Sunday, August 28, 2011

Well… I still have a team to support (for now at least)

Friday 5 pm. That was the “deadline”. The latest of many. All of the other deadlines had proved rather more flexible than most of us expect when we use the word. This one proved to be no different.

Argyle fans had gathered to hold a vigil outside Home Park from Wednesday onwards in a desperate attempt to influence the decision-making process as overseen by administrator Brendan Guilfoyle. All across the internet others had relentlessly checked the news services and social media for an indication that something/anything was happening to lessen our woes and so alleviate the suffering that we have been subjected to for far too long now. And there came… nothing.

Speculation abounded unrestrained. What could it all mean? Breaking things down to the simplest level there were only 3 potential outcomes:

1. The club’s liquidation;

2. The deal going through to completion;

3. An extension.

#1 was the horror option. Despite what we had been told experience of other clubs in a similar situation had shown that football clubs were a very resilient breed. Nobody else has been liquidated so why would we? Obviously this ignored the fate of Maidstone, Chester City, Rushden & Diamonds and Dawlish Town in recent times but huge swathes of the national media simply ignored our plight and preferred to concentrate on “crisis club Arsenal” or Joey Barton’s move from Newcastle to QPR. Sky Sports News was particularly culpable. Quite simply the news and football world just shrugged its shoulders and gave it a huge, collective “meh…”.

#2 was, I suppose, the announcement that would have been Good News.

#3 despite all the noises being made to show that this was, indeed, the proverbial “it” more obfuscation always seemed the most likely outcome.

Word flew around that Argyle’s acting Chief Executive/Chairman Peter Ridsdale was going to talk to the Vigilgrims who had braved days of thunder, lightning and torrential rain during their encampment outside the ground at 17:15. The news when it came was underwhelming:

The joint administrators of Plymouth Argyle Football Company Limited (in administration) are satisfied that Bishop International Limited has secured the necessary funding and everything is agreed between the numerous parties.

Solicitors are now working to finalise the documentation and complete the sale to Bishop International Limited / Plymouth Argyle (125) Limited.

Brendan Guilfoyle said: 'This has been a complex deal involving a dozen stakeholders. I am very grateful for the assistance I have received from everyone involved in the sale. I can now look forward to the new club obtaining the share from the Football League and retaining their status as a Football League member club.’

So there it was. Something and nothing. The TV crews had gathered to film the denouement as and when it came; they wanted to see either tears, anger or the popping of champagne corks; they chose the latter and supporters were then cajoled into a premature champagne-spraying celebration; that same celebration was plastered across that evening’s local TV news bulletins; that same celebration almost completely, and definitely wilfully, misrepresented the true situation.

The Vigil in pictures

And so the announcement was widely interpreted as “Rejoice! The club is saved!” and this was certainly how Ridsdale attempted to spin the announcement as he read it aloud to the Vigilgrims until he was force to backtrack a little as some of the fans present questioned his bolder rhetorical flourishes.

Previously we had been told that the only 2 issues holding up the deal were:

1. Bishop International needed to arrange the finance;

2. The Football League needed to return the Golden Share to the club.

So here we are: Bishop International has “secured the necessary funding”; “Solicitors are now working to finalise the documentation and complete the sale”; “look forward to the new club obtaining the share from the Football League “.

So the deal is not yet done and the club is not yet saved and we have made no tangible progress at all from earlier positions.

The language used by Guilfoyle and Ridsdale is a little stronger and confident than anything that we have heard up to now so I must assume that Bishop International has actually secured the finance and questioning whether or not there is broad agreement with the “dozen stakeholders” might seem churlish. Despite Guilfoyle’s astonishing on-the-record admission that he had lied to supporters and media in the past we can do little other than take him at his word this time. It is certainly the case that every time he opens his mouth Guilfoyle paints himself into an ever-tighter corner. He is going to look very bad indeed, to the point of being either negligent, incompetent or criminally irresponsible, if the Bishop International deal does not ultimately go through.

