Paul Newman: Plymouth's £12m problem may prompt salary cap

The Football League Column: John Madejski, Reading's owner, advocated such a move, warning that "a lot of clubs are on the brink"
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The Independent Football

Interested parties – and there are a number of them around – have until noon today to submit their bids to buy control of Plymouth Argyle. The Devon club went into administration less than a fortnight ago, but there is so little money in the pot to keep them afloat that a lifeline has to be found as a matter of urgency.

With debts reckoned to total more than £12m it would be wrong to underestimate the depth of the crisis at Home Park, but there are reasons to believe that Argyle's future will be secured in the coming days. The administrator, Brendan Guilfoyle, is said to be expecting at last four serious offers by today's deadline. The front runners are believed to be an overseas-based British investor and a local businessman.

Assuming that the immediate situation is solved, however, longer-term questions remain. Argyle's current crisis stems from their attempt to sustain a Championship team, which ended in failure and relegation to League One last year. Following a 10-point deduction post-administration, a second successive relegation seems inevitable this summer.

Argyle's problems are by no means unique. Players' wages have become one of the hottest issues outside the Premier League, with more clubs apparently coming round to the idea of a salary cap. John Madejski, Reading's owner, advocated such a move yesterday, warning in an interview that "a lot of clubs are on the brink".

Although Plymouth have never reached the top level of English football, they have a large fanbase and should be able to hold their own in the Championship. The city has a population of more than 250,000 and is a major regional media centre, ensuring in-depth coverage of the local club.

Argyle are the only League club in England west of Torquay and, historically, the biggest in the 170-odd miles between Bristol and Land's End. Wherever Argyle play, the Green Army follow. Saturday's 2-0 defeat away to Hartlepool involved a round trip of 650 miles for Plymouth supporters, yet some 400 still made the journey.

A problem Argyle have always faced is attracting players. While some relish the prospect of moving to one of the most beautiful parts of the country, many baulk at the idea, preferring not to stray off the beaten track. In some cases the only possible inducement is a large pay packet.

Argyle have tended to flit between the second and third tiers of English football. Until last summer, however, they had spent six successive seasons in the Championship, though survival was usually the priority, with 10th place their highest finish in 2008.

However, maintaining a team capable of sustaining such a level is a costly business. You appreciate what it takes to keep such a group together when you consider the quality of Plymouth's team in the 2007-08 season, the fees for which some of them were subsequently sold and the extent of Argyle's current debts. The men Ian Holloway and then Paul Sturrock had at their disposal before the squad's break-up included David Norris (later sold for £2m to Ipswich Town), Peter Halmosi (£2m to Hull City), Sylvan Ebanks-Blake (£1.5m to Wolves), Dan Gosling (£1m to Everton), Akos Buzsaky (£500,000 to QPR) and Jamie Mackie (estimated £500,000 to QPR).

Plymouth have never paid a transfer fee of more than £500,000, but in the modern age it is player wages that can drag clubs down. Unless sustained by Premier League parachute payments, even some of the more established and well-supported Championship clubs reckon that in order to make a realistic challenge for promotion they need to maintain a squad that will lead to annual running losses of £5m or more.

Unless you have a wealthy owner prepared to write off such losses, it seems that there are two choices: do not attempt to compete on wages and accept the inevitable consequences on the pitch, or keep spending in the hope that you will eventually find gold at the end of the rainbow in the shape of a place in the Premier League or a mega-rich backer.

Every now and then the latter route might work, but try telling that to the 16 club staff at Home Park who were made redundant last week.