Pilgrim’s Regress, Part Two: Five Minutes With Sparks
What better way to continue a mini-series of articles on Plymouth Argyle than to miss a deadline. Today’s words of distinctly finite wisdom from the South-West were actually spoken four days ago and published the day before the day before yesterday. So I’m late already. It must be too much exposure to the Pilgrims’ takeover trauma.
Plymouth Argyle’s lead administrator Brendan Guilfoyle of the P&A Partnership has never shied away from his publicity responsibilities (and that doesn’t always mean self-publicity). He has often been the antithesis of the “whatever you say, say nothing” school of shifty football financiers (list too long to reproduce here), which caused some consternation when he revealed to supporters in June that lawyers told him to lie about Kevin Heaney’s involvement. And BBC Radio Devon’s Gordon Sparks, a journalist popularly renowned for his staunch support of Argyle, has never shied away from asking the sort of questions of Guilfoyle that frustrated Pilgrims’ fans among his listeners have likely been shouting at the radio. He also seldom shies away from sharing their incredulity at the answers.
Wednesday’s interview was headlined “Brendan Guilfoyle says takeover deal is close”, the latest in a series of interviews which included one on June 22nd headlined “Plymouth close to sale – Guilfoyle,” – a sadly all-too-accurate barometer of the progress the Pilgrims’ administrator has made over the last two months or so. Guilfoyle came into the latest interview two weeks after failing, through the courts, to force the “preferred bidders for the club”, Bishop International Limited (BIL), to pay £230,000 for staff and players August salaries. He came out of it sounding powerless in a process he is supposed to be running. He seems unable to promote the interests of those owed money who need it most – Argyle’s long-term unpaid staff – yet he seems in hock to those who need it least and are in line to benefit from the proposed split of the loss-making football club from its potentially lucrative land assets – the property developers among the old directors and the potential new directors.
Guilfoyle had set a deadline of Tuesday August 16th, the day of and reason for the BBC interview, for BIL, fronted by Cornish property developer and Truro City FC chairman Kevin Heaney, to provide “proof of” the “funds” required to complete the sale of the club – latest estimate £6m. This was the same proof of funds they were supposed to have provided in order to become preferred bidders back in May, but never mind. So, good news, then? “We asked for proof of funds,” Guilfoyle began, optimstically. Alas, “we haven’t had proof of funds today… but what we have had from (Heaney’s) solicitors is evidence of a funding line…” Another deadline missed then, with staff asked to defer their wages (yet) again and suffer some more – as whatever “evidence of a funding line” is, it probably won’t pay the bills.
“I’m content,” Guilfoyle added, unwisely. Sparks, however, wasn’t: “How can you say you’re happy when you had to take court proceedings the week before last?” “It’s a misunderstanding,” Guilfoyle assured us (assurance is a Guilfoyle buzzword). “It doesn’t mean we have no confidence in the purchaser,” he insisted, suggesting the court proceedings were designed “to do everything to secure (staff and players’) August wages.” That he failed didn’t concern him. He was “content” because “We’re confident (Heaney’s) going to come up with the money based on the assurances he’s given us… I speak to him on a daily basis.” Or, to put it another way: “I’m speaking to them almost daily now and I’m receiving assurances that they will do it,” which was the way Guilfoyle put it to Sparks… on August the 5th.
Someone clearly forgot to turn the cue-cards, as Guilfoyle’s next answer was “he’s assuring me he’s going to do it and he wants everybody to be calm and content.” He’ll have to keep wanting. As Sparks noted, correctly, “that’s easy to say and ‘assurance’ isn’t a word that’s on the lips of many Argyle fans.” Sparks then addressed the bridging loans which were Heaney’s latest declared method of providing the funds that he’d proved to Guilfoyle he had in May. “I can’t discuss his finances, or his company’s personal finances,” was Guilfoyle’s attempt to avoid this issue. Sparks angrily suggested it was ridiculous to even be talking of bridging loans “if Mr. Heaney has the money he claims he does… That raises questions, doesn’t it?” “No,” said Guilfoyle, because: “I can’t discuss the affairs of BIL and Kevin Heaney because he asked me not to. He is telling me and assuring me he’s going to do the deal.”
Guilfoyle couldn’t even say what “sort of questions” the Football League were asking, after their board “raised several concerns” on August 11th. “It’s not sinister, it’s standard,” Guilfoyle suggested. “It happened at Luton, it happened at Crystal Palace,” he added, citing two clubs for whom he had previously been administrator, which, presumably unwittingly, suggested that the league regularly had “several concerns” about him. Despite it being a radio interview, it wasn’t difficult to be able to visualise Sparks’ frustration as he spat out his closing question: “OK, Brendan, what is the next deadline and – just to make it totally clear for everybody – what will that deadline entail?” But Guilfoyle simply maintained the pattern of the interview – the more pertinent the question, the more platitudinal the answer.
The “next deadline” was that, “We’re trying to get completion by the end of this week.” It was no surprise that “trying” wasn’t good enough for Sparks, coming from the man supposedly ‘in charge’ of the process. Guilfoyle, though, managed to stoop lower than even the most cynical listener could have imagined. He quoted… the Labour leader Ed Miliband, the surest possible sign that someone is in trouble… short of tattooing “I’m in trouble” on their forehead. “I’m not playing a word game with you, Gordon,” Guilfoyle insisted, in his best recalcitrant schoolboy voice. “It’s not within my control to say to the Football League, you must give the NewCo membership, he added, before ending the interview with some disturbing imagery: “I’m kicking people in the office as we speak, almost, to get the Football League consent.”
In an interview slot of five minutes, it was not physically possible for Sparks to cram in all the questions that Guilfoyle’s answers raised – though he deserves considerable credit for getting as many in as he did. Why, for instance, is the much-vaunted “sale and purchase agreement” with BIL, like the “exclusivity agreement” before it – which gave BIL sole rights to negotiate a purchase – unenforceable and worthless? Between them, the agreements were supposed to facilitate the funding of the administration, the payment of secured creditors and a timely, transparently legitimate sale of the club and its assets. Guilfoyle charged BIL £1m for exclusivity, but granted it without a penny being paid and continues to grant it without having seen the bulk of that money outside the final sale. And his “sale and purchase agreement”, according to the ruling against him in court, places “no obligation for the buyer to provide further funding” for the payment of staff. Office staff at Home Park – let’s not forget that we are not even solely talking about the players, when mentioning wage deferrals here – have only received one full wage packet on time since January.
Why was Guilfoyle so reluctant to detail the Football League’s concerns, if they were not “sinister but standard”? Could it be because, amongst other things, they might offer reflection upon the wisdom – or otherwise – of seeking to sell a football club to a man due in court next month on fraud charges connected to his tenure at his previous club? Yesterday in Plymouth (Friday), Guilfoyle’s most recent deadline passed. He ‘told’ proposed new club owner Peter Ridsdale to get Football League approval for this season’s Argyle business plan – a plan which, quite naturally assumes he won’t found guilty of the charges that he currently faces. Ridsdale missed the deadline. Guilfoyle gave him another week. Meanwhile, Plymouth Argyle’s team and supporters travel to Kent to play Gillingham this afternoon. They will surely welcome the distraction that this match will bring, for a couple of hours, at least.
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