Friday, September 27, 2013

The Plan For Higher Home Park

What follows I actually wrote in January of this year. Since then, as some of the detail has slowly emerged, the plan seems to have worsened.

Why am I an Argyle supporter? Or, indeed, why support any team as unfashionable as us? Or any team at all that is relatively unlikely to actually win something other than the odd promotion here and there? Apart from the fact that it was the only way to watch regular live football when I grew up it is the very real excitement and anticipation of matchday that does it for me and it's been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.

I first started going with my brother and we had Grandstand season tickets in the 1972/3 season ~ you didn't really want to be on the terraces with a small child in those days ~ when we used to wear the green and white Arsenal/Hibsalike kit. Dave Provan, Jim Furnell, Steve Davey, Jimmy Hinch, Les Latcham, Alan Dowling, Neil Hague, Hughie Reed, Bobby Saxton spring to mind. As does an afternoon off school to see the Manchester City League Cup semi-final. It was during the 3-day week period of Ted Heath's government and is one of the earliest vivid Argyle memories that I have; 30,390 fans packed into Home Park on a Wednesday afternoon. As a kid I used to play football in Central Park with my mates and, if we weren't at a game, we'd all desperately hope to score a goal as the team did and so hear the roar of celebration from Home Park across the muddy fields as we celebrated slotting one between the rolled-up jumpers. We also couldn't wait until we were old enough to be allowed to go to Argyle on our own and as soon as we were old enough we did.

My Mum ran a corner shop in Peverell's Quarry Park Road (long since closed and converted to housing) and we lived more or less opposite it; home games were always eagerly anticipated; the shop would stay open late for evening games; there were extra pasty deliveries for Saturday afternoons - the smell was delicious. Matchday was always just there: the people, traffic congestion, lack of parking and, most of all, the sounds emanating from the stadium during a match: the celebration, singing, groaning, moaning, cheering, the blast of a ref’s whistle… Just as the smell of Farley’s rusks being baked provided an olfactory backdrop to my childhood then Argyle on matchday provided a soundtrack. The matchday vibe was so strong I could almost taste it. Argyle's marketing department in those days used to send out a poster to local businesses detailing all home games (reserve games too in the Combination League back then) and with the poster was a pair of complimentary tickets. My fate was sealed very early on!

What memories there were. I was 10 when Mariner and Rafferty led us to Promotion under Tony Waiters's managership in 1975 and 28,744 saw us play Blackburn in another famous midweek fixture. I was one of the 23,551 when we beat Colchester 1-0 to eventually go up. I was one of 17,473 when Jim Furnell saved a last minute penalty from Terry Venables in a 2nd round (!) FA Cup match v. Palace... Big crowds and electric atmospheres. Occasions never to be forgotten (unlike the night we played Pele's Santos and 37639 turned up about which I recall nothing at all). Occasions never to be repeated if Home Park's capacity is capped at only 18,000.

My Argyle-going whilst I was at school was semi-frequent. My Mum sold the shop so the free tickets dried up, money restricted when I could go but I went whenever I could. After leaving school I moved away and went to college and it was in my first year there that I really became hooked and there was no going back. Living away from Plymouth the only contact I had with old friends was when we arranged to meet at matches ~ no internet or mobile phones in those days! Christmas and Easter games became absolute must-sees and away games were chosen with a view to a studenty stop-over whenever possible. And then came arguably Argyle's finest hour: the run to the FA Cup semi-final in 1984. The impact of all of this on me as a young man was immense and my strongest and fondest footballing memories stem from this period. 34,365 fans packed into Home Park to see us play Derby in the drawn quarter-final that we were to win after a replay (Derby only attracted an attendance of 26906 for the replay ~ “we've got more fans than you!” we sang in jubilation at them from their own terraces.) By the time of another fantastic mid-week occasion when we won promotion under Dave Smith in 1986 (beating Bristol City in front of a supposed 20,000 sell-out crowd ~ nobody believes this figure to be anywhere near high enough) I was a lost cause. I was completely besotted by my football team and I still am.

Still the good times didn't last long because they never have done for Argyle. Apart from an unforgettable afternoon at Wembley when 30,000 Argyle fans and 9,000 Darlington fans went to the play-off final in 1996 a series of disastrous managerial decisions led to Argyle sinking to their lowest ever position before there was improvement and then came the glory of the Sturrock years. So why do I support Argyle? Who else could it possibly be!

Apart from the glory of the Big Occasion I have a whole raft of other reasons and although our relatively fleeting “success” may lie at the heart of the beginning of my support, as it does for so many others, it doesn’t really sit that highly on the list any more ~ after the last 5 years how could it? If it did I would have stopped going by now. So I started going regularly when I was about 7 and loved it even if I didn’t pay much heed to the game itself. I went lots of times and Argyle rarely lost; in fact I didn’t even really understand that they could until a Don Masson-inspired Notts County banged 4 past us to much loudly-voiced discontent from the Janner faithful on the first, but not last, occasion which brought home to me fpr the first time just how ruined a day could be by a football match; on that day Don Masson broke this little boy’s heart and I can still feel the hurt, anger, resentment and injustice of it as I type this (not that it was remotely unfair in any way at all but that doesn’t come into it, does it?).

I’ve already described how free tickets occasionally came my way and my first taste of success came in the Mariner/Rafferty year and I have been completely lost to the cause ever since. So that was the success that dragged me in; it is always success that cements the place of a team in your heart. So we are now where we are which is in the midst of a desperate struggle to avoid relegation with a team that, although improving, just might not be good enough to wriggle free from the peril facing it and any prospect of success or glory is still a speck on the horizon just as it nearly always has been during the 40ish years of my following the team.

And yet still I go and I wouldn't want things to be any other way. So it isn’t the glory, although that helps, and it isn’t living on the doorstep because I no longer do and it is not the odd free ticket because I am now a season ticket holder. So what is it? I suppose the opportunity to meet up with mates is a very large part of it; maybe it is the chance to let off a little steam; maybe it is the chance to have a good grumble; maybe it is the endless provision of talking points and memories; maybe it just kills a bit of free time; maybe it is the craic; maybe it is the excuse to travel to places I would otherwise never visit; maybe just a bit of me-time. In fact it is all of those things. They are not enough though: not individually or as any possible permutation and not collectively. So what is it? I guess it is the optimism and the hope that Argyle will one day supply the success and glory that we Pilgrims all yearn for and for which I personally have been yearning for far too long now. Supporting Argyle has largely amounted to being a very long exercise in the triumph of hope over expectation but please never confuse that with my having an acceptance of mediocrity or lacking ambition.

The hope is the most important thing of all. So I support Argyle not because they are good because I know they usually are not and not because they succeed because they fail far more often. That is the contract that I unwittingly bought into when I was 7 years old and that still represents a contract that I couldn’t ever imagine breaking. Besides it is having experienced the bad times that makes the good times so precious when they do come along.

So how do achieve more regular success? This is modern football and it all comes down to money in the end and there is only 2 ways to get it: 1) subsidy via a benevolent owner; 2) generating our own income. If we are to generate our own income we need the infra-structure (i.e. the stadium, scouting, coaching) that will allow us to cash-in on the Good Times when they come. To my mind this is a fundamental issue. When, or maybe "if" would be more appropriate given all that has happened to the club in recent years, the Grandstand gets replaced it will define the club and either its limitations or ambition for generations to come. Over the years we have seen many variants in the plan to modernise the stadium going all the way back to Dan McCauley's vision for a "Tradium", through to the construction by Barr of the horseshoe that "encircles" three sides of the current Home Park. We have had various versions of a new "South Stand" that we was to be built "imminently" all the way through to the now-abandoned plans to build a 47,000 capacity all-seater stadium for the 2018 World Cup bid. Currently we have Mr Brent's proposal for Higher Home Park and it is foolish to dismiss this as just words or pie-in-the-sky thinking or to box them up with the unrealised, and many would suggest, unrealisable, plans espoused by the old regimes in their various guises over the last 20 years.

