This is not the same old club': Inside the remaking of Plymouth Argyle
Plymouth’s owner looks out from the new £8m Mayflower Stand his money built and remembers a time when his hometown club were known as “bloody Argyle” because everything kept going wrong.
“You know, the coach breaks down, so it’s 'bloody Argyle',” says Simon Hallett, whose upwardly mobile team face Bristol Rovers in a televised FA Cup second-round replay on Tuesday. “We’ve got a new coach, by the way,” he adds. Plymouth have a new everything, at a time when Bury’s expulsion from the Football League and Macclesfield’s financial turmoil have cast doubt on the viability of smaller clubs.
Bloody Argyle are now controlled by Hallett, who left Devon to make his fortune in America in investment management, chief executive Andrew Parkinson, formerly at Liverpool, Neil Dewsnip, the director of football and former Everton and England youth coach, Trevor East, the former head of ITV Sport, and manager Ryan Lowe, who took Bury from League Two to League One last season before the club imploded. He moved to Plymouth this summer, bringing five Bury players with him.
Each of these enthusiasts speak of building a model club with an attractive playing style and a renewed bond with the people of Devon and Cornwall. No longer does Plymouth want to be known to pub quiz enthusiasts as the largest city in England never to have seen top-flight football.
The first thing you notice is the uplifting effect of the Mayflower Stand, in a ground where Peter Shilton and Paul Mariner played - but where the city’s most famous footballing son, Trevor Francis, was lost early to Birmingham City.
Plymouth Argyle's new Mayflower Stand will open after 15 months of work The new 5,403-seat stand will raise banqueting, concert and conference revenue in an age when lower league income from television is described as “peanuts” and the sums of many clubs outside the Premier League don’t add up.
The team is now just outside the play-off places and Lowe is endeavouring to build on a promotion (at Bury) in his first season in management. He says: “I haven’t come down here to battle round League Two. I’ve come down here to get through the leagues.”
Lowe’s formula, with assistant Steven Schumacher and Dewsnip overseeing, is “having good people around you - good lads, good footballers, who can adapt to our style of play” - which is a 3-5-2, with a passing game and “60-70% players who’ve been there and know what it takes to get promoted.” Dewsnip, who says his Football Association network “helps immensely,” says Plymouth want to build “a club identity.”
Lowe’s infectious confidence expresses the new mood at the club. But the lower league maths remain daunting. Hallett says: “I do want it to be financially self-sufficient. We’re probably the most transparent club around now. We’re about to publish full accounts. We’ve told the fans where the money comes from, where the money goes. We’ve got hardly any debt, everything I’ve done has been equity.
“We’re financially fine, but we lose money every year. One of the reasons is our commercial activity has been hampered by having no grandstand for 15 months. We’re very close to being financially sustainable. I don’t want anything to happen if I get hit by a bus. The club would be OK if I got hit by a bus. It would have a couple of tough years but I don’t even want that.”
“Benefactors” are regarded sceptically nowadays but Hallett insists his investment is borne of childhood loyalty. “I kind of got sucked in a bit. But that’s what football does to you,” he says. “I’m from Plymouth. Plymouth ratepayers paid for my high school and university education. This is a bit of payback for Plymouth.”
His wife Jane is also hooked. Hallett says: “The big surprise to me is how much Jane has enjoyed it. She’s not a big sports fan. She’s Welsh and she didn’t know who Gareth Bale is. She says she’s still not a football fan but she’s an Argyle fan. She’s been made so welcome, this has become a kind of joint project.”
There is an appealing candour to under-achieving clubs. Plymouth’s fame - and its friendliness - far outshines its honours board. “The history of Argyle is…not great,” Hallett concedes. “We’re one of the largest cities in Europe never to have been in the top division. So you’re overcoming a lot of assumptions. You’re constantly trying to say - this is not the same old Argyle.”