingly contradictory Guilfoyle.
Only a football outsider could truly appreciate the ludicrousness of Guilfoyle’s choice as Argyle’s “preferred bidder.” He settled upon a “Dublin-based” consortium whose individual identities and sources of funding he claimed not to know and whose prime motivation is property development. Guilfoyle’s most difficult choice should have been which reason to give for telling them to get lost. And yet… the one consortium name to emerge only exposed Guilfoyle’s supposed thought processes to more ridicule. Kevin Heaney sounds Irish. So he was temporarily a more popular answer than “four” for anyone in Plymouth putting two and two together.
On June 17th, their arithmetic proved accidentally sound when Heaney and two other men, in suitably farcical circumstances, were “stumbled across” at a “breakfast meeting… in a city hotel, poring over drawings of proposed developments for Central Park” (in which lies Home Park). Careers in espionage are not thought to await them. Heaney passed off his involvement with the consortium as advisory only. This, the latest investigations have revealed, is not exactly the case, as the “preferred bidders”, whilst yet to be individually identified, made their preferred bid under the auspices of ‘Bishop International Limited’, describe as a “joint venture between Heaney and his (ahem!) business associates.”
Cynics would also have been drawn the brief, tortured history of PAFC 2011 Limited when hearing Heaney deny that any former Argyle directors were involved. This company was set up in March with a Julia Sincock (who “began a relationship” with Heaney in 2006) listed as a director. Its registered address is ‘Torrington Chambers, 58 North Road East, Plymouth’ – the same address as chartered accountants Parkhurst Hill, whose senior partner is one Paul Stapleton, a… former Argyle chairman and the club’s current vice-chairman. It may be that office space is too tight to mention in Plymouth and that any number of firms, not necessarily linked in business, might be under the same North Road East roof. Then again, maybe it isn’t.
Of at least as much importance is the consortium’s ability, or otherwise, to fund the club until it is sold. Guilfoyle at least admitted, in a recent interview on BBC One South West’s Spotlight programme, that “this party have got preferred bidder status because they were offering the most (money).” And, of course, an administrator’s remit is simply to get the most money for creditors – all other issues are secondary. But that didn’t excuse or explain the consortium’s other forms of preferential treatment, notably being allowed to make a £1m payment to the administrators in instalments known as “milestone” payments, which looked as if they might prove ‘millstone’ payments when the first one reportedly arrived late. Other bidders were required to provide all this money up-front.
The consortium’s second millstone payment was late. And Argyle staff, for whom ‘full pay’ has long been something other people got, are faced with the prospect of never receiving all they are owed, with Ridsdale saying this week that their mood was “one of worry because… I’ve been honest with them.” To put this case of missing irony into context, it seems no-one is being honest with them, us or anyone – perhaps even themselves. Guilfoyle, who legitimised the preferred bidder’s anonymity, said he was “banging the drum” to get the consortium to reveal their identities. “These vacuums of knowledge just get filled, don’t they?” he told his BBC interviewer. Not by Guilfoyle they don’t. He certainly couldn’t say how he could obtain genuine ‘proof of funding’ from the consortium without knowing whose funding it was. And if he had that proof… why were two payments late, the second of which, Mr ‘Honest with them’ Ridsdale noted, “should be automatically triggered”?
So are Guilfoyle and Ridsdale, shall we say, mistaken? Like when they said they were unaware of Heaney’s involvement with the consortium, only for the Herald to report, almost in passing, that “both were made aware more than a fortnight ago.” They have certainly been “shall we say, mistaken” on a regular basis since Plymouth went into administration in March. The Vital Plymouth web-site recently published an article simply entitled “What they said” and listed, without comment, numerous quotes from various protagonists, many of which have turned out to be “shall we say, mistaken.” It was a lengthy, meticulously compiled article. But a sequel is already due, especially after a genuinely gobsmacking BBC Radio Devon interview with Guilfoyle on June 22nd.
