The Football Shake-Up: Plymouth Argyle & financial crisis in the lower leagues
The Football Shake-Up series will be taking a look at our beloved game and the problems it faces today. We will be discussing ways to improve the lot of the fans, the clubs, competitions and much, much more. If you’d like to contribute to the series, please get in touch. What would you change about the way football is run to make it better?
Since May of this year, Plymouth Argyle Football Club has been in administration. With debts of £17m and players and staff unpaid in nearly nine-months, talks of a strike have been confirmed by manager Peter Reid as the search for a new owner of the 125 year old club have stalled.
Last season Plymouth faced a winding up order from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and was placed into administration by the club’s directors. In line with Football League rules the club was deducted 10 points, during what then became their second consecutive relegation season, as they fell into League Two.
During this period, fans have taken matters into their own hands and, in association with Fans Reunited, established Green Taverners, an organisation “set up in 2011 to help provide the Club with all the extra things that we do not think about every day like players training equipment, bibs, first aid equipment and even travel to away games.” On the home page, you find a donate button, where via paypal you can contribute your hard earned pesos to funding this movement.
Currently, no progress appears to have been made in the ongoing search for a new owner. Bishop International Ltd, preferred bidders of the club’s lead administrator Brendan Guilfoyle, are still yet to complete the purchase of the club and the staff continue to work, unpaid. The Pilgrims stumble from one day to the next, propped up by funds donated by fans, and by players thus far too loyal to their following not to turn up at Home Park and play their hearts out.
In this, a time of significant financial constraint, of high unemployment, low interest rates and increasingly expensive living costs, charitably given money is being ploughed into the saving of this business, albeit a football club. A business which has proven itself neither profitable nor able even, to attract the required concrete investment needed to safeguard its future. I wonder if I am alone in considering that the money being so generously donated to save a football club could be utilised better elsewhere?
Are charities, such as Marie Curie Cancer Care, or Sense not a more suitable destination for your donations? Would Oxfam or the NSPCC not make significantly more use of your philanthropy? Are the British Heart Foundation or Cancer Research UK not engaging in work, through such use of public generosity, which will benefit mankind significantly more than the saving of a south coast football club? Frankly yes, and I would challenge anyone to justify any donation to Argyle over any of the above charities.
So why have Plymouth arrived in a position of such financial disaster? Why did Portsmouth nearly crumble out of existence two seasons ago? Why have numerous clubs, Southend, Cardiff, Wrexham, and of course Leeds amongst many others, flirted with such financial obliteration during a time when Manchester United are recording operating profits of £110.9m and turning over £334.1m?
More and more clubs have ludicrously adopted the approach of the last strong Leeds team, when under the saintly Peter Ridsdale (incidentally also involved at both Cardiff City and Argyle during their times of financial struggle) the Yorkshire club spent too heavily in order to assault the established elite of the Premier League, and they failed. Even more clubs simply don’t have the business infrastructure or organisation to maintain a level footing when the financial sands beneath them shift.
Without making profits, a business will stutter and eventually fail. Football has become a business first and foremost as we well know. All professional clubs have had to embrace the attempt to capitalise on the growth at the top of the game, in order to not be left behind. When the businesses start to disintegrate however, these stalwarts of local communities up and down the country have opened themselves up to having to be saved by the only people that have kept them alive throughout their history, the ones who are always remembered last; the fans.
Plymouth Argyle has been a professional club since 1903 winning five league titles in the process. Is this kind of history something we want disappearing from our beloved sport? Of course not. Is the dedication of fans to donate both their time and money for no obvious gain other than steering their adored local club toward survival, laudable? Of course it most certainly is. It would seem the Gods of football have forsaken their most loyal servants.
Sadly, the Gods hold no sway. Rather, salacious demagogues stare out on to the masses lined before them, hands aloft pleading for clemency, begging for assistance, for some scraps to fall from the top table of the game. FIFA, UEFA, The FA, The Premier League, and numerous other complicit federations and associations, have presided over a period of unparalleled growth in the sport, resulting in huge sums of money being paid for television rights, for sponsorship, for teams to be purchased as viable investments by some of the wealthiest people in the world. All that has filtered down to the lower leagues, the bedrock of English football in particular, are some measly solidarity payments, occasional decent transfer fees and loan players, farmed out to gain some first hand experience of what playing football for a first team in England is about. As the cats atop the Champions League co-efficient standings have gorged and bloated themselves, so their smaller cousins in the leagues below have struggled to run a ground, pay wages, put on the famed match day experience and more generally, just stay afloat.
