Extra Time: A Premier League rescue package? Don’t count on it

Between £450,000 and £600,000 a week (£23.4 – £31.2m a year to you, squire). That’s the best guess of how much golfer and occasional footballer, Gareth Bale is being paid to return to the bosom of Tottenham Hotspur. Meanwhile, back on Planet Earth, the Covid second-wave has scuppered plans to allow fans back into football grounds in October, with no indication of when gates might be open again. The end of March 2021 is looking increasingly likely, by which time most of the season will be over.

There’s no question that lower league clubs face an uncertain future. Just over a week ago, the EFL was describing ‘the next 48 hours’ as critical for the survival of its members. The governing body projects losses of £200m, or £22m per month, over the season if no fans are allowed to attend games in its three divisions. So that’s about £66m of additional losses if games are played behind closed doors until the end of December, £132m if supporters are excluded until the end of March.

The victims so far have been clubs that were already in financial difficulties, usually linked to ownership shenanigans. Bury and Macclesfield have already gone, with Wigan and Southend still in the mire. But the distress is now spreading more widely, and the longer fans are excluded, the greater the likelihood of other clubs being dragged down.

Premier League and EFL – the gap continues to widen

The common cry from the general footballing public is a demand for uber-wealthy Premier League clubs to ‘do something’ to help. That’s understandable when they are still splashing out on transfer fees and crazy wages, apparently oblivious to the fact that the rest of football’s house is burning down around them. The Bale situation is just another reminder that football in this country is a two tier affair. The disparity between the money sloshing around at the top of the game and the dire financial straits of many EFL clubs just seems to keep getting larger.

Consider that Macclesfield could reportedly have been saved with an investment of just £150,000 (equivalent to some Premier League players’ weekly tax bill). Just down the road, the liquidators are asking £3.5m for Wigan, which includes the stadium and training ground as well as the team, and have been quoted as saying that any price ‘north of £2m’, would probably get the deal done. That seems ridiculously cheap for a team that was in the Premier League as recently as 2013, and yet there is still a deafening silence from potential saviours. And going back to Bale (sorry Gaz), at the top end of his reported salary range, he could almost single-handedly pay the entire League Two wage bill for an entire season under the new cap.

But will the clamour for the Premier League to step in and do its bit lead to any meaningful action? I would love to be proved wrong, but sadly I fear the answer is ‘no’. Why am I so pessimistic?

No commercial reasons for the Premier League to help out

First, in the last few days, the Premier League PR machine has been trumpeting the amount of money their clubs have lost in the pandemic, with a figure of £600m bandied around. Those don’t sound like the comments of potential white knights.

Secondly, businesses don’t hand out large amounts of cash without a good reason. So we have to ask whether there are any commercial arguments in favour of a Premier League rescue package.

Some feel that part of the Premier League’s appeal to sponsors and to its global audience is that it stands atop a football pyramid, offering clubs at all levels a shot at the big time. So, the argument goes, it’s in the interest of the top teams to maintain the structure of the game as it stands.

But the ‘integrity of the football pyramid’, much like the idea of the ‘football family’, is a fantasy in 2020. In the 28 seasons since its establishment in 1992, with a total of 84 promotion slots available, only six teams who had never played in the top flight before made it to the Premier League. Bournemouth were the last, winning promotion in 2015. Barnsley and Swindon lasted one season each in the Premier League, while Wigan managed eight. Hull’s first stint lasted two seasons, with three more to come in later years. And, of course, none of those teams are still in the ‘Promised Land’.

So much for the myth of a ladder which any club, however lowly, could aspire to climb. The Premier League doesn’t feel that its value would enhanced by a Brentford (or a Plymouth Argyle, for that matter) joining its ranks.

The other potential commercial value of the EFL to the Premier League is as an incubator for talent. In a Times article last week former Grimsby player, Gregor Robertson wrote:

“If, as a supporter of a Premier League club, you see the loss of these (EFL) clubs as collateral damage in these perilous times, then remember that 17 of Gareth Southgate’s 23-man England squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia played in the EFL in their formative years.”

A great point. But if there’s one thing Premier League club owners care about less than the EFL, it’s the England national team. A more relevant stat might be that only around 30% of the players appearing in the Premier League are British. That’s not to disparage the foreign players in the Premier League – we are fortunate to have some of the world’s greatest players gracing the English top-flight. But it highlights the fact that the perceived value of the EFL or the National League to the richest six to eight clubs in the Premier League as a nursery for talent is not actually that great. The reason everyone knows that Jamie Vardy came out of non-league is because it’s an exception, not because it’s the rule.