Mr Brent has proven himself to be a man who undeniably and demonstrably gets things done and gets things done exactly how he wants them to be done. If he wants, genuinely wants, a new stand to be built I have little doubt that it will be. So what sort of facility do we require to replace the old grandstand? Obviously it will need to house the infrastructure that a modern football club demands. This extends beyond the seats that the attending bums will perch on and includes all of the incumbent media facilities, changing rooms, offices, club shop, matchday catering for the scarfed-up hoi polloi and corporate hospitality for the Prawn Sandwich Brigade. The model, apparently, is to emulate the revolution that has occurred just up the A38 at the Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park where the facilities inside the ground have generated over £1m/year in revenue and that £1m has enabled the Chiefs to, rather annoyingly to me as a Plymothian, become a major player in English rugby union. The plan is to do something similar at Home Park but to do it bigger and better. So that was the plan as far as I understood it

Or so we were led to believe hut this plan does not cut it. . The new stand will obviously need to be a significant structure just to fit all of that stuff into it which brings me back to the core question: how big should our new stand, and by extension, Home Park be? Which, at least, mildly encouraging. The debate has moved on from a blanket rejection of any redevelopment plans at all. The mantra of "football not freehold" which once echoed so resoundingly has gone. Only the most defiantly Luddite amongst our support would suggest that we don't need to do anything at all any more. In no small part this is because we have seen the debilitating effect of the struggles we have endured for the last few years: firstly the Mayflower Terrace was closed giving the ground a sadly derelict and neglected look and feel which has cancerously eaten away at matchday atmosphere; secondly we have seen Zoo Corner (Blocks 15 -19) closed. "Fortress Home Park" where the club could confidently expect to win more often than not and where the home fans created a genuinely intimidating atmosphere that unsettled visiting teams quite simply no longer exists. "Sandcastle Home Park" is more like it these days and visiting sides regularly disappear back to the Grim North gratefully clutching results I would prefer that they did not have and which, at one time, they would never have expected to achieve. "Oh it isn't that ~ it's the years of decline that has caused Home Park's atmosphere to die.” Well... maybe.

I see the closure of parts of the ground as the club responding to events, capitulating to events and not facing up to them. It's all horribly reactive as opposed to welcomingly proactive. These are the signs of a club drifting aimlessly both unable and unwilling to even try to shape its own destiny. These are the signs of a club battening down the hatches and hoping for the best and not of one grabbing the situation by the throat and imposing its own will. And of course the impact on the capacity of the ground is profoundly telling. With seats on the Mayflower Terrace capacity was around 20,000 but without them it was cut to around 16,000. Blocks 15-19 being shut loses around another 2500 seats, the segregation area beyond that loses even more and the block of seats set aside for away fans is usually massively under-filled. Last season Home Park operated with an effectively self-imposed limit on capacity. Of about 12,000. "No matter," the argument goes, "we didn't need those extra seats anyway. Our average attendance was only XXXXX. And even when we were in the CCC with a 20,000 capacity we only sold out 3 times and only averaged about 16000."

Well if that defeatist thinking prevails, as it seems to be where it matters most, then we might as well just give up now. There is no point in us even trying. The same logic could have applied back when Dan McCauley started his build. At that time we averaged about 5000 fans per home match. Why plan to build to a capacity of 18600 as he did? Before long it became all to clear as a resurgent Argyle swept up through the divisions and crowds built along the way. "Ah... but attendances never built beyond that 18600, did they!" comes the triumphant coup de grace. This is a response that both saddens and enrages me. It couldn't, could it? How stupid can people be? Apart from it being physically impossible to get more in than capacity allows there will always be under attendance at games: some people will always buy tickets and find that they are unable to attend; the away team will often not sell its entire allocation; seats need to be kept empty for segregation purposes. You will never get 18600 bums on 18600 seats, it is simply impossible, in Plymouth or anywhere else. And this suppresses the average attendance.

There is a deeper, more pernicious, almost intangible and rarely considered effect of limited capacity and that is that many people just do not bother even trying to go in the first place. To get seats they probably need to get tickets. That means an extra trip up to the ground days in advance. They may not fancy, or have time for that extra trip and they may not fancy the cost of committing to attendance in advance. What if it pours with rain? What if little Johnnie gets poorly? What if the in-laws pop around or get held up in traffic? And so on. It is these people who will ultimately be the ones who attend and transform Argyle's attendance levels. It is these people we need to attract to the ground. And it is these who will be put off the most easily. And we have been putting them off trying to attend for years and years. And we will continue to put them off if the current plan goes through. Those people will never experience the Big Occasion; those people will never become lifelong supporters like I did and like so many others did. Even if they do decide to go to a game with a half-decent attendance people are likely to go with friends or family. Can 5 or 6 seats be found together anywhere once they arrive? Or will they be dispersed to all parts of the ground? If they end up being sat next to some embarrassing idiot can they move? Will they come again? The dedicated fan does not care about such things but the casual one does and these things, along with cost of ticket and the quality and availability of refreshments, are pivotal to whether or not they come again and keep on coming.

And then there is the basic maths of it. An average figure is easily lowered by the low attendance on the short, dark, cold and often wet winter days or the early summer League Cup tie against unattractive opposition when people are still away on holiday. An Ester postponement or even having a home game scheduled for the Saturday before Christmas can make a difference. With a low ceiling on capacity those non-attendees can never be recovered. A low maximum capacity means a lower, much lower, average attendance than there might otherwise be. It amounts to a self-fulfilling prophesy; a circular argument that validates itself. It is not irrefutable proof that we do not need the extra capacity.

If we had a ground with 16000 capacity then that mythical average of 16000 would be completely and forever unattainable. And then there is the Darlington Argument...

"Look at Darlo," they say, "they've been bankrupted by having a stadium that is too big for them." This is pretty much true. What is not true is that the same would happen to us. Apart from being similarly distant from London I can think of few similarities between Darlo and Argyle as teams or Darlington and Plymouth as towns/cities. There's about 250,000 people living in Plymouth and loads more within travelling distance who could, potentially, be considered our supporters. Darlington has a population of about 100,000 and anybody living nearby who wanted to travel to a game would be just as likely to go to Newcastle, Sunderland or Middlesbrough. Our potential support level is almost unlimited because we have no viable alternative; Darlington's is very clearly very limited. That "ground too big for them" label is a damning one. Again it is true. With all the will I can muster I can only see Darlo attracting crowds of around 10,000 at the very best and so their stadium should be sized accordingly. They did not need and could not ever justify a 25,000 stadium. "We've got more fans than you" we mockingly sang at them back in '96 on that sunny day at Wembley (just as we sang the same song at Derby all those years before). It was just as true then as it is now. On that day they mustered around 9,000 supporters and we about 30,000. If your support won't turn out for a Wembley play-off final then when will it?

These are the figures that need to be borne in mind when our and their relative potentials are considered. Think back to that QPR Winner Takes All game. The attendance that day was 19,535 ~ lower, not by much but lower nevertheless, than capacity at the time, please note. Just how many tickets could we have sold for that match? I have no doubt that 30,000 tickets could easily have been sold. Maybe even 40,000. Maybe more. If we wait until we need that extra capacity then it will be too late to build it. At that point we are likely to be riding the crest of our next wave of success; we are likely to be a division or two higher up the league pyramid than we are now; we are likely to have a team of heroes who have inspired and united the support. We are also likely to find ourselves unable to compete financially; unable to afford to recruit players of the standard we need to progress; unable to retain our best players who will either be poached by teams with stronger finances (and, naturally, bigger stadia) or leave dismayed at our lack of ambition; momentum will be lost and a position of strength built on club unity and careful financial management will once again with depressing familiarity be squandered. Just as last time we were hamstrung by a stadium capacity of 20,000 Mr Brent's plan would hamstring us again except more so and the decline would kick in even earlier.

The redevelopment of Home Park has been either needed, talked about, revised and/or thrown out altogether or actually been actioned over regular intervals ever since I have been watching Argyle. The first "Phase 1" in my spectating years was the demolition of the old Devonport End. The roofing had fallen in to dangerous dereliction and it had to go. This was a huge shame. That old roofing kept the crowd noise in and create an awesome matchday atmosphere. No matter what anybody tells you about how great the atmosphere there has been since, including right up to the current day, it isn't the same any more and probably never will be again. The old Devonport End was demolished some time around 1978. It stayed shut for a year or two before a new roof was put on the end. It never looked right and always struck me as being akin to an over-sized biscuit tin lid. Capacity remained pretty much unaffected though and Home Park could still accommodate 35000 or people as it did when we played an FA Cup QF v Derby County in 1984.