Guilfoyle was, perhaps understandably, anxious to punt out the news that a “deal” had finally been agreed in principle, to sell the club to the Irish consortium. But an increasingly exasperated and disbelieving interviewer, Gordon Sparks, was more interested in the identities of those consorting. Guilfoyle said that the “exclusivity agreement”, which included a confidentiality agreement, was to be replaced by the agreement to sell. “OK then,” said Sparks, an Argyle fan himself, “so as that agreement is falling away, can you tell me who the bidders are?” Guilfoyle seemed able to tell Sparks who wasn’t involved in the consortium, when asked whether former club directors were. But he claimed he could not say who was involved and could not see “how there is anything to be gained by me revealing the details.” “Because season-ticket holders of 40, 50 years are considering having no further dealings with the football club,” answered Sparks, adding a borderline-angry, “That’s why, Brendan.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Guilfoyle, “The club’s being sold to the highest bidder… I don’t have to know who’s financing it.” This, from the man who, remember, nine days previously claimed to another part of the BBC that he was “banging the drum” for transparency in a process whose non-transparency he had enshrined. He wasn’t aware of “any issues at all” with manager Peter Reid’s inability to spend money on next season’s squad, even though it’s nearly this season’s, now. “I don’t think this sort of scaremongering helps at all,” he added, further claiming that he saw “no reason to believe” that the consortium would not be funding the club next season, nine days after saying that he had “no reason to believe” that the consortium would miss their 21st June payment deadline.
“Their football club is being sold, that’s what they want,” was Guilfoyle’s big finish. Clueless, lying… or both? It was impossible to draw any other conclusion. And correctly so, as Guilfoyle revealed to a fans forum this week that he lied about Heaney’s involvement, on the advice of solicitors, thereby rendering it impossible to take at face value anything else he has to say about Argyle… such as the involvement, or otherwise of former directors. Ridsdale got equally touchy last week when he responded to a brief aside in a Herald article. Potential bidder Paul Buttivant “believes he was shunned in favour of a solution involving Ridsdale, who would have been disposed of under Buttivant,” reported the paper, perhaps guilty of startling language (“disposed of”) but otherwise simply noting long-known opinions.
Ridsdale, with all the considerable pomposity at his disposal, used the club’s website to suggest Buttivant “and any others attempting to give his bid credibility need to concentrate on the bid itself and not some false sideshow.” Of course, some might deem “false sideshow” an appropriate phrase for Ridsdale, who had a “preferred kit supplier” and was ready to announce them and publish “details of season tickets for 2011/12” a month ago. “I don’t envisage any problems,” he added. A month later, “we have no kit… and we haven’t got season tickets on sale yet, so there is no cash flow.” Meanwhile, Argyle’s Icelandic midfielder Kari Arnason was sacked last week for refusing to defer his June salary, having gone largely unpaid since last November, at a time when it was reported that both Guilfoyle AND Ridsdale have received payment from the “preferred bidders.”
And as if the stench wasn’t already strong enough, Ridsdale has a potentially serious court case pending concerning his actions eighteen months ago as Cardiff chairman. As the consistently pertinent Dr John Beech noted on his insightful Football Management website: “In marked contrast to practice in other sectors, there does not appear to have been serious consideration given to the possibility, and some might argue the appropriateness of ‘going on gardening leave’ until their names are cleared.” It simply beggars belief that Ridsdale can be deemed “fit and proper” to run a football club, before the case is resolved. And it is tempting to suggest that the Football League’s “owners and directors” regulations will be proved worthless if they allow Argyle’s takeover to go ahead in the proposed manner before the case is resolved. Until now, the charades surrounding Plymouth Argyle’s recent past and immediate future have been a source of frustration, interspersed with occasional gallows humour. Now, with the charades inching closer to downright lies, and the major protagonist admitting to lying, the feeling, even from this distance, is downright anger. They say “cheats never prosper.” Are ‘they’, shall we say, mistaken?
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