Friday, February 26, 2010

Sutton High School 1981

Chapter 1


Fairly recently I joined Facebook. I'd just missed a Christmas get-together whilst my wife was out for her works do. I was a bit bored and so signed up. Whilst signing up I linked my address book to Facebook users and sent out a request for friends where the email addresses matched up. This has created a random bunch of friends involving family members, schoolmates, old work colleagues, fellow students and mates from Argyle.

One of them, Neil Manley, kind of fits 2 categories. Anyway he found the facebook group "Sutton High (Plymouth)" set up by Michael Lawton. In turn he had posted scans of the Sutton High '81 school photo. I have never been so shocked in my life and I don't think I have ever even seen it before. I certainly don't have a copy.

Anyway I have stitched the scans together into one image and you can see it below if all goes to plan. It may be re-sized and be too small to be much use but if you click on it it will enlarge.

It still appears to be small but if you press and <+> a few times it will enlarge.

Chapter 2

Well I've just checked and the image is still too small to be of much use. I'll get the image hosted somewhere and link directly to it when I have time.

Chapter 3

I have hosted the image here:
CLICK ME. You'll be able to see it there and copy it if you want to.

Alternatively you could download it and then open using MS Paint which
will enable you to see the image as clearly as possible ~ it is worth the effort. Sorry the merging software has curved it a bit but what can you do?

Chapter 4

I guess some names would help (I can only imagine the shock if google ever coughs this up to any of them). From left to right (but not in order or complete):

Richard Fowler, Ollie Alston, Dean Hawkins, Mark Hodgkinson, Mike Dwyer, Brian Brett, Tony Bolton, Laurence Cook, Colin McEwen, Roger Willis, Steve Mannell, Colin Bettinson, Obi Saha, Suresh Nair, Lee Seabrook, Mr. Sanderon, Mr. Carvell, Andy Crabbe, Mr.Furze, Mr.Aldersley, Mr.Jenkins, Mr. Harrison, Mr. Summerell, Mr. Floyd, Paul Hart, Mr. Stewart, Mr. Brasher, Mr. Sanders, Mr. James, Ms. Bridgeman, Mr. Fraser, Rowe, Jeff Poole, Mr. McAllan, Paul Francis, Andrew Wakefield, Mr. Lambert, Mr. Harrington, Stuart Macey, Dave Fenwick, Mrs. Mear, Brian Herbert, Mark Greaves, Mr. Hobbs, Mrs. Shellaker, Andy Turner, Mason Worrell, Mr. Ellis, Gary Smerdon, Rob Rickard, Andy Furzeland, Andrew Ford, Mr. Guest, Mr. Wright, Nick Goodall, Paul Colwill, Terry Harris, Gareth Parnell, Andy Axworthy, Alex Bleier, Collins, Pete Coniam, Paul Stansfield, Mr. Axcell, Jeff Brett, Chris Chambers, Ian Jackson, Chris Creber, Colin Oxenham, James Retallick, Lawrence Body, Paul Bennetts, Mike Whitburn, Stuart Dawe, Steve Bull, Mike Jordan, Paul Dyer, Steve Howells, Mark Woodford, Mike Watt...

The list is by no means complete and sorry for any minor mistakes (it was a very long time ago now!!) but the other names escape me even if faces are familiar and some are on the tip of my tongue and there's one or two I am sure must be there that I haven't named.

There is a 1st former sticking his tongue out. Can you spot him?

Chapter 5

I can add a few more names having spotted a load of temporary prefects near the front. So add in Neil (?) Downing-Waite, Jeremy Kirkby and John Middleton.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Where is the attraction in following Argyle?


Or, indeed, any other team as unfashionable as us?

Or any team at all that is relatively unlikely to actually win something? Anything, even.

For me there is a raft of reasons and although “success” may lie at the heart of the beginning of my support it doesn’t really sit that highly on the list anymore.