The next phase came with the introduction of seating to the Lyndhurst. I'm struggling to put a date to this but it was Argyle's response to the Taylor Report's recommendation that football grounds, where possible, go all-seater. In many ways this was a second "Phase 1" and again it didn't lead to a Phase 2. Home Park was never to be the same again in terms of atmosphere. The horrid roof killed the Devonport and seating all but killed the Lyndy. Capacity was now drastically reduced to around 22000. And so it rumbled on in a typically botched Argyle sort of way until the latter days of the McCauley era. McCauley's vicissitude this time meant that he had had enough of Argyle and had let it be known that the club was up for sale, that he'd invested all the money he was going to and that once he got his £2m back he'd walk away. That resulted in basic maintenance becoming unaffordable and the ground slowly began to crumble and sections of it closed off. I remember watching us play Brighton with the Lyndurst being closed. That was in September 1999. McCauley's only consistent trait was his inconsistency. A plan to build a completely new "Tradium" adjacent to Home Park was announced and before long shelved before being abandoned in favour of a partial rebuild.

And so a new "Phase 1" was settled upon. The old Grandstand and Mayflower Terrace were to remain untouched but the other 3 sides were to be demolished and replaced by an off-the-shelf design from stadium builders Barr. It took years for the details about how much this would cost to emerge but McCauley, having long since left the club, spilled the beans in March 2006: "Phase one of the stadium development cost approximately £4.6m. This was financed by grants from Plymouth City Council (£2.5m) and the Football Trust (£1.5m). The Football Trust also made an interest-free loan to the club of £300,000 and the balance of £300,000 was met from the club's own resources. In addition, also in 2001, the Council agreed to pay £1.5m to the club as compensation to surrender its old lease, which had only ten years left to run. Therefore, in the past five years a total of £4m has been paid by the Council to the club towards the Home Park property." So Argyle got 3/4 of a brand new stadium for only £300k. McCauley was nothing if not a rather astute businessman! The latest "Phase1" was completed in 2002 with capacity now set at 18500. And so plans for "Phase 2" and the completion of a stadium "fit for champions" (- Plymouth City Council leader Tudor Evans speaking during the 2002 promotion reception at the Civic Centre) began to be discussed.

Eventually these plans led to the sale of the freehold in 2006 so that the club could try to raise the finance needed itself. Obviously it never did despite various plans coming and going and the build itself often being refereed to as happening "imminently". By now Home Park was something of an anachronism with it still having the Mayflower Terrace, a standing area, in front of the Grandstand. The Mayflower's days were coming to an end due to football ground regulations. By now Argyle was a second tier club and it had 2 years grace before the stadium had to be all-seater. In 2007 temporary seating was installed and other minor improvements lifted the capacity to around 20000. Argyle's recent financial meltdown led to cost-cutting and the temporary seating was removed (saving the club £100k per annum). The terrace that remained was unusable due to the crush barriers having been removed and I think it is against the league regulations, and possibly even the law of the land, to re-introduce standing anyway. As a result a once vibrant section of the ground lies empty and overall capacity has been cut to around 16000. Which is where we are today and once again we are looking to the future with new owner James Brent proposing that the club replaces the Grandstand...

So once again the question arises: Just how big does Home Park need to be? And there lies the rub. Mr Brent has said that he will pay for the grandstand without the club being burdened down by the cost and/or debt involved. As such I'm certain he wants to keep costs down (who wouldn't?) and that means building as small a stand as he can. As a fan I want to see what is probably a one-off chance to revolutionise the club off the field grasped and I want to see an ambitious plan and that does not allow for the, what I believe to be the inadequate, 16000 capacity that we currently have or anything remotely close to it. At a recent Q&A session with fans Mr Brent was asked about his stadium plans. This is what he said: “Capacity of the stadium has not been finally agreed but we hope will be circa 20,000 and will be designed to facilitate a further increase in capacity when required”. So I suppose it depends on what "circa 20,000" means. And what "designed to facilitate a further increase in capacity when required" means too.

Now we know c. 20000 means 17400 and further increase in capacity will never be either affordable or practical. I am convinced that a 20,000 capacity Home Park is too low for us and even more convinced that 17-18000 capacity is totally inadequate. Genuine all-out ambition would see us leap up to a 30k stadium. Cautiously optimistic ambition would see something in between. I would like to see us thinking considerably more ambitiously than the proposed 17-18,000 because thinking more ambitious than that is essential if we are ever to break through and achieve Mr Brent's self-proclaimed goal of Championship football. Our own lack of foresight would be what holds us back.

Back from what? What is success for Argyle? How do you judge the success, or otherwise, of a team or a manager? It's easy, for some teams, if you win something or get promoted then you are successful but is Liverpool FC currently successful? Is a League Cup good enough for them? It'd be an absolute triumph for Argyle that's for sure! For Argyle, right now, the reverse logic applies. Sitting near the foot of the Football League is failure for Argyle but, at the same time, not getting relegated would be a triumph. It's a funny old and entirely subjective business; it all depends on who and what you are. Well judging how we are perceived by others is notoriously difficult so this is how I see Argyle, and to lend context everybody else too...

The League clubs are effectively split into an unwritten hierarchy. The relative place in that hierarchy is determined partly by history, partly by form and current league position and partly by subjectivity. And it goes something like this:

Mega Clubs: Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland, West Ham United. To my mind these clubs are the nation's giants. It is these that should always be jostling for the major trophies. None of these should ever be outside the top division. Obviously it doesn't necessarily work out that way in practice. The next batch desperately want to be a Mega Club but they just aren't. Not quite. They rarely win a major trophy, and hark on about it relentlessly when they do, but they are occasionally in with a shout until the near inevitable heartbreak is visited upon them (usually by a Mega Club);

Sub-mega clubs/Wannabes: Middlesbrough; Derby County; Southampton; Sheffield United; Coventry City; Leicester City; Wolverhampton Wanderers; Nottingham Forest; Ipswich Town; Blackburn Rovers; Birmingham City; Bolton Wanderers; Stoke City; Charlton Athletic; Norwich City; Cardiff City; West Bromwich Albion. Wannabes: Fulham; Hull City; Queens Park Rangers; Bradford City; Preston North End; Barnsley; Brighton & Hove Albion; Crystal Place; Burnley; Bristol City; Wigan Athletic; Huddersfield Town; Reading; Portsmouth; Swansea City; Notts County; Millwall; Port Vale; Carlisle United. These are the middling clubs. Football's true mediocrities with very little recent history of success, or extravagant failure, but perhaps there is some glory lurking there in the distant past;

Sub-Wannabes: MK Dons; Tranmere Rovers; Blackpool; Swindon Town; Peterborough United; Brentford; Oxford United; Southend United; Bristol Rovers; Doncaster Rovers; Gillingham; Crewe Alexandra. No Hopers: Bury, Walsall, Oldham Athletic, Northampton, Chesterfield, Rochdale; Colchester United; Rotherham United; Wycombe Wanderers; Shrewsbury Town; AFC Bournemouth; Leyton Orient; This next batch might seem to be rather cruelly named. Once you see who they are you'll see why I've chosen them:

Non-Leaguers: Yeovil Town; Cheltenham Town; Burton Albion; Aldershot Town; Stevenage; Morecambe; Dagenham & Redbridge; Barnet; Macclesfield; Torquay United; Fleetwood; AFC Wimbledon; Crawley Town; Accrington Stanley. For them just being in the Football League is a triumph. They exist to struggle relentlessly against the odds. For them relegation out of the Football League is not an unthinkable disaster but a very realistic prospect that they need to be ready for.

