Saturday, January 09, 2016

Derby County v Plymouth Argyle

I’ve just seen this video on Facebook.

And a host of memories have come flooding back!

The game was a 6th round FA Cup replay played on the Tuesday following a 0-0 at Home Park the Saturday before – there was no nonsensical 10 day delay between the first match and the replay in those days.

I was in my first year at college and was living in Gloucester at the time and I’d journeyed back to Plymouth for the first game. We were unlucky not to win after Gordon Staniforth spanked a long range shot towards the top left corner only to be denied by Derby ‘keeper Steve Cherry getting his fingertips to the ball thus diverting it onto a post, the ball then bounced down onto the goal-line, hit the other post and was deflected away. It was a sensational moment in a pretty drab game but plucky underdogs Argyle, struggling horribly in the league below, had shaded it and Derby, who were something of a fading power at the time, knew they’d been lucky to get out of the game with a replay. Argyle, on the other hand knew Derby were there for the taking.

I suppose the most remarkable thing about the first game, Staniforth’s moment apart, was the attendance: 35,000. Home Park was rammed with Derby being allocated the Devonport End (and maybe the Barn Park too?). It was mayhem. These were the days when football grounds were feral places, terraces were often vast and the horrors of Hillsborough, Heysel and Valley Parade were yet to happen. Things really could not have been any more different to how they are today. Back then football was so much more raw than it is now. They say the past is a different place well this might as well have been a different planet.
So a replay it was to be. I had to go. So, too, did many thousands of others. Most of them travelling from Plymouth but me having to make my way from Gloucester. The Plymothians would have been coached up, I guess, for the large part but for me the only option was public transport so I bunked off college for the day and got the train up to Derby. There was only one problem: no train back. “Never mind” I thought. “What the hell! There’s no way I’m missing this one.”

I’d never been to Derby before. In fact I don’t think I’d ever been that far north before so on arrival I didn’t have a clue where anything was. I asked a railway porter where the town centre was, he jabbered something I completely failed to understand and with my mouth being kept firmly shut and my scarf being securely stashed away out of sight – there was every chance that an away fan going anywhere in those days would get a kicking if he took even the slightest of liberties – I made for the town centre where I hoped to find the Baseball Ground. This plan failed abysmally but I did find WH Smiths so I went in grabbed a Derby A to Z road map (internet? mobile phone? google maps? Not even a gimmer on the horizon at the time!) looked up where the ground was, committed details to memory and was off.

On leaving Smiths I bumped into an old school mate, Bod, who had made the same journey as me but from London. We were now a crew of two. I seem to remember that it was a fair old walk to the Baseball Ground but we had nowhere else to go so off we toddled and we got there early. Very early. Ridiculously early. I suppose it might have been about 1730 with kick-off at least 2 hours away. Nothing else for it but to hang around which we did. It’s possible we were the first ones there because the stadium wasn’t even open!

People eventually began to arrive. Bod and I continued to mope about – going to a pub was unthinkable. Eventually we were approached by a few fellas. “Are you from Plymouth or Durrrrrrrby?” “Gloucester” says I. “London” says Bod. Our interrogator was a bit confused by our unexpected responses but by now it was obvious they were from Plymouth and chances were they were looking to give any stray Derby fans they could find a kicking. We sort of fell in with them. We were now a group about 7 or 8 strong.

Neither Bod nor I had any way of getting back and our new friends were quite impressed by our bone-headed commitment. “We have a space in the car – but only one. There’s a lift, but only 1 place, back if you want it. Find us afterwards.” That didn’t seem likely.

And so on to the game. 27,000 at the Baseball Ground (“we’ve got more fans than you!”) crammed into the tightest of grounds imaginable. There’s nowhere to compare today except maybe Loftus Road but the Baseball Ground had about twice the capacity and its stands rose almost vertically from the touchline with barely any track around the grass of the pitch at all. We were stood on the lower terrace behind the goal we scored into, right behind the goal about 10 yards from the front. Behind and above us was a tier of seating also occupied by Argyle fans and above that a third tier of seating filled by home fans who took great delight in chucking stuff down on top of us: anything that came to hand and coffee seemed to be a great favourite (I hope it was coffee – it was certainly warm anyway). I’ve no idea of how many travellled up that night but it must have been at least 5000 fans and if it wasn’t it certainly seemed like it.

