With many English and Scottish League titles already won or all-but-won, tight season-finishes have had to be sought elsewhere, such as the bottom of League Two. Wimbledon took only nine years to get back their Football League place but it might only take them two to lose it again. Barnet are attracting worldwide attention because of the bespectacled Dutchman who got them the snookers they needed to climb the table. Accrington, York, Aldershot and Torquay face possible returns to (shameless plug alert) the pages of the Non-League Paper. But Plymouth Argyle’s plight might be the saddest.
Relegation from the Football League isn’t the one-way ticket it once was. All the aforementioned teams have returned. And although a ghastly seven months in administration, ending in October 2011, meant Argyle’s return to football normality was always going to take time, they summoned enough spirit to finish 21st last season. And ex-Argyle ‘consultant’ Peter Ridsdale “believed the team would stay up from the moment I appointed Carl (Fletcher, player/boss last season).” So how could prospects for 2012/13 be anything but bright? OK… rhetorical question. There were, nonetheless, genuine reasons for optimism. Argyle were bought out of administration by prominent local businessman James Brent. What he admitted lacking in football knowledge, he appeared to make up for in business acumen. And he recognised the need to entrust football progress to football people.
This, initially, meant an alarming faith in Ridsdale, who “always believed James was the right person to take the club over,” even while backing Cornish property developer Kevin Heaney’s takeover bid to the point where only his presence as head of football operations kept it within football’s rules. Brent believed it was “absolutely critical” for Ridsdale to chair “football operations” under his regime. “I found him absolutely charming,” Brent told a possibly disbelieving readership of the Plymouth Herald newspaper, whilst admitting that Ridsdale’s assertiveness “doesn’t always go down well with people.” Well, no. But Ridsdale’s reportedly five-figure monthly consultancy fee during administration, while Argyle staff went largely unpaid, went down at least as badly. So when Ridsdale left to become Preston chairman in December 2011, not everyone mourned.
Brent appointed a three-man board, including Peter Jones – “vice-chairman during the club’s glory days of 2001 to 2005” (Herald, 14 January 2012). And he announced plans for what was initially known as the “Green Army Supporters Board”, to the delight of gas enthusiasts everywhere. This board supposedly gave fans “a voice in club affairs and a direct say in the running of the club” but Brent claimed it would merely offer a “constructive challenge” to club directors, with whom power resolutely remained. The Argyle Fans’ Trust, constitutionally-designed to give fans a genuine “voice” in club affairs, were to be just one of a number of supporters groups represented on the supporters board, alongside bodies such as the Cornwall supporters club. They were also offered a “20% stake” in Argyle, for £400,000. This bought no real power and thus was subsequently rejected by Trust directors, after an inconclusive consultation exercise.
But fans remained largely grateful to Brent for “rescuing” Argyle and overseeing their league survival. His promises of boardroom financial sanity struck such a chord that dissent seemed almost churlish. And Brent did not suffer dissent gladly. In March 2012, Private Eye magazine reported on Brent’s spat with Torbay Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders, who gently warned people to be wary of Brent using profits from one Devon business deal to “support a football club.” Brent accused Sanders of “bringing the House of Commons and the Liberal Party (sic) into disrepute” and threatened to sue for defamation. The Eye also reminded readers that when Argyle’s ex-Operations Officer Tony Campbell “reserved his right to contest” Brent’s none-too-generous repayment terms to staff left underpaid by administration, he was told to “sign the letter waiving all rights to the disputed amount or (Brent) will pull out… and the club will go into liquidation.”
Arguably, of course, Brent’s ‘hard-nosed’ business attitude was exactly what Argyle needed after years of boardroom-inflicted financial calamity. And he certainly had support for his hard line with Argyle’s administrators P&A Partnership when their final report to creditors said they were “pursuing a debt from the purchaser.” Brent counter-claimed that P&A “owe the club a significant amount,” which administrator Brendan Guilfoyle suggested was “without merit”, a description most Argyle fans would probably apply to Guilfoyle himself. So Argyle fans maintained a faith in Brent for the new season. Brent punted the hoary old line about unexpectedly becoming a fan (copyright Balram Chainrai at Portsmouth). And he promised that while Argyle would “again incur a loss this season,” it would be “a funded loss” and that “even when you adjust it for inflation” the playing budget would be “much larger than in 2001/2, when we won the league with a record number of points.”
It was “a budget which should work in this division – and should probably work in the next division” (Herald, 12 August). How this loss was to be funded wasn’t specified, although he added that “it’s very dangerous for a club to rely on a benefactor to put money in each year, because one year it will stop.” Brent was clearer on plans for Argyle’s Home Park stadium and its immediate environs in Plymouth’s Central Park. At first glance, they had much to commend them from Argyle’s perspective, with a new grandstand set to be built to increase Home Park’s capacity to 17,500. Unfortunately, Brent’s regime was undermined by something he could not directly control – the team’s results. If there were excuses for Plymouth flirting with relegation last season, none of them applied this. And their FA Cup exit to Conference South Dorchester Town was a bitter blow to pride and finances.