Don’t count on nostalgia or altruism driving a rescue package

So if there are no cold financial reasons for a Premier League EFL rescue package, are there any moral arguments for opening up the chequebooks?

Unfortunately, the richest clubs, the ones who could make a difference to the survival of lower-league outfits, are the least likely to be swayed by such sentiments. Some 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs have foreign owners, and they are the ones with the biggest bank accounts. I’m not saying that these owners are fundamentally awful people (though some probably are), but the fact is that they have no emotional ties to the wider English game.

Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour, Stan Kroenke and the Glazers didn’t buy Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal or Manchester United because they got Shoot annuals for Christmas as kids and went ground-hopping round 4th division stadiums with their dads. Russian, Chinese, American, Middle Eastern or Thai plutocrats have no emotional investment in the history of the English game. They don’t go all misty-eyed at the thought of men in flat caps flocking to stadiums in gritty working class towns, like something out of a Lowry painting. Their horizons stretch to  Barcelona, Munich, Paris and Milan – not Oldham, Wigan or Southend.

On that basis, why would a globe-trotting billionaire put his hand in his pocket to save a bunch of clubs from nowhere towns they’ve most likely never heard of? You don’t amass riches beyond the dreams of avarice spending money when you don’t have to.

And before anyone accuses me of promoting caricatures of ‘ruthless’ foreign owners and managers, last week Burnley’s very own gravelly-voiced man-of-the-people Sean Dyche also told EFL clubs in search of financial support to take a hike: 

If you are going to apply that rule of thumb, does that mean every hedge fund manager that is incredibly successful, are they going to filter that down to the hedge fund managers that are not so successful?”

It’s hard to know where to start pointing out the faults in that analogy, but the message is clear; clubs that are struggling financially are ‘unsuccessful’ and deserve to die. Could there be a better illustration of the commercial Darwinism that dominates Premier League thinking? Good to see you haven’t forgotten your roots, Sean. Don’t expect a warm welcome at the first EFL dinner you attend if Burnley get relegated. And, by the way, almost all of the players in your squad did come up through EFL clubs, so maybe you do owe them something.

So, we can safely say that Premier League clubs aren’t going to be riding to the rescue on a wave of nostalgia or altruism either. The fact that recent discussions between the various parties in the debate have revolved around possible loans (that would presumably have to be repaid) rather than one-time cash injections tells us all we need to know.

Distress in the EFL might not be all bad for the Premier League

There is also a more sinister possibility, which is that the Premier League might see the current situation as an opportunity to widen the gap between themselves and the EFL even further.

In mid-September, it was revealed that Premier League clubs were demanding a Championship wage cap (alongside the ones already implemented in Leagues One and Two) as a pre-condition of any discussion off financial support for the EFL.

Maybe they’re just acting in their best interests of Championship clubs by trying to stop them frittering away any Premier League cash. But a more cynical reading would be that a Championship wage cap of around £18m (the figure under discussion) would make it very difficult for a promoted club to survive in the Premier League since it would take time for them to build up their squads to a competitive level. It would also be to the advantage of clubs relegated to the Championship. Their wage bills would be much higher than other clubs in the division for at least a season as they would be given time to allow expensive Premier League player contracts to run down, making an early return to the top-flight more likely. And depressing Championship wage levels would also make it cheaper for Premier League clubs to pick off the division’s best talent.

The Premier League could finally break away

It might be stretching a point to say that Premier League owners would be happy to see lower league clubs go to the wall. But there would be few tears shed if financial chaos in the EFL moved the Premier League closer to becoming the NFL style, relegation-free, closed-shop that some crave.  And there’s the ever-present threat that Europe’s top clubs will cut themselves free from their national ties altogether to join a Super League, where they will no longer have to travel to dreary places like Stoke (or the Spanish or German equivalent) on a wet Tuesday night in January. Again, a widening of the gap between the richest few at the top of the game and the struggling masses lower down would bolster the case for the elite to float off into some rarefied supra-national gilded competition of their own.

I could be wrong. It’s possible that government pressure combined with public opinion will squeeze some financial support out of the Premier League for their poorer brethren lower down the sport. But I can’t see them doing it for anything other than PR reasons, and I certainly can’t see it being enough on its own to prevent serious financial distress in the EFL for as long as football is played behind closed doors. I fear that any EFL club hoping for a top-flight rescue package will be sorely disappointed.