You might have noticed that I have not included Argyle! So are we, or perhaps more importantly, do we aspire to be, an Accrington, Shrewsbury, Bristol Rovers, Barnsley, Norwich or a Sheffield Wednesday? Right now, by any reckoning, Argyle is failing badly but there is no logic in cementing that failure into Argyle's DNA by planning for perpetual relentless failure with no viable options for changing anything. I also suppose it all hinges on how you see Argyle as a club, where we might hope to be to be competing and who we hope to be competing against. So what of our competitors? Just who is it that we are trying to compete against? Here is a list of all of the current capacities of English football grounds as supplied by Wikipedia:

1 England 90000 Wembley Stadium
2 Manchester United 75811 Old Trafford
3 Arsenal 60361 Emirates Stadium
4 Newcastle United 52409 St. James' Park
5 Sunderland 49000 Stadium of Light
6 Manchester City 47405 City of Manchester Stadium
7 Liverpool 45276 Anfield
8 Aston Villa 42786 Villa Park
9 Chelsea 42449 Stamford Bridge
10 Everton 40157 Goodison Park
11 Sheffield Wednesday 39812 Hillsborough Stadium
12 Leeds United 37900 Elland Road
13 Tottenham Hotspur 36230 White Hart Lane
14 West Ham United 35303 The Boleyn Ground
15 Middlesbrough 34998 Riverside Stadium
16 Derby County 33502 Pride Park Stadium
17 Southampton 32689 St Mary's Stadium
18 Sheffield United 32609 Bramall Lane
19 Coventry City 32604 Ricoh Arena
20 Leicester City 32312 King Power Stadium
21 Blackburn Rovers 31154 Ewood Park
22 Nottingham Forest 30576 City Ground
23 Ipswich Town 30311 Portman Road
24 Birmingham City 29409 St Andrew's
25 Bolton Wanderers 28100 Reebok Stadium
26 Wolverhampton Wanderers 27828 Molineux
27 Stoke City 27740 Britannia Stadium
28 Charlton Athletic 27111 The Valley
29 Norwich City 27010 Carrow Road
30 Cardiff City 26828 Cardiff City Stadium
31 West Bromwich Albion 26360 The Hawthorns
32 Crystal Palace 26225 Selhurst Park
33 Fulham 25700 Craven Cottage
34 Hull City 25404 KC Stadium
35 Bradford City 25136 Valley Parade
36 Wigan Athletic 25133 DW Stadium
37 Huddersfield Town 24554 Galpharm Stadium
38 Reading 24169 Madejski Stadium
39 Preston North End 23408 Deepdale
40 Barnsley 23287 Oakwell
41 Brighton & Hove Albion 22500 Falmer Stadium
42 Burnley 21940 Turf Moor
43 Bristol City 21804 Ashton Gate
44 Milton Keynes Dons 21189 Stadium mk
45 Portsmouth 21178 Fratton Park
46 Swansea City 20520 Liberty Stadium
47 Notts County 20280 Meadow Lane
48 Millwall 19734 The Den
49 Port Vale 19148 Vale Park
50 Queens Park Rangers 18439 Loftus Road
51 Carlisle United 17902 Brunton Park
52 Watford 17477 Vicarage Road
53 Plymouth Argyle 16388 Home Park
54 Tranmere Rovers 16151 Prenton Park
55 Blackpool 16007 Bloomfield Road
56 Wrexham 15500 Racecourse Ground
57 Doncaster Rovers 15231 Keepmoat Stadium
58 Swindon Town 14983 County Ground
59 Peterborough United 14793 London Road
60 Brentford 12763 Griffin Park
61 Oxford United 12500 Kassam Stadium
62 Southend United 12163 Roots Hall
63 Gateshead 11750 Gateshead International Stadium
64 Bristol Rovers 11626 Memorial Stadium
65 Gillingham 11440 Priestfield Stadium
66 F.C. United of Manchester 11313 Gigg Lane
67 Bury 11313 Gigg Lane
68 Walsall 10989 Bescot Stadium
69 Oldham Athletic 10850 Boundary Park
70 Stockport County 10832 Edgeley Park
71 Chesterfield 10300 B2net Stadium
72 Luton Town 10226 Kenilworth Road
73 Rochdale 10149 Spotland
74 Crewe Alexandra 10109 Alexandra Stadium
75 Colchester United 10105 Colchester Community Stadium
76 Lincoln City 10059 Sincil Bank
77 Rotherham United 10000 Don Valley Stadium
78 Wycombe Wanderers 10000 Adams Park
79 Darlington 10000 The Darlington Arena
80 Shrewsbury Town 9875 New Meadow
81 AFC Bournemouth 9776 Dean Court
82 Yeovil Town 9665 Huish Park
83 Cambridge United 9617 Abbey Stadium
84 Grimsby Town 9546 Blundell Park
85 Leyton Orient 9311 Brisbane Road
86 Mansfield Town 9295 Field Mill
87 Scunthorpe United 9144 Glanford Park
88 Exeter City 8830 St James Park
89 Bath City 8800 Twerton Park
90 York City 7872 Bootham Crescent
91 Silsden 7800 Cougar Park
92 Hartlepool United 7749 Victoria Park
93 Grantham Town 7500 South Kesteven Sports Stadium
94 Northampton Town 7300 Sixfields Stadium
95 Cheltenham Town 7133 Whaddon Road
96 Sutton United 7032 Borough Sports Ground
97 Burton Albion 6912 Pirelli Stadium
98 Aldershot Town 6835 Recreation Ground
99 Stevenage 6722 Broadhall Way
100 Boston United 6643 York Street
101 Weymouth 6600 Bob Lucas Stadium
102 Halifax Town 6561 The Shay
103 Kettering Town 6441 Nene Park
104 Morecambe 6400 Globe Arena
105 AFC Telford United 6300 New Bucks Head
106 None 6264 Rockingham Road
107 Kidderminster Harriers 6238 Aggborough
108 Stalybridge Celtic 6108 Bower Fold
109 Altrincham 6085 Moss Lane
110 Dagenham & Redbridge 6070 Victoria Road
111 Barnet 6023 Underhill Stadium
112 Southport 6008 Haig Avenue
113 Hayes and Yeading 6000 Kingfield Stadium
114 Woking 6000 Kingfield Stadium
115 Basingstoke Town 6000 The Camrose
116 Macclesfield Town 5988 Moss Rose
117 Torquay United 5796 Plainmoor
118 Dover Athletic 5745 Crabble Athletic Ground
119 King's Lynn Town 5733 The Walks
120 Hereford United 5727 Edgar Street
121 Fleetwood Town 5500 Highbury Stadium
122 Chester 5376 Exacta Stadium
123 Kingstonian 5194 Kingsmeadow
124 AFC Wimbledon 5194 Kingsmeadow
125 Forest Green Rovers 5147 The New Lawn
126 Accrington Stanley 5070 Crown Ground
127 Northwich Victoria 5046 Victoria Stadium
128 Ebbsfleet United 5011 Stonebridge Road
129 Dorchester Town 5009 Avenue Stadium
130 Chesham United 5000 The Meadow
131 Redditch United 5000 Valley Stadium
132 Salisbury City 5000 Raymond McEnhill Stadium
133 Halesowen Town 5000 The Grove
134 Crawley Town 4718 Broadfield Stadium
135 Newport County 4700 Newport Stadium
136 Barrow AFC 4256 Holker Street
137 Braintree Town 4151 Cressing Road,
138 Tamworth 4065 The Lamb Ground
139 Alfreton Town 3600 North Street

Doesn't the 10th largest city in the UK deserve and need rather more than the 51st biggest football stadium in England? I see Argyle as being like a Huddersfield, Bradford or Brighton team. Their capacities sit at between 22-25k. That is definitely where I would like to see our capacity placed. However Mr Brent's "circa" means 18000 according to his plans. As already stated I have little faith that any further development will ever happen. This is our moment. This is our chance. If Argyle aspires to be anything other than a poxy little lower division club then the nettle simply has to be grasped and the final stadium capacity has to be set at a 22,000 minimum. Which, of course, is still circa Mr Brent's 20,000 if 17400 is!

So what club is most like Argyle? Maybe it is the clubs we have played the most often over the years. They are Brentford and Bristol Rovers. They have both just announced plans for new stadia. They are looking at 22,000 and 25,000 stadium capacities. I’m sorry to lapse into football cliché-speak but any ambition beyond “taking each game as it comes” and “trying to win every game” can only apply on the pitch. Off the pitch careful strategic planning is needed and Mr Brent is not supplying that to Argyle. There is a bigger picture to be considered than he seems prepared to; the club should always be planning to improve both on and off the pitch.

This is easier said than done too and relies upon resources and a strong case can be made to prioritise investment in the playing staff, the stadium, the training facilities and the scouting network. The sad truth is that as club we need massive improvements in all of those areas but we do not have the finance to do it all at once and the focus right now is on the stadium. We need to assess “ambition” in terms of short-, mid-, and long-term goals so I’ll lay out exactly what I would like to see from Argyle in terms of “ambition” to fit those criteria. Short-term ambition: Fulfil the clichés I have already mentioned ~ anything else is ludicrous to set as a goal of any sort. We should always try to win the next game. Mid-term ambition: That has to be to get to 52 points as soon as possible because 52 points should see us safe from relegation. If/when we get there we re-assess and see if the secondary target of a play-off spot is possible. If it is then how can we get from there to a promotion slot. If we get there can we win the League? Long-term ambition: Ultimately where would I like to see the club? That is easy.

