Our goal at the start of this season was survival, in both a football and a financial sense. I think we will achieve both goals.
Our first team is well placed in mid-table with over half of the season played. We have assembled a quality team that is performing well - it appears we can at least hold our own with any team in League One.
Off the pitch, we have come through the last year in a shape much better than we feared and almost as good as we could have hoped when the season started back in September. Where our hopes have been thwarted, of course, has been that fans have not been allowed into Home Park for matches. The brief glimmer of hope we had at the end of the year has been extinguished. I won’t even speculate as to when a return is likely.
That we have come through this crisis in such good financial shape is partly through our own efforts at cost control, but also thanks to the help we have had from all our stakeholders. They include our shareholders, of course, but also our sponsors and our supporters, whose generosity in donating back to the club the refunds that we offered was extraordinary.
Supporters have further helped by taking advantage of the items on offer at the Argyle Superstore. The move online has been highly successful, with sales increasing sharply this season.
We also benefitted from the grants made by the Premier League to EFL clubs, and from government support initiatives, which have subsidised our wages while our staff have been furloughed.
That we are now in good financial shape has enabled us to think not just about how we were going to survive this season, but also about building for the future. Regarding football, that has meant renewing and extending Ryan and Steven’s contracts, while also extending contract offers to some of our brightest young prospects and converting loans to permanent signings.
Under Ryan’s management, we gained promotion in our first season, so could consider the appointment a success based on that alone. Even more importantly though, Ryan, and the team he has built, which includes Steven Schumacher, have exceeded our high expectations in respect of the criteria we were looking for in a new manager.
As promised, he has developed an attacking style of football that will form the core of our football philosophy not just now, but in the future, and not just in the first team but throughout our Academy. All age groups are now coached in the tactics and style of our first team in what will become the Argyle way, outlasting current management and, indeed, ownership!
All managers say they will give a chance to young players, but few have the courage to do so consistently. That is partly at least because football managers are rarely given the opportunity to think about the future beyond the next match, or the most recent results. One reason for extending Ryan and Schuey’s contracts was to give them the confidence that the board accepts that the road to sustainable success will not be straightforward, and that they will receive our support in the tough moments as well as the good times.
We are grateful to those clubs who have offered us loan players, and, as our reputation for a good coaching team and attractive football style has grown, the clubs that consider us as a suitable home for their players has also grown. We will continue to take advantage of the loan system, but this is where finances meet football, and where our ability to think about balancing short-term needs with long-term opportunities is important.
If we can add value to a promising player who is with us on loan, that value accrues to the lending club, not to us. In borrowing players, we have lower financial risk, but also lower financial return. This is, of course, as it should be, but that’s where having the strong balance sheet comes in - it enables us to take the risk of a longer-term contract for a promising player, without jeopardising the club if it doesn’t work out. And, let’s be clear, there will be times when it doesn’t work out. We will judge our success by long-term outcomes, not by individual successes and failures. In the shorter-term, we will judge our success by the quality of the process by which we reach decisions, whatever the outcome itself.
At the core of our decision-making will be an attempt to overcome those biases from which all of us suffer. We have begun to incorporate the use of data analytics in assessing players who are candidates for our squad. All too often in football, recruitment is done based on recent results, and gut feel, rather than on objective facts. While the judgment of our football people is good, it will be backed by hard evidence, not just by what they see with their eyes. Surely no football fan who has argued about their team’s performance can doubt how our views can be tainted by our emotions, and how two people watching the same player can “see” radically different performances!
Changing both how we make decisions and how we think about promising young players is well underway and can only be achieved with Ryan’s full support - and that of all our staff who manage the football side of the club. I am excited that we have that support. It gives us a huge advantage against those clubs determined to stick to the more traditional ways of assembling and running football squads. It will also increase the probability that we can achieve our goal of being sustainable in the Championship. “Sustainable” means not relying on the financial support of shareholders to cover losses and having a good chance of not being relegated back to League One.
Combining the two means that we will need to generate all the revenues we can, while controlling our costs. Above all we will need to be smart about our spending and our decision-making more broadly, in an industry renowned for the opposite. We are making terrific progress.
