Plymouth Argyle: James Brent’s “Five Year Plan”

by | Nov 3, 2016

Football club takeover and ownership tales often have common elements such as financial disarray, incompetent and/or egomaniacal former owners…and, all-too-often, Peter bloody Ridsdale. Plymouth Argyle came through all that. And yet… I last covered Plymouth in February 2014. Argyle had emerged from financial disaster, inflicted by a rogues gallery-and-a-half of “personalities,” very much including Ridsdale. However, uncertainty loomed over new owner, local “entrepreneur” and Harry Potter stunt-double James Brent, who “saved” them in October 2011. Questions lingered over the “saved” club’s true finances and Brent’s true motivation…everywhere except the local, Brent-loyal Plymouth Herald newspaper.

I re-read that article while researching this one. And way too much of it still applies. After five years in control, Brent still divides opinion. Supporters consider him above criticism because Argyle would be extinct without him. Critics doubt his financial wherewithal and cite his business problems elsewhere. However, this fan-base schizophrenia is understandable. Since Brent’s takeover, Argyle’s on-field fortunes have sensibly, gradually improved. They were as close to leaving League Two last May as they were in May 2013. But while 2016’s narrow play-off final defeat denied them a place in League One, favourable results elsewhere in 2013 “denied” them a place in the (“shameless-plug-for-my-main-workplace” alert) Non-League Paper. And Argyle currently top League Two, eleven points clear of the play-off places.

Yet only the blindly faithful have complete faith in Brent’s business acumen. In August 2013, the PCC approved plans for developing the “Higher Home Park” (HHP) area, including a new grandstand for Argyle’s Home Park stadium. Brent forecast a September 2014 completion date for the stand and a surprisingly important adjoining ice rink. Neither project has started. In February 2014, Wishbone Ash-loving CEO Martyn Starnes told the Herald: “Several investors (are) interested in financing the development but negotiations cannot be finalised until the build costs have been entirely agreed. Our objective (is) to be ready for the beginning of the 2015/16 season (but) it is impossible to be specific.”

Fans’ were unamused. Supporters club (PASC) chair Keith Bulley called it “disgusting that supporters heard nothing about the new proposed date until now.” Argyle Fans’ Trust (AFT) chair Andy Symons complained that the only fans consulted were “hand-picked supporters already close to” Brent. And even Ed Shillabeer, chair of the “hand-picked” Plymouth Argyle Supporters Board (PASB), was “disappointed and frustrated,” if not “entirely surprised.” Meanwhile, four of Brent’s hotel “groups” entered administration in early 2014, which he blamed on Lloyds Bank withdrawing from the regional hotels business, in a handily-timed “frank” interview with Herald political reporter Keith Rossiter on March 20th.

Brent’s “Akkeron Group (AG)” had other troubled projects; Plymouth’s Civic Centre redevelopment and the “Plymouth Pavilions” leisure and entertainment centre (with obligatory ice rink), which the council gave Brent, “along with a £2m dowry,” in 2012. Also, Paignton’s Oldway Mansions development was six months behind schedule. “The projects are sequentially phased,” Brent explained via psychobabble. The delays were in getting the “three stars to line up: construction costs, lettings and finance.” And aspects of HHP were “over-specified.” On-line comments revealed AG’s financial predicaments (“In the 15-months to 31 December 2012, it lost £4.1m”).

Brent undertook a close-season charm offensive, expressing “no regrets” while claiming, Ridsdale-style, to be “confident” Argyle was “moving in the right direction.” And in a Q&A session, Herald football editor Chris Errington asked supplementary questions on precisely none of Brent’s answers. Starnes’ declarations of “disappointment” at grandstand “build” delays were as regular as Brent’s PR-stunts. And in June, Argyle admitted “that the planned redevelopment will not begin before the end of September.” Cynical sneers included: “The £10m grandstand will not start…because there is no £10m.” A month later, Torbay councillors attempted to terminate AG’s Paignton project (“a fiscal disaster”), prompting a Herald commenter to request “a full independent inquiry into Brent, his business dealings and his relationship with…councillors.”

Detailed reasons for the HHP delays emerged from the AFT’s August meeting with council leader Tudor Evans. The HHP plan depended on “a percentage of the funding” coming from “PCC and Plymouth Community Health.” Yet Akkeron told neither organization. And Brent’s only “ice rink “obligation” was “to provide ‘continuous ice’.” (!) The AFT believed “supporters would appreciate the club clarifying the current position.” Instead, Argyle claimed AFT “minutes” of the meeting “contained a number of misunderstandings,” without specifying them. “There have always been hard questions…about this scheme. However, the Herald chooses to act as a PR company for Akkeron,” claimed a disgruntled fan, exhorting the paper to “get off its backside and (do) some real journalism.”

