David Cameron Walker

Archive for the ‘Plymouth Argyle’ Category

Shez staying – joke’s over

Tuesday, April 30th, 2013

“This club should be nowhere near the position it’s in. It’s a joke really. Almost embarrassing.”

So said on-loan striker Reuben Reid after Argyle had avoided the drop into the Conference on the final day of the season. Watching sections of the Green Army stage a Spotland pitch invasion from my position higher up the Willbutts Lane Stand, my thoughts were the same at the final whistle. An estimated 2,000+ Pilgrims fans had travelled to pack Rochdale’s away end – they saw their 10-man side lose 1-0 but stay up by a single point, with a goal difference just three better than Barnet’s. Other than an over-riding feeling of relief, what was there to celebrate, really?

There was a greater reason to cheer on Tuesday morning, when the club announced that John Sheridan – whose arrival as manager in January triggered a turnaround in form – had agreed in principle to continue as boss. The straight-talking Mancunian, whose initial deal ran only until the end of the season, is not the type to tolerate the sort of football comedy that Reuben Reid speaks of. However, he has already told Argyle owner James Brent he is confident of challenging at the top of League Two next season. Having persuaded Sheridan to stay in the South-West, a long way from his family home in Yorkshire, Brent must now back him in the transfer market and transform a squad of mixed abilities into one of the division’s strongest.

Although Argyle ultimately accumulated six more points in 2012/13 than they had managed in the previous campaign, this still represented another season of decline on the pitch. Clambering out of administration had been the mitigating circumstance in 2011/12 – but once again, Argyle lost 20 of their 46 league fixtures. Despite all his hard work and effort, Carl Fletcher oversaw a period of over two months in which his side won only one of 13 league games, and he was dismissed on New Year’s Day. It was only five years ago that the Greens finished 10th in the Championship – but that seems a distant memory now.

Over the course of nine months, the rearguard tightened up, particularly when experienced centre-back Guy Branston followed Sheridan south in January; Argyle actually ended the season with the eighth best defence in League Two. Zimbabwe international left-back Onismor Bhasera’s consistency was rewarded with the Player of the Year award, while goalkeeper Jake Cole was runner-up.

However, only bottom-placed Aldershot scored less goals than the Pilgrims and it was left winger Jason Banton – on loan from Crystal Palace for 14 games – who finished up as top scorer with six. The assists table makes for even bleaker reading, with Bhasera on top with just three. Young Player of the Year Conor Hourihane chipped in with five league goals from midfield, but creativity was minimal all season and when chances did come, they were usually spurned by wasteful strikers.

Highlights of the league season were hard to find, but a few spring to mind. There was the 4-1 victory at Barnet in October, Argyle’s biggest win and one that proved crucial in the final reckoning; an unlikely comeback at Morecambe the month before, when the Greens recovered from two goals down to triumph 3-2; the 1-0 Devon derby success over Exeter in March, when the result was all that mattered; and the last win of the season, 2-1 at Chesterfield in mid-April, which saw the club hit Sheridan’s survival target of 52 points.

In the interests of balance, the lowest points were arguably: the miserable opening-day 2-0 home defeat by Aldershot which set the tone for another season of struggle; a largely shambolic 3-0 loss at Fleetwood in November; the 4-0 mauling at Port Vale, the only fixture between Fletcher’s sacking and Sheridan’s arrival which left the club in seemingly dire straits in the drop zone; and an utterly abject 2-0 reverse at relegation rivals York on Easter Monday.

The nadir of the campaign, however, could again be found in the FA Cup – a humiliating first-round exit at sixth-tier Dorchester Town, live on TV, less than a year after going out at Stourbridge at the same stage.

An average attendance at Home Park of 7,095 – the third highest in the division – was an improvement on last season, even it represents less than half the current stadium capacity. Nevertheless, three home games attracted a crowd of over 10,000, while the travelling support provided by the Green Army – an average of 729 fans at every League Two away game – was outstanding given the geographical and sporting circumstances.

So what does the future hold? With £299 club memberships (season tickets) on sale for another week (and priced only £59 for Under-18s), it’s hoped the people of Plymouth will turn out in greater numbers next season. There’s already a buzz of activity and planning in the Devon city, with news of Sheridan’s stay swiftly followed by the issue of the retained and released lists.

The out-of-contract Cole, Bhasera, Branston and Hourihane have all been offered new deals, along with club legend Paul Wotton, Argentinian winger Andres Gurrieri and young striker Isaac Vassell. Among those moving on are injured striker Warren Feeney (although he has been offered a pre-season trial), while two contracted players – goalkeeper Rene Gilmartin and striker Nick Chadwick, for whom Argyle’s survival triggered an extension clause – have both been transfer-listed. Chief scout Joe Taylor has also left the club after a year in the job.

Many will hope Bristol City allow classy midfielder Joe Bryan to return on loan next season, although that may be wishful thinking. In any case, Argyle desperately need attacking players of proven quality as the squad as it stands is top-heavy with defensive experience, with a smattering of young blood in wide areas and up front. Torquay striker Rene Howe – joint-fifth top scorer in League Two with 16 goals – is already being linked with a free transfer down the A385 and A38. His ‘robust’ physique would make him an ideal replacement for Reid, although his alarmingly poor disciplinary record – 93 fouls and 15 bookings in 2012/13 – would be a worry even for the strict Sheridan.

As for the coaching staff, Tommy Wright and Mark Crossley have both left their positions at Chesterfield, paving the way for them to potentially join Sheridan. Meanwhile, the possibility remains of some sort of involvement for former boss Neil Warnock – the 64-year-old is searching for a club role akin to ”a niche between manager and directors”. Whether such an opening arises at Argyle remains to be seen; the appointment of a dedicated chief executive is a more pressing concern for James Brent.

Off the pitch, Brent’s leisure company Akkeron has put forward plans for a £50million redevelopment of the Higher Home Park area, including a new stadium grandstand, ice rink, multi-screen cinema and 120-bed hotel. Plymouth City Council’s planning committee are studying these at the time of writing, but Pilgrims supporters are far from united in their support for the proposals. A perceived lack of ambition is the major sticking point; the proposed new stand does not look particularly ‘grand’ at all and with seating for approximately 5,000, it may in fact be smaller in terms of capacity than the opposite Lyndhurst Stand (redeveloped along with the adjacent Devonport and Barn Park Ends a decade ago). Brent had hoped work could begin on the project in September, but the wrangling is likely to go on for several more weeks at least.