There was much banter. Derby’s Archie Gemill came in for fearful, relentless abuse some of which was good-natured. Blue Peter’s Simon Groom and his dog, Goldie, put in an appearance and the atmosphere in the ground positively crackled away into the night sky. It was a night of rare old passion.

We took  a lot of abuse from the home fans above us and one of them had an inflatable something or other… maybe a penguin or snowman or some such and they were dangling it down on a length of string teasing us with it. Needless to say everybody was trying to grab it and eventually they lowered it fraction too far and the thing got ripped to pieces. “We’ve got Archie Gemmill!” was the song and somebody put the head over his own and was hoisted aloft on shoulders as we celebrated the triumphant destruction of our inflatable foe.

The game itself is a blur. They battered us, we defended desperately, magnificently and with huge resolution. Our defence was not going to breached. Andy Rogers fluked the goal direct from the corner and Cherry went from hero in the first match to zero in the replay. Football can be so cruel. At the final whistle scenes of unbridled joy: Chris Harrison climbing onto the fence around the pitch; Johnny Hore dancing in delight on the pitch… It was like a mass tellytubbies big hug sprinkled with angel dust. “What scenes!” as today’s youngsters like to say.

As we filed out at the end of the match Bod and I bumped into our new friends from earlier. “Want a lift then, boy? We ain’t going to London but Gloucester is on the way home we’ll take you if you want.” What price friendship, eh? The offer of a lift was too good to turn down (and it was free!) so I went with them and Bod took his chances hanging around Derby all night dodging their supporters, who had nought but murderous intent in mind, until the first mail train the next morning. We stopped off somewhere on the way back for a beer. Uttoxeter, maybe? And got there just in time to see the match highlights on Sportsnight which was a definite result!

I got dropped off at my halls of residence where everybody was fast asleep and I was all on me tod buzzing like I never had before and rarely have since.

Derby. 1984. What an occasion! Just… crazy. Absolutely stark-raving bonkers in every single way imaginable. I'd like to think this blog gives a taste as to what it was like but I probably haven't even got near...

Monday, August 17, 2015

Traditions - Argyle could do with some!

Tradition is pretty important to us football fans, isn't it?

From our little corner of Footballworld we passionately support our team but what is it that we are actually supporting?

Argyle, like most of the other clubs, was formed a long time ago to provide an outlet for our talented performers to display and test that talent against others. Along the way it also provided an entertainment spectacle for the locals to watch that talent get tested.

To that end various norms were adopted: team name; colours, location and so on. It is those that we have come to support.

But where are we now? The team is mainly composed of imports from elsewhere with a scant smattering of local talent. The backbone of the team is now provided by old sweats from anywhere we can get them who, on arrival at least, have the barest inkling of club history and no affinity for the city beyond it. Argyle, to them, is just a career move, another step on the ladder whereas to us it is far, far more than that.

For our part Argyle has gone through many evolutions. Owners, managers, players all come and go with few of them leaving any lasting impression. The club itself has changed the kit we wear many, many times: we've had predominantly green, predominantly white, stripes (both green & white and green & black), we've had green with whites sleeves and green with a band across the chest and white with a green band across the chest and that's just from memory. Before that we had halved shirts, black with green trim, green with black trim.

Even the shade of green has shifted as we have gone along. There's what I used to refer to as Argyle green, a much brighter version hidden between black stripes, a very dark green, a lighter very dark green and various other shades too. The current green is a very dark shade but even that dark green has varied considerably since Paul Sturrock's mob first wore "meadow green".

We've had white shorts, black shorts and green shorts; green or white socks (I don't recall any black ones but I wouldn't be surprised...). The club badge on the shirt has even been changed with incredible regularity and I've not even considered the myriad of away kit options: white, yellow, champagne (!), light blue, dark blue, orange, black, royal lilac or whatever the hell it is now... There's probably others.

