Sometimes, we can only stand back and applaud such loyalty. With just four weeks until Christmas and after having been told to expect redundancies, the staff of Plymouth Argyle – the people who, quietly, efficiently and for considerably less reward than those that are in any way the public faces of the game – held a meeting earlier this week and confirmed that they will work on, without pay, until the current crisis that is blowing over Home Park has been resolved one way or the other. They’re not the only staff not have been paid – the players haven’t either after the club’s bank account was frozen earlier this week. The problems mounting at Plymouth Argyle are starting to take on a distinctly familiar hue.
With this in mind, it is worth considering how closely everybody in Plymouth will be monitoring today’s vote in Zurich for the 2018 World Cup finals. It would be overstating matters to suggest that England winning with their bid would prove, in itself, to be enough to be the salvation of Plymouth Argyle Football Club – the problems that they face require considerably more immediate attention than could be resolved by this – but it may assist in making the club a slightly more palatable prospect to the sort of investor that we might want to see at the club, and this cannot be understated, because the current front-runner is a name that sends a shiver down the spines of those of us that keep a close eye on football’s finances: Peter Ridsdale.
This morning’s Plymouth Herald confirms that the directors of the club have what fans of the television comedy Blackadder might recognise as a “cunning plan”, though. If rumours currently circulating are to be believed, the club may be set to seek a fifty-six day adjournment to the winding up order petition that is due to be heard at The High Court in London next week. If this is true, it’s an even higher-risk gamble than Sheffield Wednesday took a couple of weeks ago and, whilst Wednesday’s court case has ended in about as good an outcome as their supporters could have hoped for (concerns about Milan Mandaric notwithstanding), there are no guarantees that an application of this sort will be as successful for Plymouth.
It is, against this background, unsurprising that Plymouth supporters are starting to mobilise. Protests are expected at their match at Milton Keynes on Saturday and there are plans in place to set up a Supporters Trust. A Trust doesn’t have to only be formed at a club in a state of severe difficulty (plenty of clubs in a comparatively healthy position have Supporters Trusts), but the urgency of the situation at Plymouth is clearly the driving force behind the current level of activity. They will be meeting on the eleventh of December, and further details about this nascent organisation are available here, although space at the meeting is likely to be limited.
It feels as if Plymouth supporters need a trust regardless of what happens over the next few days. It is unlikely that the club will be liquidated next week, but such an eventuality is certainly possible. As we mentioned in the case of Sheffield Wednesday, it seems to be current convention for football clubs facing a winding up order to be granted an adjournment in the first place (it seems scarcely conceivable that they will be able to come up with the £700,000 required to satisfy the order by next Wednesday), but whether the club will get the fifty-six days that they are rumoured to be requesting is a different matter altogether. HMRC will strongly oppose such an application, and it will come down to the strength of the “business plan” being put together.
It is especially ironic that Plymouth should find themselves in this position when we consider that, not so long ago, they were the only Football League club in Devon. Since then, however, Torquay United have reclaimed their place in the Football League and Exeter City have flourished, getting promotion back and then getting promoted into – and staying in – League One, all under the ownership of their Supporters Trust. That this should have happened to Plymouth’s bitterest rivals while Argyle have fallen so dramatically from grace says much about the relative merits of the two different models of ownership that the clubs have, but it isn’t a reflection of any degree of “superiority” between the two clubs. Exeter have had their fair share of financial problems over the years before a slice of luck (in the form of drawing Manchester United in the FA Cup) secured their future. Both sets of supporters would be well-advised to remember both sides of this particular coin when the two clubs meet in the league at Home Park on the eleventh of December.
The irony of it being necessary to write this on the day of the 2018 World Cup destination being confirmed will not be lost on anybody. In the Plymouth story, we see many familiar strands of English football’s financial travails coming together. Talk of redundancies amongst the back-room staff of the club, wages not being paid, supporter protests and dates at the High Court have become one of the common currencies of our game over the last few years, with the ultimate absurdity of it all being that all of this is happening in a one club city with a population of a quarter of a million people. A financially tenable football club in a city like Plymouth shouldn’t be a contentious idea, but the club’s current woeful position is down to recent maladministration, and nothing more. The truth of the matter is that those working without having been paid and with the threat of redundancy hanging over their heads and the supporters that are also now working, also unpaid, to mobilise as one voice, deserve better than this. In modern football, however, it seldom feels as if many people really get what they deserve, whether good or bad.