Happy Birthday, Argyle!

By on Oct 5, 2011 in English League Football, Finance, Latest | 0 comments

Organisation is the key to many of life’s success, and this has been ably demonstrated than by Plymouth Argyle fans over recent days, in dealing with two potential obstacles to the club’s exit from administration. The starkest issue was highlighted by Ian King on this site on Sunday as rumours began to break of attempts by a former director of the club to disrupt and potentially threaten outright Argyle’s exit from administration, in order to protect personal financial interests.

Then there has been the groundswell of opposition to Plymouth City Council’s plans to buy back the freehold to Argyle’s Home Park stadium, a key part of ‘Devon-based entrepreneur’ James Brent’s takeover bid. The latter obstacle remains, but the former obstacle appears to have been dismantled by fans’ campaigning on Sunday and Monday. On September the 29th, club administrators, the P & A Partnership issued a statement confirming “an agreement in principle with the Akkeron Group for the sale of the football club” and a commitment by both sides to “completing the deal next month.”

This announcement contained caveats but seemed breathtakingly clear after the mealy-mouthed disingenuousness of the Heaney/BIL era. However, rumours surfaced, as if inspired by the announcement, that one of the former directors was up to something. Among the ‘readers comments’ on the This is Devon website was an unexpected reference to former club vice-chairman Paul Stapleton attempting to “interfere with James Brent’s bid” and a chilling (and probably unwise) commitment to “put you and your company permanently out of business.”

Three days later, the ire of this usually thoughtful contributor to Argyle debates was explained, if not excused. Gill was reported as attempting to do a deal with Argyle’s secured creditors, Lombard North Central plc to wheedle their way out of ‘joint and several’ personal and financial guarantees of the secured debt to Lombard, £2.1m. Spectacularly unsuccessful yet long-time ‘preferred’ bidder Kevin Heaney, “a long-time associate of Paul Stapleton,” would have “freed” them of their liabilities” with his bid. And Gill had reportedly only just discovered he remained a guarantor, despite having left Argyle’s board in 2009.

So Gill had three meetings with P & A last week, and a weekend chinwag with recently-reclusive ‘lead administrator’ Brendan Guilfoyle, to see if some from of deal, possibly in the form of an actual bid for the club, could be divest them of their guarantees. Supporters were particularly upset, given the ex-directors’ role in Argyle’s financial demise and their seeming willingness to disrupt Brent’s bid and, potentially, force Argyle’s liquidation in order to avoid paying up. While Brent lauded staff for putting “the rescue of the club before their own interests,” here were three ex-directors doing the diametric opposite.

So supporters were galvanised faster than a neutrino on a trip to Italy. Argyle Fans’ Trust chair Chris Webb made it clear in a hastily-written but eloquent letter to the ex-directors, and Heaney, that supporters knew what they were up to and weren’t going to stand for it. Webb set the four a morality test (possibly doomed to failure in the execrable Heaney’s case), challenging them to “step aside” rather than “push (Argyle) closer to liquidation,” and publicly “confirm your support for the James Brent bid.” If this confirmation was not “forthcoming” by “midday on 3rd October”, Argyle fans would undertake a “relentless campaign of protests at strategic locations.”

The website PASOTI (Plymouth Argyle Supporters on the Internet) organised a lengthy thread of disciplined but firm opposition to the moves, on the correct assumption that the messages would get back to the ex-directors. A ‘Save our Club!!!’ e-petition gathered a year’s supply of exclamation marks… and 900 signatures. And the pressure told. Webb’s letter admitted it was “not crystal clear in what format (the directors’ offer) is being presented” to Lombard. So Heaney’s and Gill’s denials of involvement in a bid didn’t necessarily mean they weren’t threatening Argyle’s future. After all, Gill “vehemently denied being part of a bid” while “being unavailable for comment.”

The Trust’s call for public backing of Brent’s bid was, therefore, a masterstroke, always assuming that none of the four would dare publicly back Brent while actually doing the complete opposite (again, with Heaney, a dangerous assumption), or that “lawyers” weren’t instructing them to lie, as Guilfoyle revealed was the case with Heaney in the early summer. Stapleton spoke to the press in entirely general terms, with speech marks liberally applied to reports of his words, of “threats” to his children and “distress” to his family from “a bombardment of phone calls over the weekend.”

But the local papers, after extensive consultation with m’learned friends, ran with the story the Trust had broken, despite Stapleton telling BBC Radio Devon on Monday, that he actually made a vital phone call which “saved” Brent’s bid last Wednesday. A number of Argyle fans bought Stapleton’s story, yet, four-and-a-half days after “saving” the Brent bid, he had refused to publicly back that bid. He then… backed the Brent bid, “completely unrelated to fan pressure”, as Webb noted on October 3rd. A “source close to the administrators insisted that “there is no time left for any other bid,” although they’ve been saying that since about mid-July. However, Gill has told the administrators that he is unwilling to take matters any further. And as it now seems that Gill was the driving – if not only – force behind these moves, whatever they were, that is generally perceived as the sign of “victory.”

