Paul Newman: Brent's Argyle rescue rewards faith of fans
The Football League Column: The 45-year-old businessman from north Devon had no particular interest in football but knew what Argyle meant to the region
Monday 07 November 2011
Considering the last-gasp nature of James Brent's rescue of Plymouth Argyle, it was perhaps fitting that the outcome of the Pilgrims' first home match under his charge was decided in injury time. If Argyle supporters went home deflated by Nick Fenton's 94th-minute equaliser for Morecambe in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Home Park, the fact that their club's long-term future had finally been secured last week was a major consolation.
Insiders say that Argyle came closer to going out of business than any other Football League club in the last 20 years. The battle, moreover, to preserve their League status goes on: with more than a third of the season gone, Argyle are four points adrift at the bottom of League Two.
The thought of Plymouth not having a League club would be hard for the city to take. Plymouth is the biggest conurbation south-west of Bristol (at 256,000 the population is more than double that of Exeter) and, even if it is not always reflected in attendances, Argyle have huge potential support.
When Argyle were relegated from League One last season, only Southampton, Sheffield Wednesday, Charlton and Huddersfield averaged bigger crowds in the division. The Green Army are one of the most devoted bands of travelling supporters and there are large pockets of exiled Plymouth fans throughout the country, especially in London.
However, all that counted for nothing when deepening financial problems resulted in the club going into administration eight months ago, when debts were said to exceed £17m. The subsequent deduction of 10 points led to relegation to League Two and the slide has continued this season. Peter Reid was sacked as manager in September and replaced by a caretaker, Carl Fletcher, who has since been given the job on a permanent basis.
In some ways Brent is an unlikely saviour. The 45-year-old businessman from north Devon had no particular interest in football but knew what Argyle meant to the region and became concerned at the club's fate. He was hugely impressed by the passion and commitment of the supporters, particularly the Argyle Fans' Trust, who worked tirelessly to keep him interested in the club's cause. Twenty-four hours after his takeover was announced 10 days ago, he sat among the Argyle fans during their 2-1 defeat at Cheltenham Town.
A former banker, Brent is the founder of the Akkeron Group, which counts hotels, urban regeneration, the Saltrock surfwear brand and agriculture among its interests. He has made it clear that he is no sugar daddy. He drove a hard bargain in takeover talks, having waited until the administrator exhausted other options. Players and other staff are owed substantial sums in unpaid wages but have had to agree to a repayment programme over the next five years.
Another crucial part of the deal is the involvement of the city council, which is buying Home Park for £1.6m and leasing it back to the club for £135,000 a year. Brent was also keen for Peter Ridsdale, who had been a central figure in the club's fight for survival, to stay. The former Leeds United and Cardiff City chairman has been appointed chairman of football operations.
With money remaining tight and with a 31-year-old rookie manager at the helm, the club will rely heavily on Ridsdale's contacts and knowledge to reinforce the playing squad. Paul Bignot, a 25-year-old defender, was the first signing under the new regime, joining on a three-month loan deal from Blackpool last week, while Ben Gibson's loan spell from Middlesbrough has been extended.
Keeping the club's many talented youngsters will also be a priority. Argyle fans do not want to see others follow the example of 17-year-old Jack Stephens, who was sold to Southampton for £150,000 earlier this year, or Ashley Barnes, who left for Brighton at the age of 20.
Greg Clarke, the chairman of the Football League, said a "leap of faith" had been necessary to approve Brent's takeover. Argyle's financial affairs will be monitored closely in the years ahead. For the moment, the fans are simply happy their 125-year-old club is still alive.
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