There’s one thing all Argyle fans can agree to look forward to in 2013/14, however – the return of the Dockyard Derby. Argyle have met Portsmouth twice in cup competitions in recent seasons, but we haven’t had a league double-header against Pompey in over 20 years. Two proud naval cities, their clubs sailing towards calmer waters… and with Sheridan at the helm, the good ship Pilgrim should be well equipped for the long voyage in the coming 12 months.

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Thanks to Steve and Malcolm from Greens on Screen - the essential Argyle resource – for the picture.

Too many bad days at the office for Fletch

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Carl Fletcher is trying to entertain Plymouth Argyle fans but recent results have been cringeworthy. It’s a management style that Pilgrims blogger Jon Holmes finds familiar…

“Is it getting better… or do you feel the same?” Over 20 years have passed since Bono posed this question, but it’s one Argyle fans keep asking themselves at the moment.

One year on from the club’s life-saving operation and the transplanting of Carl Fletcher for Peter Reid at its heart, there are occasional good days and mostly bad days for the Pilgrims as they traipse along the long road to recovery. New blood has been injected and small steps are being taken in the quest to be at least a half-decent football team again, but you can’t blame the supporters too much if their bedside manner is a little impatient. Argyle keep breaking down – and are likely to go on in the same vein for the foreseeable future.

Even Dr Julius Hibbert would be struggling to maintain a smile amid the current run of one point from six games, especially when you factor in the grim 1-0 FA Cup exit at lowly Dorchester as well. The club’s owner James Brent admits the predicament is painful, but he’s keeping the faith for now and doesn’t want a new course of treatment – even though only two points separate Argyle from the League Two drop zone after 19 games played.

“Carl is doing a great job in terms of improving the quality of the football spectacle,” said Brent earlier this month, in a quote that sounds like something his namesake David from The Office might come out with. However, it’s not the owner but the manager who is at risk of becoming a real-life version of the Ricky Gervais character – and it all boils down to their shared philosophy. What kind of atmosphere is Fletcher trying to create at Home Park? As Slough’s most famous son memorably phrases it: “(One) where I’m a friend first, boss second… probably an entertainer third.”

I don’t mean to mock the Argyle boss when I write that. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement that Fletcher is striving to satisfy several expectations – those of his owner, his players and the fanbase – and his flaws are being magnified as a result.

Being only 32 years of age and recently retired from playing, Fletcher is naturally closer to his charges than most managers. There’s undoubtedly a strong bond between the squad and the coaching set-up, with Fletcher supported by assistant boss Romain Larrieu (36), and first-team coach Kevin Nancekivell (41). A shortage of experience is compensated by fresh ideas and vitality on the training ground, the camaraderie having been bolstered under the collective hardship caused by last year’s administration process. Reports from the training ground suggest spirits are buoyant despite the poor run of form, and there’s been little evidence of dissent in the ranks.

Having such a tight-knit group is beneficial, but it’s also fair to ask whether Fletcher might be reluctant to get angry with the players when they fall short of his standards. You’d hope not, but his relatively calm exterior and considered approach suggests his dressing-room rant wouldn’t get close to a Fergie hairdryer. After Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Fleetwood, the squad were staying in the north for a few days ahead of the game at Bradford on Tuesday night. When asked if having everyone together for an extended period of time would make it easier to recover for the clash at Valley Parade, Fletcher responded with a wry smile: “We’ll have to wait and see… if I don’t rip their heads off before that.” He clearly knew some strong words were needed, but he didn’t exactly inspire confidence that he could deliver them effectively.

After losing 1-0 at Bradford, in a game where Argyle played well in the second half but failed to score, Fletcher again indicated that a lack of fortune was largely responsible for the month-long misery. There’s undoubtedly some truth in that, but blaming bad luck for a lengthy series of disappointments while also claiming a ‘deserved’ win is just around the corner sounds more than a little desperate.

As for that “football spectacle”… its quality may be improving, but Fletcher can’t afford to worry too much about entertainment values when Argyle are slipping ever closer to the bottom two. They impressed in the 3-1 home win over Rochdale – the last time they claimed three points – and the recent 2-2 draw with leaders Gillingham. Yet the focus on trying to play a more technically accomplished game – “passing with a purpose”, as Fletcher calls it – is undermined by a tendency to ship goals weakly due to lapses in concentration, mostly on long throws and set pieces. Argyle stayed up last season due to a defence that became ever more miserly as the months went by. Generosity has been far too great in the current campaign.

In addition, there is no cutting edge or even a consistent presence up front. Three strikers have three goals each – Warren Feeney’s have come from 16 appearances, although two were penalties; on-loan Guy Madjo’s have come from 13 appearances although, again, two were penalties; while Rhys Griffiths, with two from open play and one spot-kick, has been hampered all season by injuries. Nick Chadwick is yet to register in the league.

Argyle’s midfield contingent and wingers have understandably benefitted from Fletcher’s focus on getting the ball on the deck. Alex MacDonald, back on loan from Burnley, and Argentinian Andres Gurrieri produced energetic displays against Bradford and tested the hosts repeatedly. Local lad Luke Young – still only 19, but with over 50 first-team outings to his name – continues to make strides, while 17-year-old Tyler Harvey is also now getting a taste of first-team action. Youth is being given its chance, but perhaps too much is being asked of them. League Two may only be the fourth tier, but experienced ex-internationals like Fleetwood’s Barry Ferguson and Rotherham’s Kari Arnason remain tough opponents for teenagers and twenty-somethings.

Off the pitch, the appointment of former Bristol City chairman Colin Sexstone as a non-executive director bodes well, with James Brent having admitted he needs more football experts around him to give advice and guidance. Hope remains that work on a new and long-overdue Home Park grandstand will begin next summer – but there have also been staff redundancies too, and the club’s average attendance of around 6,200 is below the break-even figure of 8,000.

Brent is likely to stick with Fletcher for the time being, although continued poor form as the busy Christmas period approaches would significantly increase the pressure on both men. Until then, this perseverance package remains hard to accept for Pilgrims fans, who fear their club is becoming a laughing stock. The other Brent – David – would say: “You just have to accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue.” It’s been four-and-a-half weeks of statue for Argyle – time for pigeon power, and fast.

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Can Fletch find new goalscoring Greens?

Friday, May 25th, 2012

The early odds released for League Two next season show that the bookies expect Plymouth Argyle to be firmly mid-table in 2012/13.The Greens are priced up at 20/1 for the title with Victor Chandler, alongside the likes of rivals Exeter and newly-promoted York. Rotherham are the strong favourites for success, followed by Fleetwood Town.

However, it’ll be worth seeing what price the Pilgrims are when the promotion odds appear – because they might just be worth a gamble, depending on the summer comings and goings at Home Park.