We have heard a lot about UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) initiative, which has been adopted by the Football League already as a means to ensuring the survival of clubs such as Plymouth. However the FFP focuses on clubs living within their means. If a club does not have the capability to operate through generating income which exceed their overheads, what difference will a level financial playing field make to them? If Manchester City have to sponsor themselves £400m in order to balance the books skewed by their lavish spending, what chance do a Grimsby Town have of paying players and operating a football club, when they are sponsored by the likes of Handyman UK?
Whilst of course, the paying fans who can afford it may prefer to see the likes of Manchester United go head to head with big spending Chelsea or Manchester City, or the glamourous trips to play in Madrid or Catalonia, do the fans of small provincial clubs, not deserve to be able to access their equivalent joy in watching their teams play against far less attractive opposition? Without a duty of care from those attending the great feast of football to their less well off cousins, clubs like Argyle, along with their illustrious history as a member of the game made so beautiful and given such import in this country the last century, will be lost to the annals of time.
I am no expert nor do I profess to have all, or even many of the answers to football’s crisis of faith in the foundations of the sport. I do however see a stark parallel with today’s society and the problems we face. In this meritocratic world, if you are strong and skilled, you achieve and are rewarded. But in the liberalised take, those who do achieve, have a duty to help and assist their less skilled, weaker compatriots, not merely to leave them to crash upon the cliffs of our society. This is why we pay tax. This is why we donate to charities. This is why Plymouth, if it is to be saved at all, will be saved by the dedication of it’s fans.
Governing organisations however, also have a duty of care. Our government, with our taxes pays for our health care. They pay for our unemployment, housing or illness benefits for those less able to contribute to society. Of course abuses occur, but without these payments, we would see the poor and needy of society cast asunder. Likewise our football authorities, supported by the wealthy clubs and owners, need to provide both support and philanthropy, to help maintain and keep a key portion of English football history alive.
Of course, as I’m sure will be argued, this doesn’t make very good business sense, passing hand outs to those clubs that cannot afford to run themselves. Of course it doesn’t. Which is why, if football’s wealth is to be more evenly distributed, change is also needed within the lower leagues.
With such giving from wealthier clubs and the authorities, additional responsibility, transparency and good governance would be required of those operating our local clubs. No longer should we allow businessmen with flawed business plans to run our clubs into the ground with their ill-conceived and poorly executed governance. FFP in the lower leagues should focus on rewarding the clubs who are making strides towards self-sufficiency. Rather than penalising clubs who are not conforming however, a prudent option might be to weight the level of hand-outs coming down from the top table, based on the strides the clubs are making towards good governance. By rewarding self-sufficiency and strong operational performance, the clubs would then be incentivised to get their financial house, as well as their sporting one, firmly in order.
There would seem to be no discernible benefit for the elite teams handing over their money to prop up smaller clubs and it would be a reasonable question for any large corporation to ask. Well, rather than monetarily, I would suggest that the impact would be more reputational. If Manchester United, in a nation with 92 professional teams in four Divisions, as they do more often that not, sit atop the pile, surely it is more of an achievement and demonstration of strength if the 91 teams below them are ever stronger?
Football at the highest levels of course is a multi-billion pound industry. At the lower levels however, it has always been a reason for communities to come together and rally behind a local focal point. As the UK Government talks about a Big Society, I wonder what could be Bigger in any local Society, than having several thousands of people from varying demographics, in multiple areas, congregating together with one collective desire: To see their town, city or county, succeed. If we lose clubs such as Plymouth to financial meltdown, we will lose a point of community that has been in situ for over a century. If a Portsmouth, a Leeds, a Grimsby Town even, disappear from existence, where then for the collective to come together in such numbers? On the streets, with Molotov cocktails, smashing shop windows perhaps?
What can we do? We’re only fans. What sway can we have?
Firstly, you can support Plymouth Argyle by visiting Green Taverners and clicking on their donate now link.
Secondly, you can join the Football Supporters Federation, to ensure that we, as fans, are included as much as possible in the future of our game.
Finally, we can keep talking about the problems football faces. The football clubs and authorities at the feast may not listen to us but unless we are talking, we give them nothing to ignore.
Good luck Argyle. Good luck football.