Extra Time: Why the EFL got it right

“I come not to bury the EFL but to praise them”, as William Shakespeare would undoubtedly say if he was a fan of a Football League team in 2020. That’s right. I’m here to pat the EFL on the back and say ‘good job’ on this morning’s decision to suspend matches in the three divisions until at least 3rd April.

Sure, that might be a bit controversial. In the wake of the laughably poor attempts to enforce the so-called ‘fit and proper test’ for football club owners, and the inconsistent response to financial problems at a range of clubs – from Bury to Macclesfield to Bolton – the EFL’s standing with many supporters is not exactly high.

But I’m going out on a limb and say that I think they’ve handled the recent developments around Coronavirus pretty well under the circumstances. In short, I think that the decision to suspend matches was both timely and correct.

The decision was timely

Let’s start with timing. The EFL’s statement yesterday evening that it was business as usual, when it was clearly anything but, was a bit alarming. Then again, saying, “matches will continue to take place as normal while the guidance from the relevant authorities remains that there is no medical rationale to close or cancel sporting events at this time” was perfectly reasonable given that they were simply following government advice.

In the following 18 hours though, the situation changed significantly. First, the entire Arsenal squad was placed in isolation and the game against Brighton postponed on news that manager Mikel Arteta had tested positive for Coronavirus. Manchester City, Chelsea, Watford and Leicester then confirmed that they had at least one employee in self-isolation.

Next, with Italy, Holland, Spain, Portugal and France having already called a halt to their football seasons, UEFA put forthcoming Champions League and Europa League fixtures on hold.

Elsewhere, Formula One’s governing body, the FIA, called off the Australian Grand Prix and cancelled the subsequent races in Bahrain and Vietnam. Football teams get annoyed about a wasted coach trip up the M6, so think how an F1 team must feel having flown dozens of people and shipped tons of cars and equipment to the other side of the world, only to be told to turn round and go home. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?

In the US, the NBA, NFL and NHL have suspended basketball, football and ice hockey fixtures, while the MLB is delaying the start of the baseball season. Around the world, major golf, tennis, cycling and rugby events (including the Six Nations) are also on hold.

Overall then, the signs were pretty clear that the global sporting community and its regulatory bodies were moving in one direction. As all this was unfolding this morning, the EFL had to decide whether to change its position from the previous evening. Bearing in mind that the Premier League had yet to announce it’s decision on the future of its fixtures, it was good to see the lower leagues making the first move. The decision was also timely, as most teams and supporters would probably not have set off for Saturday’s fixtures.

But was it the right decision?

More fundamentally, was a three-week postponement of EFL fixtures the right decision? My answer would be unequivocally, ‘yes’.

People can, and will, argue until the end of time (somewhere around the middle of next week on current estimates) about whether the Coronavirus threat is serious enough to close stadia. I’m not a doctor, but resisting the fashion for shouting loudly on social media about something about which I’m not qualified to comment, I’m going to trust those with actual medical training. If they think it’s serious, and that stopping people from gathering in large numbers at sporting events could prevent unnecessary deaths, that’s good enough for me. Given how other governing bodies were reacting, the EFL would have looked reckless in the extreme if they had decided to go ahead with forthcoming fixtures.

With events being called off at all levels, it was vaguely unsettling this week to watch 65,000 Cheltenham Festival race goers crammed together, chugging beer and champagne like it was the last days of the Roman Empire, as the barbarians banged on the city gates and pestilence stalked its streets. Imagine the backlash against the organisers if we see an outbreak of the virus among large groups who went to Cheltenham – the media will slaughter them, and with some justification. So yes. The EFL would have been crazy to risk carrying on with business as usual.

Having made the decision that it was not safe to have thousands of spectators gathering in stadia this weekend, the EFL then faced the choice of stopping games altogether or playing them behind closed doors. Again, I would argue that they were correct to opt for the former course of action.

Playing with no fans would be financially ruinous

Playing the remaining games of the season in empty stadia would have been potentially disastrous for clubs, especially those in Leagues One and Two. The stark reality is that while the match day take in the Premier League is dwarfed by TV and sponsorship income, in the two bottom divisions it is half to two thirds of revenue. Given the parlous state of so many clubs’ finances, having to stump up the costs of playing games while being deprived of gate and other match day income could have been fatal. At least this way, there is a chance that clubs will be able to reap the financial benefits of the remaining matches.