I want Argyle to represent far more than the City of Plymouth; I’d like to see it represent Devon & Cornwall and maybe even the entire SW peninsula or the entire Westcountry. I want to see us at the very top of everything and when we get there I want to see us stylishly grind everybody else into dust. I want to see Argyle winning the League Cup, FA Cup, Premier League and Champions’ League and when we have done that I want to see us do it again and again but add the Charity Shield and that silly FIFA thing where the Champions of Europe play the Champions of South America, Asia, Africa etc too. I want JJB to sell Argyle shirts in the Trafford Centre and beyond. I want kids on the streets of Exeter, London, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere to play their park football wearing an Argyle kit. I want those same kids to mercilessly rib the locals about supporting a bunch of has-beens like Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea and shrug off jibes about being “Plastic Wannabes” without so much as a second thought. I want Argyle to be the Pride Of Stonehouse, Singapore and Shanghai. I want to see us play in a 100 000 capacity all-seater stadium (possibly bigger) that is also used for England’s home games. I want us to be spoken of in revered terms like the Busby Babes, Billy Wright’s Wolves, the Spurs push-and-runners, 1970 Brazil, Holland’s Total Footballers or Celtic’s Lisbon Lions (in fact like the Lisbon Lions I would also like to see the team comprised entirely of players born within 30 miles of Plymouth too); I would like the 2nd best team in the country to be Argyle Reserves; I would like the 3rd best to be our youth team.

So that is the dream but let's start by trying to a Norwich or an Ipswich type of team with scope to improve rather than a Swindon or a Doncaster with none. The dream began to form when I was 7 year old kid getting in on a free ticket and 41 years later that dream is still alive despite all that has happened to us recently. That dream has never been more imperilled, not even by administration, than it is now by the proposals for Higher Home Park.

The proposed stadium is simply too small; the size of the new stand itself precludes that it will generate as much income either in it or on it as it might because most of the fans in the stadium won't ever be able to use it, the corporate side will still be too small for income from that to be maximised and not even all of the revenue generated will go to Argyle. On top of which a road and the other development will make future expansion all but impossible ~ and even if extra rows, with restricted view seats, can be added to the horseshoe the cost of doing so is prohibitive ~ as is the idea of a new, bigger Devonport End so neither of these expansions will ever happen. And once expansion is needed it is always too late to build it anyway. 

This is the one and only chance, given the explicit and implicit restrictions inherent, for Argyle to build a stadium that will prove to be the engine that drives the dream and the opportunity is in danger of being missed; the plan for Higher Home Park is likely to prove to be a self-imposed glass ceiling for Argyle that makes the lack of need for greater capacity a self-fulfilling prophecy. Argyle will never be better than a League 1 club again if these plans are as good as it gets.

Plymouth Argyle is probably the most regular driver of publicity that there is for the city both nationally and internationally. It is a massive understatement to say that Plymouth's status as a city will not be well served by forcing the club to aim so low. We might as well take out adverts in every national media outlet and proclaim: “No ambition? The city is a complete economic basket case too: no motorway; no airport; a no-hoper football team... Come to Plymouth where mediocrity is all we expect!” Of course that would be further nuanced by the publicity gained from Plymouth being the largest city in all of Europe not ever to have, or likely ever to have, a top-flight professional football club in it for all eternity.

As Plymothians and as Argyle fans it is our duty to protect and promote the city and the team. Failing to stop Argyle limiting itself so unnecessarily completely fails to do that. It is said that cities get what they deserve. Well Plymouth deserves more and Argyle deserves more than the short-sighted, ingrained under-achievement that Mr Brent seems to be planning for it. I implore Mr Brent to reconsider, radically alter and improve his plan. Argyle as a club deserves better; Argyle fans deserve better; Central Park deserves better; Plymouth as a City deserves better.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Brent’s Stadium Plans

Public Consultation Grandstand Drawings

Press Control and + simultaneously a few times to enlarge the image if you need to and then Control and - to return to normal size.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Argyle Res 2 Torquay Res 0

For once a series of random events converged to my advantage yesterday and after a morning gym session I was able to go to one of Argyle’s increasingly scarce reserve games to watch them in a match hastily arranged by our new manager John Sheridan.
It might seem unnecessarily anorakish for any supporter to go to reserve games but it is something that I have always quite enjoyed. The stress of an actual 1st team experience just isn’t there and it’s always interesting to see the fringe players ~ especially the youngsters. Admittedly modern reserve games don’t hold a light in comparison to the old days of the Combination League but they do possess a certain charm all of their own.
torquay reserves 001So, having been a few times in the dim and distant past, I wasn’t expecting much in the shape of refreshments to be available at the match, and I wasn’t disappointed, and knowing that post-gym hunger was sure to strike, and it did, I stopped off en route at the Congreve Gardens Pasty Shop in Honicknowle for an oggy along the way. And at only £2 they come highly recommended! You might need sat nav to find Congreve Gardens if you aren’t familiar with the area but it is worth the effort!
My time management was uncharacteristically excellent and at 1350, with the temperature gauge on my car registering a chilly 2 degrees Celsius, I was parked up at Argyle and on my way in for the scheduled 1400 kick-off. Unfortunately I was a little too late to collect a team sheet (always a useful aid when most of the players are less familiar than they might have been) and took my seat in the grandstand only to discover that they had kicked-off a little earlier which means that there will be a complete absence of any timings for the events in this report…
torquay reserves 005The next few minutes were spent unsuccessfully trying to hook-up to the stadium wifi and so I wasn’t exactly paying as much attention as I might have been when somebody was fouled and Andres Guerrieri, who figured strongly all afternoon, fired rather meekly into Torquay’s, defensive wall. That was just a shot across the bows though and the first major incident of the game occurred when Tyler Harvey was injured, leading to his substitution by a taller and leaner (than I remembered) Isaac Vassell, by a Kirtys (his spelling not mine!) McKenzie (who also featured prominently) tackle just to the left of the penalty area. My first impression was that a penalty should have been awarded (and you can see how close the foul was from the photograph) but the orange-bibbed black-clad referee (Torquay turned up wearing a black kit and there would have been a colour clash) decided that it wasn’t. Harvey received on-pitch treatment for quite some time and it looked like a serious injury had resulted from what was, to be honest, a fairly innocuous-looking routine foul. Anyway with everybody up and expecting the cross Argyle cunningly pulled the ball back and the on-rushing player, in acres of room, wastefully fired wide and low after scuffing his shot.
torquay reserves 007However the pattern of the game had now been set. Argyle were to dominate possession for virtually all of the game and a seemingly young Torquay side was left chasing shadows. It wasn’t long before the referee was called into action again and this time he did award a penalty after a clear foul on Vassell, who overall was the most threatening of Argyle’s front two alongside Matt Lecointe, by Torquay’s #16 Angus MacDonald (more of whom later). With the exaggerated care and precision that we have seen so often Argyle’s old warhorse Paul Wotton placed the ball on the penalty spot. After what seemed like an eternity he ran up, his right foot made a thunderous contact with the ball (one of the differences about watching a reserve game is that you can actually hear things like the sound of boot on ball ~ and, I swear, on this occasion feel the resultant shockwaves too!) and it was 1-0. The goalie didn’t stand a chance. No goalie on Earth would have done! I wonder if I’ll ever see Wotton do that again? Rather amusingly the tannoy sprang to life and the Fine Young Cannibals could be heard echoing around a nearly empty Home Park.
Argyle were well on top now. Some nice passing down the left created a crossing opportunity for Lowry  and Guerrieri, coming in from the right in a Lee Hodgesesque (who was there watching) fashion headed and missed when he should not have done. The half’s final action saw another flowing Argyle attack result in a late break from midfield by Sims, who looked to get forward whenever he could (whereas his partner Wotton, er, didn’t), whose low shot was brilliantly blocked by Rice the Torquay goalie only to rebound to Vassell who is, hopefully, disappointed with his supporting effort. They both should have scored.
So at half-time it was 1-0 and with a possible penalty that wasn’t given, Guerrieri’s missed header and the Sims/Vassell effort at the end it could easily have been 4-0. Chernoweth in the Argyle goal was, literally, a spectator.
torquay reserves 006 At half-time I eventually acquired a teamsheet which helped identify the less recognisable … The second half continued in much the same vein as the first: lots of Argyle passing and lots of Torquay chasing but largely with little end product until another probing Argyle move broke down only for the ball to fall beautifully for Lecointe on the edge of the box. Even though he was facing away from me I’m sure I saw his eyes light up and he smacked a shot at goal only to see it crash against the crossbar with the goalie well beaten. Still 1-0. Could now have been 6-0.
At which point what had been quite a relaxed and quiet game suddenly sprang to life. Some good trickery in the box by Vassell led to him squaring to Guerrieri who saw his shot well-saved. He should have scored. It could have been 7! Next up Sims and Lowry combined well on the left, Lowry broke into the box, there was a scramble with Vassell looking to pick up an easy tap-in but the ball popped up perfectly for Lowry to head in from close range. 2-0. And not before time. (A possible 8-0 by now!)
torquay reserves 009Next up some good close skill and a sharp turn in the box saw Guerrieri smack a low shot against the post (9?). Wotton, who had barely crossed the halfway line and had effectively turned the back four into a back five on the rare occasions that Torquay got forward, was replaced by River Allen. And it was River Allen who was to feature, although I suspect he wishes he hadn’t, next when Torquay’s Macklin absolutely crunched him for no apparent reason. Maybe all the ball-chasing had got to him. I don’t know. It was a horrible tackle and were it not a reserve team friendly I feel sure he would have been dismissed. Anyway that led to a bit of a melée in which Guerrieri’s handbag featured prominently on our behalf. Once it all settled down the referee booked Macklin.
Guerrieri was soon in the thick of it again. This time he was hacked in front of the dugout by Kirtys McKenzie who was booked. Guerrieri was promptly subbed. For his own good, I suspect, as much as anything because he was hardly Torquay’s most popular Pilgrim at that point and Josh Hutchinson came on.
torquay reserves 010Which is pretty much it except for a quite astonishing off-the-ball incident which saw several players from both sides brawling, for want of a better word, in the Devonport End goalmouth. None of the officials seemed to know who to blame, and I didn’t see what happened, and once it had calmed down the ref let everybody off but there was a post-match allegations that #16 MacDonald had spat in the face of Jamie Richards. There was never much danger of the referee playing much injury time!
torquay reserves 008In conclusion it was just about the most one-sided 2-0 win you could wish to see. It’s impossible to draw any conclusions about either of Argyle’s young full backs or goalkeeper as they simply were not tested at all; Blanchard and Richards strolled through the game comfortably; Wotton sat in front of them, gave the ball away a couple of times and absolutely creamed his penalty when the chance arose; Sims was tidy (as was Allen) and used the ball well; Lowry seemed all right foot (which is odd for a left-sided player) and his endeavour and positive approach deserved his goal when it came; Argyle’s Lowry, Guerrieri and Vassell were the biggest threats and might have put themselves in the reckoning for the next 1st XI; Lecointe seemed to be muscled off the ball rather too easily and rather too often.
An enjoyable afternoon ended with my feet feeling like blocks of ice and would have been more enjoyable had a hot drink been available somewhere in the ground!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Castle Drogo