Criticisms of Brent now seemed less churlish. The afore-mentioned “funded” losses were blamed on budgetary errors. Brent admitted that Argyle’s average gate of 6,230 was “disappointing relative to what we’d hoped for” (Herald, 2 November), amid reports that the board had budgeted for 8,000 gates. And even Brent supporters had concerns. “If this is true then James Brent has been badly advised,” wrote one, although Brent’s advisers were largely Brent’s own people. Also, December reports that captain Darren Purse was transfer-listed for financial reasons contradicted Brent’s November claim that Argyle were “in good financial fettle.” The Trust called on Brent to “address fans’ concerns” with a “clear statement of direction.” And while they “(appreciated) that James Brent is funding the shortfall in the club’s finances,” they sought confirmation that this was “by way of gift and has not added to the club’s debt,” as “there is no public information on the state of the club’s finances.”
By then, Argyle’s Supporters Board should have been “constructively challenging.” But the organisation had a “challenging” birth, with the electoral process coming in for severe criticism, from voters and candidates, with one candidate reportedly withdrawing in protest at its flaws – although, perhaps significantly, he still garnered enough support to be elected comfortably, having withdrawn too late to be removed from the ballot. On New Year’s Day, Brent responded to weeks of fan pressure by dismissing Fletcher, having shown a faith in the player/manager which would have been admirable in less-fraught circumstances (Ridsdale’s views… unknown). But not appointing the promised experienced ‘director of football’ to work alongside the (ulp!) 31-year-old Fletcher was a mistake. And the “lesson” Brent took from this was curious: “The problem with football… is that you have very short seasons. Your ability to see people develop is limited by that season.” Pesky… calendar, eh?
By late-February, Argyle were rock bottom of League Two. And the Trust were not happy. Bemoaning a “lack of direction, on & off the pitch” they said: “We demand real leadership from the club’s owner and board. It is totally unacceptable for Argyle to be in such a state of emergency at this stage of the season.” Their statement was an equally-strong rallying cry, timed to precede the late-February game against relegation ‘rivals’ Barnet, calling for fans to “pack out Home Park” and “support the team fanatically for the rest of the season.” Clumsily, however, this was published hours before the previous game, at fellow-strugglers Wimbledon, which allowed director Peter Jones to lambast them for their timing rather than address their pertinent questions about plans for “keeping our club in the Football League.” The statement had the desired effect on the Barnet game; over 8,000 people watched the 2-1 victory which lifted Argyle off the bottom. Meanwhile, the board’s appointment of experienced lower-league manager John Sheridan looked increasingly shrewd.
A good run of March results culminated in victory over Devon rivals Exeter, watched by over 13,000 people. Argyle were now fourth-from-bottom, four points clear of relegation. “It was a very good performance against a very good passing team who have had some very good results away from home,” noted Sheridan. Not-so-very good were national media suggestions that Ken Bates was interested in Argyle. Brent admired Bates’ “good taste” in football clubs but otherwise just got on with publicising his long-awaited redevelopment plans (which Bates might have called “Plymouth Village” and which only cynics would suggest had triggered the old twister’s interest). Much was promised from this development for club and city. The Herald reported that Brent’s purchase of the relevant land would “inject £700,000 into the club’s coffers,” (24 March 2012). Argyle, though, were just part of Brent’s ambitious plans, something which he had never hidden. Not unnaturally, given Brent’s status as Akkeron Hotel Group supremo, the plans included a hotel, as well as an “ice centre of excellence” (i.e. an ice rink) and a multi-screen cinema.
Despite local media attempts to portray a fully-supportive fan-base, there were critics – fans and non-fans alike. Many were up in arms at the scale of retail development proposed for the once-publicly-owned Central Park. Plans to increase Home Park’s capacity beyond 17,500, if stated ambitions of Championship football were realised, did not withstand initial scrutiny – some were dismissed as “prohibitively expensive” by an Akkeron representative. And concerns were raised that Brent’s own companies would benefit from developments on land envisaged for club use. But while the development remains key to whatever Brent’s ambitions are for Argyle, results will be key to his popularity at Argyle. He has made mistakes in his eighteen months as Argyle owner. Yet his (lame ‘Pilgrim’ joke alert) avowed intentions for the club are still good ones. And, at the risk of damning with faint praise, Brent is certainly one of football’s more responsible owners. But in January 2012 he said that while “a balance has to be struck… it is important to do everything to keep Argyle in the league.” If Argyle are relegated after a season of “funded losses” – however they are funded – then Brent has that balance horribly wrong.
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