They’re not out of the woods though. The government believes that we won’t see the peak of the Coronavirus outbreak until mid June, so it’s by no means certain that games will resume on the weekend of 4th April. The Peterborough owner was quoted today as saying that “the average League One and League Two club will need a loan of £300-400,000 to get through the crisis”, while the Luton Town CEO said “we are going to be dealing with a really difficult financial period.” What are the odds that, for struggling clubs like Macclesfield, this will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Financial prudence is still key

All of which brings us full circle to Argyle. Against the background of current developments, the current owner’s focus on sustainability and resilience looks more prudent than ever. It’s the job of every business to make itself sustainable on an ongoing basis and strong enough to survive unexpected shocks.

When asked what could blow a government off course, former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously replied, “Events, dear boy. Events!” You could say the same about the many football clubs that sail so close to the financial winds that any significant shock would blow them onto the rocks. Coronavirus looks very much like an event of that nature.

US investment guru Warren Buffet put it another way. “It’s only when the tide goes out that you see who’s been swimming without a bathing costume.” We are lucky that at Argyle, we seem to have our Speedos firmly in place as the tide retreats.

Extra Time: Uneven Stevens

I feel a bit sorry for Stevenage Football Club, I really do. Not because Argyle have just inflicted a second 2-1 defeat of the season on the Hertfordshire team. I’m delighted by that, obviously. No, the reason is that Stevenage looks like a club hanging on by its fingernails to the affections of a town that doesn’t seem to care very much about its football team.

I got chatting to a Stevenage fan outside the ground on Saturday, and he told me that, rather than supporting their local club, football enthusiasts in these parts prefer to head towards London for a Premier League fix. Presumably to nearby Watford or, if they have the disposable income of a small country, Arsenal or Spurs.

It’s easy to see why local residents would take any opportunity to escape, even if only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. It’s not funny or clever to mock someone else’s town, but good lord, it’s hard to find much positive to say about Stevenage.

Lying to the east of Luton – itself hardly a beacon of architectural excellence – Stevenage is a place where people appear to have been very much an after-thought. An endless spaghetti of dual carriageways, roundabouts and industrial parks, humans are forced to scurry through underpasses beneath the constant stream of cars and lorries. Walking through one of the tunnels, I half expected to find a BBC wildlife documentary crew capturing footage of the subterranean creatures dwelling below the inhospitable concrete desert above. With every other building on the many retail parks being a Wickes, Bensons for Beds, Sharps Bedrooms, Topps Tiles or Wren Kitchens, a visitor from another planet would surmise that religion here centres on the worship of bathroom fittings and bedroom furniture.

But the main reason the club struggles to attract more than about 3,000 fans is that, having only existed in its current form since 1976, Stevenage FC has never established much of a hold over local people. That’s partly down to the fact that the history of the town itself doesn’t go back much further, having effectively come into existence only in 1946 as the first of the government’s ‘New Towns’. With a couple of hours to kill before Saturday’s game, we stopped in at the Stevenage Museum (I know how to have a good time). My expectations were not high, and all I will say is that whoever put the displays together has done a remarkably good job considering how little they had to work with.

The harsh reality is that a 44-year-old club has no legacy of multi-generational loyalty to draw on, and a town with minimal history has no ‘story’ to hold it all together. The contrast with teams elsewhere, especially in the Midlands and the north, is telling. The words ‘faded glory’ might attach to Football League clubs up there, but at least there is a collective sense of history and culture to glue it all together.

Any football fan with a perspective that extends beyond the gilded halls of the Premier League senses that the likes of Walsall, Rochdale, Oldham, Doncaster or Bradford are in many ways is the real heart and soul of football. These are towns and cities that used to really be something, in most cases manufacturing powerhouses, with a proud working class history. Places where men (and back then it was largely men) would go to watch their local football team on a Saturday to escape the grim reality of their working week. They were expressions of civic pride and even today, as demonstrated by the angst in Bury over the demise of their storied club, remain at the heart of many communities. But Stevenage, and its fellow ‘new’ towns, lack a back-story of that, or any, kind.

And things are unlikely to get better anytime soon. After 10 seasons in the Football League so far, three in League One and the rest in League Two, Stevenage currently languish at the foot of the bottom tier. Relegation back to non-league looks to be a real possibility. When the floodlights went out in the second half on Saturday, to the inevitable chants of ‘this is embarrassing’ from the Green Army, you could just see the headlines in the local paper, confirming to sceptical Stevenage-ites that it is a ‘tinpot’ club, unworthy of their support.

