Faced with winding up order and Peter Ridsdale, it’s a grim time to be a Plymouth fan. But their local rivals are offering Supporters’ Trust solidarity and three valuable point, writes Gareth Nicholson
Derby day in Devon, and the Exeter fans are high on schadenfreude. The home supporters, meanwhile, are discovering that hubris is a cold mistress. Eight years ago, when Argyle cruised to a 3-0 victory on their way to a League Two title and year-on-year improvement all the way to the Championship, the Green Army had honestly believed that “We’ll never play you again”.
For a time that seemed true as the paths of the clubs diverged, Argyle setting sights on first Championship stability and then onward still, while Exeter battled for survival, dropping out of the League before finding financial salvation through a Supporters’ Trust and coffer-filling FA Cup ties against Man Utd.
These, though, are different times. Now it’s Argyle who struggle, rumours of administration or liquidation growing by the day, with Peter Ridsdale busily trying to build (or rebuild) a reputation as some form of latter-day Shane, riding into town as a noble protector. Yet some fans see little other option – Ridsdale or no club is a stark choice to make and some are content to hold their noses and go for it, the lure of a swift(er) return to the Championship acting as a gold ring to a hobbit.
Argyle’s financial problems are legion, yet depressingly familiar to fans of other clubs who have got used to reading the pink pages of the Financial Times as voraciously as the Saturday evening results supplements. A new board that promised to marry a “new world” approach of investment in the team and facilities with input from local directors (who saved the club from its last downturn in the 1990s but who couldn’t cope with the implications of dreaming beyond second-tier survival).
Bluntly, it hasn’t worked. The new board had excellent credentials: a Japanese magnate, Yasuaki Kagami, ex-Man Utd chair Sir Roy Gardner and local businessman Keith Todd MBE (who acted as the mouthpiece of the regime) promised investment with the Premier League a goal. Little over a year later, though, and those promises look laughable; their legacy will be stagnation, relegation and the severance of the link between club and supporters that Argyle thrived on.
That picture has been compounded this autumn by a new and spectacular failure. While the talking heads were simultaneously berating FIFA for being inherently corrupt in awarding the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the BBC and the Sunday Times for exposing that corruption in the first place, Plymouth’s dreams of hosting games in 2018 died and landed the club itself in intensive care at the same time.
The recriminations don’t really matter any more: maybe the Argyle board got caught up in World Cup fever; maybe (and more likely, given the available evidence) they were only ever in it for the rebuilt stadium and new “revenue streams”. Whatever the motivations, England’s failure was Plymouth’s tragedy, and it seems to have erased any desire on the part of the board to see the club progress, with alarming consequences.
Now HMRC, showing tenacity in pursuing football clubs for tax debts that would barely cover a soirée at Philip Green’s Monaco base, are on Argyle’s case. A winding up order, de rigueur for your football club in strife these days, was postponed in the High Court days before the match. Argyle have until early February to pay the taxman £700,000; other debts stretch to a rumoured £9 million. It’s bad for fans, but worse for staff, who have yet to be paid their full November salary at the time of writing. Supporters, dipping into Christmas savings, have raised thousands in short order to provide a little comfort to people who don’t know when or if they’ll be paid again.
All of which strife brings us back to derby day, and the surreal sight of two Exeter fans in a social club near the ground packed with fans in green. City’s Supporters’ Trust are here to give advice and to pledge support, a gesture of goodwill and commitment to what really matters about football that, although forgotten in the crucible of a local derby, will live long in the memory of those who witnessed it.
Back at Home Park the pasty vans, always an effective barometer of the number and mood of the Green Army, are doing a roaring trade. Fans wait for new stock to be delivered with a mixture of trepidation and real, justifiable anger at the people running their club. Those who had been to the birth of the Fans’ Trust (the acronym of Plymouth Argyle Supporters’ Trust being ruled out for obvious reasons) speak of messages of support being delivered from former and current players, MPs from all sides and bishops.
The Reverend Jim Benton-Evans gives a stirring call-to-arms at the meeting to defend what could and should be a community asset. This is topped only in its emotion by a message from the late Michael Foot’s family that has grown men blinking away tears and left people positing that the old feller would have been proud at the birth of a genuine co-operative movement.