Brent supporters were diehards, though. In September, the Herald reported that Brent was no longer “preferred bidder” for the Civic Centre redevelopment, scuppering “ambitious plans” for “a £50m, 160-bedroom hotel.” Yet one fan still thanked him, defying critics to post “alternative ideas.” It then emerged that the PCC had loaned Argyle £800,000, at 4.8% interest over five years, to help settle a £3.64m legacy debt to Argyle’s “football creditors” from their spell in administration. The debt had been repaid in part by what Brent called “fortune income” (transfer income). And a final “balloon payment” (nope, me neither) of £1.64m was due last month. “Shareholders put up land they own as collateral.” it was reported. PCC finance chief, Mark Lowry, considered it “hugely important” to “get (Argyle) on a secure financial footing.” While one fan understood “how a non-football fan would be concerned” but “whether non-footie fans like it or not…it would be a disaster if Plymouth did not have a league club.”

“Footie” fans were “concerned” too. Some thought the land used as collateral was given to Brent by the PCC. “Don’t tell me this land freebie forms some or all of the collateral,” sighed one. It was bought by Brent and fellow director Richard Holliday’s Akkeron Leisure company for £425,000, in March 2012 but had hugely increased in value to be collateral for an £800,000 loan. Another fan “warned” that “speculation” about the loan “persuading” Brent to “not sue the council” after the Civic Centre decision was “totally without foundation, so don’t anyone do it, ok?”  “What other doggy deals have Argyle and the council come up with?” asked another, slipping Freudianly on his keyboard. Oh…and the Herald considered the deal “a positive move” because of course they did…

In October, Argyle announced a £1.46m loss during 2013. Starnes suggested: “It wasn’t fully appreciated that we’d cut around 40% off the (losses from the) year before.” Yet Starnes hadn’t “fully appreciated” that the £2.42m loss from the “year before” was over 15 months, not 12. Argyle’s finances were improving. But the urge to spin proved irresistible. On October 25th, Brent “revealed” a grandstand “Plan B” with “greater flexibility” to increase the stadium capacity further than initially planned. It involved “working with another institution” with whom “discussions are pretty well-advanced.” But “until they are finalised we can’t go forward.” Fans’ group welcomes grandstand plan screamed the Daily Brent Herald headline. But AFT vice-chair Sam Down only “welcomed” Brent’s “announcement” as “a step in the right direction” and cautioned: “We still do not know details of the other party, capacity, design, footprint or cost to the club.” Blimey…is that all?

Brent insisted the grandstand was “critical” to Argyle. Cynics thought it more “critical” to Brent’s finances. And he undertook another charm offensive, telling the Western Morning News (in November AND January) that Argyle could “reach the Premier League.” However, his HHP plans had competition from “separate plans” for “an IMAX-style cinema at Bretonside, which have been welcomed by council chiefs.” In December, Argyle called Bretonside “materially damaging to the club and the city” as HHP “could not progress” if it was approved.” By March 2015, thanks in-part to the PCC’s £800k, the “balloon payment” was reduced to £500,000. But Argyle were still in talks with City Council over new grandstand…a March 11th headline the Herald could run on a loop.

“It’s disappointing that work hasn’t started,” Brent re-re-re-reiterated. “It’s disappointing the commercial scheme that would have funded it isn’t viable if Bretonside takes place,” he insisted. “(HHP) will only happen if Bretonside does not,” he warned. “(HHP) was given the green light in August 2013, the Bretonside plans were made public in March 2014,” noted one previously supportive Herald comments section regular, bemoaning Brent’s “dithering.” Bretonside was approved in April 2015. In the Herald in July, Brent claimed all his business interests were “in turnaround,” his hotel and retail interests were “faring well” and he was, still, in “active” talks with potential partners about the grandstand build. This reeked of PR-puffery. As did the Herald’s December 6th piece, Brent remains committed to a new grandstand. It was still “critical to the club.” Brent was still “as committed to delivering (it) as I ever have been.” And still nothing happened.

While that wasn’t going on, the AFT registered Home Park as an “asset of community value.” ACVs give community groups six weeks to express interest in bidding for a ground if it was put up for sale and six months to submit a bid. Argyle had quinquennial options to “buy-back” the council-owned stadium for twelve times the contemporary rent, the first exercisable last month. Starnes, personally, didn’t believe “the application was relevant,” as stadium ownership “makes little difference” because “we pride ourselves on being a community club.” It soon became “relevant.” Days after ACV status was granted in February, Brent revealed a “regular stream of interest” in buying Argyle.

AFT chair Bob Foale insisted the ACV campaign was “not anti-Brent,” adding: “It would be a big ask for supporters to fund a counter-bid.” But he stressed: “ACV status would make any potential sale far more transparent.” Fan polls offered enough different results for each day of the week. The AFT claimed “a clear mandate from a large percentage,” 80% of 800 respondents, “of lifelong fans” for Home Park to “remain in public hands.” Argyle cited the one poll with a buy-back majority, 50.72% of 1,135 respondents to their own annual fans survey, “independently-sourced”…although Argyle contributed “structure and content.”

