Pilgrims Regress: The Continuing Suffocation Of Plymouth Argyle
Years of trade union negotiating experience taught me the value of reading things very carefully. The English language’s propensity for nuance is part of both its charm and its devil. But however carefully I read what has been written about and said by the main protagonists in Plymouth Argyle’s five-months in administration, I can’t escape the feeling that the language used has often seemed more misleading and plain wrong than nuanced. Most of the negotiations over Argyle’s exit from administration, for example, would make sense if Brendan Guilfoyle, the “lead” administrator of the club’s parent company, admitted that his objective was to facilitate a handover to Peter Ridsdale, the Pilgrims’ current ‘acting chairman’.
The P&A Partnership, one of whose ‘partners’ is Guilfoyle, were appointed as the administrators of ‘The Plymouth Argyle Football Company Limited’ in March by a board of directors for whom Ridsdale had been working as a ‘consultant’ for three months. And Guilfoyle’s “preferred bidder” has guaranteed Ridsdale a future role at Argyle. By themselves, these are not proof that the administration process has been engineered with Ridsdale in mind, and it is, in all seriousness, difficult to believe that it has been. But many of the administrators’ actions have little other transparent justification and, at their extremes, they have re-defined parts of the English language – most notably the words “proof”, “preferred”, “agreed”, “deadline” and “influence.”
Guilfoyle was appointed ‘lead’ administrator – in which role he has become the face and voice of the process, with fellow ‘joint’ administrators (and P&A ‘partners’) Christopher Michael White and John Russell deep in the background. And the three were “the preferred choice of de facto chief executive Peter Ridsdale” (Guardian, 4 March 2011). Guilfoyle told the Plymouth Herald newspaper on March 7th that “I think I have seen the guy who is likely to buy Plymouth Argyle.” And on March 14th, ‘PAFC 2011 Limited’ was incorporated, with Julia Sincock (partner: Kevin Heaney) listed as sole director and its address listed as that of Truro City FC (owner: Kevin Heaney).
Eleven days later, Heaney claimed in the Herald that speculation he was leading the (takeover) race was “wide of the mark.” He did not specify how “wide” of “the mark” they were, but the Herald reported on March 31st that “Heaney, who has consistently denied any involvement with… buy-out talks, told administrators he was pulling out” of… the talks with which he denied any involvement. Guilfoyle wanted “to identify a preferred bidder by March 17th and then offer them a period of exclusivity to complete a deal. In return, Guilfoyle would want funding provided to pay the wages of staff and players…”. He himself added: “That funding requirement is substantial…something north of £2m and south of £3m.” (Herald, 7 March). A “six-figure sum” (later revealed as £100,000) was “released… (by) the leading bidder, a mystery West Country businessman…” (Herald, 21 March). However, the administrators were soon “unfunded” (Herald, 12 April) as the money was only “the first part of a £1m kitty that would buy the bidder ‘exclusivity’ in takeover talks…for up to four weeks.”
It is clear now that Heaney and his current associates, who entered the fray as “a Dublin-based investment group” (Herald, 9 April), have had that ‘exclusivity’ for nearly four months, never mind four weeks. Yet they have never paid the full £1m. It is not clear why Guilfoyle has been so lenient with them for so long, given how long “time (has been) ticking and we need to get on with it” (Guilfoyle, Herald, 22 June). Then known only as “the Irish consortium”, they were installed as preferred bidders for superficially ‘proper’ reasons. Guilfoyle’s requirements were still as they had been on March 7th – money and lots of it, now. And, in April, two other preferred bidder contenders emerged, with whom Guilfoyle was to be nothing like so generous.
These were “Akkeron”, an investment business chaired by former Plymouth City Development Company chairman James Brent, with a recently-acquired penchant for collecting hotels, the support of Argyle fans and administrators “encouraging stakeholders to support their offer” (P&A Partnership statement, 5 April) and “a consortium of international business figures headed by property developer Paul Buttivant” (Herald, 5 April). But, as noted above, administrators remained “unfunded” because they were “unable to obtain cash from any of the three parties” (Herald, 12 April). And, with time running out, for far from the last time, it was clear that Akkeron had “refused to pay for exclusivity” – because Brent saw them simply as “an alternative to liquidation (if) there weren’t any other bidders” (Herald, 5 April).
‘Proof’ (noun): Evidence or argument that compels the mind to accept an assertion as true.
Buttivant’s bunch of “high net-worth individuals”, meanwhile, had provided what they described as “irrefutable proof of funding” (Herald, 29 April) which Guilfoyle described as “not in a satisfactory form” (Herald, 29 April). So, on May 6th, Guilfoyle announced the Irish consortium as preferred bidders. He initially avoided reference to proof of funding – merely claiming “I’m satisfied this party have the ability to bring about the rescue of the club” (Herald, 7 May). However, Ridsdale claimed “the administrator has told me they have proven funding” (Herald, 11 May). Given the above quotations, what has subsequently transpired has been hard to fathom, without making the assumption that Guilfoyle’s “preferred bidders” were “preferred” for their disposition towards Ridsdale. For instance, if Guilfoyle told Ridsdale in May that the preferred bidders had “proven funding”, why did he tell BBC Radio Devon on August 16th: “we haven’t had proof of funding today”? The £1m due for ‘exclusivity’ raises similar questions. Guilfoyle announced that he had signed an “exclusivity agreement with the group on May 5th.” This implied that they had agreed to make this payment as a condition of being named preferred bidders.