Last season, Argyle were seriously goal-shy – only Macclesfield scored less. After losing 1-0 at Rotherham in mid-March, they were back in the relegation zone with 10 games to go. Fortunately, their settled and solid defence became even more miserly over the next eight fixtures, conceding just four goals to secure survival. The abysmal form shown by the Silkmen (seven draws and no wins to show for their efforts since New Year’s Eve) and the fact Hereford, as it proved, left it too late to mount an escape, were also key factors in Argyle staying up by just two points.

Argyle’s effective rearguard actions in the final few months bode well for next season. The arrivals in November of centre-back duo Darren Purse (now 35, but still a tough and fit competitor) and Maxime Blanchard – who ended up being named Player of the Year – lifted the whole camp; young right-back Durrell Berry improved considerably, and with midfield warrior Paul Wotton and hard-working striker Nick Chadwick returning to the club too, a team that had been callow and spineless changed into one loaded with experience and resilience.

Champions Swindon conceded just 32 goals in 2011/12 – by some distance the least in the division. They were not top scorers however; Gillingham, who failed to even make the play-offs, hit 79 goals over the course of 46 games, while Shrewsbury and Crawley both scored more than Paolo Di Canio’s Robins. But Argyle fans know full well how the stingiest defence usually comes out on top in the fourth tier – when Paul Sturrock’s Greens racked up 102 points in 2001/2, they shipped just 28 goals. Second-placed Luton scored many more times than Argyle that season, but they didn’t get their hands on the trophy.

Carl Fletcher clearly needs to add goals to his side, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of his defence – as we’ve seen, it’s more important to be hard to break down in League Two than blistering up front. One of last season’s joint top scorers, Barnet’s Izale McLeod, is already being linked with Argyle (as well as many other clubs higher up the food chain) – but he might be exactly the sort of player Argyle DON’T need. Of the 14 league games in which he scored for the Bees, they only won five of them. McLeod is fast and exciting, but can also be massively frustrating. In contrast, that resolute title-winning Sturrock side of a decade ago had eight players who netted five or more league goals over the course of the campaign – and the top scorer was centre-back Graham Coughlan.

What’s more important than finding a McLeod or similar striker is injecting more creativity in forward positions and inviting runners from deep; building on the firm foundations of the Purse-Blanchard partnership and freeing up the likes of the energetic Luke Young – scorer of a fine goal at Morecambe in the penultimate game of the season – to shoot from in and around the area. There has been far too little of that in Argyle’s attacking play, entirely understandable as the pressure mounted in the battle against the drop and every point became the proverbial prisoner. But with those shackles lifted and a clean slate presenting itself come August, the onus will be on Fletcher to find a blend that can facilitate a promotion push.

Having only turned 32 last month, Fletcher is the second youngest manager in the entire Football League, and his achievement in uniting the Argyle squad and masterminding their great escape should not be underestimated. He had earned his UEFA B licence coaching badge last summer, but taking on the responsibility of one of the south-west’s biggest professional clubs – and at such a perilous point in their history – was a huge undertaking for someone with no previous experience. The assistance of goalkeeper Romain Larrieu, a true Pilgrims hero with over 300 appearances for the club, and the senior players brought in midway through the campaign was crucial in creating a ‘never say die’ spirit. Both Fletcher and Larrieu have earned a crack at a season without fear of financial turmoil.

Long-term, owner James Brent has talked about how he sees Argyle as a Championship club. It seems a tall order to get back to those heights any time soon for a club that’s just finished 21st in League Two. However, if Fletcher can identify three or even four new players with genuine attacking talent that are prepared to match the current squad’s work ethic – and if Brent is prepared to pay the fees and wages they will demand – there might be a great opportunity to beat the bookies, and see a more entertaining Argyle team heading up the Football League ladder once again.

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Argyle’s finale needs faster rhythm

Monday, March 12th, 2012

The title track from Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die album is still getting a lot of radio play at the moment – and every time I hear the lyrics, I can’t help but think of Plymouth Argyle’s relegation battle.

Feet don’t fail me now,” implores Lana, in her haunting tones. “Take me to the finish line…” For Argyle, still stumbling around in the depths of League Two, that finish line is now only 10 games away.

The Pilgrims’ feet aren’t exactly failing – yet – but the fear remains that they might not have the legs to make it to the end of the season, and stay up.

One step forward, and at least one step back – that’s how it feels at the moment. Carl Fletcher’s men have chalked up just one league victory per month since September; there have been plenty of draws peppering their results sheet; and the defeats, when they’ve come, have tended to be of the 1-0 variety in recent weeks (the latest coming at Rotherham on Saturday). This familiar pattern has led some to suggest the Greens are ‘sleepwalking’ towards the drop.

Statistics would suggest that Argyle are at least heading in the right direction, but they are undoubtedly running out of time to get there. The excellent Football League data analysis blog Experimental 3-6-1 notes that the team has tightened up at the back in the last two months, allowing less shots from opponents and proving more resilient. At the other end, progress has been slower – the Greens are creating slightly more chances per game, but their conversion rate has marginally dipped.

Certain other facts about Argyle’s season cannot be disputed. No team has won less home games in the entire Football League, let alone League Two. Defensively, the Pilgrims have been relatively stable at Home Park, but goals for them there have been in short supply – only 17 so far this season. Attendances have averaged at just over 6,500 (only Bradford, Swindon and Oxford pull in bigger crowds) and those fans have had relatively little to shout about. With six of their last 10 fixtures at home, only a significant improvement on Devon soil will see Argyle survive.

Admittedly, Fletcher’s side have been better on their travels. Before the defeat at Don Valley, they won handsomely at Accrington, almost claimed three points at Macclesfield (a last-gasp equaliser denied them) and ground out a 2-1 victory at AFC Wimbledon. But their next two away games are stone-cold ‘six-pointers’, against relegation rivals immediately above them in the table – Northampton (March 24) and Hereford (Good Friday). Clearly there can be little room for error at Sixfields or Edgar Street.

So what steps can be taken to aid Argyle in their perilous position? Inevitably for a club in danger, the manager’s role is being heavily debated. At the age of just 31, Fletcher can hardly draw on relevant coaching experience at this juncture, and his association with successive relegations as a player in Argyle’s last two campaigns (admittedly with mitigating circumstances e.g. administration) hardly bodes well. Hereford appear to have responded well to a change of coach, and with the likes of former Pilgrim Gary Megson and Martin Allen currently out of work, there are options available to owner James Brent. Brent has made no attempt to hide the fact that his football knowledge is sketchy at best, which is one reason why he appointed former Norwich and Wigan manager John Deehan as director of football at Argyle in late January. Deehan’s exact remit was not apparent at first, although he later explained it was “to advise, and try and help secure players”. It seems Argyle are stuck with their current set-up until the end of the season at least and even if some supporters would prefer to see Fletcher on the pitch instead of in the dug-out, he would be lacking match fitness having not kicked a ball in anger since November. Best to keep Fletcher where he is, and focus on the task in hand.