The tragedy is that the Lamex is a tidy little stadium, even if a faint whiff of non-league still hangs about the place. The match day experience was perfectly acceptable and with a few thousand more bums on seats – not a big ask with the local population well in excess of 100,000 – the ground could be bouncing. There’s a free 500-space car park five minutes walk from the ground as well, so getting to and from a game could hardly be easier. Definitely less hassle than grappling with cancelled trains and replacement bus services for a trip into London.

And so I find myself wishing Stevenage well. I know that, with a hard-to-like manager and a propensity for time wasting that Wycombe would be proud of, this won’t be a popular opinion with many of my fellow Argyle fans. But without League football, the club’s already tenuous hold on the loyalties of the local population would weaken further. Meaning that another generation of local kids will choose the ‘glamour’ of the Premier League, either in person or via Sky Sports, over their local club. And that would, I think, be a damn shame.

Extra Time: Good Omens for 2020

It will have escaped nobody’s attention that here at Argyle Life we are partial to a stat or two. Indeed, one admirer (I think that’s the word) labeled us a ‘strange statistics cult’, which we actually found pretty funny. So at just past the half way point of the season, what better way to kick-start the New Year than with a few juicy stats? That’s a rhetorical question, obviously. I’m going to write this whether you like it or not.

The first thing to say is that going into game three of 2020, things are looking rather good at Home Park. In sixth place and with one or two games in hand over 13 of the top 14 teams, Argyle are just three points off an automatic promotion spot. With 12 wins so far and 22 games remaining, Argyle are just one win shy of the total for the whole of last season.

Speaking of last season, nobody needs reminding that Argyle were bumping along the bottom of League One over the 2018 festive season before a run of 24 points from 12 games, starting on New Year’s Day, took the club up to 12th position. Sadly, as we all know, a haul of just five points from the final nine games condemned us to relegation on goal difference. In contrast, the lowest league position of the current campaign was 14th, on 21st September, since when it has been a pretty steady climb up to sixth.

Promotion ahoy?

Let’s address the most important question right away: are we on track for promotion? After 24 fixtures, Argyle are averaging a little over 1.7 points per game and continuation of that form would put them on 79 points at the end of the season. The good news is that in each of the last 10 years that would have been enough to secure a League Two play-off slot, since an average of 71 points was needed to finish in seventh position. It is, however, short of the 85 points needed on average to finish in the top three over that period, so Argyle are going to have to up their game if they aim to secure automatic promotion.

One reason for optimism relates to Argyle’s remaining away fixtures. We all know that a key factor behind last season’s relegation was Argyle’s apparent inability to play away from home. A record of just four wins from 23 and an average of 0.7 points per game won on the road proved an insurmountable barrier.

Things are very much better so far this season, however, with Argyle averaging 1.4 points per game away from home (compared to 2.0 at Home Park). Even more encouraging is the fact that, on paper at least, we’re facing a much easier run of away fixtures in the second half of the season than in the first.

The current average league position of the 12 teams Argyle met away from home in the first half of the season was 9th. But the remaining 11 opponents sit in an average position of 16th. The season’s last five away matches look particularly tasty – Morecambe, Orient, Grimsby, Walsall and Oldham – whose average league position is 18th, and who have struggled to notch up even 1 point per game at home so far. It would be a strange twist of fate if our away form proved to be the key to success in 2020 after driving us to relegation in 2019.

It’s interesting to note that Football Web Pages’ continuously updated ‘Predicted Final Table’ has Argyle finishing third, in the final automatic promotion slot, with 88 points at the end of the season. The algorithm they use to make that calculation isn’t public – I believe it’s driven mainly by the recent form of the teams that clubs have yet to face – but let’s hope their boffins are on the money on that one. As far as the bookies are concerned, Argyle are currently fifth favourites for promotion which, since just four teams go up, suggests that they don’t expect to see us in League One next season. But what does Ray ‘Bet Naaaah!’ Winstone and his giant floating head know?

What about the goals?

