All attention in the last few weeks has been on the first team, which is obviously off to a good start in this season’s League One campaign.
It’s particularly encouraging that our investment in bringing stronger decision-making processes, including the use of data analytics, has paid off. We identified the defensive problems (obvious to all!) of last season, identified solutions early on, and executed quickly in the transfer window. At the time of writing, we have one of the best defensive records in League One. Neil Dewsnip, our Director of Football, who was charged with developing that structure, explained how it all worked in our Argyle Podcast.
I’ve changed my usual practice and not gone to first team away games for a few weeks. That has given me the opportunity to watch many other Argyle teams, ranging from the under-9s to the under-23s, as well as the Argyle women’s team. There is universally a sense of optimism that the restructuring we’ve put in place in the Academy and in the women’s team is starting to bring benefits. All levels in the Academy are playing the same kind of attractive football, while the women’s team has at last found some stability, under the umbrella of the Argyle Community Trust, and the management of Ryan Perks and his colleagues.
That restructuring is already paying off in terms of our recruitment - we have rebuilt relationships with junior clubs, and are recruiting players at all levels whom we would not have attracted in recent years - and it’s paying off in terms of the influence on the first team. We average 6-7 first team squad members from the Academy, while Rhys Shirley and Ryan Law have scored their first goals at the highest level. Equally notably, Freddie Issaka became the youngest player ever to represent Argyle at just 15. I can barely believe that we have a player who is half a century younger than me….
Freddie’s achievements have led to his recognition at national level, and he has been called up at Welsh junior level, where he joins Will Jenkins-Davies, and, of course, Luke Jephcott.
Everyone deserves credit for this progress – Ryan for demonstrating that if you’re good enough, you’re old enough, a principle often declared but seldom followed by managers who take too short-term a view; Neil Dewsnip and Phil Stokes for successfully executing the Academy restructuring that started two years ago, and all the coaches through our age groups. A parent of one of our under-18 players, who has been in the Academy since he was six, told me recently that the Academy of two years ago compared with the Academy today was like night and day. This has given the board the confidence to keep investing and we have recruited Paul Rowe to be Head of Recruitment and Development in Cornwall. Again, you can hear all about our plans on the Argyle Podcast.
That podcast is part of a new approach to communicating with our fans. Digitisation allows us to expand our video, audio and written engagement and to engage with different groups of fans. For example, for a younger audience, we will be looking further to develop our online gaming presence, with an eSports offering.
We now offer Argyle TV, rather than iFollow, and are producing high quality content for subscribers on match day and beyond. The new Argyle app has been well-received and offers a single sign in and access to all the areas that may interest you. It will also enable us to know more about our fanbase, enabling us to plan better as we think about future offerings.
At the moment, we can only offer live streamed games to fans outside the UK if those games are at 3pm on Saturday. I’ve said that we support the abolition, or at least suspension during the pandemic, of the rule that prevents us broadcasting to a domestic audience on Saturday afternoons.
We recognise that not all fans are yet comfortable in attending games in person, and would like to accommodate them. In the longer-term, we think it inevitable that digitisation will mean that all fans will be able to stream live games. We think it sensible to stay in control of that evolution and make sure that revenues are sensibly allocated between clubs providing the fans and the streaming, and the clubs actually hosting the games and bearing the associated expenses. We recognise that there are risks to the financial stability of smaller clubs in the English pyramid, but believe that those risks can be reduced by sensible and fair revenue sharing. It won’t be easy to get agreement though!
As restrictions have eased, we’ve been able to use the stadium for non-match day events, meetings and conferences. Many of us enjoyed England’s run in the Euros on the big screens in the Devonport End, and we are planning other events this autumn, including an evening with Frank Bruno. Check out Home Park Stadium's new website to see what other events we're planning.
We tidied up and cleaned the stadium during the post season, and I hope you agree that Home Park is looking great. We are planning further improvements, including to the outside areas. We have submitted a planning application to Plymouth City Council for the enhancement to the area immediately in front of the Mayflower Grandstand and retail store. This was the last remaining element of the Mayflower redevelopment project and was curtailed as a result of the pandemic. We will publish a timeline for the works in due course.