Exeter, under Paul Tisdale (today, like his team, suffering from flu), come here on a high, eyeing the play-offs and with a recent Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win at Home Park under their belts. Their fans, anticipating a victory, pack the away end with body and voice. Argyle’s pre-match entertainment has often seemed as if it was compiled by somebody leafing through a dusty yet eclectic CD collection without much idea of what they’re looking for.
Today, thudding dance music segues incongruously into Kashmir by Led Zeppelin before a steel band – clearly talented but hopelessly inappropriate – belt out Christmas tunes through an over-loud PA system. At a normal match this would be vaguely understandable, but it completely stymies any atmosphere at a derby. Maybe that’s what Argyle’s executive director Keith Todd means when he says he wants the stadium on matchdays to have more of a family atmosphere, even at the expense of “[moving] it on from a traditional football feel”.
But some traditions live on. As the teams march out to Sousa’s Semper Fidelis, the faithful find their voices. Exeter have developed a reputation for precise, passing football, while Peter Reid has taken time to win over the Green Army but has tried to introduce more of a passing game while still urging his charges on with plaintive Bleasdale-isms of “wairk”.
From kick-off, it’s plain to see which Argyle turns up: it’s the side that has beaten Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town rather than the one that lost abjectly at Notts County and at home to Hartlepool. After initial sparring – during which it seems as if both midfields have come to a gentlemanly agreement to let each other have time and space on the ball on the condition that they don’t do anything with it – Plymouth’s Chelsea loanee Conor Clifford decides to get into the derby spirit by lunging in with a late and reckless challenge. A yellow card duly administered, Clifford continues to risk dismissal throughout the game, but shows confidence and quality both on the ball and off in a “quarterback” role, providing the foundation for Craig Noone to roam menacingly across the pitch.
Neither team threatens much until Argyle score. Bradley Wright-Phillips latches onto a free-kick spilled by City keeper Artur Krysiak. Krysiak, clad in the fluorescent orange that suggests he’s moonlighting on the railways in his spare time, drops the ball at Wright-Phillips’s feet and the striker hooks a lob into the unguarded net, celebrating in front of the Exeter fans who’d spent much of the first portion of the game casting aspersions on his mother’s morals – schadenfreude can bite you on the arse sometimes.
After the goal, Argyle dominate. City, shorn of their best players in Steve Tully and Ryan Harley, pass the ball around well but are all tiki and no taka, Jamie Cureton wasting their only real chance by shooting wide when unmarked just before half-time. Argyle soak up any pressure with a solidity that is unfamiliar to the home fans, Réda Johnson looking imperious at the back alongside 17-year-old Curtis Nelson.
Nelson begins the second half by getting involved in one of those football confrontations that have rugby league players fingering battle scars in a wry fashion. In any event, Johnson and Stéphane Zubar, strapping six-footers both, step in to “discourage” Richard Logan from taking retribution and Argyle continue to press. The second goal is inevitable and follows City centre-back Troy Archibald-Henville’s attempt to score an own goal with a flick-on from his own penalty spot. Shortly after, Wright-Phillips meets a delicious cross from Noone and places a header into the net. Game over.
The goalscorer, spent, is substituted and waves merrily at his tormentors in the away end, providing a break in play that allows an Argyle fan to run on to the pitch in an awkward, Pleatian gallop, throwing V-signs at Exeter fans before he is taken out by the stewards. After that, Argyle make use of their new (and, rumours suggest, currently unpaid for) playing surface by passing the life out of Exeter, choking the game with an efficiency that both surprises and delights most of Home Park.
So, success on the pitch and a Trust born off it. But every silver lining has a cloud. Local pride may have been restored, but Argyle’s best performers – Noone and Wright-Phillips – are also the club’s most saleable assets. It’s unlikely that bids for their services will be turned down in January, and every good performance until then hastens their departure.
A victim of geography, Plymouth is a city battling hard against a bitter recession that has affected it as much as the northern towns that get all the hand-wringing. In this, the real far corner of English football, Argyle have a long road to travel. Following the example of Exeter City may be the first step in getting back the feeling that the fans have a stake in their club.
From WSC 288 February 2011