Another interesting stat is that with 37 goals, Argyle are the fourth highest scorers in the division so far. Since many have identified a lack of a natural goal scorer as our main problem, that’s pretty good. Nevertheless, it is pretty remarkable that no fewer than 15 Argyle players have been on the score sheet in the league so far this season, with top scorer, Antoni Sarcevic on just five (25 players at other clubs have bagged more League Two goals). Compare that to, say Swindon, where Eoin Doyle has scored 22, almost half of their goals this season. The risks attached to reliance on a loan player were highlighted just a couple of days ago with the news that Doyle has been recalled by his parent club, Bradford.

That does beg the question of how many goals Argyle would have scored if there was a natural finisher in the squad, which, with the best will in the world, there isn’t at the moment, unless Luke Jephcott proves to be more than a flash in the pan. Or at least, one who isn’t regularly sidelined with injury (we’re looking at you, Dom Telford). On the upside, few would bet against Ryan Lowe bringing in a goal scorer in the January window and that could be the final missing piece of the Argyle puzzle.

Speaking of goals, among the many reasons to be glad you’re not a Stevenage fan is the staggering fact that they have scored just 15 goals in 25 games so far this season. So their supporters have to wait 150 minutes between goals on average; no wonder they were in such a bad mood when they visited Home Park last month.

Play good football and they will come

Another highly encouraging stat is that Argyle’s average League attendance so far this season is running at 10,079. That’s the second highest in the division after Bradford’s 14,224, it’s 2,631 ahead of third place Swindon Town and more than double the 4,684 League Two average so far this season.

Unsurprisingly, crowds at most clubs decline following a relegation, but Argyle have bucked that trend by beating last season’s 9,298 average. Equally striking is the contrast with the last time Argyle dropped into League Two (2011-12), when gates averaged just 6,915. There is surely no better manifestation of how far the club has come since those dark days eight or nine years ago. And after the 15,000 mark was breached on New Year’s Day, who would bet against the crowd climbing even closer to the new 18,500 capacity when our ‘friends’ from up the A38 visit in March?

It is also, not insignificantly, a vindication of the club’s ticket pricing policy. While Bradford City may still be pulling in around 4,000 more supporters on average, their gate receipts must be substantially lower given their policy of pricing season tickets at around half the level of Argyle’s. One of the many things that the new regime at Home Park has succeeded in doing is instilling a sense of financial reality. On the one hand, Simon Hallett has demonstrated remarkable generosity in financing the new Mayflower stand and generally shoring up club finances. On the other, he has made it clear that financial sustainability remains the ultimate aim, and that means supporters making a realistic contribution at the turnstiles to match their ambitions on the pitch. So far, it’s pretty hard to argue with that approach.

Finally, it’s good to know that other teams are benefitting from Argyle’s presence in League Two. On average so far this season, a visit from The Pilgrims has boosted their opponent’s home attendance by 23%. The ‘Argyle bonus’ at the ‘local’ derbies – Forest Green, Cheltenham and Exeter – has been even greater, with jumps of 48%, 51% and 58% respectively. So to all those small League Two teams, you’re welcome. And ‘Happy New Year’.

 

 

 

Extra Time: It’s football, but not as we know it

I tried. I really did. The vegan thing was always going to be a bit of a theme for the Forest Green Rovers match, but I was determined not to slip into making the same tired old jokes. I hoped it would be a minor distraction, that Saturday would be just a normal football away day. Instead, it turned into a full-on trip through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia.

Early indications that we were entering the ‘right-on’ zone came when a local Argyle fan on the Park & Ride bus told us that, walking past a house in nearby Stroud, he heard a mother calling out to her child in the garden: “Fabian, come inside and finish your pita bread!”. We’re definitely not in Plymouth now, Toto.

Then things got weirder. Moments after arriving at the ground, we were accosted by a lady from the Nailsworth Climate Action Network (the feared NCAN ‘firm’) demanding to know what I was doing to reduce my carbon footprint. I momentarily considered telling her that while I do care about climate change, right then I was more preoccupied with whether Argyle could score against League Two’s most parsimonious defence. Recognising that a sense of humour was probably not a prerequisite for NCAN membership, I made my escape clutching a Carbon Pledge leaflet (“Upgrade your A-rated fridge-freezer to top-rated A+++ or better” it advised, helpfully).

Only to run into two alarmingly bearded hipster types under a gazebo selling ‘Aftershave Fragrances and Grooming for Men’. Another first at a football ground for me. Resisting the temptation to suggest that they relocate to Fratton Park – nobody is more in need of some intensive male grooming than that Pompey bloke with the bell – I side-stepped the vegan samosa cart and headed for the turnstiles.