And, make no mistake about it, the words in that statement do pass the buck well and truly over to the FL. Presumably their handing over of the Golden Share will be the deed that signifies the ultimate completion of the deal. Until that happens every contract agreed (and who knows maybe even scrutinised by lawyers, written down and signed by all relevant parties!) will be contingent on the FL handing over that share.

So FL approves the deal and it is all done and dusted!

If only…

Problems hide around every corner.

The Football League has various rules pertaining to club ownership. Essentially any person or company is only permitted to own, or have an interest in, one single club to avoid possible conflict of interest and to retain the integrity (there’s a word that you rarely read in a football context these days) of the various league and cup competitions. And nobody knows who the people behind Bishop International actually are. Not even the FL and the FL does not permit anonymous club ownership. (There is growing suspicion that Bishop International might be a company owned by and representing some or all of the directors that landed Argyle in this mess in the first place; this will incense supporters and unpaid creditors but not bother the FL overmuch ~ if true.)

Cornwall-based businessman Kevin Heaney also has a clear dual interest given that he is “representing” Bishop International (who, obviously, will be buying the entire club lock, stock and barrel) whilst retaining chairmanship and ownership of Truro City FC.

Heaney hopes to avoid that dual interest becoming problematic by selling the football club to Peter Ridsdale with Bishop International retaining ownership of the stadium and adjacent land. Ridsdale’s Argyle will then rent Home Park from Bishop International as tenants. One obvious obstacle to be overcome here is the fraud case hanging over Peter Ridsdale following his association with Cardiff City and a season ticket promotion that he ran whilst he was there. As of now we must assume that he is innocent (until proven guilty we all have that right enshrined in law, of course) but if he is convicted then there is no conceivable way that he can be considered a “fit and proper person”.

I don’t expect the FL to complete their due dilligence and to issue that crucial Golden Share any time soon.

Which in turn means that the administration process will not be completed in the near future.

Which in turn means that Argyle is still quite some distance from salvation.

So we are now where we are. Yet again Argyle's future has seemingly teetered between salvation and oblivion and both are still very real prospects for us. The cynical side of me is wondering whether we have ever been really, really on the brink at all though? Have we, as supporters, been played all along with extinction's nuclear option being used to present some other eventual outcome as desirable whereas in a less fraught context that same outcome would be denounced as unacceptable?

Yesterday Argyle replaced bottom-of-the-league Crewe Alexandra at the bottom of the professional football league pyramid when The Alex beat us 1-0 at Home Park. Whilst we remain in the FL (and in business) we can sink no lower; quite literally there is nowhere else left to go.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Does Argyle Have A Future At All? (a.k.a. Oblivion Looms)

Where to begin?

I’ll keep this as brief as I can but it is fiendishly complicated and we have to go waaaaay back to put events in context.

I’ll go back to what, at the time, seemed like the worst possible scenario for us as a club and I blogged it as “Dead Cat Bounce” some time afterwards.

That was written about the time that Paul Sturrock first came to the club and he was appointed by widely hated multi-millionaire ex-Chairman Dan McCauley and it wasn’t long before the good times started to roll.

Before those Good Times though McCauley was ousted by a loose coalition of supporters with varying levels of personal wealth. He’d always said if he got his money back he’d leave and they cobbled together around £2m and told him to sling his hook. Which he duly, reluctantly did.

From that point after a slow start success followed success. Two divisions were won in 3 years and club records, of the right sort, tumbled one after another. Not just club records either: no team in England has ever beaten our points total of 102 for a season, for instance.

Our problem was that we had risen quickly and the team was ageing. On top of that we had to compete with clubs far more able, well… willing anyway, to splash the cash. Inevitably our meteoric rise had been noticed and Southampton, then a Premier League side, made Sturrock an offer too good to refuse and he was off. Bobby Williamson was appointed as his successor and Williamson won us our second promotion in his first game in charge, as Champions, in a never to be forgotten afternoon when we beat Ian Holloway’s QPR 2-0.

