The Fall of Plymouth Argyle

Saturday 15th March 2008 – Plymouth Argyle beat local rivals Bristol City 2-1 at Ashton Gate to move up into the final play-off spot in the Championship with only seven games to go.

Saturday 12th February 2011 – the Greens lose 3-1 at home to Tranmere Rovers, making it their eighth defeat in nine games, resulting in them plummeting down the table to 19th in League One.  The playing side of things is not the biggest worry for the Green Army at present though. Bizarre you might think? No, it’s not – the biggest concern for them now is whether they will even have a club come the end of the season, and with a tax bill due on February 22nd many fans are nervously anticipating how they’re going to pay it.

The Pilgrims’ plight is worrying, after all, going back to 2008, many fans believed that their side, who were touted as pre-season favourites for the drop, were finally going to reach the promised land of the Premier League for the first time in the clubs history – and rightfully so as they were only nine points off leaders Stoke City.

However they only managed one win from the remaining seven games and that pretty much sums up Argyle’s demise over the past four seasons which has been a rapid decline.

Since the turn of the millennium The Pilgrims have won two league titles. Paul Sturrock led them to the old Division Three title in the 01/02 season followed by another first place finish in League One two years later.

However a new board changed things for the worse.

There was a buzz around the Home Park boardroom at the start of last season, 2nd of July to be precise, as a “New World” consortium described by the incoming owners, secured a major interest in Plymouth Argyle.

Yasuaki Kagami, a Japanese businessman, had increased his previously small shares from the K & K Management Company in the club to 38% with former Manchester United chairman Sir Roy Gardner and business partner Keith Todd buying 13% meaning the consortium owned a 51% share of Argyle – allowing them to take control. American George Synan was also appointed to the board by Kagami as a director under the official role as his representative.

Just who is Yasuaki Kagami though?

Many fans were cautious at his arrival and understandably so. Not much is known about the Asian, he is the Chief Executive Officer of Maruka Corporation, a company predominantly involved in food, with extensive experience in America, Europe and Australian but other than that it’s a mystery. His most recent rank in the UK football rich list is 67, although his brother Toshio has a fortune worth over £450 million as he is the Director and Chairman of the Tokyo Disney Resort – this news called many fans to jokingly suggest that they brought in the wrong brother.

Although Phil Gill had sold his shares to Kagami, outgoing Chairman Paul Stapleton became Vice-Chairman, and along with previous board members Tony Wrathall and Robert Dennerly stayed as directors and held the remaining shares between them.

At first the plan laid out by Gardner looked promising – for the club to be a Premier League side within the next five years, and why not? They were playing in the Championship, and although just finishing outside the relegation zone, they were hoping the new board would invest enough money into the club to make them a top end Championship team. The money never arrived though and over the course of the season fans were beginning to realise this plan wasn’t all what it was cracked up to be – Kagami had no real interest in the playing side of things, instead his motivation was to sell English football in Japan and at the same time ensured the club would sign some Japanese players. This idea never materialised as the majority of players at the high end of the Japanese market had wages beyond Argyle’s means and those cheap enough to buy were unable to secure a work permit.

While the fans were starting to question the “New World” masterplan, on the pitch things weren’t looking much brighter; they didn’t win in the opening nine matches as pressure grew on manager Paul Sturrock. Former Plymouth favourite Paul Mariner was drafted in as the club’s head coach and this was shortly followed by Sturrock moving upstairs taking a business support role. 

He didn’t find it much easier though and the team were still struggling, some fans were questioning the appointment as Mariner had little managerial experience – having only been assistant manager at minor clubs in the USA before taking up the same position at Major League Soccer side New York Revolution.

Just before Christmas 2009, it was announced that the city would be hosting World Cup football in 2018 providing England were successful in their campaign. This has probably been one of the biggest factors for Argyle fans’ resentment against the board. Although initially looking like an intriguing prospect for the people of Plymouth to possibly be welcoming the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to their city, the Green Army quickly realised that too much of the boards attention, especially Gardner and Todd was being focused on the bid instead of the football, and although there’s no evidence yet, many fans have suggested that a substantial amount of money went into the bid from the directors.

Plans to extend Home Park up to a 45,000 all-seater stadium were drawn up and the area around the ground was marked for development including a hotel, shops, restaurants, student accommodation and an arena for music concerts – all of which would finance the stadium.

Meanwhile on the pitch, the club finished the season with a 2-0 defeat against Newcastle United which sealed the Pilgrims’ relegation to League One and they ended the season as the second lowest scoring team in the division as well as winning the least amount of home games.

The club’s six year stay in the second tier of the Football League was over.

This was followed by the club announcing plans to sell Home Park to their holding company in an effort to raise funds after posting a £2.8m loss, this was said to be due to an unsustainable wage bill, coupled with a drop in attendances.

This season many fans expected the team to bounce straight back up and with the board announcing Peter Reid as the man to replace the outgoing Paul Mariner last summer, a sense of optimism was in the air.

They started brightly by beating Southampton at St.Mary’s 1-0 in front of the Sky cameras. Despite that win, the results didn’t quite carry on as they would have liked and there seemed to be a lack of confidence around the club, probably due to the uncertainty in the boardroom.