I’ve been attending home games regularly ever since I was about 7 years old. Away games too when I could but that has always been a far less frequently available opportunity for reasons all too familiar to Plymouth-based football fans: transport, cost, time, other commitments etc even for a length of time because nobody I knew ever wanted to go which applied to the lengthy sequence of games without an away win that preceded Sturrock’s initial appointment. The question remains why did I ever start to go at all and why have I continued to go pretty much ever since?

To start with it was something that quite simply I always wanted to do. I grew up in Peverell as a small child and matchday had always been there: the people, traffic congestion, lack of parking and, most of all, the sounds emanating from the stadium during a match: the signing*, 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 so too did Argyle on matchday provide a soundtrack. Success didn’t come into it ~ I just wanted to go because the big boys went and I wanted to be accepted as one of them just as every 5 or 6 year boy does.

So I started going 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 just how ruined a day could be by a football match; on that day Don Masson broke a 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 don’t matter, do it?).

I’ve described before how free tickets occasionally came my way and my first taste of success came in the Mariner/Rafferty year and I was completely lost to the cause from then on. So that was the success that dragged me in and I guess it is always success that cements the place of a team in your heart.

Various good bits have added layers to the metaphorical onion that is my support for the team: Dave Smith’s promotion year, Johnny Hore’s cup run, the Man City game during the 3 day week, Santos and Pele, Everton (more than once) and Sturrock-led rise from the doldrums that becalmed us for so long high on the list of the barbs that kept me on the hook once this fish had nibbled the bait.

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, even though sometimes we dreamed of success being a speck on the horizon, during the near 40 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 (almost the same thing as the last one, I guess); 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 nearly 40 years now.

Supporting Argyle has amounted to 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. I’ll never be truly happy with Argyle until we are the biggest clubside in the world and we are winning every trophy in sight every year.

So that must be why I go: because it offers a goal from me to strive for (well not me, of course, because if it was me then it would be my fault for it not being achieved and that would never do, would it? Nobody wants to accept responsibility for their own failure or unhappiness after all) vicariously and a chance to wallow in the misery that almost relentless failure is sure to bring.

So I support Argyle not because they are good but because they 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 now. Besides it is having experienced the bad times that makes the good times so precious when they do come along no matter how rarely.




* Obviously I meant singing. “Signing” suggests hordes of deaf people simultaneously furiously gesticulating approval/disapproval silently (perhaps  ~which would be even better) in sign language which is imagery that pleases me so I have not corrected it even if it is wrong because it is completely impossible for it to resonate beyond the stadium as described.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Footballers As Role Models

Another day in Bristol; more coffee and a little more snow…

It’s at times like these that my mind wanders and on this occasion it has wandered onto the recent publicity surrounding the private lives of footballers. It’s strange that it should do so because I really have very little interest in such matters but given recent events and the publicity surrounding John Terry and Ashley Cole it has been a hard subject to ignore because it has certainly exercised the great voices of the press and other media. “It’s an outrage!!” they thunder. “What sort of role models are they for our kids to look up to?”

I take great exception to this. Why should we even expect or hope that they are role models at all? I suppose a case could be made for them re their ability as footballers given that they both play for a leading club and represent England as first choice regulars and to be fair I don’t think that they have ever let anybody down in that regard. They are both extremely proficient defenders and given that defenders get sent off quite often they seem to be reasonably clean in that respect too. John Terry is the only one I can remember being sent off at all and even then only once. There’s probably others but they do not stick in my mind.

I don’t even want to criticise their conduct. As far as I am aware the latest hooha has surrounded events in their personal lives and these are, basically, nobody’s business other than their own and that of the others directly involved.

I don’t think either has broken any laws and yet they are both currently being vilified by the media which has in turn led them to be derided by opposing fans on the terraces when they have played.

The root cause of this seems to be glee in the travails that have befallen them because they are deemed to be far too highly paid. Well if that is why they are disliked then that’s fine and up to the individual passing that judgement but passing that off as “they have let The Nation down; they are role models, y’know…” is projecting on to them a responsibility that they have not sought or earned and which is neither desired or deserved by them.