If there is one thing, easily achievable, that I would like to see the club do it is settle upon the very basic things that label us as Argyle: shade of green, kit design, change colours and badge design.

There's been so much change over the years that there is no tradition in any meaningful sense to go back to so why not start again?

Argyle could easily petition its season ticket holders and the affiliated supporter groups could easily petition their members so let's settle on a shade of green - and stick to it. Let's set up a competition to design a new badge - and then stick to it. Let us settle on a kit template for both home and away kits and stick to it. Let's settle on change colours and stick with them.

It wouldn't be hard to achieve. It wouldn't cost much to find out. It would engage supporters and help us to feel that it is our club still/again*.

It would not win us a single point or score us a single goal. It would have as much effect on our future results as last month's horoscopes did but for all of that it is important because it goes to the heart of what it means to be a football club.

And after that we could set about using Argyle as a platform for more local talented players to perform on but that is much harder, but no less desirable, to achieve.

We should not ever lose sight of why Argyle was formed to start with or why we all decided to pin our colours to the club's mast. Settling once and for all on some core identifiers would be a reminder to us all of what it is really all about.

*Delete as appropriate

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Some Journey?

Suzanne Vega has a song containing the lyric “if I had met you on some journey where would we be now?”

And it has set me wondering about the counter hypothesis: “if I had not met you on some journey where would we be now?”

Except for “I” I’m thinking Argyle and for “you” I’m thinking James Brent.

If Argyle hadn’t met Brent where would it be now?

And it is a valid question, certainly worthy of pondering given the long, empty summer we have looming, given how often I have heard “without Brent there would be no Argyle” (or variants thereof).

So far as I can see if James Brent had never existed it is only really feasible to imagine 3 options:

1) The Heaney bid would have succeeded.

2) A different “Brent”-figure would have emerged and done much the same in terms of saving the club from administration – after that who knows?

3) PAFC as we knew it would have gone bust (which it did anyway – something often over-looked) and had to start again God alone knows where down the pyramid.

At the time we were offered a club separated from the stadium by Heaney. The club was up for sale for £1 but the land/stadium stayed with him and we would have been tenants paying rent… “all he wants to do is build a cinema in the park” was the mantra chanted, remember?

Well a few years later the land has been separated from the club, the stadium has been sold (luckily to the council) and all James Brent’s planning depended on building a cinema in the park. And we are just tenants paying rent. Brent has obviously failed in his preferred option (the now-shelved Higher Home Park development) and has failed in no small part because he quite simply didn’t get it done before a better (Bretonside) plan came along but, essentially, you can’t slip a fag paper between the Brent and Heaney plans so far as they are known. Had Heaney won would he have built his cinema before British Land came along? We’ll never know but if he had then there would probably be no ambitious Bretonside plan and no new bus station in the city centre and much more besides. If ever there’s an example of why non-Argyle fan Plymothians should be interested in what goes on at Argyle, or why PCC should take an active interest in the club’s governance, then here is as good a reason why as you will ever see.

Or Heaney might have taken over and failed completely. Had he done so then we’re back where we were when the New World failed but with a different administrator, probably, meaning that #2 above comes into play. A similar but different Brent-figure. At the time there was only one other name in the frame: Buttivant. Rumours exist that other parties were interested but Guilfoyle didn’t appear to be entertaining anybody other than Heaney, until his wheels came off, and then it was a mad panic to get Brent in before the whole shebang folded. Was there really any viability in this option? I guess we’ll never know but it seems unlikely.

Which leads to #3: Starting all over again.

That would have meant a Trust-owned club phoenixing from the ashes. Resurgam!

Obviously this is completely speculative but would such a club have been marooned in the very lowest levels for long? I don’t think so. At the time we were told that such a club couldn’t even hope to finance the upkeep of Home Park but, we now know, that the council was willing to negotiate very, ahem, favourable arrangements around rent and rates and we also know that since then next to nothing has spent on maintainance at Home Park. A Trust-owned Argyle couldn’t have failed to match that so why wouldn’t it have succeeded?

The template to follow has been well-established by both AFC Wimbledon and Newport. A steady rise back up through the pyramid would have been likely and a spectacular run of year-on-year promotions is not unthinkable.

