Argyle Chairman Simon Hallett writes to the Green Army on Easter Sunday as we reach the climax of a thrilling Sky Bet League One Campaign.
It’s been quite a year so far at Argyle, though we need to remember at a time of open warfare and daily atrocities in Europe that football is just a game whose significance is in stark contrast to the horrors in Ukraine.
The last time I wrote to you was in December, shortly after the appointment of Steven Schumacher as First Team Manager. We were very confident that it was the right appointment, but the healthy skepticism of some of our fans was quite understandable. I’m delighted that it’s been a success - as I write, we’ve learned that Steven won the Manager of the Month award for Sky Bet League One, and the transition remarkably smooth. Steven already gives the impression that he’s been a manager for all his career. Around him, we are building capabilities in all aspects of football excellence – sports science, fitness and conditioning, specialist coaching, and nutrition. Gone are the days when a club team is run by a manager and – perhaps – an assistant. We are building the human resources that make up a club, a team, and a structure we can be proud of, consistent with our vision and that should help us achieve our mission of being a sustainable Championship club.
Of course, first team results continue to delight us, leaving Argyle with a great chance to be in the play-offs for promotion from League One. The last few games of the season will be tremendous, and I’m delighted that Home Park will be full and rocking in support of the team. Both remaining games are sold out, and I thank you for your unwavering support. I’ve already changed my flight back so I can make it to the Easter Monday game and to all games until the last kick of the season.
That prospective excitement will make it a season memorable for our successful results, some great matches and, of course, the Emirates FA Cup tie with Chelsea. It seems odd to be proud of a team that lost, but I think we all were. I was particularly impressed not just at the results, but at how we handled ourselves. Our fans behaved magnificently – roaring with approval at corners as if we’d won the cup, out singing the Chelsea supporters, and showing wonderful support for all our players.
Beyond the first team, our other squads continue to make progress. Argyle Women are fighting bravely to continue in the third tier of women’s football, while, in the Academy, our under-18s are unbeaten at the top of the Merit League. It’s a tribute to the work done by Academy coaches at all levels, but I must give a shout out to Darren Way, whose two years as manager of the under-18s has led to steady improvements.
Those improvements can be seen throughout the Academy under the leadership of Neil Dewsnip and management of Phil Stokes. That our Academy is increasingly integrated into the club, and that the player pathway is now clear from Academy to professional football, has meant that we are much better placed than previously to attract the best talent in the region. Whether we will be able to keep that talent is another issue, and there are a few warning signs that Premier League and Championship clubs are increasingly turning to domestic talent to fill their own academies. Under the Elite Player Performance Plan rules there are risks that we are not adequately compensated for young players we may lose. I’m hopeful, though not confident, that that risk can be lessened by changes to the Plan or by changes in the regulatory environment. More on that later.
Off the pitch, and consistent with our value of Fan Focus, we continue to invest in facilities at Home Park. We will be renewing a large proportion of the seats in the stadium. Plastic seats installed 20 years ago are now beyond their useful life, starting to fall apart, and, frankly, look ugly. There will be a rolling renovation programme, which we had announced previously, but has been delayed due to supply chain issues. We thank supporters for their patience.
The big renovation programme of the last few years has, of course, been that of the Mayflower Grandstand. It has led to continuing issues though with seat comfort and with inadequate egress/ingress that have forced us to reduce capacity in the upper tier. We have a programme approved by the board to remedy these issues, but work will not be able to begin until the summer of 2023. This is clearly unfortunate for fans having to tolerate the seating for another season, but also represents considerable opportunity cost of unsold seats at a time when we are at full capacity.
Apart from the upper tier, the hospitality facilities have been a huge success. Match day hospitality has been pretty much full all season, and the reviews by those who have enjoyed it have been fabulous. We are booked out now through the end of the season, and I am told that renewals for 22/23 have been extremely promising – get in touch with the hospitality team quickly if you would like to book for next season.
We are similarly full on non-match days, even after allowing for the NHS’ use of the space. The goal of having a facility that, while generating revenue for the club, provides a useful service to businesses and individuals alike in Plymouth and the area has been achieved. Congratulations to our team for the successful delivery of a fabulous service.
Another service newly offered this year has been our growing media output. We’ve been producing weekly podcasts, run by Charlie Price who skilfully interviews people both from outside the club and inside, giving, I believe, highly entertaining but informative insights into the people who make your club as successful as it is today. Charlie was even gracious enough to invite me to take part, though I had to wait seven episodes before I got the call...