That isn’t to say that sportsmen cannot or are not role models in some cases but those cases are few and far between. Those who do reach that elevated status do so by virtue of either a single act or a lifetime’s actions but even then they many of those concerned offer contradictions.

Let me consider 2 different men from 2 different sports: Ian Botham and Paolo Di Canio.

Botham first. Ian Botham was, arguably, the greatest cricketer of his era. Definitely the best all-rounder. His deeds with bat, ball and in the field were/are legendary and he rose to the elevated and esteemed position of captain of England’s cricket team. He was simply brilliant and he was widely idolised for his talents. Since then he has raised money, lots of money, via his various sponsored walks, towards leukaemia research. He is an exemplary role model except…

There had to be an “except” coming up didn’t there? Except there was, shall I say, a “colourful” personal life which included a ban from cricket for smoking marijuana, various questionable comments made to the press and his abject failure as a captain. He was a brilliant sportsman and one who obviously cares deeply about an important and worthy issue but to point at him as a role model would leave you open to criticism. He is no saint but then again he has never claimed to be. Why would anybody even try force beatitude upon him?

Paolo Di Canio next. A good footballer. Not brilliant but very, very good and he has enjoyed a successful career. He has done 3 things which stick in my mind and define him in many ways as a footballer; one of them good and 2 of them bad. The good one was catching the ball when it was crossed to him. It sounds like an odd thing to do and he was smack bang in front of an open goal, and hence as certain as could be to score, when he did so. Why did he do it? Because the goalkeeper was injured and needed treatment. A goal in those circumstances meant nothing to him and his sense of morality over-rode the desire to score. It is one of the very few instances where a modern era sportsman has respected the ancient traditions that under-pin sporting contest and he rejected the easy, undeserved and instant “result”. He deserves huge respect and praise for so doing.

There is bad stuff though. His politics are more than a little questionable; he happily describes himself as a fascist and has given the stiff-armed salute to fans on the pitch. He is another who is no angel and he was banned for a lengthy period for pushing over a referee who had just penalised him. I can’t remember what the offence was or whether he was booked or sent off or not but I remember the push and the ref falling and the lengthy ban which followed his inevitable dismissal when it came.

The point here is obvious; despite considerable personal prowess at their chosen sport and some creditable higher ethical qualities, either considered or instinctive, neither would be acclaimed as a perfect role model but in this day of minute and endless media scrutiny who justifiably could be?

So why is this role model stuff foisted upon these people? Surely it is those who demand that these people meet these unwritten and ill-defined criteria are the ones who have the problem here. It is even more ironic for our tabloid newspapers to portray themselves as moral guardians when they have been guilty of far worse in the past and will be again in the future.

I suppose it is no surprise that they so happily whip-up howls of moral outrage because it successfully plays to the mob mentality and sells copy for them but the agenda they set serves themselves and nobody else at all and especially not those who might be unfortunate to get caught in the path of the ethical hurricane that the redtops spin through no doing of their own.

This isn’t even a new thing. It was identified back in the ‘70s when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull sang onThick As A Brick:

so where the hell was Biggles when you needed him last Saturday and where were all the sportsmen who always pulled you through?

…and later by Paul Simon when he sang:

who’ll be my role model now that my role model has gone?

These people are built up by others and are expected to meet impossibly high ideals imposed upon them by others with no regard to the target of those impositions or the likely ability to meet up to those expectations. We should be neither surprised nor disappointed should they let us down in the end.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Players’ Wages

Why are players paid so much?

You hear it all the time: “£150k/week for playing football? Nobody should be paid that much money for kicking a ball around.”

Well I would question why they are not worth that money and I do not actually begrudge them a penny of it. I know it is lots of money and I know that others work harder, do more important jobs or have more highly developed skills but that is not the point here. Of course carers, servicemen, firefighters and so on deserve to be paid more and, compared to them, footballers are paid far too much but their wages are not linked in any way to those paid to our footballers and they never have been even if they were broadly at broadly similar levels back in 1952 or whenever.

