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.


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