By Chris Dunlavy,
The truck driver was adamant. Unless Plymouth Argyle paid in cash, he would not unload his cargo of oil canisters.
Peter Reid, the Pilgrims’ manager on that January morning in 2011, knew the club would not comply.
By that stage, staff hadn’t been paid for eight months. Many more had lost their jobs. Those who toiled on couldn’t even claim benefits as they were technically employed.
“People can’t feed their kids,” said captain Carl Fletcher. “It’s even getting to the point where people are going to have to sell their houses.”
Invoices stacked up, ignored and unpaid. Piled alongside were a slew of winding-up orders as debts spiralled to nearly £13m. Devon’s biggest club were skint, dying and doomed to administration.
Reid eventually dug into his own pocket to pay for the fuel, unwilling to let staff work in freezing offices. Later, he sold his 1986 FA Cup medal to help the club pay wages.
Kieran Maguire, a finance expert at Liverpool University, said this week that Financial Fair Play restrictions and the lure of Premier League revenue is now tempting Championship clubs into a “two-year gamble”.
Yet as Plymouth’s demise reminds us, all-or-nothing punts are hardly novel. From absurd plans to build a 45,000-seater stadium in readiness for the 2018 World Cup to a wage bill that topped £8.5m, the Pilgrims threw the kitchen sink at reaching the top flight.
What followed – thesackings, the relegations, the shafting of local businesses – should act as a timely warning of what can happen if you miss.
And in the week that James Brent, the local businessman who rescued Plymouth from the knacker’s yard, steps down after seven years in charge, perhaps his critics will at least pause for thought.
Not every supporter echoes the sentiments of club president Chris Webb, who this week described Brent as one of the most important figures in the club’s history.
Many accuse the property developer of failing to deliver promised infrastructure, imposing unnecessary austerity and using the club to line his own pockets. He has, without question, made a tidy profit from his time at Home Park.
But that must be balanced against what he did deliver. Had the club’s administrators got their way back in 2011, Brent would have been ignored in favour of Bishop International, a consortium let by Kevin Heaney.
The same Kevin Heaney who went bankrupt a year later, plunging his other club, Truro City, into dire straits.
Another bid was reportedly backed by members of Mastpoint, the very board who’d overseen Plymouth’s descent into insolvency in the first place.
Even assuming Brent was in it for the money, would either have represented a better future for Argyle?
Or would it have been another round of boom-and-bust dream chasing, another helping of late wages, job losses and unpaid bills?
And it isn’t just the club who suffer. When Plymouth entered administration in 2011, they agreed a CVA to pay their debts at a penny in the pound. That £12.8m write-off meant every creditor – from the pie-maker to the treasury to the taxpayer – was ripped off.
Brent did pay the bills. He saved jobs, and created them. He ran the club with the icy detachment of a business, not the reckless abandon of a plaything.
“I think the board has a very clear responsibility to do the right thing, rather than the popular thing,” he once said.
Along the way, he restored Plymouth to profitability and funded promotion from League Two. And never has there been any hint of a return to the days when kids went hungry and a manager handed out tenners to belligerent truck drivers.
Is Brent a selfless white knight? No. He is a businessman with one eye on his pension pot.
But he is a hell of a lot better than the feckless chancers who ran the club into the ground.