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 011

This is something of a departure for this blog but I’m going to get all National Trusty on your sorry arses this time. For which I make no apologies. What I will apologise for is the shoddy nature of some of the photographs that accompany this piece!

Castle Drogo is an exceptional property even within the NT’s vast portfolio. It is remarkable for any number of reasons but it is truly unique for just one: it was the last castle, if you accept that it is a castle at all, ever built in England.

So where is it? The short answer is Dartmoor. It is close to Moretonhampsted towards the north-eastern fringe of Dartmoor National Park.


Castle Drogo actually sits on one of the highest points in all of Devon and at more than 900 feet above sea level is on higher ground than the top of the notorious Haldon Hill ~ which would have made it a splendid location for a real castle. As you might expect it is very exposed to the weather and, being high up on Dartmoor, it gets much more weather than most places. Over the years the wind and rain has taken its toll and Castle Drogo currently sits at the centre of a major fundraising campaign because it needs extensive repair purely to keep it safe for visitors. I hope they are successful because this is one place that should never be lost.

So given its name and prominent location on the local landscape why did I question whether it was a castle? The answer, in my mind at least, is that a castle should be built for a millitary purpose; even if it never actually saw any action it should be, or once have been, ready to. Castle Drogo was not built for any such purpose. It was built simply because a fabulously wealthy man wanted to live in a castle! So he commissioned the building of a brand new one. Money no object. Just get it done.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 021Who would you commission for such a project? Obviously the only answer (at the time) to that is “the foremost architect in the entire British Empire!” And so Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens OM, KCIE, PRA, FRIBA was appointed. At first Lutyens was reluctant to accept the project. “A castle? Are you stark raving bonkers, man!” he might reasonably have exclaimed and despite Lutyens advising that a mere mansion might suffice, be more practical and much cheaper to build a castle it was to be.

So who might want such a building? Who might be able to afford it? Why build it here?

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 027The answers lie with the vanity of a self-made man desperate to be accepted by society’s finest. His name was Julius Drew and he had made his pile as a grocer by opening a small shop in 1883 on London’s Edgware Road selling, amongst other things but most importantly, tea. A series of new shops and mergers, with companies like Liptons, saw Drew’s Home & Colonial Stores become a vast retail empire. Essentially he headed, in modern terms, ASDA, Tesco and Sainsbury’s all rolled into one. By any reckoning he was a vastly wealthy man. He had everything he could desire at his fingertips except one thing: acceptance by the aristocracy of the day. He was nouveau riche; not one of us.

So, after hearing of 450 acres of land near Drewsteignton that was about to be sold, he set about becoming, to all intents and purposes, one of them by fabricating the myth that the family name, Drew, belonged to an ancient Devon family, after whom the Dartmoor village  Drewsteignton had been named, and that the family seat was a castle. Enter Lutyens.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 043Lutyens was not, at first, keen to build a castle. It was just too big, it would take too long. It just wasn’t practical. Drew would not be swayed and eventually Lutyens became convinced and the grandest of grand plans imaginable was conceived and, at Drew’s insistence, the building of a brand new granite castle complete with motto and dragon, to help create a bit of faux heritage, began.

Castles have a few inherent drawbacks when it comes to them being a place in which to live. Not the least of which is that they tend to be cold and draughty. “Not to worry,” as Drew might have said, “just make it look like a castle! And fit all the mod cons you can: electric lighting, hot water, central heating, telephones… all that stuff” and so Lutyens did. A full-scale castle was planned with all the accoutrements of the age fitted as standard; all of it faced by purely ornamental granite. Hundreds and hundreds of tons of ornamental granite and all of it to be manually hewn by hardy stonemasons over of period of… well of quite a long time. I don’t think anybody ever really had any idea how long it would take to construct.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 040In the meantime Julius Drew lived the life of a wealthy Edwardian gentleman. He travelled, married, and five children were born. Naturally Adrian Drew, the eldest boy, headed to Eton and then on to Oxford University where he did all the right things along the way like rowing in the eight, getting into the 1st XI and so on.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 041Sadly the family fortune proved to be no insulation against the looming horror of the 1st World War and the building project began to slip behind schedule ~ in no small part because most of the workforce was conscripted and sent to the poppy fields of France. Cedric, having long been schooled to be a Leader Of Men, was soon to follow the same route as an officer where he survived action on the Somme before being lost at Ypres. His body was never found.


Castle Drogo Oct 2012 024Julius Drew, here seen in a portrait painted just before his death, was heartbroken and lost much of his interest in the building project which was then scaled back basically to enable its swift, relatively speaking, completion leaving us with the structure as it is today.

I find the story of the Drew family to be incredibly touching. For all their money and influence they were as much at the mercy of the whims of fate as any of us and there is a sense of melancholy that suffuses the place. On the other hand Castle Drogo is a monument to grand aspiration and design which it is hard to place on a scale with anywhere else built in the 20th century. Just what would it have looked like had it been completed to Lutyens’ original plans?

CCastle Drogo Oct 2012 045astle Drogo is, essentially, a vast folly (excepting that it does actually have a purpose). It is a vision of ostentation for the sake of ostentation with attention to detail that beggars belief. For example the drawing room has a couple of granite arches and each arch weighs around 30 tons. Each arch is not load-bearing; each one is there just for show; each arch serves no architectural purpose at all; each one is there just because it could be; each one is there because Lutyens and Drew just reckoned it’d look good.

This also appeals. Despite not being entirely finished what was finished was finished to the highest standards possible. Hundreds of stonemasons toiled for years building it and I don’t think that such a project could be built today simply because the skilled manpower to build it just doesn’t exist any more.