And if that had spectacular run had happened the club would now be renting the stadium, exactly as it is now, and it would still be united with the land surrounding the stadium, which it currently is not. The question is which league would Argyle now be in?

We have now had 4 seasons since Brent took over. We are still in the same division that we were in when he arrived. The club’s finances are a little better, so we are led to believe, than when he arrived but had he not done so, and we had genuinely started anew, we would have done so unencumbered by the burden of historical debt and we’d’ve been enjoying 4 years of watching a team pay its own way, mostly win and, possibly, enjoy 4 promotions to boot. We would be awash with optimism and pride and the horrors of the New World’s incompetence/negligence would be no more relevant to us than, say, the affairs of the MK Dons are to AFC Wimbledon.

So, to be where we are now we would need to have seen successive promotions, in reverse order, from the Conference Premier (containing e.g. Forest Green Rovers, Braintree and Alfreton), Conference South (e.g Whitehawk, Concord Rangers and Bishops Stortford), Southern League Premier (e.g. Truro, Bideford and Dorchester) and Southern League Div 1 South and West (e.g. Taunton, Bridgwater and Tiverton). Below that and we’re down to the South West Peninsula League (e.g. Ivybridge, Saltash and Plymouth Parkway) and I don’t think we would have had to drop that far down.

Obviously the presumption of being successful in the lower leagues is hugely speculative but surely not an entirely preposterous notion. It is also pretty much certain that the last 4 years would have been very interesting and, quite probably, far more enjoyable than the ones we have endured so what, exactly has James Brent “saved us” from?

And was it worth being saved from at all?

