You wait ages for a big announcement and then two come along at once. Confirmation this week that Ryan Lowe would be Argyle’s new manager was swiftly followed by the news that Simon Hallett has consolidated his position as main shareholder as James Brent departs Home Park.
My Argyle Life colleagues are very capably covering the implications of Ryan Lowe’s appointment so I’ll leave that to them. I have just two comments. First, the chairman said he would bring in a young, forward-looking manager and he has done just that. Secondly, although Lowe is relatively new to managerial life, everything we’ve heard so far suggests he’s a very promising prospect about whom people speak highly, and that he plays exciting, attacking football. While relegation still stings badly, this feels like a big step in the right direction.
The second piece of news concerns the transfer of James Brent’s 30% shareholding in Argyle to Simon Hallett, taking the Chairman’s stake to 94%. Inevitably there are differing views on the outgoing shareholder; to some Brent was the Messiah, to others he was, in the words of the Life of Brian, ‘a very naughty boy’. That debate, which usually generates more heat than light, should now be left in the past where it belongs. What happens from here is the only thing that matters.
Having a single shareholder with the interests of the club at heart (nobody can doubt that he’s a proper fan), and with the goal of financial sustainability front and centre, is a pretty good place for Argyle to be. If anyone doubts that, take a look at the crisis at Ryan Lowe’s former club that triggered his move to Argyle. Moreover, the departure of a 30% shareholder who, understandably, would have had little interest in injecting fresh funds into the club gives more flexibility in terms of spending decisions.
Attention will now quickly switch to on-field matters with the priority being to shape the team for the new season. Out-of-contract players like Carey and Lameiras know who they will be playing for and what style of football to expect at Argyle this year, so should have the information they need to decide whether their future lies at Home Park or not. If the answer is ‘not’, the club can get on with finding their replacements.
As far as new talent is concerned, it looks like Ryan Lowe will be bringing some of his Bury squad with him, but beyond that the question of Argyle’s recruitment strategy is still to be resolved. The more restricted the available funds, the smarter and more value-for-money focused a club’s scouting process has to be.
By accident or design, new head of player recruitment, Ian Roscrow has kept a low profile since his arrival. While it’s critical that he and Lowe are on the same page, there is a longer-term issue around the development of Argyle’s recruitment strategy and infrastructure. Of course, managers bring with them a set of contacts and relationships that can be invaluable in tempting players to move to their new clubs. But we know that everything at Argyle is now being built around process, one that is to a large extent independent of the individuals who happen to be in key positions in the club at the time. Since the squad recruitment process for next season has to happen over the next eight weeks or so, it’s probably too early to see that process in action. But there’s no doubt that it is being built behind the scenes.
Change will not be confined to the scouting process either. The arrival of a new owner, Chairman, Vice Chairman, CEO, Manager and Assistant Manager in the last few months looks to be just the start, heralding a top-to-bottom overhaul of the club. From big issues like the role of the Academy to areas like the match day programme (the club asked supporters to participate in a survey on the programme’s content last month) everything appears to be on the table.
The installation of a dynamic young manager and the move to a cleaner ownership structure means that there is a distinctly positive feeling around Argyle at the moment. However, football fans can be an impatient lot, so the club needs to keep the flow of good news going (within reason, of course!) The Green Army’s mood will be influenced first and foremost by the calibre of players brought in or retained, and while recruitment can’t be driven by that, some early good news in that area would be very helpful.
Otherwise, an easy PR win for the club would be to fill in one or two of those empty pre-season friendly slots, preferably with some juicy ties against higher-level opposition. Lowe’s contacts within the game might increase the possibility of that happening.
It would also be good to see some initiatives around filling the stadium next season. Dropping down a division just as a new stand opens, adding 50% to capacity, is clearly not ideal. And as always, performance on the pitch will be a key driver of attendance numbers. The first two seasons back in League Two eight years ago saw crowds falling to an average of around 7,000; a repeat of that in a new 18,000 capacity Home Park would be somewhat depressing. So finding ways to encourage people through the turnstiles next season should be a priority, with a sustained promotional campaign across Plymouth and adjacent areas of Devon and Cornwall.
Since the maximum number of Argyle fans at home games last season was probably 11,000, It’s highly unlikely – bar drawing a Premier League club in the FA Cup – that Home Park will sell out this year. Rather than treating those empty seats as a problem, why not view it as an opportunity? Promotion to schools, to junior football clubs, kids for a quid, one-off family offers etc. Anything basically to give people the Home Park experience. If Ryan Lowe’s brand of attacking football delivers on its promise, some of those one-off or first time visitors could be turned into fans for life.
It shouldn’t be done just for the lower profile fixtures either. Why not set the goal of filling Home Park for the visit of our Exeter City friends (assuming the fixtures are kind and the Grecians tie is after the Mayflower is fully open)? Even if Argyle fans turned out in the kind of numbers we saw for big games last season and Exeter brought their entire average crowd, there would still be space for two or three thousand others. Imagine having 18,000 people in Home Park for that game. Impossible? We’ll never know until we give it a try
In summary, the club needs to seize the opportunity that comes with higher capacity and better facilities. We also need to stop with the negative comments about the new Mayflower. The ‘we’ll have the best stadium in League Two joke’ wasn’t particularly funny the first time and it’s certainly well past its sell-by date now. The mentality that we should be ashamed of having decent facilities is, frankly, embarrassing.
Finally, wouldn’t it be great to see the entire fan base pull together? Forgive another ‘Life of Brian’ reference, but it’s all a bit People’s Front of Judea / Judean People’s Front at the moment. Some supporters had issues with the previous owner – and they are absolutely entitled to their views – leading to divisions among the Home Park faithful. With that now behind us, can we get on with supporting our team as a united group? I’m sure we’re all more optimistic about next season now, but the stark reality is that over the last 10 years, only one in four relegated teams have managed to bounce back up at the first time of asking. The boys in green will need everyone behind them to beat those odds.