As I have already suggested the team was ageing and needed to be revitalised and rejuvenated. Williamson set about it and in the process several crowd faves were “let go” amidst all sorts of murmurings, rumour and blatant criticism. He did his job though and we stayed up in his first season at CCC level.

He was sacked before the end of the following September, maybe even August, after a very poor start to the next season and Tony Pulis was appointed. He turned around a team that had seemed clueless and turned us into a disciplined, if dour, team that enjoyed eventual mid-table mediocrity. And then Pulis walked out to return to manage Stoke. There’s a whole story there alone of boardroom/corporate chaos which is best told by a Stoke fan. Pulis was succeeded by Ian Holloway.

Throughout all of this Argyle had traded profitably for the best part. We were lauded as a “sensibly-run” club and were held up as an example to others but crowds refused to grow and even though we enjoyed year-on-year progress for 7 or 8 years in terms of league position attendances began to decline, income stagnated and costs rose.

In the boardroom those 6 directors who got rid of McCauley fell out and divided into two loose factions: London-based and Locals; 3 directors in each.

There was a constant debate amongst the fanbase about “investment” in the team. Football fans always want more and better players and they do not come cheap. The local directors were fans of “organic” growth of the business and the “Londoners” wanted to put up some cash and spend it on players. The Londoners seemed to enjoy rather greater personal wealth and the locals pleaded relative poverty and urged prudence.

The situation became irreconcilable when Plymouth Cricket Club was put up for sale. It was offered to PAFC (the land adjoined the club’s training pitches and it would have been an obvious expansion to make) and the locals wanted to buy it whereas the Londoners felt that money should be spent on the first team. In the end the locals banded together and bought the land as individuals and over a period of time the 3 London-based directors rancorously left the club.

Another layer to all of this was the development of Home Park itself. McCauley’s biggest achievement, arguably, was the renovation of 3 sides of the ground. The plans seemed very grandiose when we were in the bottom division but by the time we were promoted twice it became clear that the infra-structure of the ground (bars, corporate hospitality, media facilities etc) were inadequate both in functional terms and when it came to separating supporters from their cash.

Various proposals and plans came and went to replace the grandstand and upgrade the ever more decrepit oldest side of the ground but nothing ever happened. The first renovation was completed via grants, loans and other assistance from Plymouth City Council who were our landlords at the time but they couldn’t politically justify doing anymore and couldn’t/wouldn’t find the funding, believed to be around £10m or so, needed. Argyle wouldn’t pay for it because tenants don’t pay for improvements to their lodgings, do they?

Add to this a proud and joyous proclamation from, at the time, PCC leader Tudor Evans (Lab) standing proudly on the Civic Centre balcony to a gathered horde after an opentop bus parade through the city that he would “give the city a stadium fit for champions”. Well he couldn’t and didn’t. What he did do was sell the stadium and adjoining land to the club so that they could try to finance the replacement of the grandstand themselves.

Along the way directors came and went until we were left with the most recent incumbents: Paul Stapleton (who had been there all along even back when McCauley was uber-Fuehrer in chief), Tony Wrathall and Robert Dennerley (who were there for much of the journey), Japanese businessman Yasuaki Kagami (represented by American George Synan) and the newest arrivals Keith Todd and Sir Roy Gardner.

These are the guilty men. Well guiltiest anyway. So far. Others yet to emerge at this stage may be guilty/guiltier.

Like Sturrock and Pulis before him Holloway walked out apparently due to funding that had been promised to him not arriving ~ this became something of a mantra on and off the pitch as time went along. At around the same time an astonishing number of our players were sold. The club had never had more cash but the team was gutted. We were 5th in the CCC when Holloway left. Now we are 90th in the entire football league.

The Prodigal Son returned and Paul Sturrock, our most successful ever manager, came back in circumstances which were a strong echo of Pulis’s return to Stoke, but this time the magic just didn’t work. The money we had banked from the sale of the players was frittered away in wages and transfer/agents’ fees (apparently). This has never really been fully explained because we didn’t actually pay any large fees for anybody…

Anyway the slide was on. That year-on-year progress became year-on-year decline. The next season relegation was narrowly avoided. The season after that we were near the bottom all season and eventually Sturrock was sacked and replaced by Paul Mariner.