As an example of the craftsmanship look at this single block of stone. Castle Drogo Oct 2012 022It isn’t a main feature. It just sits above a door in a corridor and matches up to the other stones around it. Count the number of faces on it if you can! Just imagine how long it must have taken to carve, by hand, out of granite.

Following Cedric’s death the family kept a small room almost as a shrine to him. The walls are adorned with pictures of him both as an officer and as a schoolboy and student. For all the ostentation that the Drew family showed I find myself actually quite liking them. Who wouldn’t build a fabulous, granite castle if they could? “If you’ve got it then flaunt it!” ought to have been the family motto.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 019Finally one last detail. Even as the castle was built it leaked. Apparently the mortar used between the granite blocks wasn’t as waterproof as it ought to have been so the Drew family used to place buckets around the house to catch the drips when it rained (and this is on one of Dartmoor’s highest points where it rains lots!). Lutyens, having by now become a firm family friend, was a regular visitor and would have been mortified to know and would certainly have seen a fix applied. The Drew family never once thought to tell him. As Frances Drew put it: “he was such a nice man… we didn’t want to upset him.”

So that’s pretty much the Castle Drogo story. It is a fabulous place. I absolutely recommend that you visit it because only then can you grasp the sheer bonkersness and sorrow of the place. Especially the bonkersness!

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 047

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Brendan Guilfoyle in the Huffington Post

Gareth Nicholson signposted this Love your club. But is it fit for purpose? to me via Twitter. It is written by Brendan Guilfoyle, late of this parish. Mr Guilfoyle, of course recently oversaw P&A's handling of Argyle's recent administration and is still firmly ensconced at P&A.

I was moved to enter a comment but having typed one up I don't seem to be able to enter it. I'm not sure why and I don't much care so don't bother trying to help but please don't hesitate to link to this blog if you are able to commment on Huff Po.

There is much that is transparent and wise in Mr Guilfoyle's observations.

However the practices that are accepted without so much as a question in the insolvency racket are astonishing and not transparent or wise in any shape or form. Consider for a few moments the merry-go-round of back-scratching that occurred during the Plymouth administration. For those unaware of what happened here is as brief a précis as I can manage...

Peter Ridsdale (checkout what has happened to him since!) unexpectedly turned up at a Plymouth home game as a "guest" of the then-chairman Mr Stapleton. It was, apparently, a mere jaunt for him during a moorland walking holiday. Before you could read the Huff Post T&Cs Mr Ridsdale was appointed as an "unpaid advisor" to the old board and they attempted to fend off the various winding-up orders emanating from HMRC. Eventually at the very last moment when all appeared to be lost and liquidation loomed Mr Ridsdale convinced the club, at last, to enter voluntary administration. In doing so Mr Ridsdale appointed Mr Guilfoyle's P&A Ltd as administrators, cheated HMRC and scores of other creditors of much of the money due to it/them (let's call it £10m to keep the numbers easy), incurred a football league sanction that meant that relegation was a near inevitability and appointed, a now generously salaried, Mr Ridsdale as P&A's head honcho at the club along the way.

The "search" for a buyer began. The only possible, we were told by Mr Guilfoyle, solution was to separate the club from the ground which appears to be strictly against his own advice. Amazingly Mr Ridsdale was to be a reluctant buyer of the club for a notional fee of £1 and the land the ground was on was to be sold to a shady, anonymous consortium named Bishop International variously believed to be either Irish or Gibraltan (Cloud Cuckooland was closer to the mark). More than once, repeatedly would be a better word, Mr Guilfoyle claimed not to know the identity of of the owners of BI. Eventually, despite various denials that he was involved in any way, Truro City's (check out what has happened to them since!) then-chairman Kevin Heaney (check out what has happened to him since!) was a proven to be a "consultant" for BI. Heaney/BI then failed to meet any number of deadlines for actually putting any money up to fund the deal. All the while the club's best players were sold for miserly fees, loyal club staff were summarily dismissed and the remaining players and staff went unpaid.

Eventually, after the players refused to play a game unless they were paid, even Mr Guilfoyle had no choice but to admit that BI/Heaney were not able to complete their end of a never-publicly-revealed deal. A genuine buyer, James Brent, was found, a Newco was established and Argyle, by now asset-stripped to the bare bones in terms of both playing and non-playing staff and having been forced to sell its land, what did Mr Guilfoyle say about that again?, at a knock-down price to the local council to finance the deal could begin to rebuild.

Mr Guilfoyle has many questions to answer with regard to the lies he repeatedly told the Plymouth public and press, about the true nature of his relationship with Mr Ridsdale, about the legal advice, never published, that he accepted apparently forcing him to lie (what sort of reputable legal advice would advise somebody to blatantly lie?) about the identities of those behind BI and about the contract agreed with BI which seemed to offer no incentives for BI to actually meet any of the clauses or timescales in it (or, natch, penalties if they did not).

There ought to be a full inquiry. There is an over-seeing self-regulatory body that can be called in to examine the role of insolvency practitioners within the administration process. The chair of the committee that would perform that role is Mr Guilfoyle.

Apparently all of the above is entirely legal. Staggering, isn't it? If Messrs Guilfoyle, Ridsdale or Heaney ever get linked to your club be afraid. Be very, very afraid. Above all believe nothing, question everything and be relentless in harrying them. Anything other than that will result in a trail of destruction being left in their wake that defies belief.

Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Chris Billy

So there I am idly scanning my Twitter feed when @twounfortunates plug, of things, a blog ( about why Chris Billy was somebody’s favourite-ever Carlisle United player. Once I had recovered from the shock that he was actually somebody’s favourite-ever player my mind started to wander and inevitably it headed for Colchester United’s shrine to decrepitude: Layer Road.
Layer Road was one of those stadia that rejoiced descriptively in the some of the football fan’s more laboured euphemisms. It was “old school”; it had “character”; “difficult place to go” etc.

