As Plymouth Argyle begin their first days without James Brent as chairman, the time has come for an overall assessment of his time at the club, and the legacy he has left for new owner Simon Hallett to take on. Many fans are critical of his apparently stringent nature and claim his successes have been a result of the work of competent people. Yet, others feel his eclectic approach to football chairmanship was correct and should act as the model for years to come. However, what cannot be denied is that Brent has left the club truly in a better position than he found it. Irrespective of how much of it was down to him directly, for that he has earned our thanks.
After Peter Ridsdale infamously walked to the fans vigil, champagne in hand while declaring the salvation of the club, it emerged that the proposed Heaney deal was far from complete. In spite of their lengthy period of exclusivity, the consortium was far from having negotiated a repayment package with football creditors, secured creditors, the administrators and HMRC.
This left Brent as the only viable option, with just six weeks to clear multiple hurdles in order to get his deal – the only deal – over the line. He passed with flying colours. Had nobody else has stepped in on the collapse of the Heaney deal, there would have been no Plymouth Argyle Football Club. That, in itself, is worthy of praise.
The on-pitch progress has been equally inarguable. When Brent took over, Argyle they were rooted to the bottom of League Two with only two wins all season. Whilst this season has hardly started in sparkling form, his last full season left Argyle 7th in League One. To climb a league and a half in 7 years of ownership is commendable, and surely the aspiration for all owners upon the takeover of a club. It would be excessive to hail it as excellent, given Argyle’s historic level is far above that which Brent found us in, but we improved nonetheless.
It also can be said that Brent made the correct managerial appointments: he gambled in confirming Carl Fletcher as the club’s full-time manager following his takeover, but the novice ensured Argyle’s survival with two weeks to spare. When Fletcher failed the following season, John Sheridan was the knarly warhorse needed to get us out of relegation bother and push the club up the table. Finally, Derek Adams was the right person to take the team to the next level and finally secure promotion to League One. Memories of Wembley, Anfield and promotion all came in Brent’s era.
Another area which Brent has left in better shape than he found it is the clubs infrastructure. As this goes live, Argyle are removing the roof of the grandstand as part of a process that will ensure the capacity of Home Park increases, while the corporate and banqueting facilities are regenerated to increase the share of revenue Argyle generate from non-footballing activities for years to come. A modern grandstand will help Argyle for years to come, from attracting players with higher quality facilities to generating a higher turnover.
Additionally, the money spent improving Harper’s Park will serve Argyle well for time to come. Of all of the problems with the infrastructure at the club, the training ground has been one of the biggest for decades. Only basic improvements have been made, but they have already had a positive impact, allowing the team to train on the surface all year round. In previous years, flooding had forced the first team to find a different location to train.
Brent has also done more to incorporate fans of the future with the development of the family stand and promotional tickets for youngsters. Meanwhile, he secured a lucrative sponsorship deal with Ginsters, a major national brand who are certainly an upgrade compared to some of the smaller local companies of recent years.
Argyle have also reintroduced a reserve side this season for the first time since the club was in the Championship. Baring the period in administration, noticeably few youth products have been able to progress into the first team for sustained periods of time. The absence of a reserve team consistently left a void for player development between the ages of 18 to 22, though Argyle’s entry to the SWPL has reduced that in recent seasons. With Argyle now a member of the Central League and participating in the U23 Premier League Cup, opportunities for improvement for Argyle’s young professionals are currently greater than at any other stage under Brent’s leadership .
However, whilst it cannot be argued that Brent has left the club in a much improved position, there are issues that need addressing, lest a fully whitewashed view of his regime begin to emerge. Whilst the footballing side of things has consistently improved year-on-year, a case can be made that with a little extra investment, it could be better still. Chief executive Michael Dunford recently told supporter representatives that last season Argyle’s player expenditure was the fifth-lowest throughout League One.
The exact meaning of that statement remains unclear: does player expenditure represent wages, wages and transfers, or wages, transfers and agents fees? Additionally, that statement doesn’t justify expenditure as a proportion of income. For example, Oldham’s scattergun recruitment in January saw total wagebill jump from £1.4m to £2.4m, with the side incurring a huge financial loss that has impacted recruitment this season. With similar big winter spending, Northampton and Bury no doubt find themselves in a similar – if less dramatic – situation.