So who is to blame here? In fact is there any blame to be attached at all?

Think of the cliché that states “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. It is those who pay the wage that choose to do so and it suits them very well to make that decision. A footballer can ask for any astronomical sum of money that he can think of but nobody has to pay it to him and if an employer should decide to pay £150k/week to a worker then how many would turn it down?

These grossly inflated wage figures, because they are grossly inflated make no mistake about that, arise in the modern game because football has wilfully created a free-market bargaining process that it can no longer control; Dr. Frankenstein has lost control of his monster.

In this country this came about as a result of a decree imposed externally from the European courts as a result of the Bosman Ruling and an internally made decision to grasp the nettle as represented by the cash from televising football.

Bosman first. He was a player for a Belgian team who would be called a journeyman in this country. He was a largely unheralded player who had come to the end of his contract and who wanted to change clubs. His current club would not allow him to go, he took it to court, won and players had freedom of movement at he end of their contracts enshrined as a right by law.

What did this mean in effect? That the balance of power shifted permanently from club to player. Where a club once had to pay a fee only when they initially signed a player they now had to pay just to retain one they already had too. Clubs have been and still are reluctant to stump up cash in big single payments and so sought to avoid doing so. Let me explain…

Imagine Player A getting signed for £1m to play alongside Player B. Player A may have negotiated a wage of £10k/week for himself. New contracts nearly always pay more than older ones so Player B, although equally as good a player, will probably be earning less. Eventually the contract of Player B will be up for re-negotiation. “Player A cost £1m upfront and will have earned another £2m by the time his 4 year deal is up. He will cost £3m overall. So I want a £1m signing fee and £10k/week too because I am just as good as him.” And who could blame him?

The clubs do not want to pay him that £1m at all and so agree a higher wage in lieu. Maybe half of that £1m added to his wage and a 2 year deal instead of a 4 giving him a net wage of £15k/week. And so the spiral begins and is reinforced and tightened with every transfer that follows.

The clubs could just say “no!” but they do not because if they do not pay the wage then a competitor will and if that happens then they lose their man. And so it goes on until superstar players are on £150k/week and that in turn drags up the wages of the make-weights and journeymen until even relatively mediocre youth teamers arrive at training in their Ferraris.

So why do the clubs pay it? Partly because they can and partly because they have to because if they do not then they lose the player, their team is weakened and ultimately they face relegation at which point their ticket to the gravy train as represented by TV money is invalidated.

This is where the clubs have nobody else but themselves to blame. It is the PL clubs that have have elected to keep nearly all of the TV money for themselves whilst passing precious little down to the lower levels. This means financial disaster for relegated clubs who then find that their income and expenditure balance is completely skewed against them. Those clubs then slash and burn budgets as best they can but they still operate at a completely different financial level to the clubs lower down and those clubs are then trapped in the inflationary spiral as they attempt to negotiate contracts (similarly affected by the Bosman Ruling even if the effects are not as drastic at that level) with their players.

So that is how the high wage deals evolved and how they spread throughout football. The players may be criticised as being greedy and maybe they are but if that money did not get spent on their wages and transfers then does anybody really think that it would mean that admission prices were lower or that facilities were better (facilities are pretty good these days, by and large, anyway)? Of course not. The examples are there in our modern game of those who are in football purely for its investment potential and it is them who would be riding into the sunset trailing a wheelbarrow over-flowing with cash behind them.

Quite honestly I would prefer that money going to a player, because if it ends up in Singapore, Dubai, the US or Russia then our doctors, nurses, soldiers etc still won’t be getting the benefit of it. Then again like I said at the outset their wages and those of footballers are not linked in any meaningful way at all.

Friday, February 12, 2010


The game of professional football as we know it is in danger of completely collapsing. For too long the clubs have been allowed to chase the dream with scant regard for the consequences of them failing to actually ultimately catch that dream.