It was all of those things and more: it was small; the view from the terrace behind the goal was dreadful; in short it was a pit and if the same regulations applied to teams already in the Football League as it did to those hoping to be promoted into it then Colchester would undoubtedly have been thrown out without so much as a second thought. In all but name it was a non-league ground that would have shamed many non-league clubs. On top of which it was bloody miles away from just about everywhere ~ it was even a tidt trek from the town centre and the railway station! (Admittedly this is a complaint that can just as easily be levelled against Argyle.) Still however you cut it the journey from Plymouth to Colchester must be one of the very worst that an English football fan can make and the journey to Colchester from just about anywhere else isn’t much better! So naturally the football gods decreed that I needed to make the trip twice in the ’95-’96 season as they bestowed upon us matches against Colchester would more or less bookend the season.
The first occasion marked the very first league game of the season. Football fans of all teams will know the feelings this occasion inspires. It is always a bit mixed. There is hope, there is always hope, but it is tempered with trepidation. The previous season had seen the complete collapse of Argyle as both a team and a club. A long running feud between chairman Dan McCauley and superstar manager Peter Shilton had reduced the team to the complete shambles that resulted in Argyle being relegated to the 4th tier (how I hate that description!) for the first time in our history. We needed a knight in shining armour to rescue our distressed damsel and he came along in the shape of one of football’s most maverick managers when much to my astonished glee McCauley recruited Neil Warnock; more importantly, they seemed to enjoy a great relationship; McCauley was even prepared to back Warnock’s judgement financially and a clutch of new signings was unveiled. It was with all systems set to an optimistic “Go!” that I made the long journey to darkest Essex to see Nicky Hammond, Mark Patterson, Paul Williams, Wayne Burnett, Mick Heathcote, Keith Hill, Chris Billy, Ronnie Mauge, Adrian Littlejohn, Kevin Nugent, Chris Leadbitter and subs: Chris Twiddy, Mickey Evans, Doug Hodgson (who?) play.
The day itself was sweltering. I don’t have the temperature reading for Colchester on August 12th1994 to hand but take it from me: it was hot and humid; it was all but unbearable; I recall sweat trickling down the centre of my my back as I stood and watched the match. It was certainly not football playing weather! I think it was probably the hottest day on which I ever saw a football match. A match that ultimately we were to lose 2-1 with Mark Kinsella scoring with a piledriver from distance, something which became something of a recurring theme, and Colchester getting a player sent off after he had tangled with Chris Leadbitter. It is fair to say that the home fans were incensed by the red card and delighted with the spectacular winning goal. That apart I remember little of the game that might have been Chris Billy’s first for the club.
On to my second trip to Essex. This time it was for the first leg of the end of season play-offs and the match was played on a Sunday afternoon. This facilitated a Saturday night out in London preceded by the watching of the Man Utd 1 (Cantona) Liverpool 0 FA Cup Final in a Twickenham pub in what must still rank as one of the worst Cup Finals ever played. The Middlesesex Sevens tournament was happening on the same day and Twickenham was awash with Rugby League fans down to watch Wigan RLFC take part for the first time in an event that saw those two codes finally bury the hatchet after decades of bitter division.
It wasn’t as hot in Essex this time but Mark Kinsella did his thunderbolt from distance again and Argyle lost the game 1-0. It was a dour battle. Warnock unleashed his “dogs of war”, later to be reincarnated by Paul Sturrock as “blood and snotters” to rather more success, to no avail and a tricky return leg lay ahead of us three days later. So it wasn’t by any means a classic and for the second time that season I returned, eventually, to Plymouth disappointed. Three things stood out from the game: one was a defensive mix-up as we defended a corner that resulted in an amazing on-pitch row between the players who almost came to blows; the second was a Colchester defender at another corner clearly elbowing one of our players (yellow card issued) in the box for what would have been the most blatant penalty ever had the corner been taken and the ball in play; the third was a miss by Chris Billy…
It was one of those moments that sits horribly in the fringes of memoryand yet stubbornly refuses to recede. Argyle broke from about halfway, Billy made a run between their centre backs and the ball was threaded with great precision through to him. Billy ran on to it leaving the defence for dead, took a touch, looked up at the advancing goalie and side-footed the ball past him towards a now unguarded net. The Green Army behind the goal surged forward with anticipation and started to celebrate what appeared to be a certain goal. Only it wasn’t. Billy’s slide rule was a tad out and the ball slid agonisingly, unbelievably past the post. The view at Layer Road was appalling and I never did actually see exactly how the ball failed to go in. A wild celebration was stopped in its tracks and supporters looked at each other with blinking incomprehension. “It’s not a goal.” “It didn’t go in.” Or more simply: “he missed.”
So that’s what springs to mind when I think of Chris Billy. I don’t think, not immediately anyway, of a brilliant performance by him at Home Park when a soon to be relegated Argyle beat champions-elect Bristol City 2-0, nor of his stocky figure ploughing through the mud with his socks down around his ankles with his hugely impressive calf muscles bulging. It’s a miss in what at the time seemed like the most important game that Argyle had played in years.
It’s unfair, really. Ultimately his miss didn’t matter because Colchester were beaten on a night of huge passion and no little controversy in the second leg three days later. It was a match that I still rate as the most exciting game I ever saw and Home Park played a starring role as a cauldron of hostility. And how did Billy play on that evening? He didn’t. Warnock dropped him and Steve Cherry, Mark Patterson, Paul Williams, Ronnie Mauge, Mick Heathcote, Martin Barlow, Chris Leadbitter, Richard Logan, Adrian Littlejohn, Mickey Evans, Chris Curran were the victorious Pilgims that secured the trip to Wembley.
(With thanks to for supplying some of the details.)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Just like buses posts to this blog come along in bunches and having written about Peter Swan's tackle in my last entry another "forgotten" moment featuring one of his team mates occurred to me although this one had no lasting consequences. Or maybe, eventually, it did...

As with all of these nostalgic reflections the time and the place are needed to lend context. From memory the time would have been about 16:30 on a Saturday afternoon and the place was Kenilworth Road in Luton. A quick look at confirms the date as being October 11th, 1997 and the Argyle team that day, not that they had much to do with it, as: Jon Sheffield; Simon Collins; Paul Williams; Ronnie Mauge; Mick Heathcote; Paul Wotton; Martin Barlow; Mark Saunders; Adrian Littlejohn; Chris Billy; Padi Wilson; Earl Jean (sub).

This match was played years before things got unnecessarily unpleasant between Argyle and Luton so all the Kinnear-inspired bile and vitriol plays no part in this. In fact there was very little feeling between the sides at all given the we had rarely played one another in recent history. If anything Luton were considered to be a bit down on their luck at the time and few eyebrows would have been raised anywhere in the country when Grandstand's teleprinter eventually blipped the scoreline Luton Town 3 Plymouth Argyle 0 to the nation's football obsessives.

This is not an orthodox thing for an Argyle fan to say but I have always looked forward to and enjoyed my trips to Luton's cramped little stadium. There a whole legion of reasons that can be summoned to justify giving a trip there a right old slagging and here's a few of them: "the town's a dump"; "the view is awful"; "the bogs are disgusting"; "the seats are too cramped";"there is always a pillar in the way wherever you sit"; "we never seem to win there".... But I don't see it like that at all. For starters my wife is a Luton girl so it is a chance for her to catch up with her family. This in turn means an easy stopover following the game and little objection to me making a trip up there. There is a cracking pub, The Two Brewers, which seems to have been adopted by Argyle fans as a base, sells decent beer and which has always been welcoming when we go there. It is none of those things that sits proudest on my list though. For me it is the grotty, ramshackle, cramped, idiosyncratic and, above all, noisy little stadium that is the unlikely star of the show.

In the modern era it all seems to be wraparound stands and stadia stifled by corporate anonymity wherever you go. Well there is none of that at Luton. The Kennel, as Luton's own fans like to call it, is unapologetically and irredeemably old school and it stands out like a dinosaur in a car park. The stands crowd the touchline and the roofs are low. When it all gets going in there it is one of the most intimidating grounds that I have visited as an away fan. The Kennel gives Luton a very real home advantage and is exactly what I would want from my stadium if I owned a football club ~ even if it does have almost too many faults to mention!

Well The Kennel didn't rock much that day. Only 4931 fans turned up to watch which means that the ground was around half full. The dirty, smelly, cramped away end with the awful view holds upto 1900 fans and it was about 3/4 full I would guess which is pretty much what might be expected for an Argyle game in the London area. I don't remember too much about the game other than the score, that we were pretty awful but the Green Army made a fair old racket under the low roof even so. Oh! and that Ian Feuer saved a Mickey Evans penalty.


Wearing the white of Luton that day was an old Home Park favourite who had departed some years earlier: Dwight Marshall. He had had a fairly quiet game and as time had passed he had lost some of his blistering pace, pace that made him such a threat for us not that long before, but he had tucked in nicely out wide and "put in a shift" as they say. He was a good player. A very good player. His pace helped but he had bags of ability too. With about 20 minutes to go a substitute warmed up on the touchline and Dwight's number was held up...

What happened next was incredible. Beyond incredible. Dwight trotted off the pitch and as the home fans politely clapped him off, and the new player on,  the Green Army as one took to its feet and the chant "there's only one Dwight Marshall" was bellowed around the ground so loudly that it echoed back off the other sparsely populated stands. It was a remarkable, spontaneous, passionate and affectionate tribute to a player we had all loved so much in the not too distant past. A distant past when things had been so much better for us as. The look on his face as he turned and looked over his left shoulder at us showed that even Dwight himself was surprised  before raising his hands to give a us a quick, appreciative, acknowledging clap back before taking his place in the dugout. I have never seen anything similar to that ovation for an ex-player either before or since. And I haven't seen much like it for a current player either!

I stopped over in Luton that night and the following day there was a family barbecue. One of the guests at the barbecue was a Luton Town season ticket holder and he had been watching from one of the little conservatory things that line one side of the pitch. Once he realised that I had been at the game the previous day I had to take the usual ribbing following what had been, basically, a damned good hiding the day before gracefully. There was no disguising the awe that his filled his voice awe as he mentioned the reception we had given Dwight as he left the pitch... "I have never seen anything like that in my life" he said. I didn't know what to say. Neither had I. Nor have I since.

Back in the opening paragraph I suggested that there may have been a lingering effect from that moment on that day. I guess I'll never know for sure. What I do know is that Dwight ended his career as a professional footballer by returning to Home Park for a year or two. His pace had all but gone, in comparison to his best days, but he was still lively and still had an eye for goal and he enlivened Kevin Hodges's rather pedestrian team whilst he was in it. He played every game I ever saw him play as though being a footballer was the very best job in the world and as if he could imagine nothing that he would rather be doing. I wish he was available, either in Bright Young Thing or Canny Old Timer mode for us today.