Westward Ho! Are There Choppy Waters Ahead For Plymouth Argyle?
If you believed the hype which surrounded the club over the previous two close seasons, the big surprise about Japan’s relatively successful World Cup squad was the lack of Plymouth Argyle players in it. If you believe the hype now, Plymouth’s Home Park ground – or at least the Home Park ground on which they play their matches – will be a multi-purpose 45,000 capacity all-singing, all-dancing bringer of peace (and Sir Elton John concerts) to all nations by 2018. Oh, and the team will be in the Premier League in four-and-a-bit years. The reality, however, is threatening to become yet another one of over-ambition and troublesome debt management. Recent annual accounts have shown million-pound losses. The club’s ground is no longer their own. Their major shareholder’s track record in football and attendance record at matches and board meetings could be overstated on a blank sheet of A4 paper. And, as something of a postscript, they are in League One with…Peter Reid as manager.
The club web-site’s announcement of this year’s Annual General Meeting laid bare the priorities which the current board of directors has. There were details of a share offer designed to raise £2million to facilitate “capitalisation of current indebtedness.” These were surrounded by details of proposals to sell Plymouth’s Home Park ground to a “stand-alone property company,” to “enhance the ability to finance the future stadium expansion and development by enabling property finance specialists to invest.” And after hundreds of words of this, the team eventually got a mention, tucked away near the end of the last paragraph, with chairman Sir Roy Gardner stumbling across the big secret: “Our priority is to win games and move ourselves out of the relegation zone. There are more than enough points available to achieve this.” And… er… that was it.
The Pilgrims were, of course, very relegated. But the club, at director level, has been operating in a parallel universe to the league table since April 2008, when Japanese businessman Yasuchi Kagami bought 20% of the club and Plymouth became, in the words of faint praise by which failed heavy rock groups were damned throughout the 1980s, “big in Japan.” Kagami, or at least his representative, American businessman George Synan, announced the appointment of Yasuhiko Okudera as President. Okudera had been Japan’s first-ever professional player in Europe, appearing for a number of Bundesliga sides in 1970s West Germany. And the experience he could offer Argyle was about as relevant as that sounds.
The idea was to have a number of top-class Japanese players lining out for Plymouth, providing, of course, they met with the approval of the then manager Paul “Luggy” Sturrock. “It means the club could be saying ‘Sayonara’ to the Championship by 2011,” noted one local journalist, on an off-day. A couple of Japanese players nearly made it. But “work permit” problems and other, dare it be said, “handy” excuses allowed Synan to stall for time until he could blame the 2010 World Cup, and Japanese coach Takeshi Okada’s desire for his squad to be domestically based, for putting the mockers on the whole ill-starred gimmick. By which time, people would have forgotten about it anyway.
The whole absurd notion of Plymouth and Japan linking to take on the footballing world was nudged aside by other struggles on and off the field – the Pilgrims avoided relegation by a point in 2008/09 while they waited in vain for investment from Kagami. Kagami was reputedly worth £42m and presided over the K & K Shonan Management Corporation, whose “business purposes” covered numerous activities from “real estate agency services” to “assignment and lending of property rights” with “management of sports clubs” also on the list but sufficiently tucked away to grab the attention of watching cynics. K & K was only incorporated thirteen months before Kagami became an Argyle shareholder, with Kagami joining K & K’s board as president only six months before joining the Pilgrims. And Kagami’s match attendance record was every bit as poor as Ali Al-Faraj’s at Portsmouth. So the inevitable question arose as to why he was involved with Plymouth. It is a question still being posed. And not only of Kagami.
Nearly a year of Japanese inactivity was summed up by chairman Paul Stapleton at Argyle’s March 2009 AGM when, in response to questioning from shareholders association reps on Japanese investment, he replied “That will come. I think that is the intention.” But intentions weren’t paying any bills. Plymouth had consistently lost money during their more recent struggles to become an established presence on English football’s second-tier. They had bought the freehold of Home Park from the City Council in 2006 for £2.7m but plans to put the facilities to more diverse use – for instance, as a concert venue – had failed to offset the losses made by a well-paid under-achieving team, which included some very well-paid extreme under-achievers (if watching a Plymouth fan leap ten foot in the air is your bag, sneak up behind them and whisper ‘Emile Mpenza’ in their ear).