It is the way of the business world that it is dog eat dog, devil take the hindmost and damn yer eyes!! as businesses which fail to compete successfully with their rivals simply fall by the wayside. “That's the wonder of Woolworths” as we might once have said although old FW himself may be turning in his grave at the recent eventual demise of a once-great High Street icon. “Serves 'em right” I hear you say. “If they can't keep costs low, sales up and sell the right things at the right price as they do so then who are we to care?” and in many ways that is dead right. We'll buy our sweets, kids' clothes and DVDs (if we buy them at all) elsewhere. No problem really.

Football is different though. Amazon does not need Woolworths. Nor does M&S, Matalan etc. need them either; a football team needs an opponent though or else there is nothing at all there. Football clubs also need an opponent of similar strength or else there is little point to what is there. Real Madrid wants to play and beat Barcelona (and vice versa natch), for instance. Millions of fans across the world want to see that game. Manchester United v Sticker u-11s would barely draw a crowd at Old T and the TV companies would not be queueing up to send the pictures from that match to the wider world (not more than once anyway).

It has always been the case that clubs fold though and there is no more reason that they should be any more exempt from the penalties of failure than any other business. Football cannot continue as it recently has though.

Losing money and going bust through failure may just about be acceptable but we now have the situation where clubs are being successful and they are still struggling to continue. As I write this it appears that Portsmouth FC are on the brink of being put into administration and are in all likelihood on the point of being wound-up and closed down for good and all this is happening as Pompey enjoy, what is for them, certainly in the extended modern era, an unprecedented period of success. We must not forget that they have been a fairly comfortable member of the Premier League since their promotion nor that they have won the FA Cup within the last 2 years or that they have been playing European football against teams like Inter Milan. Quite simply this is success beyond the wildest expectations of even their most ardent fans and even given that success they are virtually a dead duck and they are almost certainly trading insolvently at present and probably have been for quite some time. If they were a pub they would have been closed down long, long ago.

They are not the only club like it though. Last season Manchester United won the Premier League, were finalists in the FA Cup and the Champions' League, won the League Cup and Charity Shield (or whatever they call it these days) and the FIFA World Club Championship. On top of which they sold Ronaldo for, an as yet not re-invested in the team, £75m. Did they make money? No. Did they reduce their overall debt burden? No.

Even they are not the only club like it though. Liverpool are in similarly dire financial straits and they are both where they are largely as a result of the financial chicanery commonly known as the leveraged buy-out. A leveraged buy out occurs when a buyer buys a controlling interest, usually using borrowed money, of a business and then transfers that debt from the buyer to the bought. It is an accepted business practice and is exactly what has recently happened in the Kraft takeover of Cadbury's.

So it is all down to corporate profiteering? No. Look at Hull City. There has been no lack of support there as their council has supported their club in an unprecedented way through the construction of the KC stadium and the provision of an envied support infra-structure. Again there is no lack of success at the heart of this as Hull City currently occupy a Premier League spot for the very first instance in their entire history. They are another team for whom it can hardly get much better and yet another playing chicken with their creditors' goodwill.

And so it goes on. Is it just a Premier League issue then? No. Cardiff City are vying neck and neck with Pompey when it comes to broken financial deadlines and running at a loss. Just as Pompey beat Cardiff in that cup final they are probably just shading that particular little squabble now. Let's not forget that Cardiff are playing in a brand new swanky stadium, have a recent history of progress up through the divisions and are another for whom it cannot realistically get much better. Yet still they trade at a consistent and heavy loss.

And those are the successful clubs. What about those who are struggling? Well it is even worse for them as their income is lower still to start with due to TV wanting to show the glamour games and not the bread-and-butter ones. What choices do they have? Do they continue to struggle or do they try to improve their lot? If they want to improve then how can they? That is simple. They have to invest more, which means that they have to either spend, borrow or guarantee money that they cannot really afford because if they could afford to do so then they would be doing exactly that already. “Ahhh... but you have to speculate to accumulate and if you are successful then you can pay back through the profits made” except the experience of both Hull and Portsmouth suggests that the money cannot be repaid out of the extra income because they always have to spend more to get better players and a stronger team in the new, higher, more expensive and “better” level at which their fans demand that they compete and even if they do then the leveraged buy-out then swamps them with debt just as it has at Liverpool and Man Utd.