Monday, May 11, 2015

Millwall 1984/The Bradford Fire

Supporting a football team is a funny old business. Mostly it just seems to offer the odd island of joy amongst an ocean of misery; for an Argyle fans the last 6 years or so has offered far less than that but this blog goes back further, much further than the last 6 years to 11th May 1984. Exactly 30 years ago to the day.
The world was a very different place then and I was a very different person: thinner of waist, thicker of hair, better of eyesight, poorer than I am now. I was, in fact a pretty typical 19 year old student living in Cheltenham and I had been invited to a student party in Ponders End which is a part of Enfield which is north, very north (well north of the nearest tube station, Seven Sisters), London. By coincidence Argyle had a game in London that day and I, along with my buddy Andy, decided to combine the two.
It’s not far from Cheltenham to London. In those days it was straight down the A40 so we decided to hitch-hike there. We got up, Andy lived in the flat downstairs from me, met up and headed off. We got a lift very quickly from, as I recall, a fella who was a branch manager for the Chelsea Building Society. There had been a glitch and he was heading off in his company car to a “meeting” during which he expected to become an ex-bank manager of the Chelsea Building Society. They had a strict “no hitch-hikers” rule and he picked us up as a last rebellion against his evil, as he saw it (he swore blind he had nothing nothing wrong) employer. Anyway he took us all the way down to west London and dropped us off at which point we were on the outer-reaches of the tube network. Virtually there!
We bought our travelcards and headed off to the depths of south-east London with Millwall our destination. We were there with hours to spare. What we did not have was cash. I needed a cashpoint or somewhere that would cash a cheque because banks didn’t open on Saturdays back then. I asked a copper where the nearest cashpoint was: “which bank?”, “Lloyds”, “I bank with them. About 3 miles away…”. Great. So there I was in darkest Bermondsey, not long after the infamous riot at Luton, miles from anywhere I could get money and with insufficient cash to get in to the game I had travelled to. Up and down the street of shops we went. “Can you cash me a cheque, please?”, “no”. It was hopeless. Just as it was dawning on us that we were likely to miss the game a few lads I knew from school (!), also going to the game, turned up out of the blue. They stumped up a loan and we were sorted.
Off to The Den we went. In those days there was a huge, sprawling car park outside the ground which had a pathway running through it. By now we were a crew of, maybe, 6 lads: Colin, Mark, Dave, Lawrence… (it was a loooong time ago) desperately trying not to be identified as away fans. There was a similarly sized group of blokes, older than us, walking along, slowly, in front of us. We were close enough to be able to hear their conversation: “if we see anybody whose face don’t fit we’ll fahking well knife ‘em…” was one choice comment. We were bricking it but ambling along as nonchalantly as possible, keeping our traps shut and hoping to survive long enough to get somewhere “safe” (there wasn’t anywhere safe for about 10 miles in any given direction).
Eventually the path we were on split: home fans this way; away fans the other. It was a moment of truth. Our nonchalant amble turned into a nonchalantly sprinted stride and we got to the turnstile safely. So we thought. But no. The turnstile was on the other side of a sodding great wrought iron fence with a gate in it. The gate was padlocked with a impressively heavy chain wrapped around it. We rattled the gate. “Fahrk orf!” came a cry from the inside. We rattled it again. “Wha’d’you want?” this time. “We’re Argyle fans. Let us in!” we shouted. There was a brief delay but the key was found and we were in.
Inside it was bedlam. Millwall were in with a shout of winning Divison 3, as was, and needed to win and it was fair to say that the home crowd was well and truly up for it. There was nothing in the game for Argyle and no transport had been laid on to the game at police request – they didn’t want to have to police away fans as well as home ones, obviously. There could have been no more than 200 Argyle fans standing on the covered terrace that day and I’d imagine that all of us were questioning our own sanity for being there.
Anyway they battered us. Took an early lead and added a second. The Den was in fine fettle that day and it remains probably the most intimidating stadium/atmosphere that I have have ever “enjoyed”.
With about half an hour to go we were approached by a grey-haired police sergeant. “Look lads. You shouldn’t have come here today. We won’t be able to guarantee your safety afterwards. We’re going to lock the gates to keep them” [pointed at the home fans] “out in a minute and then keep them locked for at least an hour after. It looks like they are going to be Champions” [they were] and there’ll be all sorts going on. When we do let you out don’t hang around or you’ll find out why it is called “Cold Blow Lane” outside. Or you could leave now.”
Basically we couldn’t get out fast enough. Not having any idea where we were or where to go we just got on the first bus (travelcards, see?) and stayed on it until we passed a train station at which point we got off and caught a train into London proper and started the long trek out to Ponders End for the party.
Along the way we stopped here and there for a beer. In one of the pubs an Australian barman told us that “Leeds fans had set a bomb off somewhere” and that it was real bad. No mobile phones, no internet, no way of getting instant reliable news like there is today. We didn’t believe him. A bomb? This might have been the bad old days of football hooliganism but a bomb? Unthinkable.
And so the day wound on. We ended up at the party. Had a great time. Drank too much and ate too little. Stayed up waaaaay too late. Eventually we crashed out.
Sunday morning came so horribly soon. I was very hungover and awfully stiff from having slept on the floor. The flat looked like a first class party had happened in it, which it had, and was a complete mess. It was cup of tea time and clean up time. Somebody turned on the TV – it was that long ago that Breakfast TV was something of a novelty still and there it was: the truth about that “Leeds bomb” was that he had got muddled up with the Bradford Fire. We just watched the horrific footage in stunned silence as the news rattled on: “playing Lincoln”, “Valley Parade”, “packed because Bradford were about to win Div 4”, “spread in minutes”, “56 dead”. I don’t think have ever seen anything as horrible in my life. We were stunned into slack-jawed silence until somebody turned it off at which point we completed the clean-up, Andy and I headed off to the local pub, The Gilda (which had a stripshow going on!), with a few others before going on to the A40 to try to hitch-hike back to Cheltenham.
We quickly got a lift from a young yuppie-type fella who, apparently, had got off with the daughter of somebody so famous the night before that we wouldn’t believe it if he told us. Funnily, because he never did spill the beans as to who she was, I believed him – and still do. He took us to Oxford at about 100 mph all the way where our next lift was a crazy old man who should not have been driving “I’m 85 years old, y’know!”. If he kept on driving he was unlikely to see 86. God knows how he got that far. Anyway he took us to Whitney and dropped us off there. Dual carriageway. We were stuck there so long we decided we were best off walking the 30 miles we still had to go. It started to rain. It was getting dark. Spirits were very low as we plodded forlornly along.
In such circumstances you need a stroke of luck and we got one. If we could have chosen a fantasy lift it would have been two gorgeous girls and that was exactly what happened. Proper Australian Page 3/Barbie Doll types they were too. “I don’t usually stop for hitch-hikers but you two looked so miserable I felt sorry for you…” Sadly they didn’t seduce us but they did take us to Cheltenham. The adventure was over.
All of which I have been reminded of by today’s 30th Anniversary stuff about the Bradford fire. 56 people went to football match, just like Andy and I did, and through no fault of their own never went home. That awful, horrific tragedy, in conjunction with Heysel and Hillsborough, changed what it is to be a football fan in England forever and 30 years on watching football is nothing at all like what it was then – even in the few grounds that still have terracing. In many ways it is far better now: the threat of violence is remote; the view is better; the toilets are better; it’s far more family-friendly. It’s not what it was though. The feral terraces have gone; the apprehension when travelling is more or less non-existent; it is easier to meet-up with friends; the other scores are easily looked-up… Is it better now? Of course it is. It isn’t as exciting though. I can’t imagine how 56 people could be killed at a match in England again – but nobody could back then either.
All of this has been running through my mind all day. If you are still here then thanks for reading it all but amidst the obvious highs and lows of following a team there is always the adventure involved in going to an away game somewhere. It doesn’t matter where and it doesn’t matter who you support. There must be a million, several million hugely personal different folklores out there unique to each and every fan; the episodes are all shared either directly or indirectly with other people. We all have our bank of memories and tales to tell and they are all precious and they all make us into what we are today. That is what following a team gives you and it may be subtle but the cumulative effect is more profound than any win, defeat, goal or red card.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Neil Young & Crazy Horse at Hyde Park

