Yesterday in Plymouth, ‘Cornish-based property developer’ Kevin Heaney appeared to finally disappear from contention as the part-saviour of the Argyle Football Club, as he should have done months ago in Plymouth. And, it would seem, ‘Devon-based entrepreneur’ James Brent appeared to finally re-appear as the preferred bidder for the club, as he should have been months ago in Plymouth. There remains plenty of material with which cynics can work. However, there are genuine, if currently intangible, signs that Plymouth Argyle are closer to exiting administration with all creditors (needy and greedy) satisfied; not least, it surprises me to admit, in the attitude of the most important individual in this whole saga, Peter Ridsdale.
Yesterday in Plymouth, everyone had a statement to make – Brent, Plymouth City Council leader Vivien Pengelly (an Argyle season-ticket holder) and ‘the club’ – i.e. Ridsdale. Everyone, that is, except the administrators, the P & A Partnership. It was no surprise that we heard nothing direct from lead administrator Brendan Guilfoyle, as his visibility and audibility have, probably by no co-incidence whatsoever, been in direct proportion to Heaney’s chances of completing the takeover. But P & A Partnership themselves have had a busy week. A veritable rogues gallery of seemingly serial football club bidders and business characters of varying degrees of shade have queued up to “hold talks” with the Yorkshire-based insolvency practitioners, in the wake of an alternative being sought to the bid by Heaney’s ‘people’, which has stalled irreparably. At one stage, the local Plymouth Herald newspaper had about five names on the go, including former England boss and, as they say, ‘controversial’ football businessman Terry Venables.
In fact, if you were to think long and hard of the unlikeliest and most inappropriate people to get involved at Plymouth, you would come very near to the list of names which have emerged this week, with the only one missing being Peter Ridsdale because, of course, he’s there already. I mean, who would have forecast Uri Geller’s name on the list of prospective bidders (certainly not Geller, who has seldom been a terribly convincing psychic), given his past involvement with Argyle’s bitterest rivals, Exeter City? Geller was one of the “friends of Michael Jackson” (which sounds like a euphemism for something really grubby) reportedly involved with a bid from 32-year-old former bodyguard to the late pop legend, Mike Fiddes (“who lives near the city”) and “multi-millionaire entrepreneur” Terry George – a former ‘Secret Millionaire’ from the eponymous Channel 4 series which also brought you putative Port Vale bidder Mo Chaudry – whose marriage to long-term partner Michael Rothwell was among the first lawful gay marriages in the UK.
Fiddes and George were reportedly due to “fly into Plymouth by helicopter next week” to kick-start talks on a rescue which would turn Argyle into “Premier League big-hitters.” The Herald added that Geller would be approached for “an advisory role.” And Fulham’s phoney pharaoh chairman Mohamed Fayed was also namechecked in what by this stage may have descended into a game of name-dropping top trumps for cynical Herald staff. No credible newspaper editor would accept a speculative article about a football club takeover go to print without the words “mystery Middle East investors.” And in this instance, the words came with the incendiary phrase “linked to former club chiefs Keith Todd and Sir Roy Gardner.” Todd and Gardner were two of the major authors of Plymouth’s downfall after their wildly over-ambitious plans for Home Park and its surrounds went the same way as the England World Cup bid which formed the basis of those plans. And if ever there was a combination of potential bidders designed to alienate supporters more than the dismal Heaney, this was surely it.
There was more, with the names Gary Calder and Colin Hill making an unwelcome appearance, Indeed, Calder and Hill’s not-always-separate football careers are worthy of an article by themselves. Football in the south-west had its fill of “experienced football administrator” Calder during his inglorious time as Chief Executive at former Blue Square Premier outfit Weymouth, who over-concentrated on over-ambitious ground redevelopment while the team’s fortunes fell apart and the club’s finances went into meltdown – sound familiar? Calder also waved his magic wand over Blue Square Bet Premier outfit Rushden and Diamonds, buying the club for an “undisclosed fee” in December 2010. “We are in a healthy financial position (and) with the new investor coming in,” noted club vice-chair Helen Thompson, “we’re quite sure that within two or three years we’ll be in the Football League.” Within two or three months, Calder had gone, and within two or three more months so had the club, expelled from the BSP, refused entry to the Southern League and in administration in July.
Meanwhile, Hill was involved with a takeover deal at Peterborough United in 2003. Hill was the main perceived link to a mystery overseas registered company whose “ultimate controlling party (is) unknown.” This company, Wetmore Foundation, bought the club and within months sold the football side of the operation to one Barry Fry – a high-profile self-confident football character with a very mixed track record in the game – while transferring the ground to a separate company, Peterborough United Holdings, which… stop me if you’ve heard this before. After this list, Venables’ plans to “form international academy links” were almost light relief. Almost. But thankfully, focus speedily returned to Brent, who promised last Monday that “by Friday morning, I’ll let people know if there is anything I can do after discussing it with the key stakeholders.” He was a few hours late with this. But after Heaney’s tenuous relationship with deadlines, this was huge progress.