For the first and by no means last time, the board – Stapleton especially – were accused of prioritising the development of Home Park at the expense of the team. And a combination of the above, plus the fall-back position of the global economic downturn (nee ‘credit crunch’), had left Argyle in ‘cash crisis’ territory. There was talk of non-footballing staff redundancies (“that’ll include the team, then,” came the inevitable cry) and a rescue deal involving Kagami becoming the major shareholder. The deal took an age to conclude, with Kagami eventually reliant on the help of former Manchester United chairman Sir Roy Gardner and his business associate and genuine Argyle fan Keith Todd to obtain a controlling 51% stake in the club’s parent company, Plymouth Argyle (Holdings) Limited.
Kagami increased his shareholding partly through the acquisition of some of the shares of departing director Phill Gill. It was another indication of Kagami’s (ahem!) ‘unclear’ financial status that Gill had to take Kagami to the High Court to get his money for his shares. Disaffection, and debt, continued to grow, fuelled by the team’s appalling start to the season which quickly cost Sturrock his job (although not quickly enough for many fans). Sturrock had been a big part of the Pilgrim’s early-century success, masterminding their progress to Championship level. But he ignored the rule “never come back.”
On the plus side, plans for Home Park were sufficiently dazzling to get Plymouth on the shortlist of host cities for England’s 2018 World Cup bid, although they might still have to fight Bristol for a place on the final list. But simultaneously, Argyle were the subject of modern football’s twin terrors, a transfer embargo and a winding-up petition from HMRC. The issues were reportedly linked. And they were put down to a “technicality” by Todd, whose talent for using very long words to say very little was flowering by the day. He insisted that the embargo would be lifted before it became relevant and that the tax debt was “historic” (although he didn’t specify which age) and would be settled.
The embargo wasn’t lifted until nearly a quarter of the way through the January transfer window, because of “the delayed receipt of finances from Japan,” an excuse straight out of the “Cardiff and Portsmouth book of b****ks.” But the tax was paid, thanks to a huge loan of £1.45m which, we now know, was made to the club via Gardner and Todd’s own investment “vehicle” Mastpoint. Within two months, another Gardner and Todd “vehicle” was in the Argyle headlines. In the midst of all the World Cup bids and waylaid tax bills, Argyle had, on Christmas Eve, announced a five-year plan for the future of the club, largely based on stadium development. This development, it emerged at the beginning of March, was to be partly-funded by the sale of Home Park to a “wholly-owned subsidiary of Plymouth Argyle Football Company (Holdings) Limited.”
Home Park Properties Limited (HPP) was a subsidiary “wholly-owned” by Plymouth’s directors and, amid all the talk of the financial attractions and advantages of such an arrangement, the major attraction was clear. When asked directly at March’s AGM whether any profits from the use of Home Park would go to HPP or the club, Gardener unashamedly replied: “The profit will be to the benefit of the shareholders of that particular company (HPP).” He added, “But it is extremely important that the hub of the whole activity – the football team – continues to thrive and be successful.” The use of the word “continues” suggested Gardner had paid as little attention to the Championship table as his critics claimed. But the major cat was out of the bag. Gardner and Todd claimed that the “stand-alone property company” was necessary because potential investors and lenders were ill-disposed to direct investments or loans towards volatile, unpredictable football clubs. So for Gardner and Todd then to claim that the success or otherwise of the property company was dependent on the same football club, with its volatility and unpredictability intact, seemed to defeat the alleged purpose of the property company. And even leaving aside the abysmal financial track record of the strategy of separating club and ground, the prospects of this move providing tangible benefit for the football club are distant at best.
Shareholders’ views were mixed, at best. The vagaries of shareholder democracy saw the resolution to sell the ground passed at the club’s AGM on March 31st. But a number of high-profile Plymouth figures, including former directors, went public to express their opposition to the move and their continued disaffection with some of the personalities involved. And a clearer view of general shareholder opinion came from the support for a share offer which had been announced at the same time.
Ninety thousand new shares were offered to existing shareholders at £22.22 per share. The price was advertised as a “70% discount” on the “implied price” Kagami’s company had paid (or not yet, in the case of Gill’s shares) the previous July. It also had “regard to the need to price the issue at a level Plymouth Argyle Football Company (Holdings) Ltd is willing to participate,” as PAFCH was underwriting the issue to the tune of the £2m it hoped to raise. It raised… £17,000. So it is that Plymouth are in debt, in League One and in the control of mostly absentee directors with mostly indirect or no ties, emotional or otherwise, to the city. They have no ground to call their own and the future success of that ground will not directly benefit the club and is dependent on a World Cup bid which may very well fail (and which may very well not include the ground in any case). And Peter Reid is their manager.
You don’t have to be a cynic to worry about Plymouth Argyle’s future.