There is only so much we should take from this statement, but it does fit with the regular gripes of Derek Adams over the years that he is dealing with a budget that was the envy of few. This, from a man who once claimed that that his chairman at Ross County “was disappointed we didn’t spend enough money”. Nobody wants an owner to bankrupt the club, but maybe – just maybe – an owner prepared to take a risk on some manageable debt might have backed us well enough last January to secure the necessary signings to achieve a play-off position.
Equally, questions can be asked about the failed Higher Home Park development in 2013. The Bretonside development is often pointed to as the reason why the development failed, but the fact is that is a convenient scapegoat. The Higher Home Park plans were unveiled in March 2013 and Bretonside was not on the agenda until well over a year later. HHP also had planning permission for a long time before the latter came to light. In truth, the credit-based operation failed because it was too poor a plan for investors to take a risk upon.
Indeed, Brent’s handling of the stadium has been a consistent bone of contention throughout his ownership. The decision for Argyle to purchase the freehold in 2016 has left many considering the possibility that a future owner could engage in excessive borrowing against the value of the stadium – as the Kagami consortium did. The other major gripe with Brent was his separation of the Higher Home Park car park, a valuable piece of real estate, for his own development purposes, though the ground appears to have been repurchased for the club by new owner Simon Hallett.
Another concern was the worrying ‘balloon payment’ from 2016. The club were stumbling towards a position whereby they were unable to deliver upon the 50% of outstanding residual football debt from the administration period that was due in one big ‘balloon’ payment. For a while, it looked as if Argyle would either have to sell the lease on the ground (as it was then) or playing assets. Brent did indeed find their way out of the mire. but a lot has to be said for the generosity of Plymouth City Council agreeing to lend the club £800k to meet the payments.
Questions must also be asked about transparency and fan relations. When Brent hosted his first fan forum in 2012, he promised to promote transparency on a higher level than it had ever been seen before in football club mainstream history. Not only was this not met, but Argyle now publish less detailed accounts than they did even in the ‘New World’ era. Granted, Argyle were legally obliged to publish full accounts at that time, but that has not prevented Argyle from opting to publish them once more.
Brent’s much trumpeted ‘Plymouth Argyle Supporters Board’, a confederation of fans representing various groups, voted to disband itself after two years because of the lack of progress coming from their meetings. Additionally, Brent has done seemingly nothing to address the soaring cost of football. According to the BBC’s price of football survey, Argyle have been one of the most expensive clubs to watch in the lower leagues over the past few seasons amidst concerns that fans are being priced out of the game.
It should be said that Brent is a self critic, and whilst he has not been as transparent as has been hoped he has certainly been approachable. His affable manner and willingness to discuss matters with regular fans has struck a chord with many of the fanbase. He has also taken aspects of other businesses on board with his unorthodox criteria for selecting a manager – which certainly appears to have worked in the case of Adams – and his open-mindedness to new appointments that saw two female directors appointed at the club for the first time earlier in the year. Let’s hope he is aware of the questions marks that still hang over the club.
Ultimately, there are a fair number of criticisms that can be made of James Brent’s 7 year spell as owner and chairman of Plymouth Argyle, with the development of Home Park, supporter relations and the footballing budget standing out as the most common complaints. Things could be better. Yet, they could just as easily be worse.
We could be in League Two, or the National League, with a grandstand closed off for health and safety reasons and an owner who forces the local paper to watch games from a crane outside the ground. In the worst case scenario, the phoenix club, Plymouth Argyle Athletic Football Club (PAAFC), could have reached the National League by now.
Though we can argue over the minutiae, it is easy to forget that none of this would even be possible if there were not a club to begin with. James Brent may not be the man to single-handedly take Argyle to the Premier League like Tony Bloom at Brighton, but he’ll never be the man to bankrupt a club either. He leaves Argyle with a legacy of improvement and Simon Hallett a healthy, well run organisation to build on.
Most of all, he is, and always will be, the saviour of Plymouth Argyle. For that, we should all be grateful.
Thank you, James.