“Can we get food inside the ground,” I asked a steward. “Yeah, mate,” he quipped. “If you can call it ‘food’”. Blimey, the first bad vegan food joke of the day came from the club’s own staff. Disappointed that we weren’t given the once-over for meat-based products by the world’s fattest sniffer dogs (‘Hey, it would be criminal to waste all those confiscated pasties’) we went through the turnstiles into the Twilight Zone.

Where we discovered that there was indeed food available, but being served from a single window, ensuring a 25-minute wait for the 1,200 visiting supporters. Perhaps this was cunningly designed to teach us the value of patience, to instill a Zen-like meditative state. But since I’d just driven 200 miles, was very hungry and had spotted that they were selling what looked like regular chips, my focus was entirely on getting my teeth into some serious carbs.

There was still no escape from the carnivore re-education programme while we queued though, thanks to a giant sign next to the serving hatch informing us that Forest Green has ‘Given meat the red card’ and that non-vegans are probably going to die prematurely. Way to kill the vibe, dudes, as the chaps on the male grooming stand would probably have put it. I’m all for raising environmental awareness and would happily defend veganism as a legitimate lifestyle choice, but this was all getting a bit too preachy for me.

Fortunately at that point I became distracted by the wags on the Argyle Life group chat suggesting alternative vegan names for Argyle players. Gary Soya, Conor Plant anybody? Thank goodness for social media.

Then I saw it. On the end of an advertising hoarding above the stand, among all the Ecotricity and plant-based food promotions, was a board advertising ‘Fat Toni’s Pizzeria’. A quick Google search revealed that Fat Toni’s is very much not a vegan, or even vegetarian, establishment. Was this a subversive act of defiance? Just as opponents of totalitarian regimes spray-paint anti-government slogans on subway walls, had some FGR dissidents climbed over the fence in the dead of night and stuck the board up there without anybody noticing? I’d like to think so.

Really though, the whole atmosphere was just odd. Once the game got under way, the Rovers fans attempted to engage in the usual ‘banter’ with the visiting supporters nearest to them, but it looked like their heart wasn’t really in it. I could make a cheap (and doubtless scientifically inaccurate) jibe about them being too weak thanks to the lack of meat and dairy in their diet, but I wonder if it was more that they’d just been ground down by the relentless ‘right on-ness’ of their club.

However, it was my son’s comment that the FGR mascot, a bizarre green (inevitably), dragon-style creature, looked like he’d been designed as part of a task on The Apprentice that suddenly made sense of it all.

That was it! Picture the scene. The usual collection of oddball Apprentice candidates are assembled in front of Lord Sir Shuggs as he intones; “This week’s task is to come up with an idea for a new football club. You have to design the ground, the kit and the match day food.”

Cut to Team Amnesiac or whatever other stupid name they have concocted. That bloke who’s always there, you know, the Del Boy style hot-tub salesman from Basildon who Lord Sugar will say reminds him of his younger self before firing him in the semi-final, is getting over-excited as usual.

“This green, vegany thing is huge at the moment ‘innit? So what we do, right, is we call the club something to do with trees. Forests are green, ain’t they? That’ll do. We make the food out of tofu and wood shavings, flog all sorts of eco-mentalist gear outside the ground and bish, bash, bosh, sorted.”

“And we can buy a flat-pack stadium from IKEA, another candidate suggests. ”Just two hours and an allen key to assemble.”

“What about the players’ kit”, interjects the caricature posh boy who will be fired when the task inevitably crashes and burns. “Obviously it has to be green, but not just ordinary green. Look, I’ve found this shade that looks like radio-active toxic waste.”

“Brilliant”, cry the rest of the team. “Who wouldn’t want to buy replica kit so bright that it burns out the retinas of anyone who looks at it for more than a second?”

And that, my friends, is how the club came into being. An Apprentice task that was meant to be shut down when the programme finished, but somehow escaped into the wild and is now living in a middle class village in Gloucestershire.

Forest Green Rovers. As they might have said in Star Trek; “It’s football, Jim, but not as we know it.”

 

Extra Time: Stand up if you love the Greens?

Argyle’s win on Saturday wasn’t the greatest game I’ve ever seen. But a win is a win, and Sarcevic’s 92nd minute pile driver to seal the deal was a very satisfying way to sign off on three points.