So what happens with the clubs that do not chase the dream and try to operate as a sustainable business? Their fans demand ever greater success too and are not happy when they perceive that their club is losing because it is being outspent by those it is competing with and that this, of course, is hamstringing their chances of future success.

It is clear that the national and international laws will not help to protect the clubs that need to survive and on which the survival of the very ethos of the competition between clubs is based. The truth is that the relationship of which I talk is symbiotic because every club needs every other club for the concept to continue to thrive as it has since its inception. You can't even look at it as a parasitic relationship because the healthy host may be a requirement for the parasite to survive but this relationship does not actually harm the host at all. We are talking saprophytism here because the ones that are thriving are doing so on the rotting remains of what was once a fine and noble organisation.

Tomorrow cash-strapped and dying Pompey will play thriving and resurgent Southampton, themselves having benefited from an administration settlement deal last season in an FA Cup tie that might prove to be the last competitive match in their proud, but imperilled, history. The financial courts will surely do the right thing and close them down permanently and save them the final death throes of making them suffer administration, a 10 point penalty and eventual bankruptcy. Their debts are just too big and the backers too reluctant to step forward and take on the responsibility because it will cost tens of mi££ions if they do and the current global financial environment will not support it.

I don't blame the courts at all if/when Pompey do fold. I blame those who nominally have the power to enforce rules which protect the clubs that compete in the name of it. The FA runs the Premier League, in theory, but the clubs are the ones who control the power and the clubs are all relentlessly driven by the demand to be ever more successful in a quest that we can only expect to end in financial chaos as discussed at the start of this piece.

As things stand the clubs are like turkeys voting for their own private Christmas; they demand the right to operate independently as they think suits them best and will resort to legislation to protect their ability to do just that; the Premier League has a need for a big majority vote before it implements any significant and radical rule changes and that majority will never be achieved; the FA cannot enforce anything that the clubs do not approve of; the Football League is a complete irrelevance and was sidelined years ago when the PL was created; government does not see how it can change national, and especially not international, business law and practice (they can't even enforce policy in the banks that they now own let alone make law changes that affect control over them); FIFA is our best and perhaps only hope but the “restraint of trade” lobby will fight them tooth and nail no matter how keen Michel Platini is for change to happen.

Perhaps market forces will ultimately save the day in some shape or form but I don't hold out much hope that it will. Maybe the extinction of Pompey will precipitate a few others to go too as they forfeit on agreements to pay money to other clubs who in turn have spent or at least committed to spend, that same cash. So despite being as successful as they could ever hope to be, despite filling their stadium week-in week-out, despite a proud and glorious history, despite playing in the richest national league in the world, despite recent European football and despite a recent FA Cup win Pompey look as though they will be the first domino to fall and their failure will drag others down with them both inside this country and without.

If that leads to a fairer distribution of the huge wads of cash, currently flooding into English football in greater amounts than ever before, so that it ends up not in a handful of pockets but in many if not all then it might not be such a bad thing. On top of that the bodies which control our game need actually to exhibit some control that is meaningful and put in place penalties that are meaningful for those who seem to glibly assume that going into administration is an easy option and a cash-effective way of writing off the debts that follow catastrophically poor decisions of clubs at management and boardroom level whilst at the same time leaving the unpaid creditor to pick up the tab. Maybe the only hope we have at a legislative level is that HMRC, on behalf of all of those of us who do pay our taxes and stick to our budgets, will exert pressure either practically, through the courts, or on the government, through legislation, that is effective because if they do not then the spoils will always go to the most profligate, the least responsible and the morally corrupt and the risk will be absorbed by those that trade with them.