Brent has already produced a vital ingredient lacking from this saga to date; a unity of purpose among all the main protagonists. The administrators’ silence yesterday might well have been because they couldn’t get a word in edgeways with all the statements emerging around tea-time yesterday. Plymouth City Council were first up, with council leader and Argyle season-ticket holder Vivien Pengelly perhaps going against her Tory instincts to give the private sector a (small) piece of her mind for not finding a “deal securing the future of…the city’s 125-year-old football club.” She added that the council were “prepared” to consider the purchase of Home Park,” in order to protect wider community benefits” – adding “on a commercial basis,” for opponents of what used to be called “football on the rates” prepared to remind the electoral roll that the council had sold Home Park to Argyle for £2.7m only five years ago.
Akkeron Group, the three-year-old hotel “investment business” and Brent’s vehicle for his Argyle bid, quickly followed suit, confirming “constructive” discussions throughout the week “with representatives of the major stakeholders” in Argyle. Brent himself talked of roadblocks and red lights in a perhaps not co-incidental echo of the “green light” Ridsdale incorrectly claimed the Football League had given his and Heaney’s proposals in July. But he weaned himself off the traffic analogies long enough to say he was “more hopeful today than a week ago that the club can defy liquidation.” He also added a superbly-drafted paragraph complimenting “the staff, players and their families on the sacrifices that they have made” before the killer phrase: “I have never seen such employee sacrifice before, nor do I want to see it again.” All the right notes – the unprecedented nature of the sacrifices. In the right order – staff first, everyone else later. The club statement was about how Ridsdale “welcomed the announcement”… that he would still be in a job (when Brent first appeared to be preferred bidder for Argyle, the cynics noted his previous links with Ridsdale). But, more pertinently, the language he used was in contrast to his nervous, defensive words on August 26th, when talks on the club’s future appeared genuinely ‘last-ditch’ and fans were on vigil outside Home Park, fearing for their club’s life.
Then, Ridsdale said there “shouldn’t be any further barriers to concreting the deal,” that he was “waiting” to sign documents, “waiting” for lawyers, that the Football League were “waiting for us to confirm that we’ve done everything,” and that he was wondering “whether we are over the line or not.” This, we were soon less-than-surprised to hear was because two-tenths of five-eighths of sweet FA had really happened. Yesterday in Plymouth, Ridsdale spoke of “a real possibility of a successful outcome” and was anxious to offer Brent “everyone’s full co-operation to bring this matter to a swift and positive conclusion.” And whilst Ridsdale being pleased about something is hardly a ringing endorsement or recommendation, the language and tone of yesterday’s announcement said “progress… real progress.”
Despite Ridsdale’s probable future involvement, organised supporters’ representatives are also four-square behind Brent, as bodies like the Argyle Fans’ Trust have been since they were born. Players, too, have banished all thoughts of militancy and strikes from their mind, displaying far greater faith in Brent – who spoke with Argyle’s team and club captains this week – than in Heaney, who never went near them. Union rep Romain Larrieu may have confirmed a few stereotypes when he said his “brain was fried” by “a lot of complicated stuff,” which emerged from Brent’s meeting with them. But Larrieu was candid about the differences between players “on Championship wages” in League One last season and “the new players” for whom “40% (of their salary) doesn’t get them very far.” It is this unity of purpose which provides the most comfort to outside observers hoping to see Argyle saved from oblivion.
Two shadows remain, however. The treatment of potential bidder Paul Buttivant continues to appear grubby. He has very publicly claimed that his consortium have still had no access to “basic financial information, such as payroll costs and staff numbers.” If so, it must be hoped that this is the legacy of Guilfoyle’s handling of the administration, and that Guilfoyle’s recent anonymity is a sign that such oversights will be rectified with sufficient urgency. And the fundamental issue remains the treatment, and attitude, of Argyle’s main creditor, the mortgage company Lombard North Central PLC, who are owed £2.1m and could claim that from the proceeds of any sale of Home Park if they needed to. Guilfoyle steadfastly claimed that Heaney was the preferred bidder because of his stated willingness to fund the administration and to pay Lombard more than Brent was offering.
It is to be hoped that Brent’s discussions with key stakeholders included particularly “constructive” ones with Lombard, and that Lombard may be more receptive in turn to Brent, having been let down so badly so far by the administration process. This tale isn’t over yet. One more thing all the protagonists agree on is that there will be “twists and turns to come,” as Argyle Fans’ Trust chairman Chris Webb put it, yesterday in Plymouth.
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