During all of this it was decided that Plymouth would bid to be a part of England’s 2018 World Cup bid. If successful this would see and extra tier put around the 3 sides of the ground already renovated and a whopping great grandstand built to replace the old one. Ground capacity was to be a staggering 46000 and all of them seated! Incredible! Probably far too big for us as a club but definitely “incredible” in every sense of the word.

(I’m sure that you know that the WC bid failed in controversial circumstances in a manner which implied that FIFA was rotten to the core of its corrupt soul.)

At this point the wheels, wobbly for some time now, fell off completely as the financing of the club seemed to be dependent on the WC bid and accompanying development next to the ground. The board split into 3 factions: Japan/Local/Others and, basically, nobody did anything until after we had been relegated again, Mariner had been sacked, crowds had plummeted and expensive players on long contracts had seen what little money there was left evaporate into God knows where.

The first indication that all was seriously, seriously unwell came when HMRC issued a winding-up order for unpaid taxes. The money was found and HMRC went away. They came back again and again and again. Each time it was harder and harder to find the money. Players were sold to meet these bills and were sold at buyer’s and not seller’s rates. New manager Peter Reid had an impossible job.

If things could nosedive from there then they did when it became obvious that the next HMRC bill would result in us defaulting and that they would issue a winding-up order that would see the club put into administration and probably liquidated as a result.

A few months prior to this Peter Ridsdale appeared on the scene. Initially he was just a guest of the club taking a match in whilst on a walking holiday in the SW. Later he “agreed” to help the club in an advisory capacity.

The old board splintered into acrimonious chaos with all sorts of “not me, guv” and finger-pointing leading up to that day in court…

At the very last moment imaginable (i.e. a lunchtime recess) Argyle went into voluntary administration meaning that they could appoint an administrator rather than have one appointed for them. The administrator appointed was Brendan Guilfoyle who had had various dealings and associations with Peter Ridsdale in the past… The club suffered a 10 point penalty and yet another relegation became inevitable; the existing board of directors had control wrested from them and the Football League suspended our Golden Share (basically a guarantee that the club gives that it will abide by League Rules and which entitles it to enter cup and league competitions).

Which more or less brings us up to today. Since that day various shocking details have emerged: PAFC had debts of £17m; Home Park was valued at £7.5m; Home Park has 4 mortgages on it; the current value of Home Park is believed to be far less than the combined value of those 4 mortgages; unsecured creditors have accepted 0.77p/£; club staff and players have not been paid for 8 months; suggestions (not proven) of links between prospective buyers and the old directors…

The administration process has been somewhat (!) murky. For starters there is the rather worrying Ridsdale/Guilfoyle axis and then there is the potential buyer(s)…

There has been 3 possible bidders. 2 of them have been named as James Brent and Peter Buttivant. The other was, at the time, an unnamed “Irish bidder”. Guilfoyle rejected Buttivant’s bid due to him not providing adequate proof of funding. Brent took a back-stop position as being a purchaser of last resort and refused to fund the administration process but his funding was validated. The “Irish” made an offer that satisfied Guilfoyle and were appointed as “preferred bidders” granting them exclusivity and exclusion to all other parties since.

All sorts of problems here… who are the Irish? What are their plans?

Rumours were vehemently and on the record denied by all parties concerned that Truro City chairman Kevin Heaney was behind the “Irish” bid. It turns out that he is a “consultant” for a company named Bishop International which is based in Gibraltar and, hence, is basically untraceable (although some associated names and details seem to be mirrored in Batley which is near Leeds which is where Ridsdale and Guilfoyle first crossed paths). This is problematic because Football League rules dictate that a director can only have influence on one club. As such Heaney cannot be allowed to own Argyle in any way and he may not even be allowed to be our landlord. His plan to get around this is to buy the land (which is where his interest appears to lay) and sell the club to Ridsdale for £1. This is problematic because Ridsdale is currently in the process of being prosecuted for fraud whilst being in charge of Cardiff City… If convicted then he could be precluded from being a “fit and proper person” (League rules again ~ quite possibly law of the land too) to be on the Argyle’s board let alone own the club.