A key part of this strategy will be the role of the Academy, in providing a pathway to professional football for area young people, and a pipeline of talent for the first team. We have already shown that Ryan is prepared to take the risks that are necessary with young players, and the development of Luke Jephcott and Mike Cooper this season are a sign that we are prepared, again, to take risks.
Luke and Michael are products of the old Academy, but we hope that they will be joined in future years by a continuous stream of young footballers. Under Neil Dewsnip’s direction, and Phil Stokes’ execution, we are steadily turning our Academy into an attractive place in which promising young footballers can develop. We have been rebuilding relationships with junior clubs in Devon and Cornwall, to reestablish and enhance our reputation in that regard.
The most visible sign of our investment in the future has been in the Mayflower Grandstand, the basis for turning Home Park into a facility used for business and entertainment throughout the week and throughout the year. We have also been investing in our human resources, making sure we have high quality people throughout the club. I’d like to welcome the most recent recruit, David Ray, who will oversee our finances and financial strategy.
By the time you read this, you’ll have had a chance to read his letter that accompanied the filing of our financial report for the year to June 2020. I hope you agree that he has taken to his new job exceptionally well, and the letter shows a thorough grasp not just of the numbers, but also of the strategy underlying it.
That financial report represents a departure for us, as previously we have only published “abbreviated” accounts. Consistent with our values, which include Transparency, we are sharing as much as possible with our fans. We will follow up the formal filing and accompanying written explanation with a Virtual Fans’ Forum, details to follow, at which we will present further explanation, comparison with previous years, and answer any questions that you may have about our finances.
While COVID-19 has been raging, we have been playing behind closed doors, and have been unable to carry out many of our usual activities, while many of our staff have been furloughed. That doesn’t mean that work has not continued. In particular, we have been working hard to make sure that our offices, stadium, and training facilities have been compliant with best practices for protecting the health of our people. While we have not been COVID-free, it is notable that we have continued to be able to fulfill all our fixtures.
One of our values is that of Community Focus. We have been delighted that we have been able to offer use of our Mayflower Grandstand first to the NHS and, more recently, to Public Health England so that it may serve as a much-needed Vaccination Centre. We are also pleased that we will be able to offer job opportunities to young people in the region by participating in the government’s Kickstart campaign.
While the Argyle Community Trust is a separate organisation from the club with its own funding, board, and executive leadership, we give it as much support as we can and are tremendously proud of its achievements.
Mark Lovell continues to do a wonderful job as CEO, but the Chairman of the Trust board has recently changed. I’d like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work that David Tall did as Chairman for nine years. Under his leadership, the Trust increased its activities in the region significantly, while remaining widely-recognised as an exemplar of good management and good governance. David’s final job was to recruit his successor, and he has executed brilliantly, albeit by finding another submariner! We are lucky to have Ryan Ramsey, who spent over 20 years in the Royal Navy, join us as Chairman. We wish him every success.
The Trust has been extraordinarily active during the pandemic. It has raised funding for several programmes that engage young people in online learning, that work to provide family support, and that, over Christmas, delivered hampers to over 200 families in the area.
For more elderly people in the community, its staff have been offering grocery and prescription pickups. In this, the most recent lockdown, they will continue to deliver food parcels, cookery packs, sports equipment and technology hardware to those most in need. The Manadon Sports Centre was also handed over to the NHS for use as a midwifery location. Perhaps above all, Trust staff have been very careful to try to make as many people as possible feel connected at a time when mental health is clearly strained, and loneliness can be a significant problem. My thanks to everyone at the Trust and the club who have joined in the efforts to talk with our supporters and others.
While all this has been going on, the Trust has also joined with the Jack Leslie Campaign to work in local schools to help educate young people about racism, its history and its continuing foul legacy. This is a virus that has been with us for too long, and at Argyle we will do all we can to join in efforts to eradicate it.
I’ve mentioned the Argyle staff a couple of times, and I’d like to thank everyone for their efforts under Andrew Parkinson’s leadership in the most difficult circumstances. Keeping safe has obviously been the highest priority, but our staff have continued to work hard and effectively to keep the club going as best we can. We obviously don’t know when normal service will be resumed, but will be ready to get going as soon as we are able.
That’s it from me. Thank you for your support, and, please, stay safe and wear a mask.