In the last two seasons in League Two, 48 points has been the safety mark needed to stay up. This year, it seems likely that the target figure will be slightly less, with none of the bottom five having yet passed 35. Argyle, on 32, will surely need to put 12 points on the board at the very least – and even that may prove insufficient. With the Pilgrims’ last four fixtures looking the most difficult in their run-in (a trip to leaders Swindon, a home game against play-off chasing Oxford, a long trip north to Morecambe and finally, the visit of away-day specialists Cheltenham), the need for immediate ‘pointage’ is obvious.

Argyle’s most convincing wins of the season – 4-1 at home to Northampton in late November, and last month’s 4-0 romp at Accrington – were both achieved with early goals. Similarly, Onismor Bhasera headed home after just 12 seconds in the 2-1 victory at AFC Wimbledon, while early second-half strikes were key to beating Macclesfield, Dagenham, Bristol Rovers and Burton. Nick Chadwick noted the importance of making a fast start to a half when talking about scoring against the Cobblers on what was his second debut for the club:

“It was something I thought about before, and something I tried to get across to the lads – how well we used to start here and how important it is.

“It’s a long way for teams to come and the last thing they want is a bombardment and a threat, and for us to go forward with a real purpose in the first five minutes; we did that today.

“It was in my own mind to try to get some shots off and be a personal threat early doors, which I managed to do.”

Fast starts are key, therefore, but they have been all too rare when you reflect on Argyle’s season as a whole. With the defence looking much more settled and solid than in the opening weeks of the campaign – the Greens rearguard rarely concedes more than one goal a game these days – Fletcher can afford to be bolder in attack. Top scorer Simon Walton’s tally has been boosted by six penalties, but the goals he has scored from open play – classy strikes from distance in the home games against Morecambe and Burton – suggest he should be getting forward whenever possible and taking more pot-shots at opposition goalkeepers. Conor Hourihane is another attacking option in central midfield but like Walton, he only has two open-play goals from 27 league starts – a disappointing return. Paul Wotton remains an inspirational figure and a fierce competitor and although he is now 34 years of age, he can offer enough protection to the centre-back partnership of Darren Purse and Maxime Blanchard to allow Walton or Hourihane to push on. Between the sticks, goalkeeper Jake Cole has been admirably consistent, so a more positive approach through the middle seems worth the gamble.

On the flanks, Zimbabwe international Bhasera has been preferred on the left wing in the last two games, with teenager Luke Young on the right. The latter’s work-rate and dedication has won him many admirers this season, yet he is not an out-and-out winger like on-loan Wolves man Ashley Hemmings, or Luke Daley. ‘All guns blazing’ or ‘attack, attack, attack’ are phrases which are probably too strong when assessing the mentality Argyle need to adopt in the coming weeks, but the balance simply has to be tilted towards creating and scoring goals. Sacrificing Young in favour of a trickier winger who can bamboozle League Two defenders must be a consideration, particularly as Robbie Williams and Durrell Berry have looked dependable in the full-back positions. Williams’ retreating may have contributed to Macclesfield’s agonising leveller at Moss Rose (he failed to cut out Marcus Marshall’s stoppage-time cross, which George Donnelly headed home) but he was afforded little protection on that occasion, and he remains a threat from set-pieces too.

Up front, striker Nick Chadwick has contributed five goals in 15 starts since returning to Argyle, and on-loan Burnley forward Alex MacDonald has weighed in with three in seven. They have shown the makings of a decent partnership and should be persisted with. Fit-again Warren Feeney and another loanee, Juvhel Tsoumou can offer something different from the bench, while England Under-18 international Matt Lecointe has shown huge promise and like Feeney, has netted twice. There will certainly be no need for a repeat of Fletcher’s introduction of lanky centre-back Ladjie Soukouna as a makeshift support striker at Port Vale – one of the oddest tactical deployments Argyle fans have witnessed, and entirely unsuccessful.

In the final eight weeks of the campaign, there are several crucial fixtures between the bottom six clubs – for example, Dagenham face Northampton, Macclesfield and Barnet in their next three games, while in April, Hereford meet Argyle, Barnet and Northampton on successive weekends. The mad scramble will see teams dipping in and out of form – Macc are yet to win in 2012, while even Burton Albion fans will be concerned after 13 games without a victory. Argyle cannot afford to hold back; in their final 10 games in League One last year, they only scored eight goals and were relegated, while in 2010 when they fell out of the Championship, it was just six. They always say sticking the ball in the back of the net is the hardest thing to do in football, but sympathy will be in short supply if it’s perceived the Greens did not have a right good go in the next 10 games.

Born to die? Are Argyle fated for the drop, yet again? Surely not, and there’s enough spirit in the Pilgrims camp to ensure the players will keep fighting until the very end. But they are looking to the manager for inspiration at this time. Fletcher carries the ultimate responsibility, and the final say on team instructions and selections. So to quote another of Lana’s lyrics: “Choose your last words, this is the last time…”

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Plummeting Pilgrims can’t abandon hope

Thursday, November 24th, 2011

 

A near-death experience, bottom of the Football League and now FA Cup humiliation – Plymouth Argyle have that sinking feeling yet again.

Carl Fletcher is 31 years old. He is the recently-appointed permanent manager of Plymouth Argyle, one of the club’s senior professional players, and he is also the father to three young children. That’s already a lot of roles for one man to fulfil – but if he’s got any spare time in his busy schedule, it might be time to consider a crash course in psychotherapy.

For after one of the longest periods in administration in English football history – seven months of financial misery and uncertainty during which, at one point, the club had “between a 10-20% chance of surviving”, according to eventual buyer James Brent – the Pilgrims now appear to be experiencing the sporting equivalent of post-traumatic stress disorder.

From 18 games played in League Two, Argyle have accummulated just nine points; they have a goal difference of -23 and have only scored six times at home. After first-round exits in the Carling Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy earlier this season, they were embarrassed in the FA Cup on national television on Tuesday night in a 2-0 defeat at seventh-tier Stourbridge. The shell-shocked Greens look fearful, inhibited and a sense of helplessness is pervading the fanbase. The players are even beginning to lash out at those around them, if loanee Paul Bignot’s crazy red card (the club’s 20th since August 2010) against the Glassboys is anything to go by.

As well as the anxieties caused to everyday life by administration, the spectres of back-to-back relegations are still haunting Argyle and unless a significant recovery can be staged in the next five months, they will be going the way of Luton Town – a third successive drop, and life outside of the Football League. Bristol City and Wolves famously hit three snakes in a row too on the football board-game of the 1980s, but at least neither went lower than level four.