“& Crazy Horse” is the important bit from the title above. Neil Young is a fella who adopts many guises but you can be certain of one thing: when he joins up with Crazy Horse you know exactly what you are going to get.

And so it came to pass. Old Shakey thrashed away on Ol’ Black and his old muckers created a rolling, riffing wall of heavy electrical and percussive, mostly jammed, accompaniment for nearly all of the 2+ hours that they stalked the stage in a ramshackle, noisy, barely-in- time-and-tune show that epitomised their undoubted craft mastery. The absence of long-time Horse bassist Billy Talbot due to a recent stroke, replaced by Young’s “regular” bassist Rick Rosas for this tour made not a jot of difference to the cumulative effect created by Ralph Molina (guitar) and Frank Sampedro (drums). Even the solo numbers Young played where played semi-accoustically and with loads of distortion.

There is a strangeness about Neil Young on stage that defeats interpretation, if not observation: Neil Young is brilliant; Neil Young has a back catalogue of material to die for; Neil Young just oozes stage-presence; Neil Young has unique stage body language; he has complete freedom of choice about who, what and where he plays; he has a massive legion of fans many of whom who’d walk over broken glass to see him play; he was playing with his oldest and most trusted friends and collaborators… And yet…

I can’t help but wonder if he actually enjoys performing at all? There was zero humour, barely a smile from him and precious few spoken words throughout. Or at least none that I noticed on the big screens being far too far back to directly observe his facial expressions. A relatively cantankerous and wilfully difficult jamtastic show followed. “Truculence” should his middle name.

Which is no great surprise. That’s the way he does things and sometimes the self-indulgence and egotism results in moments of rare passion and glory that remain buzzing around your skull well after the event (like they did when I saw him at The Hop Farm) but on other occasions the messiness of it all doesn’t so much as disappoint but infuriate. It doesn’t need to be like this.

And this is the over-riding feeling I left the show with. It was good, really good in parts, but overall the effect was that the 50,000 or so souls in the audience were an irrelevance. Neil Young & Crazy Horse were not in attendance to please us but we were in attendance to enable them their fun – if fun it was. Their loyalty was not to us as paying customers but solely to each other and to hell with everything else.