The advantages enjoyed by those who ignore the moral case for running a football club on a slightly more acceptable moral plane than that lived on by the venal, grasping and, what I believe amounts to being, corrupt clubs mean that they are effectively cheating those against which they compete and and the very ethos which under-pins the concept of sport as a contest. The golden egg-laying goose is strangling itself.

The situation we are now facing is scandalous and it is a scandal that it has been allowed to develop as far as it has. If that is not bad enough nobody anywhere who might be able to prevent it from happening has shown any inclination at all to even monitor what has been and is happening and even less that they might have any control over the same events as they unfold; if they have no control then just what is it that they do that deserves their receipt of their vast salaries? Their wages are taking on the appearance of a bung being pushed towards them for, at worst, their complicity and, at best, looking the other way.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relegation Looming and Coffee Drinking

I don't often drink coffee. There's no big reason or reasoning behind this; I just prefer tea so that is what I mostly drink. Coffee has its uses though. On the odd occasion when I am out and about I'll take a flask of coffee with me because tea always seems to stew horribly if you take that.

I'm not precious about it though. I'll drink an espresso, cappuccino or any of the others that we are inundated with whenever we go into a coffee shop these days. I don't actually drink them often enough to decide whether I prefer a skinny latté to an Americano and this is due to not knowing which is which (once you go beyond cappuccino or espresso) as much as anything else. Like I said I don't drink coffee that often.

But I am drinking coffee today and I am likely to drink lots of it. So much so that it is only 11 am as I write this and I can feel that I am getting a little “wired” already. Luckily I am drinking something that I readily recognise as “coffee” because it comes in pot ready-made and you add milk and sugar as you require.

So why am I drinking coffee? Well I am at work and I have very little to do and this is a state of affairs that is likely to last for at least another 5 hours although there will be brief bouts of activity in the hours that follow. I'm lucky really to have such a stress-free and undemanding job but time does drag on occasion.

To that end I have recently acquired a netbook with the intention to wile away the spare minutes and hours by frittering the time away on football websites, messageboards, news sites and facebook. As plans go this has worked well so far but today I am far from home and sitting in the GOSW building in the centre of Bristol whilst the lady that I work for and with attends a course. “There's bound to be wifi” I had thought “in such a building”. Wrong. So here I sit all tooled up (but not hooked up) with little to do except get caffeined up.

So I have decided to write this blog entry. It was never meant to be about coffee at all but there you go. I'd decided it was to be about relegation. “Relegation” sounds bad. Relegation is bad. Re... le... ga.. .tion... It sounds no better if you say it slowly. (Just had another coffee...) Relegation is as bad as it gets if you are a football fan. When it happens it is horrible, really, really horrible. The prospect of it looming in the distance is little more palatable than untreated toothache.

Relegation. Doom and gloom infuses every last possible musing about Argyle at present. Let's face it we are almost inevitably tearing headlong into the lower division so it isn't really a question of “if” but of “when” and “what will it mean?”

We seem to be enjoying the fruits of mediocrity bestowed upon us by a long sequence of misfortune and poor decision making. So where to begin?

I guess the seeds were sown when the club and Holloway parted company. At that point things were going swimmingly well for us as we revelled in a team that was challenging for a play-off spot and which even won games occasionally ~ a luxury which has long-since been denied to us. It wasn't to last. It couldn't last. That's not the lot of a supporter of a team like Argyle. It never lasts ~ or at least it never has done in the past. We enjoy a wallow in the vicissitudes and failures just as much as a bask in the successes. We have had to learn how to over the years. Anyway Holloway left, players (too many good players) were sold and panic ensued from which we have never properly recovered.

The team, the squad, the management and coaching staff were all filleted in the most extreme fashion imaginable. Gone almost as one were Holloway (manager), Penrice (assistant manager and chief scout), Bulpin (coach), Hayles (captain), Ebanks-Blake (leading scorer and penalty taker), Halmosi (best player), Gosling (best young player), Busazaky (most skillful player) and Norris (talisman and hardest working player). Not far behind them went Nalis (midfield lynchpin), Capaldi (all-time most-capped international), Connolly (inspirational full-back) and the double-headed beast that was Evans/Wotton (general all-round club legends). It was a calamitous 18 months or so. To say that there was little left is an understatement; we did not even have a team spine let alone a skeleton.