They say you find out who your true friends are in times of desperate need, and an average of around 6,000 fans are rallying round the club for home games at the moment. For away fixtures, the Green Army continue to turn out in force – there would have been more than 1,050 at the 3-1 Devon derby defeat at Torquay if the allocation had been greater, while 1,272 visiting supporters attended the 2-1 reverse at Cheltenham. Even the midweek 5-1 hammering at Oxford attracted over 700 Plymouth fans, respectable figures considering a Kassam massacre was expected (and ensued).

With times so tough, how should we react as supporters when players at the clubs we love seem to be in such a fragile mental state? Angry words and gestures probably aren’t going to help (especially at Argyle, where almost half the squad are under the age of 21) while only the most fervent fans can maintain vocal levels of encouragement and enthusiasm for the full 90 minutes as the goals rain in past their floundering keeper. It’s all relative, of course – if you’re paying £50 a ticket to watch Premier League multi-millionaires, your patience is going to be thinner than that of a long-suffering lower-league supporter. But no fan can tolerate a lack of effort and fight – and the alarming Opta statistic on tackles won by Argyle players compared to Stourbridge in Tuesday’s game suggests they were shirking from the challenge.

That’s a big worry, especially as the club’s next three fixtures are all against relegation rivals – home to Northampton (20th), away to Bradford (22nd) and home to Hereford (19th). The will to win is likely to be more important than tactics and style.

Argyle fans have to try and transmit some positivity, perhaps by drawing on the qualities they have shown since the club started sliding down this horrible helter-skelter, on which rock bottom still appears some way off (the club may be propping up the Football League, but there is still room for further decline). Former Argyle boss Ian Holloway always used to loathe the word “expectations” being used around Home Park; he was usually optimistic, but refused to pander to those outsiders who wanted to set targets for him and his players. So with a nod to Ollie, here’s an acronym that Pilgrims and all supporters can relate to:

Humility - Those members of the Argyle faithful (and there were many) who chortled throughout rivals Exeter’s dalliance with spoon-bending director Uri Geller and his ilk, their subsequent administration and their Conference wilderness years aren’t smiling any more. Moreover, the generosity of spirit shown by fans of Brighton and other clubs who visited Home Park for two ‘Fans Reunited’ days, or who wished Argyle well via messageboards or social media, demonstrated that – on the terraces at least – the existence of a genuine ‘football family’ populated by selfless supporters conscious of crises greater than their own is no myth.

One - The unity engendered by the fight for survival has undoubtedly strengthened the Green Army. The Argyle Trust worked tirelessly with James Brent to continue to push through his takeover when all seemed lost (former Trust chairman Chris Webb is now the club’s honorary president), while fundraising efforts by the Green Taverners group and web forum PASOTI raised over £100,000 for unpaid staff. The story of 22-year-old club chef Nathan Tonna is a case in point – his world gradually fell apart as Argyle’s cash crisis deepened. He believes administrators “lied” to staff (many of whom, like him, were fans) in order to persuade them to stay in their jobs and ensure the club remained a going concern. But donations raised by the fans helped employees like Nathan through the hardship, and fostering that sense of togetherness on and off the pitch is going to be vital.

Perspective - Argyle are lucky to be alive. Were it not for Brent and his persistence, the club would have been liquidated last month. Blue Square Premier football would be heart-breaking, but it is not a fate worse than death. Doncaster Rovers, Carlisle United, Oxford United and, yes, even Exeter, have been there and come back. Looking at the Conference North and South table suggests trips to places like Hyde and Woking await. Plymouth are a well-supported club, but size and history won’t count for much in the coming weeks. Thank heaven we’re still here – carpe diem and all that.

Emotion - “It’s all about character,” Fletcher told the club website when asked if his players could bounce back from losing to Stourbridge. These are dark days indeed, but one beacon of light is the arrival on loan of no-nonsense centre-back Darren Purse, who went to watch the FA Cup tie and whose passionate words had Chris Webb and PASOTI’s Ian Newell purring afterwards. Former Bournemouth and Doncaster manager Sean O’Driscoll was in attendance too, on Fletcher’s invitation – he wanted to hear the opinions of his old Cherries boss.

Argyle’s only home win this season – a 2-0 victory over Macclesfield – came on the occasion of the first ‘Fans Reunited’ day at Home Park in late September. A crowd of 6,005 was far from capacity, but it was the quality of the support more than the quantity that helped make the difference. The players put in the effort, and were rewarded with the emotion – a carnival atmosphere grew in the ground as the game progressed. A fortnight later, and over 8,000 turned out for the club’s 125th anniversary fixture against Accrington which finished 2-2. It’s a two-way street  - desire on the pitch, die-hard support from the stands.

For everything that the Argyle faithful have been put through in the last five years – the chronic mismanagement, the poor performances, the relegations, the shameful mistreatment of staff and players during the administration process – they keep turning out to support their team, praying for a change in fortunes, like any true fan would. The performance at Stourbridge was shameful and put the bond between fans and players at risk. Yet to quote Elvis Costello: ‘The vow that we made, you broke it in two, But that don’t stop me from loving you’.

And where there’s love, there has to be hope.

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Thanks to Steve and Trev from Greens on Screen - the essential Argyle resource – for the picture.

Reid’s firing is a Ridsdale mercy killing

Tuesday, September 20th, 2011

Peter Ridsdale’s decision to change Plymouth Argyle’s manager now is kinder on Peter Reid than it might first appear.

Carl Fletcher will have more than just the Green Army cheering on his charges when his caretaker stint begins in earnest. The former Wales international has been handed the Pilgrims’ managerial reins on a temporary basis after the dismissal of Peter Reid, and his first test as boss is against Macclesfield at Home Park this Saturday.

The League Two fixture will see ‘Fans Reunited‘, as faithful followers of Brighton and other clubs descend on the crisis-hit Devon outfit to lend their voices and show solidarity for Argyle’s plight.

It’s a reciprocal gesture after a 14-year-old Argyle supporter inspired the original ‘Fans United’ day over 14 years ago, when the Goldstone Ground attendance was swelled to nearly 8,500 thanks to the presence of a mix of match-goers from up and down the country appalled at the asset-stripping, slow death inflicted on Albion by the notorious David Bellotti and Bill Archer. Brighton were subsequently forced into a long nomadic existence fraught with financial peril and only recently ended by their move to their impressive new Amex Stadium home.