The NHS has extended into 2022 its agreement to use the Grandstand as a vaccination centre, but will hand it over to us on the weekends, for match day hospitality, and other events booked throughout the week. Despite the challenges we have faced, the Mayflower Grandstand calendar is currently fully booked until March 2022.
The use of the Grandstand by the NHS has been hugely successful, for them and the local community, but also for us - we have been grateful for the revenue that renting to them has provided. It has gone some way to replacing the lost revenue for a space that we have been unable to use for conferences and other events. That use was a key part of the refurbishment’s financial proposition.
The Home Park Stadium vaccination centre team (led by Samantha Rafferty) and University Hospitals Plymouth NHS Trust (under Sue Wilkins, the Director of Mass Vaccinations) have administered over 250,000 vaccinations. I would also like to thank Marie Whitley, who recently left the centre, but oversaw those vaccinations as the matron at the site.
I hope you will join me next Tuesday, 28 September, when we will pay tribute to the work of all the NHS staff and volunteers during this dreadful pandemic.
In pursuit of even greater transparency, David Ray, our Head of Finance, has been working hard to be able to get our full, audited accounts filed in October. That will put us among the first clubs in the EFL to report. We think it’s important at a time of great financial stress on EFL clubs that we give you, the Argyle fans, a clear look at your club’s finances. You will like what you see. Thanks again to everyone for their support throughout the pandemic, it has made a significant difference.
We will give detailed explanation in the report itself, but I’ll point out that the club has built up a buffer of cash reserves. They will provide a source of funds for long-term investment in club infrastructure, helping build a strong foundation for our goal of being a sustainable Championship club.
In coming years, there will be a number of calls on these funds, all of which will need to be carefully considered in line with our ambition to be a financially sustainable football club.
We will be looking, for example, for opportunities in Plymouth to consolidate our training facilities and accommodate our Academy and women’s teams in a single site. We’ve yet to identify the right place, but, when we do, we’ll be able to fund the necessary investment.
Inside the stadium, we still need a solution to the eyesore in one corner that is Bobby’s Garden and have already invested in new floodlights to make sure our output is up to EFL standards.
We will begin replacing many of the plastic seats that were installed over 20 years ago and are now approaching the end of their lives. We are also working on getting capacity in the Upper Mayflower back to where it will need to be if attendances continue to rise.
The Mayflower refurbishment has already been a huge success in some respects, such as in enabling high quality match day hospitality, and conference space. We recognise though that fans have concerns about comfort in the upper tier and about limited access to the services we offer on match days. We’ve undertaken a study to look at possible solutions, both in the medium term - at the end of this season - and in the long term.
Finally….that big screen. We are close to identifying the solution that makes the most financial sense and determining where to put it, but actual installation will still be several months after we make those decisions. Bear with me, I recognise it’s taken longer than we had hoped.
There is a long list of improvements we can make in the stadium and outside, but there is also the need for continuing repair and maintenance, after many years in which spending was below ideal levels.
Of course, it may also be necessary to provide the funds with which to continue to operate in the event of unforeseen circumstances.
We will give more details when we file the final accounts, and make sure we have a fans’ forum to answer any questions you may have.
Finally, since I last wrote, there has been a change in the Argyle board. Tony Wrathall has stepped down as a director after many years of service, and I have bought his shares from him. We thank him for all he has done over many years for the club.
I am sure you have seen, but Tony accepted our invitation to become Club President, for which we are very grateful. He will be a great success in this position, which has been vacant since Chris Webb stood down a couple of years ago. You will continue to see Tony around Home Park, and we wish him very well in his new role.
While on the subject of shares, as I previously reported, we’ve tried very hard to find a way to have a share issue to fans, but without success. The terms available would simply not have enabled the small investments and widespread ownership that was my goal. We recognise though that fans are looking for ways to support and engage with the club more fully and will announce shortly a plan that will enable them to do so.
I’d like to thank all fans for their support over this difficult period. I’d also like to thank the Argyle staff who have worked tirelessly in the last 18months of the pandemic to continue to improve all aspects of the club. I hope you can see the progress they have made.