The choice of songs chosen was odd. I’ve been listening to Neil Young records for over 30 tears now and, to be honest, even I struggled to recognise much more than half of the songs played! So much so, in fact, that I have had to look this up but the setlist was:

Love And Only Love
Goin' Home
Days That Used To Be
After The Gold Rush
Love To Burn
Separate Ways
Only Love Can Break Your Heart
Blowin' In The Wind
Heart Of Gold
Barstool Blues
Psychedelic Pill
Cinnamon Girl
Rockin' In The Free World
Who's Gonna Stand Up And Save The Earth
Down By The River

Not that there was that much much difference between any of the Horsed-up versions of any of the songs and the cumulative effect was that it was all a bit samey.

So what were the highlights of the show? It’d have to be a truly epic Rockin’ In The Free World played as darkness descended and performed at breakneck speed with a couple of mega false endings unleashing a ferocity that even AC/DC would have been pleased with. After The Goldrush, sounding quite unlike any version of the song that I have ever heard before, was another stand out moment. It was also nice to actually recognise some of the other tunes (Cinnamon Girl, Blowing In The Wind) and to have a bit of a sing-song (Only Love Can Break Your Heart) but my honest feeling was that two encores consisting of a brand new song followed by 20 minutes of Down By The River as a closer was a bit much (then again I thought exactly the same about No Place To Hide at The Hop Farm).

I felt the opportunity to really unleash The Horse was missed. I’d’ve loved to have heard Like A Hurricane, Southern Man, Cortez The Killer, Hey Hey My My, Powderfinger, Farmer John, Fuckin’ Up, Welfare Mothers, Piece Of Crap… or many others but that was not to be.

If that all sounds a bit grumbly… well it is. But that’s what Neil Young does and what he has always done and it’s how I saw it. He performs pretty much for himself and not for the audience (I wonder what the paying punters thought of the feedback fest that was released as Arc as a companion piece to the the excellent live Weld?) which is genuinely selfish but that self-indulgence also, sometimes, results in moments of genuine unsurpassed excellence that once edited down a bit and trimmed to fit onto 12” of vinyl resembles genius and you can’t have one without the other.

I’ve been to see Neil Young in concert three times now and of the three I would place this gig third. Would I go to see him again? Yes, but not if he was touring with Crazy Horse despite considering myself to be a massive of fan of both his and theirs. The Hop Farm gig was far better despite the Hyde Park gig being blessed with far better weather! (Man it was hot. Very hot. 80 deg F hot. And sticky. Very sticky. God knows what the humidity was.)

For reference: Neil Young at the Hop Farm

Saturday, July 12, 2014

World Cup Referees (and An Odd Statistical Anomaly)

As I write this the 2014 World Cup Final between Argentina and Germany is a little more than 24 hours away. It promises to be an intriguing game between the best team (Germany) and, arguably (I’m sure fans of Colombia’s James Rodrigues would most definitely argue), the team with the best individual player (Lionel Messi).

Intriguingly this is the third time the two nations, if you’ll allow me to equate Germany with the old West Germany, have met in a WCF with Mexico ‘86 seeing Argentina eventually triumph 3-2 in a match I regard as being the very best WCF that I have ever seen and Germany’s dodgy penalty eventually winning a horribly petulant affair that saw two Argentinians red carded to conclude Italia ’90.

It is the frequency of these two teams meeting which although not, seemingly to me, exactly anomalous itself given that in any World Cup you can reasonably assume that Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and Holland will enjoy annoyingly regular success but that in the semi-final of this tournament Brazil and Germany met in serious competition for only the second time. How is it possible for these two giants of world football to have clashed so infrequently over so many World Cups? I suppose tournament seeding would keep them apart in the early group stages but surely their paths should have crossed more often than this?

But that was just an observation that has arisen since starting this piece; my real purpose is to consider the role, impact and philosophy of Big Match referees: what on Earth is going through their minds?

