It has taken until nearly March, but the first ten point deduction of the season in the Football League is now finally upon us with the news that Plymouth Argyle have lodged a “notice of intention” to enter into administration. The notice of intention – the date of which, the 21st of February, is no coincidence considering that another tax bill fell due yesterday – is a technicality that allows a company protection on a short-term basis from legal action taken by their creditors, but the deduction has been applied by the Football League regardless of this. The club now has ten working days to secure its sale and could request a ten working day extension on top of this. If it fails to manage this, the administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle – who managed to keep Crystal Palace afloat last season – will have to raise the capital to keep the club afloat until the end of the season. Whether he will be able to do this or not is anybody’s guess.
Peter Ridsdale, the “mastermind” behind Argyle since the end of last year, insists that there are three groups interested in buying the club for the low, low price of £1. Ridsdale also claims to be involved in discussions with “a wealthy businessman” – as ever, these days, no-one seems to consider revealing the identity of these people, as if doing so would somehow alter whether Plymouth Argyle is anything like a good investment in the medium-to-long term – and that “there are still three groups in the running and two of them are well down the track”. Meanwhile, deputy chairman and acting executive director Paul Stapleton is understood to have gone on holiday to Dubai with his wife. Nice work if you can get it, though some Plymouth supporters may hold the opinion that a week or so’s respite from him can only be a good thing for the club.
Plymouth had already been struggling this season, and had only been just above the relegation places even before the Football League deducted ten points from them. With this sanction having been passed with immediate effect, they are now adrift at the bottom of the League One table, on just twenty-three points, eight points from safety and with just fourteen matches left to play of the season. It would be premature to say that relegation is now a certainty for the club – though many Argyle supporters seem to be of this opinion – but they will have to show something approaching promotion form if they are to prevent relegation to League Two at the end of this season.
We should perhaps pause for a moment to consider what a monumental waste of time the frankly astonishing sixty-three day adjournment given to the club at the High Court when HMRC petitioned for a winding up order against them was. Perhaps forcing the club to make a decision over whether to go into administration earlier in the season, before the traditionally lucrative Christmas and New Year period, might have sharpened the minds of those that were supposed to be in control of this situation. Instead, all we have seen over the last few weeks has been a succession of false trails and phantom saviours, all of whom have put precisely nothing into the club, leaving it exactly where it is today.
Peter Ridsdale, that combination of a ghost from Christmas past and a bad smell who is still acting as an “independent advisor” to the club, has previously stated that the club needs to raise £2m in order to see itself through to the end of this season. The matter of whether Ridsdale should be held responsible for the club’s historical debt is not in question – Plymouth’s problems stretch back to well before his involvement there – but the question of what he is doing at Home Park is a valid one. Ridsdale is perhaps football’s definitive “Serial Chairman”. He has already been involved at Leeds United, Barnsley and Cardiff City. What exactly is the root of his interest in the well-being of this club? It is, after all, a club with which he has no previous affiliation. Plymouth supporters are right to ask the questions of what he is doing at their club and what could possibly be in it for him.
The worst fear of the club’s unsecured creditors seems unlikely to realised. It had been suggested that Plymouth were planning what is known as a “pre-pack” administration, whereby the the assets of a company are sold to its directors immediately after it has entered administration. This has been controversial in all aspects of business as, unlike in the event of a proposed CVA, creditors do not get the opportunity to vote for the proposal and can be left with nothing while, essentially, the same company, with the same assets and the same directors, gets to continue very much as it had done previously. The FA’s preferred method of exiting administration, however, is via the route of a CVA and club’s that have side-stepped this in different ways, such as Leeds United, have been hit with harsh penalties for doing so. Ridsdale has denied that this is the plan at Plymouth, though, and it likely that the Football League and the FA would have something to say on the subject were this to change.
So, everything remains up in the air at Plymouth and the only people to have behaved with much dignity in this whole sorry saga, the supporters, find themselves having to brush up on the finer details of insolvency law on account of the rank incompetence of those charged with the custodianship of their club. Ridsdale himself described the situation at Home Park thus:
It’s dire and I can’t even find the words to put into context how bad it is. It is probably worse than you can imagine. This is a race against time.
He made that statement on New Year’s Eve. Almost two months on, the situation at Plymouth seems to have, if anything, continued to deteriorate still further. It’s a pretty damning indictment of those that seemed to have spent the last few years basing their financial forecasts on insufficient cashflow, overpaid players, a doomed England World Cup bid, phantom investors and treating their tax bill as a free overdraft facility. Every time this happens at a club, we ask the question of what lessons will be learnt to prevent such a situation from happening again, and every time the answer to that question is the same – nothing, it would appear.
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