The only plus to all of this was the influx of money, lots of money, as the transfer fees came in. Sadly it wasn't enough.

The first thing we had to do as the ceiling came in around us was to appoint a new manager and to that end Paul Sturrock was re-appointed. This seemed to be a good move at the time. He had achieved unparalleled success with us and had also seen Swindon and Sheffield Wednesday promoted during his sabbatical. It didn't work out though.

Did we ever stand a chance? Probably not. The damage was so severe and the opportunities to put things right so limited. Initially the transfer window forced us into hurried signings which have since proven to be both expensive and unsuccessful. Similarly when more time was available to us we still struggled to attract players to fill gaps and we also subsequently failed to suitably exploit the talent of the players we did sign. Why? Tactics, performances, results and personnel became as entwined as a bucket of well-oiled spaghetti. Just where cause and effect lay is anybody's guess.

Without being intimately aware of the machinations of the club at management level it is impossible to place responsibility accurately but poor individual performances led to poor team performances and league position gradually declined. We narrowly got away with it last season but similarly poor signings made in the last closed season have not remedied the problems or halted the decline.

Analysing the decision-making process is a hoary old task. It is certain that resources were spent with little positive effect. What is less clear is whether the poor signings were made as a result of poor decisions by Sturrock or as a result of him being poorly supported financially by the club.

Putting it all together has left us with a toxic mix of disenchanted support, poor results and performances, dwindling attendances and a feel-good factor that is almost non-existent.

Most of that is now behind us now though as the poor signings are being released, a new manager has been appointed and a new board is in place which we can only hope helps.

But we are where we are and that is deeply entrenched in a relegation spot, 9 points adrift of safety and games are running out in which we can do something about it. To be blunt there is little hope of an immediate turnaround.

So what next? A club that we have been led to believe is already losing money at an alarming rate is going to see it have to budget for season ticket sales slumping and for TV income to all but vanish. If we assume annual turnover to be around £10m at present then next year it is likely to be halved. Remember that we are currently losing money; cutting income by half is going to be disastrous for those shepherding the club's finances.

So what are the positives? Are there any at all? There has to be doesn't there and there is.

Most obviously competing at a lower level might just allow us to win rather more often and if we can win often enough then a promotion campaign is possible. That in turn will bring the crowds back and given that they will be mostly walk-ups because ST sales will be low then big crowds paying top dollar will go a long way towards rectifying the anticipated financial shortfall.

We'll have a few more “local” games. At present it is possible that we will be in the same division as Exeter, Yeovil, Bristol Rovers, Swindon, Southampton, Reading and Bournemouth which will mean some relatively accessible away games.

We will have dropped below the Taylor Report radar and will once again be visiting stadia which have terraces on which we can stand which some will see as a positive but which leaves me largely unmoved either way.

For me the biggest point will be the re-aligning of expectation within the fanbase. We have enjoyed success in recent times beyond that which we had become acclimatised to and it seemed to be widely assumed that it would endlessly continue. That was never a realistic proposition given our history and the status and resources availabie to our opponents in this division. How can we expect to compete with teams that spend mi££ions on player transfers and wages and get 20+k crowds? We might manage it once in a while but over the longer term it is likely to be as sustainable as pushing water uphill.

We have lost sight of the fact that every season we stay in the CCC (or equivalent) is a triumph for us and should be celebrated as such and that relegation, although it should never be regarded as inevitable until it is too late to think otherwise, is an inevitable possibility that should always be considered.

As I sit here and peer out of the window of the conference room in which I find myself I can see that snow is falling quite heavily, but not settling, on the grey exterior of Temple Meads station and I must admit that my thoughts are turning to yet another cup of coffee.