Plymouth Argyle can be seen as a sleeping giant, as they play in is the biggest city in England never to host top flight football. And in 2011, they could have very easily become the biggest in Europe not to have a professional team in the first place, with the club threatening to go out of business. Argyle look, finally, to be moving forward, after what has been a rotten few years. Here is their story.
Until 2009, Plymouth were very much an established side in the Championship. The Pilgrims had been promoted twice in the space of three years between 2002 and 2004, thanks to the work of Paul Sturrock as manager.
They enjoyed five straight seasons of consolidation, which was impressive given a number of factors. Firstly, they were a lower-profile club, having never won a major trophy, and more used to playing in the bottom two divisions of the Football League. They were something of a selling club, making a large profit from transfer fees over the course of five years. Most notably, the likes of Peter Halmosi and Sylvain Ebanks-Blake, were sold for about five times the sum they initially cost. The players also had to deal with fairly frequent changes at the top, with five different managers in this five year period.
Paul Sturrock had been headhunted by Southampton towards the end of the initial promotion season, and left as a club legend. Managers such as Tony Pulis and Ian Holloway came in and did a decent job keeping the club safe, although fans did not appreciate the abrupt manner in which Holloway left for Leicester. Generally, the club was in good health.
Ironically, it was only when Paul Sturrock returned, that things started to go wrong. After the club had achieved two midtable finishes, standards dropped in Sturrock’s first full season back, 08-09, as Plymouth only just stayed up. Following a poor run of results to start the following season, he left, and so began a rapid decline.
The club endured relegation under Paul Mariner, who took the manager’s job having briefly been a first team coach. It was around this time that financial problems began to surface, as there was a takeover from Japanese businessman Yasuaki Kagami. Kagami did not fulfil his promise to expand the club’s brand in Japan, and in fact never watched a Plymouth match, and was seemingly involved purely for monetary gain. In 2011, the club failed to pay its tax and faced a winding up order from HMRC, for £300k. Plymouth Argyle failed pay the players and employees for ten straight months that year, making it a quite impressive achievement that the club remained afloat. Peter Ridsdale came in to help the board, acting as an unpaid independent advisor.
Twenty-five players were sold in the 2011 calendar year. Inevitably, the fire-sale led to a second successive relegation, this time under Peter Reid. So, did things finally improve when Plymouth went down to the fourth tier? Well, not at first. Reid was sacked after Plymouth had lost eight successive matches by mid-September, and were bottom of the table with just one point. A third drop in as many years looked on the cards.
Carl Fletcher, at the age of just thirty-one, became Plymouth’s player-manager, and guided the team to survival by two points. Another remarkable achievement, partly because of how the team was cut so far adrift in September, but also with a squad which was thrown together very quickly. There was a turnover of almost fifty players during the 2011-12 campaign.
But indeed, Fletcher was sacked in January the following season. What became a majority of Plymouth fans criticized him for questionable team selection and tactics, with the team on a poor run of form. He was replaced by current manager, John Sheridan, who has done a great job for the Pilgrims so far. Twenty-eight points from his eighteen games in charge, during the second half of the 2012-13 season, saw Plymouth stay up last season.
In that time, the financial problems have healed nicely. This is thanks partly to the work of the Argyle Fans’ Trust, who worked hard to raise money and awareness of the club’s situation, to keep it running. Businessman James Brent completed a takeover of the club in October 2011, and gradually cleared the debt. He made funds available for John Sheridan to strengthen the squad this summer, with a number of new players coming in. Not only this, Brent also put forward plans for a £50 million redevelopment of Home Park to create long-term sustainability. While this might seem like a questionable priority for a club in the fourth tier of English football, it promises a lot for the kind of financial backing Brent can offer the club.
This season, Plymouth are excelling under John Sheridan, who has done some good work in the transfer window. While some Argyle fans were unsure about the signing of defender Neal Trotman, who worked with Sheridan at Chesterfield, he has turned out to be their best defender by all accounts. Sheridan has also worked some magic in the loan market, bringing in Reuben Reid from Yeovil, and Reid has already scored thirteen goals this season. Now unbeaten in six matches, Plymouth Argyle fans can have something to smile about, after five years of doom and gloom. The Pilgrims are on the up – at long last.