Plymouth’s current plight has been well documented and although more optimistic noises are now being made about the club’s future, following the decision of the administrators to turn their attentions away from property developer Kevin Heaney’s BIL consortium to the more palatable proposal offered by local businessman James Brent and backed by The Argyle Trust, the Pilgrims are by no means out of the woods yet. The latest wage deferral agreed by the Argyle squad and staff lasts until next Monday, and their patience is now wafer thin.

But while Brent continues to negotiate with stakeholders, attention has turned in recent days to matters on the pitch – and the sacking of Reid by acting chairman Peter Ridsdale on Sunday. Looking back on the comments of then-chairman Sir Roy Gardner on the occasion of Reid’s appointment in June 2010, it’s clear with hindsight that the likeable Scouse was accepting a chalice laced with more poison than anything the England job ever carried. Even Dr Crippen would have baulked at proffering it.

Talk of “aspirations and ambitions”, a return to the Championship and the need to “move on” from the disappointment of relegation provided scant hint of the financial abyss growing wider by the day under the Argyle directors’ feet, and into which the whole club and all associated with it would plummet a few months later.

The frantic scramble for survival in early 2011 resulted in Reid losing his best players, such as Bradley Wright-Phillips and Craig Noone, while a transfer embargo imposed on the club prevented him from even attempting to replace them. With no-one getting paid and the club’s coffers empty, he put his hand in his own pocket to pay the Home Park heating bill and later donated his own FA Cup runners-up medal to auction off for staff funds. Lest we forget, he would have kept Argyle in League One, were it not for the 10-point deduction imposed by the Football League for going into administration – and that should count as an achievement. The circumstances were horrendous and once relegation was confirmed, they got even worse.

It seems remarkable that any player would have agreed to join Argyle in the summer, with no guarantees of being paid until a takeover was completed. However, there were a few optimistic enough to put pen to paper and sign on – but not enough to give Reid a decent stab at fielding a competitive team again, even by League Two standards. Fletcher, long-serving goalkeeper Romain Larrieu (now caretaker first-team coach) and new arrival Warren Feeney are the only thirty-somethings at Home Park. Half the first-team squad are teenagers.

Reid’s stoicism and indefatigability cannot be questioned but increasingly, his task looked Sisyphean – a repetitive slog of drudgery, always ending in defeat (and referencing another mythic Greek figure seems appropriate for a club previously compared to Icarus on these pages). After an opening-day 1-1 draw at Shrewsbury (a result salvaged by a late Fletcher strike), eight straight defeats mean Argyle are already five points from safety a fifth of the way through the campaign, with a goal difference of -16. If football management is essentially one long game of ‘winner stays on’, then the frustrations of Fletcher and Larrieu at the losing sequence were always going to lead to cries of “let us have a go” until Ridsdale relented. That’s not to say there was any sort of dressing-room revolt against Reid; just that there were two senior professionals who were keen as mustard to step up.

That’s what makes Ridsdale’s decision a little easier to stomach. To outsiders looking in, it appears cruel and heartless; but you could argue the opposite too. However you dress it up, there is an element of putting a man out of his misery, and that can only be done out of sympathy. Reid had proven already that he would carry on whatever the circumstances, and as no income is currently available, it’s not like he’s missing out on anything. As a football creditor, he will get his two-year contract paid up in full when a takeover is completed. If Ridsdale had left Reid in his post, there is little to suggest the poor form would have abated – and if you’re still dubious, hear Reid’s own words. In his only comments to the media thus far, he told the Western Morning News:

“I’m disappointed I couldn’t see the job through. The results haven’t been good enough, whatever the extenuating circumstances. But I’m really proud to have been the manager of Plymouth Argyle.

“I know what the club means to the area and the priority, as I have said all along, is for it to keep going.

“I was embarrassed we kept getting beaten, because losing is just not in my nature, but the supporters have kept getting behind us.

“I have been privileged to play for and manage some so-called big clubs, but none have had fans as loyal and passionate, and who travel so far to away games, as those at Argyle.

“It’s just amazing, and that’s why this football club has got to keep going. I wish everyone well.”

An admission of failure, yes. But not bitterness; only goodwill and affection. Prolonging Reid’s tortured tenure, perhaps into the early days of a new regime, may have changed everyone’s sentiments when the time came for a parting of ways. Fletcher and Larrieu feel they can do a better job – they now have a chance to prove it. There is too much talk of legends in football, but Reid’s hard work and dignity in departure certainly means his name has been written into the mythology and folklore of Plymouth Argyle.

Argyle are still drawing an average crowd of 5,500 at Home Park, which is not bad for a stadium that’s only seen 21 home wins in the last 73 league games. On Saturday, the Green Army have to hope that the ‘Fans Reunited’ impact is similar to that engendered by ‘Fans United’ in Brighton in 1997 – a 5-0 home win over Hartlepool, which helped Albion avoid the drop out of the Football League.

Written by Jon Holmes of TEAMtalk.com, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle blogger.

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Argyle facing worst case scenario

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Happy birthday, Plymouth Argyle – though you may not see another one.

Arsenal are celebrating their 125th anniversary this season. Despite their recent trophy drought and current malaise, the Gunners remain one of the most successful clubs in English football history, behind only Manchester United and Liverpool in terms of league titles won. Earlier this year, the US business magazine Forbes ranked Arsenal as the third most valuable soccer team in the world, worth around £724million.

Plymouth Argyle are also celebrating their 125th anniversary this season. The club has never played at the top level of English football, coming closest in 1953 when it finished fourth in the old Second Division. Earlier this year, Argyle went into administration with debts of almost £18million, and now faces a genuine threat of liquidation unless a protracted takeover attempt can be completed in the coming days.

In January 2009, Arsenal and Plymouth met in an FA Cup third-round tie at the Emirates Stadium, with the visitors backed by 9,000 travelling supporters on the day – truly a Green Army. Only two goals separated the sides, the hosts running out deserved 3-1 winners.

Now, just over two-and-a-half years later, Arsenal are said by some to be ’a club in crisis’, with their depleted squad and under-fire manager battling to qualify for the Champions League group stages and to avoid a potentially painful conclusion to the summer transfer window. Argyle, on the other hand, lie 22nd in the fourth tier, with barely a penny to their name and the prospect of becoming the first Football League club to go to the wall in 19 years.

So Argyle flickered briefly on Arsenal’s radar not so long ago. So they share an anniversary. You may be thinking:  so what?

It’s a fair question. Why should the Gunners fanbase give two hoots about a provincial club several divisions below their own and based nearly 200 miles away from north London? Why, for that matter, should any body of supporters other than Pilgrims fans care about Plymouth Argyle?