In the 2010 WCF Spain were, basically, physically assaulted from the off by Holland with Nigel De Jong’s horrendous kung fu-styleed chest-high studs-up lunge setting the tone for much of what followed. It was the most blatant red card offence since Schumacher half-killed Battiston in Espana ‘82’s epic semi-final (this match was the most exciting game I have ever seen). In due course the Spanish, no strangers to the game’s blacker arts themselves, responded in kind and the game degenerated into an X-rated spectacle with, perhaps, a morbid fascination all of its own but preciously low in terms of skill and excitement. That game’s English referee Howard Webb was, and has been since, routinely defended by the pundits who have infiltrated our TV and radio commentaries as “not wanting to flash the cards too early” or “wanting to keep 22 men on the pitch” or “doesn’t want to spoil the game” or “nobody wants to see a game decided by a refereeing decision”. Well we all saw where that leads and the 2010 WCF, between two teams stacked with talented players was an absolute stinker devoid of entertainment as a result. It could be said that it was the worst WCF since 1990 when Argentina similarly clogged what was then West Germany - if USA ‘94’s bore draw, settled on penalties, between Italy and Brazil escapes one’s mind thoroughly as it deserves to.

So was Webb incompetent? No. He saw all of the “tackles” and judged them mostly to be fouls and gave the free kicks. Actually he gave dozens of free kicks. Eventually he started showing the yellow card. Eventually he sent somebody off but it was all too little too late; the shape of the game had been set early on by De Jong and nothing was going to be able to change it later.

What Webb was guilty of was following the mores of the old pros as he tried, without success, to “let the game flow”. He was guilty of allowing subjectivity to over-ride objectivity. He was guilty of not actually enforcing the rules of the game and adequately sanctioning severe foul play or tackles likely to endanger an opponent – and much more besides. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt and the Right Team won in the end but it was no thanks to Webb that it did.

But that was just a one-off, wasn’t it? Well… No. We saw the same thing again in the recent Brazil v Colombia game except this time the spectacle was not spoiled even if the result probably was. Just as in 2010 it was heart-breaking to see Holland’s lauded stylists with their rich history of Total Football personified by that old Dutch master, surely one of the finest talents ever to grace the game, Johan Cruyff so it was again to see Brazil launch assault after assault (I wonder what Pele, Zico, Socrates or Garrincha made of it?) on Colombia’s talented young team – with the added irony that it was Target #1 James Rodrigues who was booked, for an innocuous challenge, first. There was little that Colombia could do in the face of such an approach going unchallenged and as they fell behind by two goals they seemed to have little hope. The fact that they pulled themselves back into such a game does them huge credit but, just as the Spanish did in 2010, they had to fight fire with fire and commit to a similarly brutal approach. It made for compelling viewing but the best team lost the match.

This time, however, a player – the brilliant, mercurial Neymar (Brazil’s best and maybe the current games very best of all) – was hurt. And he suffered not just a minor injury but a cracked vertebrae. When he was fouled he lost the feeling in his legs; it’s no exaggeration to say that he may have been permanently paralysed.

This is where decisions made by referees can lead to and in the Brazil/Colombia match we so very nearly saw a truly magnificent talent permanently paralysed – and let’s not forget that, his fantastic talent aside, he’s a young man with a lifetime ahead of him just as so many more who play the game at a less exalted level. What goes at the highest level also goes in our national and local games. It might have been Naymar but it could have been just about anybody.

We all know and accept and rejoice in football’s physicality: it is the game where you have to be able to compete before you can expect to thrive but it isn’t known as The Beautiful Game for no reason. For the best players to thrive, for the best teams to win all the referees have to do is apply the laws of the game as they are written and not as a few grizzled ex-pros spouting forth cliché after cliché in the guise of punditry would like them to be.

I can’t see the 2014 WCF degenerating in such a way. For one thing there is no chance that Germany, who are as physically strong an XI as any in the world game, will be intimidated by Argentina. Argentina will know this and so they will not even try. On the other hand Germany could be the aggressors but I feel that their innate self-belief and confidence means they won’t even consider it; they believe that they are going to win and don’t need to. So will Germany’s strength as a genuine, seemingly complete team be enough to triumph over a moderate support cast committed to stoking Messi’s individual brilliance? I suspect it will but it wasn’t enough for West Germany in 1986 and it may not be enough this time. I just hope the referee doesn’t spoil the match, gives the talented players a chance to play and gives the cloggers short shrift should they try it on. May the best team win a final between two teams that no English football fan wanted to see there!

All of that and not a single mention of…

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.