The buy-back was clearly going to happen, regardless of polls. Brent had compiled a compliant board. In February 2014, he controversially reappointed ex-director Tony Wrathall. Wrathall reportedly “put over £1.5m into Argyle” during his previous directorship and was putting more in to cover Brent’s financial struggles. But his reappointment was reviled. As AFT ex-chair Graham Clark noted, he “was jointly, and severally, liable for (Argyle’s) fall into administration.” And last April, Simon Hallett, a US-based global investment manager, became a director to ludicrous fanfare, paying £500,000 for 29.2% of Argyle’s shares. Clichés poured forth, including the nonsense that 29.2% ownership was Hallett’s “boyhood dream.”

Both were genuine “lifelong fans.” But neither seemed likely to oppose Brent, given that he hand-picked them. So, surprise, Hallett was instantly optimistic Argyle can find grandstand solution. But by August, there was still no timescale for new grandstand. Brent’s “aspirations” were “undiminished.” But he couldn’t say “when we will deliver or in what form.” He hinted at a timetable in September, when declaring: “We need to be bright and shiny well before” the 400th anniversary celebrations of the Mayflower’s journey from Plymouth to America. In… 2020. At this rate, Brent could have promised the grandstand when the Mayflower set sail and it still wouldn’t be built. The council gave him planning permission in September 2013…and three years to start construction. He failed. Although you wouldn’t catch the Herald saying so.

He failed elsewhere, too. Oldway Mansions was news again on July 2nd. Brent’s Oldway Mansions Ltd claimed £8m damages from Torbay Council, for “breaches of the agreement.” But in August, they withdrew from the project. Both parties emerged as sheepishly as they could without going “Baaaaaa!” But it was the old story. Brent committed to hotel and housing development ran the Herald’s October 2014 headline. Twenty-one months later, neither hotel nor housing had developed a brick. Despite this execrable record, Argyle fans still backed Brent. Largely because Argyle’s finances appeared to improve, while the team certainly did. Those who lambasted Brent for the team’s struggles early in his tenure could hardly not credit him with its successes.

There was considerable debate on the buy-back. Argyle claimed the choice was “pay £1.7m now” (precisely the valuation put on the entire club by Hallett’s share purchase) “and own its stadium or pay £3.4m to £4.3m rent over the next 20 years and still not own the stadium.” Opposition fans’ groups, under the banner “Never Again” (NA), said “purchasing the freehold without a clear plan to directly link that to…improvements for the Football Club, has to be questioned.” The board suggested “reservations” were “because of a lack of information,” without apportioning the obvious blame. And they claimed “no supporters’ group has come out against the buy-back.” In a response to a…supporters’ group.

“Never Again” was a reference to the then-board borrowing hugely against the stadium in the four years before administration, and the belief that the former helped cause the latter. Brent suggested: “When the club went into administration it had a green pitch. It has a green pitch now. It doesn’t mean it’s likely to go into administration because it has a green pitch.” Yes, James. There were inevitable fears that Brent was “up to something” and would use the situation for personally profitable development. However, Argyle stressed that “the club, not Brent” had the buy-back option…albeit Brent’s club. And Brent said a “covenant” on the stadium stopped anybody who “wanted to build a Tesco there, for example.” Funding would come from an issue of “irredeemable” shares to current directors. NA said: “The board need to more clearly explain this in language the average supporter can understand and quantify.” And they asked a semantic but key question. If the buy-back was in the “interests of Plymouth Argyle Football Club” was it in the interests of the club?

Despite the protestations, the board inevitably unanimously decided in mid-September to buy-back Home Park for £1.7m (precisely the value put on the entire club by Hallett’s share purchase) and the ground is due to be Argyle’s again. A “new era,” for good or ill, dawns. Brent inadvertently exposed his predicament at an Argyle fans’ forum in September. Asked to “prove investing in the infrastructure will make a financial difference,” he declared: “I can’t prove I will get to work in my car each morning. But my evidence base tells me I’ve done it quite a few times.”  Unfortunately, the “evidence base” of his recent development projects reveals a car crash.

He maintains fans’ support as Argyle’s “saviour” and because his “five-year plan” has improved the financial and football landscapes. However, he will be judged on his ability to reach the Championship place he frequently insists is Argyle’s realistic ambition…when he’s not indulging in “Argyle can reach the Premier League” PR-puffery. And if the stadium development is as “critical” to Argyle as he frequently insists, the “evidence base” of failed projects suggests exactly what Plymouth’s situation in 2014 suggested: “Uncertain times lie ahead.”

As I was finishing this article, I came across an excellent August 28th article by Roger Willis of “The Two Unfortunates” website, entitled “Are clouds beginning to gather once again at Home Park? I assure you all (Roger and any other “Unfortunates” especially) that I’d all-but-finished my article when I read Roger’s. Here’s Roger’s: I highly recommend it.