Sorry tales of misguided ambition and irresponsible business practice, such as the one that has unfolded at the Devon club, have become increasingly common in the modern game. The likes of Leeds United, Southampton, Crystal Palace and Portsmouth have all teetered on the brink of oblivion in recent years, only to be pulled back from the edge – some at the 11th hour. There are many more examples of clubs in administration or who have entered into CVAs to save themselves.

Whilst feeling sympathy for the innocent parties caught up in these dramas – such as staff, players, supporters, St John Ambulance and local traders, to name a few – there is relatively little that can be done to help, from the outside looking in. For every new club that is admitted to football’s casualty ward, most might feel pity, but some may feel a degree of compassion fatigue as well.

Like Argyle, Maidstone United were victims of their own ambition too, going bankrupt in August 1992 just three years after winning promotion to the Football League. The Stones folded just two days after the first-ever Premiership season was launched. Since then, several former Football League clubs have folded, but only after being relegated from the League – namely Scarborough (2007), Halifax Town (2008), Chester City (2010) and earlier this year, Rushden and Diamonds. All have been ‘reborn’ to some extent, with phoenix clubs rising from the ashes and placed or entered at various lower echelons of the pyramid.

It may not have to come to that for Argyle, who are the only professional club in England’s 16th biggest city and would therefore represent ‘shock value’ on the back pages. Their predicament is somewhat complicated but in a nutshell, their administrator must secure a buyer willing to take on the day-to-day running costs of the club and who meets Football League approval before the next wage packets are due to be paid to players and staff. The characters in this drama are as follows:

The administrator – Brendan Guilfoyle, who managed to guide Crystal Palace out of a similarly nerve-wracking administration process this time last year. Guilfoyle faces a different final hurdle in Plymouth to that presented in south-east London 12 months ago. Should the hurdle prove insurmountable, Guilfoyle’s boss at The P&A Partnership (a firm of independent business support practitioners based in Sheffield) will instruct him to liquidate Argyle.

The preferred bidder – property developer Kevin Heaney and his Bishop International Ltd consortium (BIL). To seal the deal, Heaney, whose Cornish Homes business went bust in 2008, must strike an agreement with key creditors (around £2.1million) and come up with a further £3.2million. He recently claimed this money was tied up in a separate property deal, but now insists the full amount can be produced by Friday’s deadline. However, there is a major additional complication. Heaney is also the chairman of Truro City FC, recently promoted to the Blue Square South. Football governance in England prevents Heaney from having control over more than one club, which is why he is proposing to sell the football side of the business for £1 to…

The acting Chairman – Peter Ridsdale. From Leeds to Barnsley to Cardiff and then Plymouth, Ridsdale’s name has become inextricably linked with football clubs in a parlous financial state – yet he would always argue that he is more saviour than sinner. Ridsdale needs to convince the Football League to give its approval to the BIL takeover plan, with Heaney taking Argyle’s land assets and Ridsdale taking on the liabilities of the club. BIL intend to provide funds to cover Argyle’s predicted shortfall, but the plan may contravene the rules on ownership.

In recent days, Ridsdale has begun blogging on football finance and other matters at peterridsdale.com. He told one visitor who posted a comment relating to Argyle that the club was still ”in real danger of folding due to poor management and a head in the sand mentality” before adding that Heaney was “the only viable solution”. Despite this, the Argyle Fans’ Trust continues to propose an alternative takeover plan backed by local businessman James Brent, should Heaney’s bid fail – but the tight remaining timescale means that deal may struggle.

Meanwhile, on the pitch, Peter Reid’s threadbare, youth-heavy squad (seven members of the starting line-up in Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Gillingham were aged 22 or under) fight on, and in the Home Park offices, the staff members who have deferred their wages for a staggering eight months continue to put in the hours. All are hoping for positive news in the coming days, but all realise the club is essentially on life support and that cannot continue indefinitely.

For the rest of football, the passing of Plymouth Argyle would constitute something akin to the death of a famous musician. Everyone’s heard of them, many have seen them live, most knew they were in a bad way, and few would fail to be shocked by their demise – but the beautiful game would carry on, with or without them, phoenix club or not. On the padlocked gates of Home Park, an epitaph, perhaps that which adorns the headstone of comedian Spike Milligan: “I told you I was ill.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. The uncertainty and financial strain of administration is painful enough without the aching hole that would be left by liquidation.

For Pilgrims fans, their fondest memories – such as Pele’s visit to Home Park with Santos for a friendly in 1973 that attracted over 37,000 fans, a 1984 FA Cup semi-final against Watford at Villa Park, a Wembley play-off final win in 1996, divisional titles in 2002 and 2004, that trip to play Arsenal, and more – will never die. But 125 years of history will sadly count for very little if football’s grim reaper comes calling for Argyle.

Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle Blogger & Writer for TEAMTalk

Jon tweets at @jonboy79

Peace yet to break out in Plymouth

Saturday, August 6th, 2011

The Green Army’s patriotism for Plymouth Argyle has been sorely tested in recent months – and they continue to march into the unknown.

There may be no ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ for football fans, but stumping up hundreds of pounds for a season ticket to watch your club must come pretty close to an equivalent oath of loyalty. No one can question your commitment when you hold that little plastic book or card. You’ve made a statement, akin to: ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of (insert name of Football League outfit here) for at least 23 home fixtures. Even if I can’t make a match, I’ve paid for it, and I’ll get priority on cup ties and away games too. One club under the chairman, indivisible, with liberty, and justice for all.’

Of course, that last sentence, paraphrased from the American original, would stick in the craw of many supporters – none more so than the foot soldiers of Plymouth Argyle, stationed at the League’s most south-westerly outpost. Their football club and stadium are poised to be split between two unpopular chairmen; the fanbase remains loyal, but divided on several issues; and liberty and justice appeared to set sail from the Hoe many months ago.

The picture was very different nine years ago, when Home Park was truly a fortress. Argyle went unbeaten at the stadium for 12 months and more as they battled their way out of fourth-tier obscurity. Although subsequent home skirmishes were occasionally lost, the confident Pilgrims were winning the war and they conquered the third tier in 2004, earning themselves a place in the rebranded Championship. Three-quarters of the ground having been renovated, the average attendance was over 16,000. Managers and players came and went, but Argyle remained upwardly mobile, posting over £1million profit as the team finished 10th in May 2008. However, the events that ensued should serve as a cautionary tale to any club striving to reach the top-flight – for Argyle were Icarus, and they flew too close to the sun.

That 2007/8 campaign represented a pivotal season for Argyle, the apex of their ascent. The inspirational Ian Holloway had defected to Leicester in November, several star players were also lured away in January, and the average crowd had dropped to 13,000 – despite the fact the play-off path to the Premier League’s promised land lay just four points away in the final reckoning. As Hull went up, the albatross marked ‘biggest English city never to grace the top-flight’ passed to the neck ofPlymouth, where it shall surely hang heavy for several years to come (how apt that another maritime location should have inherited that particular burden). And despite the books recording a profit that summer, the weight of financial pressure was already bearing down on Argyle.