As part of the ‘New World’ takeover, Gardner and Todd had 12-month options to buy-out Stapleton, Dennerly and Wrathall. So by the time summer 2010 was over and no deal was met, Stapleton and co. began to think that their time on the Argyle board was running out; therefore not taking as much interest in the finance side of things as they could have.

It was only when former Leeds United and Cardiff City chairman Peter Ridsdale arrived at Home Park in October that the severities of Argyle’s debts were exploited. Originally Ridsdale came with a consortium intent on investment however he was put off when the crippling debts were examined further. Though he did offer to stay and help in football advisory role in an attempt to help clear the debts.

Things were going from bad to worse at Home Park; they faced there 2nd winding up petition from HM Revenue & Customs which had to be met by December  8th and a company related to the club, Home Park Properties were also issued with a petition. The total tax debt owed was believed to be around £760,000. This resulted in the clubs bank accounts being frozen and the non-payment of playing and non-playing staff at Home Park.

The Pilgrims limped on into December and faced the courts in order to settle their debts.

However with no income until January when they could sell some of their players; Ridsdale informed the court that they couldn’t pay the full bill so were given a 63 grace by the registrar, allowing until February for the board to find the funds to keep the club afloat.

Later that month they were dealt a further blow when it was announced that England had failed in their bid for the 2018 World Cup. A win would have guaranteed a significant cash income from the FA for future years and would have allowed the club to push on with the expansion of the stadium, however this didn’t happen and the Plymouth faithful, of which many felt the board were only involved for property investment, felt it was time for them to show their true colours as to whether they were in it for the long haul or whether their plans were no more than a pipe dream.

The reality is England 2018 didn’t win, and shortly after on Christmas Eve many fans were gifted an early present as Keith Todd revealed he would be leaving his role as executive director. More drama followed as Gardner revealed he would be stepping down as chairman due to a lack of consultation over Todd’s departure which pretty much sums up the Argyle boardroom, having three sections on the board was always going to make things difficult, not to mention the fact that one is based in Japan, one in London, and the other in the South West. This was the first sign of unrest in the boardroom, yet there was more to come…

January arrived and the players still hadn’t been paid their wages for December; unsurprisingly this led to the clubs best players departing Home Park over the course of the month – partly due to the wage issue and partly down to the fact that the club had to sell in order to meet the looming tax bill.

Craig Noone was the first to leave; the impressive winger moved to Brighton and Hove Albion for an undisclosed fee believed to be £300,000. Next to leave was Reda Johnson. The powerful centre-back joined fellow League One club Sheffield Wednesday in a deal around £200,000. George Donnelly also left for non-league side Fleetwood Town for a smaller fee, and finally the league’s top goalscorer and arguably the Greens best player, Bradley Wright-Phillips was auctioned off to Charlton Athletic for around £300,000 – a good deal considering his contract expired in the summer and was plagued with a knee injury.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom in January though as a Trust set up by supporters began to take shape with the future of the club as its main focus. The club also officially announced that Sir Roy Gardner had severed all ties with the club.

Next up in the blame game were the Japanese, and Ridsdale was intent on seeing some investment from the far-east. According to Ridsdale, Kagami and Synan had promised four monthly instalments of £500,000 to keep the club afloat until the summer. Argyle’s Football Advisor then issued an ultimatum to Kagami to pay up by the end of 31st January or he will walk away in his attempt to save the club as no further income could be made through player sales after the deadline.

The first of February came and no money had arrived, communications between the South West and the Japanese camps were now believed to have broken down completely. Synan promised in an interview with a local paper that he would personally be flying over to hand over the cash before the deadline. This never materialised, but Ridsdale had not given up as he extended his stay but wouldn’t be involved in a day-to-day role like before.

After receiving their wages later than planned for December, the staff at Home Park were dealt a further blow as it was announced a week into February that they still hadn’t received the previous months wages.

Just two days before the club were due in court again, the Plymouth Argyle Supporters Training and Development Trust, separate to the one set up by supporters during the financial crisis, bailed Argyle out with a six-figure-sum – saving them from possible liquidation in the courts.

This was followed by news from Ridsdale that he was talking to three sets of potential investors; from the United States, Switzerland and the UK. Any deal finalised would see the club potentially being sold for a £1.

Thanks to the last minute buy-out and the January fire sale, the club were able to meet the tax man’s demands, and the winding up petition was dismissed in court.

That brings us up to the present day, however there’s still a long way to go to secure the future of Plymouth Argyle Football Club; they face another winding up order on February 22nd and with the only income being gate receipts (average attendance of around 7,000) they have no chance of survival without significant income. Everyone has all but given up on the cash arriving from Japan, and a deal from potential investors needs to happen quickly.

With just one win in the last nine games, Peter Reid will be hoping something can be concluded soon, as he’s been unable to add any loan signings to his depleted squad due to the transfer embargo placed upon the club after the winding up orders. The squad is down to its bare bones and perhaps if there is one good thing to come out of this mess then it has to be youngsters such as Curtis Nelson and Jack Stephens breaking through into the first team.

The bottom line of this fall though is the fact that having three separate sections in the boardroom was never going to work, and all with different ambitions – mainly not with the clubs best interest at heart. Questions also have to be raised at the FA as to whether they conducted a thorough enough “fit and proper test” for the Japanese owners, who still have only been to visit Home Park twice.

Fingers crossed that there will be a Plymouth Argyle Football Club beyond the summer.

Andy Maynard

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