Back to Bishop International/Heaney… They have missed deadline after deadline when it comes to honouring the deal that we believe led them to be appointed the preferred bidder. Along the way their proof of funding appears to have collapsed and they are relying on an unconnected deal to go through and it hasn’t gone through yet. The next version was that they would get a bridging loan until it does go through. Unfortunately Heaney has been at the heart of a corporate collapse in his empire and has left a trail of bankrupt businesses and angry creditors behind him. He appears to have problems arranging the cash/credit that he needs, or indeed any at all, to the extent that a CCJ was recently awarded against him for less than £20k. That CCJ is still to be settled.

Current state of play is that the staff/players are believed to be unwilling to put up with working unpaid any longer. Without funding arriving from Heaney/BI there is no money in the pot to pay them and the accompanying HMRC demand for tax/NI that goes with wages actually being paid. Friday of this week is Decision Day. If Heaney/BI do not come up with the money to complete the deal they will be rejected as potential buyers (so we are told but deadlines have been endlessly extended so far and blatant lies have been told throughout the process) and that wage bill liabilitywill fall to Guilfoyle’s administration company (P&A). His company seems to be reluctant to accept that responsibility and is threatening to liquidate the club should that happen.

We are told that only two issues remain to be resolved for the deal to complete: 1) The FL releasing our Golden Share to Peter Ridsdale; 2) BI resolving their funding provision. “Only two”! As if anything else matters at all! Hardly bloody trivial details are they?

James Brent still awaits in the wings, supported by a very new Supporters’ Trust, but he says he needs time to complete his side of the deal due to having been excluded from proceedings since his initial bid was rejected in favour of the “Irish” bid. Since then Heaney/BI have had 4 months to conclude the deal. It looks as if Brent will be lucky to have 4 hours!

There’s more stuff in rather brilliant forensic detail about the admin process here:

So, effectively, a metaphorical gun is now being pointed at the heads of PCC (planning permission to build on the land next to the ground), the staff and players (wages deferred yet again) and the FL (the Golden Share) and we are quite literally staring down the barrel. There is the very real possibility that Argyle has already played its last ever game.

I am not scare-mongering or jumping at shadows here. Oblivion looms.

(If you are still reading then I hope that that all makes sense.)

The Golden Share (a.k.a. HMRC v Football)

All football clubs own a Golden Share which they lodge with the FL/FA as a promisory note that they will abide by their rules. The Golden Share allows clubs entry to cup and league competitions. If the Golden Share is revoked then a football club has nowhere to go amd might as well not exist.

One of those rules is the Football Creditors First rule. This obliges all clubs to pay all debts owned to all players and clubs in full and on time. Should a club renege on a payment then the granting of the Golden Share is brought into question and a club can be expelled from all competitions again meaning that, effectively, it would cease to exist.

In cases of extremis then the FL can remove the Golden Share from a club but grant them continuance in competition pending resolution of the problem concerned. This is exactly where Plymouth Argyle currently stand and our Golden Share has been revoked/suspended pending the outcome of the administration process.

HMRC is not happy with the Golden Share and the ruless attached to it because HMRC always loses out as a non-secured creditor. As a result they have been deprived of millions of pounds by various high profile football clubs using the administration process as a maenas of escape from financial meltdown. As a football fan I see this as acceptable, if perhaps not "OK", but as a tax payer and a British citizen it incenses me just as it incenses HMRC.

As a result of this HMRC has been relentlessly pursuing football clubs for some time now and is determined to see a precedent set which challenges the Football Creditors First ruling and it was HMRC who were first to chase PAFC for monies owed. So far HMRC has failed but sooner or later it will set the precedent that it strives for.

Football will need to seriously re-adjust if that ever happens because the guarantee of payment lies behind nearly every deal that is made between clubs themselves and clubs and players; nobody pays up in full upfront for anything these days.