Good news has been scarce, to the point of non-existent, at Plymouth Argyle this year. But yesterday, when the troubled League Two club reached their 125th anniversary, could signal a welcome upsurge in fortune. With a boardroom takeover expected in the next fortnight – and a subsequent exit from administration – qualified optimism is circling Home Park.
Romain Larrieu, the long-servingArgyle goalkeeper and club captain, smells it, senses it. The 35-year-old has had his battles before, notably with cancer, and come through them. The financial fight, as Plymouth have lurched from chaos to crisis, is just another duel with the devil to be won. Victory may be in sight, Argyle are almost there.
But it has been hard going, and Larrieu sighs deeply. "It was 12 per cent," he says, reflecting on the latestmiserly offer of wages from the club. "It's a joke." Once again, for the 10th month in a row, Larrieu, his team-mates and many of the Home Park staff have gone short.
Once again, bills not paid, mortgage commitments not met. Before Christmas, the club paid 23 per cent; last month 40 per cent – only after the players had threatened to strike. But not the regulation 100 per cent, nowhere near. Since the new year, not once. That is the sad lot of Larrieu and his beleaguered Argyle brethren. And it hurts.
"At first, you think it's only for a while," the Frenchman says. "I've been here 11 years and never been paid late until last September . We got the December money late and that was the last time we were paid in full. Christmas was tough. It's a family time, the last thing you want to be worrying about is money.
"I go into the club offices and see people that I have known for years, who I've seen every single day. And with some of the girls, I can tell if they have been crying last night.When you see that, it's just terrible. It's been like that a lot, people losing their jobs and those who have stayed not getting paid.
"Maybe footballers are privileged in terms of wages, but we should not be compared with what you can earn in the Premier League. At times, we don't even feel we're actually doing the same job as them. I wouldn't have blamed any of our players for going on strike, for saying 'I can't play today'. Because you've got so many things going around in your head. You feel so low, so down.
"The Carlos Tevez 'strike'? Yes, for someone to do that, you just can't understand the thoughts behind it. Roberto Mancini [the Manchester City manager] could hardly believe what he'd just witnessed and I couldn't either. And Tevez is a playerI really love as well... but no more."
Plunged into administration in March, Plymouth plummeted into League Two in May. Relegation to the Conference is not unfeasible either, to judge by their woeful start to the season, which led to the dismissal of Peter Reid, the manager, three weeks ago. Carl Fletcher, the midfielder,replaced him in a caretaker capacity, with Larrieu as his first-team coach.
Off the pitch, takeover talks rumbled on, the debts accrued by previous boardroom regimes – which now stand at about £10 million – proved complex to unravel. "It's a shame someone hasn't made a TV programme on us," Larrieu muses. "It's been comical: the deadlines not met, the lies that we have had to face. It should be all out in the open, we should know where every penny has gone, but we don't. There's been no transparency whatsoever."
However, salvation appears nigh. James Brent, a farming and hotel tycoon, and his Akkeron Group are aiming to complete the purchase of the club by 21 October.
It would be an appropriate and timely conclusion. Yesterday, the Devon club marked their 125th anniversary with cut-price admission to Home Park for the visit of Accrington Stanley, a game that ended 2-2 despite Plymouth taking a two-goal lead. They remain rooted to the bottom of the Football League.
Larrieu is bitter. He feels cheated. Yet his manner is calm, his accent soft and laced with Gallic warmth, his delivery articulate. His passion for Argyle is obvious, his compassion for his fellow cash-stricken colleagues even more so. "Le Keeper", who joined the club in 2000 and was once linked with Arsenal, has been granted a testimonial this season, a rare if not unique feat for a foreign player in England.
Calm and articulate, too – again, with barely a trace of self-pity – when discussing his two bouts of cancer and the angst and introspection that followed. Ill fortune, it would seem, has dogged him over the past five years, but his health issues have at least offered stark perspective amid the monetary morass.
"The first time I had it, they operated," Larrieu says matter-of-factly. "They took the testicle away, then they did the biopsy. They said that I had cancer but that I was OK now because it was self-contained. But it messes your head.
"When it came back 18 months later, in the lymph nodes, there was no operation. It was chemotherapy and radiotherapy. People had said to me that you had cancer but you are so lucky because they found it early. And you think, 'You are lucky because you had cancer? Are they sure?' The second time, as I was going through the treatment, I went to find some help, counselling. I should have done it the first time. But I do understand now how lucky I was for them to find it. It was almost like winning the lottery."
A percentage of Larrieu's testimonial proceeds will go to The Mustard Tree Macmillan Centre, which helped with his rehabilitation. Other charitieswill benefit, too. Larrieu's wife, Penny, and their sons Oscar, six, and six-month-old Aldo, also played an integral role in his mental and physical recuperation. "Penny's been so supportive and, whatever happens, you go home and Aldo is there all very smiley," Larrieu says. "Yes, of course, he hasn't been paid since he was born. Well, not in full."
Dark humour, dark days, percentages. A day in the life of Romain Larrieu. C'est la vie. It is no cliché, it is how he treats it, how he copes. Yet if James Brent turns out to be more David Brent, of The Office fame, then Argyle could be sunk. A wreck of 125 years of history suddenly nestling and forever rusting on the ocean floor near the proud maritime port.
"We met James, he talked to everyone, we believe him," Larrieu says. "But if he doesn't buy the club, we will go down. That will be it, I'm convinced. I'm owed quite a lot of money now, we all are. Will we get it back? I don't know. It will probably take a long time. But in the dressing room, and with the fans behind us, you feel like, 'Let's start something else, let's start something new'.
That's what everyone wants here, that's what everyone needs now."
4 March Administrator is appointed.
14 March "A number of offers" for the club are confirmed.
6 May Creditors agree a deal to reduce the club's debts.
5 July Deal with Bishop International consortium is announced.
13 July Proposed takeover talks with Football League begin.
5 August Administrator announces deal to be finalised 'next week'.
26 August Takeover is approvedby administrator.
1 Sept Players threaten to strike after not being paid.
8 Sept League defers bid by Bishop International.
16 Sept James Brent and Akkeron Group are "hopeful" of a takeover.
18 Sept Manager Peter Reid is dismissed after 18 months in charge.
19 Sept Carl Fletcher is appointed caretaker manager and Romain Larrieu becomes first-team coach.
28 Sept Administrator agrees in principle to sell club to Akkeron.
5 Oct Acting chairman Peter Ridsdale confident of completing takeover "sometime this month".