In December 2006, the club had bought the Home Park freehold from the city council for £2.7 million – a deal that seemed to make good business sense at the time. Yet it also accelerated the need for external investment in order to complete the stadium project. To that end, the Argyle board – a group of local businessmen, headed by Paul Stapleton – agreed in April 2008 to sell 20% of the club’s shares to a company owned by Japanese multi-millionaire Yasuaki Kagami, with the aim of widening the club’s global profile and ultimately achieving Premier League status. With a wealthy investor now on board, the club pushed the boat out and splurged on the wage bill. Striker Emile Mpenza was one such addition, at around £10,000 a week – a colossal salary by Argyle standards. But in December, funds promised from Japan failed to materialise, setting a trend which would continue for the duration of their involvement at Argyle. The financial situation worsened so quickly that in March, the board realised they could not even afford to follow through on a unanimous decision to sack manager Paul Sturrock. The cost of making the change was beyond them. The club hung on to their Championship status that season, finishing 21st – five points above Norwich. Two years later, it would be the Canaries celebrating promotion to the Premier League, while Argyle would find themselves right back where they started the century – in the basement division.

The Pilgrims were now in financial quicksand, scrabbling for a financial foothold. Two helping hands were proffered – they belonged to telecommunications entrepreneur Keith Todd CBE, and former Manchester United plc chairman Sir Roy Gardner. Todd met with Kagami and a plan was hatched. The Japanese stake would rise to 38%; Todd and Gardner would acquire 13% between them; and the remaining local businessmen would retain 49%. Stapleton later said:

“To pass the baton on to people with some of the best CVs you could get…we thought we couldn’t have picked safer hands. But we wanted to stay involved. The dream was: ‘We’re the boys to take the team to the Premiership’. We could be part of it and we thought we had the right people to make it happen. We thought Sir Roy was our knight in shining armour.”

He wasn’t, and the 2009/10 campaign was an unmitigated disaster. Todd concentrated most of his efforts on Plymouth’s World Cup 2018 host city bid, a project with potential for huge transformation to Home Park and the surrounding area – if only FIFA executive committee members smiled favourably on the bid as a whole. As it transpired, global football politics would kill off that particular pipe dream in December 2010, by which time at least £1million had been wasted on stadium planners and consultants by Todd. His partnership with the hands-off Gardner had been heralded as a ‘New World’ for Argyle, using the iconic image of the Pilgrim Fathers’ Mayflower ship setting sail for uncharted territory, namely the Premier League. Instead, former crowd favourite Paul Mariner, lured back to Devon from the US to replace Sturrock, could only pilot the vessel to 23rd place and League One.

Another winding-up petition was then dodged, but with relegation resulting in a TV revenue drop of £3million and a wage bill around four times that of Oldham’s, it was clear that Argyle were in dire financial straits. The club’s bank account was frozen; payments to staff and players were at first sporadic and later dried up, resulting in months of considerable hardship for many. By the end of 2010, Argyle were estimated to be around £7million in debt and HM Revenue and Customs were pushing for liquidation. Todd and Gardner headed out, the Japanese contingent promised money that never arrived and Stapleton had to turn to an old friend – Peter Ridsdale – in an attempt to attract investors, study the books and save the club. However, a desperate January fire sale of the Pilgrims’ best players only raised enough funds to stave off the taxman and on March 4, the game was up. The administrators were officially called in, and Argyle’s humiliation was complete. The final debt figure was over £17million.

While the Green Army rallied around the club, with fans’ groups The Argyle Trust, Green Taverners and PASOTI raising money to assist the unpaid staff, Peter Reid and his players were ultimately sunk on the pitch by the 10-point Football League penalty, resulting in a second relegation in two years. With many creditors being Argyle fans, and the club’s survival uppermost in everyone’s thoughts, a CVA offering just 0.77 pence in the pound was approved in early May. Those voting expected local businessman James Brent to be named preferred bidder for a takeover – but administrator Brendan Guilfoyle then revealed he had chosen a mystery consortium instead.

After weeks of denials and speculation, the aforementioned fans’ groups unmasked the frontman of that consortium – Truro City chairman Kevin Heaney, a property developer once riding high on the Sunday Times’ Rich List until his Cornish Homes business was liquidated in 2008. With ample development opportunities aroundHomePark, his motives for involvement with Argyle are obvious, which only serves to make the level of secrecy surrounding his consortium Bishop International Ltd (BIL) all the more peculiar. The company is registered inGibraltar, where the names of its owners and money-men can be concealed behind nominees. Professing thatTruroremains his footballing passion, he plans to sell the football side of the Argyle business to Ridsdale for £1. As for the identities of those investors, Heaney’s claims of a joint venture with a “heavyweight” Irish property developer remain unproven and at the time of writing, only £300,000 has been handed over by BIL. The £5million earmarked to complete the takeover is reportedly tied up in a separate, uncompleted property deal; the Football League have allowed Argyle to register new signings but are holding fire on giving approval to BIL; an increasingly exasperated Guilfoyle has issued Heaney with a warning that the club needs money now; while Ridsdale’s comment on the situation was “as long as the cheque clears, I don’t care.” The fans’ groups, fearing the worst, continue to work on a contingency plan, with the assistance of Brent.

Undoubtedly, some regular match-goers (and more casual observers) will have walked away from Home Park for the last time, either on principle or because they perceive the product to be poor. For others, it’s a Catch-22 – they know the club (and specifically the staff) are relying on season-ticket money coming in, but feel proferring it at this stage amounts to a sanction of the shady consortium and Ridsdale’s stewardship. The majority of season-ticket holders appear to have taken that ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ and renewed (nearly 3,000 have been sold, at a competitive £340 for adults) even though the words and actions of Heaney, Ridsdale and Guilfoyle continue to engender suspicion and distrust. At least this money has been ring-fenced, just in case the takeover collapses.

For the rest of the fanbase, it’s a case of attending when finances and circumstances can afford it, like most supporters, and the Green Army is certainly well served by its ‘reserve force’. A 1,600 sell-out could even be possible in the Shrewsbury away end on the opening day – and that’s because, for the average Argyle fan, “his first avowed intent is to be a Pilgrim” (as John Bunyan’s hymn has it) and cheer on his team. Just don’t expect him to cheer on the commanders in chief.

Written by Jon Holmes, We Are Going Up’s Plymouth Argyle Blogger

Jon tweets at @jonboy79