‘Preferred’ (adjective): 1. Chosen as more desirable or as having more value 2. Law: given priority or precedence to.
However, they only signed the exclusivity agreement on May 18th, 12 days after they were preferred as bidders. And Guilfoyle “preferred” them despite the fact that “I don’t know their names,” as well as not having received the money due. But how could Guilfoyle “prefer” them, in either sense of the word, if he didn’t know who they were. Still, Ridsdale told the Herald on June 4th that the Irish consortium “have got the funding they promised (and) the group will pay £1m for exclusivity until the end of June.” This was, and remains, untrue. On August 11th, the Western Morning News quoted Heaney as saying: “Everything that has been asked of us in the (sale and purchase) agreement that’s been signed has been done.” The following day’s Herald reported that “Heaney insisted money ‘was not an issue.’” And he added: “The lawyers for the administrators know funds are available,” before indulging in some blatant buck-passing with: “the only reason this hasn’t happened yet is issues with the football league and creditors.” None of this, however, referred to the still unpaid £1m ‘exclusivity’ payment. On June 27th, Guilfoyle told a supporters’ forum that “the highest bidder was prepared to fund (the administration), no other bidder was, and so they got preferred bidder status.” But whatever their preparedness to fund the administration, they hadn’t actually done so to the agreed tune of £1m.
‘Agreed’ (adjective): Determined by common consent.
There were conflicting reports of the amount actually paid to that point, but they conflicted between £100,000 and £300,000. So Guilfoyle had to downgrade to “I sought from them, in return for exclusivity, some funding of the club’s expenditure.” And he admitted to the forum that “the funding I’ve had is not as great as I would have liked.” In other words, not what was “agreed” to be paid “for exclusivity until the end of June.”
‘Deadline’ (noun): A time limit, as for payment of a debt or completion of an assignment.
Here were some radical re-definitions of the language. “Agreed” appeared to have no meaning at all. “The end of June” wasn’t a “deadline” at all and, after Heaney had been ‘outed’ by supporters as involved with the Irish consortium and details of “Bishop International Limited” (BIL) and their takeover deal emerged, more re-definition followed. The deal to split Argyle Football Club from its ground, Guilfoyle told supporters, meant “the club is going to be entirely owned by Peter Ridsdale” as “Kevin Heaney is not buying the football club (because) the FA and the Football League will not allow him.” The following day, Ridsdale told the Western Morning News that “Heaney would only be the landlord of the property and would have nothing to do with (the club)… as long as the club is independently owned and financed, there is no reason why the Football League should complain.” Heaney, though, wasn’t “only” going to be the landlord and the club was not to be “independently financed.” As the Western Morning News reported on July 1st, the Football League “must be sure Heaney – despite being Plymouth Argyle’s initial financier under the proposed deal – will not be able to influence the running of the club.”
‘Influence’ (transitive verb): To affect the nature, development or condition of .
It is difficult to see what greater “influence” there could be than “initial financier.” “I am absolutely adamant that nobody will have any external influence,” declared Ridsdale, which, in itself, may not necessarily have good news, either. But league approval of the deal depends on Argyle being on a “stable financial footing” (WMN, 1 July) and Heaney is the guarantor of that stability. How could that not be influence? It is not surprising, therefore, that with BIL having no proof of funding, an allergy to financial deadlines and a direct influence on Argyle’s funding, Guilfoyle cannot report progress on Ridsdale’s eight-week-old declaration that “our objective is to have the deal go through by the end of this week” (WMN, 29 June). And, as if the deal wasn’t unsatisfactory enough, Ridsdale – Argyle’s proposed owner – faces fraud charges relating to his time as chairman of Cardiff City, his previous club – with the ongoing case due in court again on September 27th. And not only is proof of funding not available from Heaney/BIL, but funding itself is not available until an unrelated property deal is concluded… or money is borrowed on a short-term (and presumably expensive) basis, with no clear indication as to responsibilities for repayment.
Yet, despite all this, and a firm contingency plan in place should the deal collapse, Guilfoyle’s determination to plough on with Heaney/BIL/Ridsdale remains steely to the point of irrationality; witness his announcement of an August 16th deadline for BIL to provide proof of funding which, again, was neither met nor enforced. There must be a reason for Guilfoyle’s actions, apparent disingenuousness and leniency with supposedly vital financial deadlines. Years of trade union negotiating experience also taught me that perceptions can turn completely on one small fact. So, maybe Guilfoyle has one small fact to deliver, which he can’t yet reveal because it would genuinely harm the process. It can’t just be that the whole thing has been engineered to facilitate a handover to Peter Ridsdale; the consultant to the board who appointed him in the first place, can it?
Matters at Argyle move on at a pace, even if no real progress is made. Regular updates – entitled ‘Yesterday in Plymouth’ – on the fun and frolics will continue on this site. Tomorrow: What Guilfoyle said to BBC Radio Devon, and why. Well… what he said, anyway.
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