Opposition to Brent’s bid has also come from less opaque sources. Some disquiet has, perhaps understandably, been expressed at Brent’s “pledge” to pay Argyle staffs’ unpaid months of salary over a five-year period. As long as the personal finances of the affected staff can withstand the wait, there isn’t a problem. But you have to wonder whether the timetable serves the Akkeron Group’s financial interests ahead of the staff’s. Only a question, but a genuine one. There have been outright objections, however, to the council buy-back of Home Park, with various Mr, Mrs and Ms Angries opposing such “misuse of public finances” and calling for a “judicial review” of the council’s decision.

Noticing the burgeoning opposition among various ‘readers’ comments’ sections, the Trust urged fans to put their views to local media outlets such as the Herald newspaper and the BBC’s Spotlight programme, and called for supportive e-mails to be sent to Conservative and Labour council group leaders. The remarkable debate was more informed (if informed at all) by already existing attitudes to football than the actual proposals, which were that the council would buy back the ground and rent it back to Argyle at a level set to recover the purchase price in a decade. Many comments suggested that temporary illiteracy may occasionally be a serious problem in Devon. A Herald reader said the non-PAFC supporters of this city (“the majority”) should “insist that before any such decision is taken that the matter is put to a full council meeting.” This comment ran below a story in which a council spokesperson said “clearly such a proposal would be subject to full council approval.”

One reader suggested football “mainly exists to allow women to go shopping on Saturdays in peace.” And you fear they weren’t joking when they added that “the council have £2m to blow on a failed football club… the figures about a return on this are… cloud cuckoo land…”, all below the council statement that they “will get a rental income (so that) council taxpayers’ money would not be used to support the club.” The best of these, though, was the suggestion that Home Park was a facility “for only 1% of the population of Plymouth to use for their enjoyment,” clearly coming from someone who hadn’t watched Argyle at home in recent seasons, if they thought “enjoyment” was part of the equation.

Fans’ responses have been quick and clean, highlighting the “commercial basis, of the council’s proposals and the true value of a Football League club to a city such as Plymouth. Even ‘Su Pollard’ joined in, although the lucidity of her comments suggested that she’d never even contemplated watching the 1980s sitcom Hi-Di-Hi, let alone been in it. Also, both the Conservative and Labour groups on the council support the idea – not just Conservative leader… and Argyle season-ticket holder… Vivien Pengelly (another source of opponents’ ire).

The council’s report to next Monday’s cabinet meeting is clear on the proposals’ “commercial basis.” So, support for it looks a no-brainer, with some suggesting the opposition comes from no-brainers. And with the parties holding all the council seats between them, the chances of the buy-out getting the go-ahead are good. Any judicial review process might delay both the buy-back and Brent’s bid. Most review applications are rejected and this one would seem ripe for rejection. But it is less clear how long “no” takes in such situations.

Meanwhile, in case Plymouth newshounds had a spare nanosecond to themselves, along came the administrators’ misnomer of a “progress report” to creditors, covering the first six glorious months of their Argyle reign. “A sale of the business and assets of the club could not be concluded within the period covered by this report,” the report noted drily. It also confirmed that “an exclusivity payment of £300,000 was received by Bishop’s International Limited,” not the £1m figure quoted by acting chairman Peter Ridsdale (indeed the report’s “analysis of receipts and payments” showed that BIL were £64 short even of that £300k). And evidence of Ridsdale’s and Guilfoyle’s monies was what most readers were after, though, surprise, the figures were less starkly revealed.

Administrators’ fees were, of course, legally-required information, although a headline hourly rate of £279.21 masked the higher fees due to “partners/associates” – a “total hourly standard” of £320-£435 and a galactic “total hourly complex” of £480-£600. And if the administrators hoped that they would illicit sympathy because even they had received only a quarter of their money, £150,000, they were probably mistaken. Moral doubt remains about whether Ridsdale should have been paid ANYthing for telling staff throughout the summer that they were getting little or nothing. Curiously, the Herald suggested that Ridsdale’s money was tied up in “consultancy fees” of £50,500, which were “thought to have been paid to three people.” Thought by whom, they did not say.

But Ridsdale had ceased to be a consultant before the report period, March the 4th to September the 3rd. And he was “offered his new double role, acting chairman and chief executive, by Guilfoyle in Sheffield on 5th March” (Herald, 8th March). This, as any journalist should have noted, would make Ridsdale an “Office Holder”, the fees for which were £150,000. Why Ridsdale was placed among the consultants is one to ponder but, as there weren’t many “office holders” and Ridsdale held two of the positions throughout, it is possible that Ridsdale pocketed more than a three-way share of fifty-and-a-half grand. This, however, is, of course, conjecture.

But at least there will be a club around to celebrate its 125th birthday this coming Saturday October the 8th, with a home game against Accrington Stanley. Stanley, of course, did succumb to financial destruction, before being born again and making it back to the Football League. They are, therefore appropriate opponents for Argyle on Saturday – a reminder of what remains at stake for the club and the continuing need for supporters’ vigilance, on a par with that shown over the last seven days. Well done to those supporters and happy birthday, Argyle.

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