Even more impressive has been our Argyle TV offering. We knew that breaking away from the EFL’s iFollow platform was going to be risky, but execution has been excellent, and the service has been almost problem free, while the quality has improved dramatically. The coverage on match day is now first class, commentary very professional, and we have helped create a media star in Erin Black, who has taken to the pre-match and half-time slots like a seasoned pro. Meanwhile, Charlie Rose’s Match Day Moments and other video offerings continue to grow in viewership.
Also in line with our Vision and Values, we recognise the need to make further progress on developing our environmental credentials. We will communicate further about our environmental policies very soon. We believe that the investments we are planning will have the benefits of reducing our carbon footprint and reducing waste (for example, of water) while saving the club substantial amounts of money.
Finally, this summer, we will begin the tidying up and repair of the car park space on the club’s portion of the land in Higher Home Park.
We’ve also recently announced a change to our long relationship with Ginsters. I thank Ginsters for their support over these many years. We have several exciting options for new sponsors and I hope we will be able to tell you about them in coming weeks. As we said in our announcement, however, we will only consider sponsors whose activities are consistent with our role as a family club, driven by a clear set of values.
I’ve called out a few names in this letter, but everyone should know that we are strongly staffed throughout the club. The board is extremely pleased at how Andrew has built a team of executives around him that are empowered to take risks and follow up on ideas that they and their teams generate. The ability to do that reflects the culture that Andrew has built, but also reflects the fact that we have the resources to invest in new ideas, rather than simply living hand to mouth. Those resources have been built up partly by my injections of cash, partly from the revenue-raising investments we’ve made, and partly from good luck.
“Fortune Income” is the football phrase to describe income that you can’t budget for each year, but from time to time comes along to boost your coffers. This year we’ve had compensation for the loss of our contracted first team manager; benefited from a cup run, culminating in a £375,000 pay off from the game at Chelsea; from compensation for an Academy player, and from some payments for games that have been televised.
The net result will be that we will show a small surplus in this year’s accounts. We will not squander this money, nor will it all be spent on a very risky attempt to buy our way to a higher league position. Our goal remains sustainability - that our income and spending are matched, while we can continue to finance a competitive first team squad. We will use these resources to continue to invest in infrastructure, both physical and human, as well as in the tools that will enable us to compete, not by outspending the opposition but by outsmarting them. As I’ve mentioned before, the club has not had the resources until now to address the physical infrastructure at Home Park. Some of our surplus will continue to be used to take care of leaky roofs, the outside areas and other parts of the stadium that are not of the standard our fans deserve.
It is remarkable that, during a global pandemic and following a collapse in revenues, very few football clubs have gone out of business. The tragic loss of Bury predated the pandemic. Argyle is very close to being a sustainable club, but many clubs in the EFL are not. Tracy Crouch’s Fan Led Review of football was set up by the government to make suggestions about how the game could be made more sustainable. It was provoked by the collapse of Bury, by the attempts by some Premier League teams to form a European Super League and by the dangers to football finances caused by the COVID pandemic.
We and other EFL clubs support the recommendation that an independent regulator be appointed, but believe that there should also be redistribution throughout the football pyramid of the wealth generated at the top.
The Review leaves negotiation of addressing the financial imbalances between Premier League and EFL clubs to the Premier League and the EFL, but we think it should be part of the remit for the regulator. This is not to say anything against the Premier League - we love the product and think it has been great for the quality of football throughout the pyramid - but it is to recognise that the top-flight clubs will not themselves vote for greater revenue sharing with clubs lower down in the football pyramid. We believe that regulation should be accompanied by powers of redistribution.
We fully support that the proposed regulator should oversee a new system of financial regulation based on capital and liquidity requirement with real time monitoring and new tests for club owners and directors.
If regulation is to be accompanied by redistribution, we are going to need the support of our Members of Parliament, who will ultimately vote for or against the proposed legislation. I, and other EFL chairmen, have written to local MPs in Devon and Cornwall and I have spoken to several. They universally have expressed support for our position, that, for the sake of the pyramid, regulation should be accompanied by redistribution. Lobbying against regulation and redistribution is already taking place, however.
In some ways, none of this should matter to Argyle fans – your club is well-financed, properly run, transparent and well-governed. The problems that the Review seeks to address are not problems that Argyle faces. There is one big exception, however, and that is the massive financial imbalance that exists between clubs that make it to the Premier League and then benefit for years from parachute payments. That alone is a threat to our mission of being sustainable in the Championship.
I urge all supporters to join us in persuading their MPs that the fan-led review is the start of an appropriate reset of English football and a chance to assure the stability of the English football pyramid, the depth of which is unique in the world of football.
For the next few weeks, though, our focus should be on uniting behind the team as they attempt to turn a great season into something even better. Rest assured I’ll be kicking every ball with you.