Unfortunately, the ‘persistent standing’ controversy once again threatened to overshadow what should have been a happy occasion at Home Park. Even before we’d got into the ground, a Tweeted photograph of stewards lined up next to Block 3 warned us that the whole tedious issue was going to elbow its way into proceedings yet again. There’s a real risk that the standing controversy will eclipse all the good stuff happening around Home Park at the moment.

For all the emotion and rhetoric surrounding this issue, the basic problem can be summed up very succinctly. While the regulations on standing at football grounds appear clear, they are not, and their interpretation and enforcement is inconsistent and illogical.

Rules on standing are ambiguous

Let’s start with the rules relating to standing. The current regulations originate with the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, when 96 Liverpool supporters died on overcrowded terraces at an FA Cup semi-final. The Taylor report into the disaster led to the Football Supporters Act, mandating that football grounds should in future be all-seater. Soon after, however, the law was modified to apply just to the top two divisions of English football.

While these regulations are likely to change again in the future, for now Home Park has no designated standing areas and so is subject to the rules governing all-seater stadia. Argyle’s ground regulations – taken word for word from the EFL – state that: “Nobody may stand in any seating area whilst play is in progress. Persistent standing in seated areas whilst play is in progress is strictly forbidden and may result in ejection from the Ground.”

Straightforward, right? Well as with anything relating to the law, the answer is ‘yes and no’.

There are a couple of areas of potential confusion. First, contrary to what many think, standing at a football match is not an offence under criminal law, which states that football clubs must provide seats for all spectators, but does not mandate that spectators should sit in them. The rules of admission to a venue fall under civil law, and by purchasing a ticket, spectators agree to be bound by the rules of the football stadium. So standing is potentially in breach of the civil law, allowing the ejection of supporters who refuse to sit.

The law therefore leaves clubs to decide what action to take against those it deems as ‘standers’, although in reality, clubs may come under pressure from the EFL to enforce the regulations. We’ll come back to that later.

The second area of confusion relates to the definition of ‘standing’. EFL regulations state clearly that nobody may stand whilst play is in progress, but they then go on to prohibit ‘persistent standing’. That’s generally taken to mean that during ‘moments of excitement’ spectators may stand (and presumably they’re allowed to slip out to answer the call of nature during the game as well). Mediaeval philosophers used to engage in futile debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin; trying to interpret the rules on ‘persistent standing’ at football grounds feels a bit like that.

On the one hand then, people who say ‘the rules are clear, you can’t stand in a seating area’ are simply wrong; there’s an element of interpretation. On the other, it would be tough to argue that supporters who stand from the kick off to the final whistle are not engaging in ‘persistent standing’. So the blunt truth is that under the ground regulations, a club is entitled to throw supporters out if they do that.

Enforcement of standing rules is very uneven

The second, and probably most significant area of contention is the highly variable enforcement of the no-standing rules. Fans who are being told to sit down or risk being thrown out see away supporters at the other end of the ground standing throughout the game with impunity. They then go home to watch fans at Premier League, Championship and lower divisions doing the same thing on the EFL highlights and Match of the Day. This is guaranteed to ferment resentment and a feeling of unfairness.

At the moment, Argyle seems to be caught in a no-man’s land, reluctant to send stewards in to either home or away ends to evict persistent standers, reduced instead to appeals over the public address system and positioning stewards at the bottom of the Devonport to glower ineffectually at the Block 3 rebels. That merely creates an air of hostility without actually achieving anything.

Clubs are caught in the middle

It’s very easy to be critical of the club here, but in all fairness, they and others are caught up in the colossal mess that the EFL rules represent at the moment. For a measure of this, take a look at recent events at Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers (both in the Premier League, where rules on standing are theoretically even more robustly enforced). The clubs have recently installed ‘seats incorporating barriers’, but in a superb feat of mental gymnastics, FC Business Magazine reported that ‘they have installed seats with barriers precisely for the purpose of enhancing safety should fans in those areas consistently stand, NOT in order to create formal standing areas, which remain prohibited by the current interpretation of the government’s all-seater policy. ’ Confused? I certainly am.

Don’t forget as well that not everybody wants to stand up at football games, and the club is duty-bound to listen to complaints from those who might find their views blocked by others standing in front of them. It’s easy to say ‘if you want to sit down, don’t buy tickets in places where people stand’ but that’s not a reasonable solution. What is the club supposed to say to a supporter who has bought a ticket expecting to be able to watch the game from their seat, but finds that all they can see is a wall of backsides for 90 minutes? The spectator would probably be within their rights to demand a refund.

The bottom line is that the rules are a mess, and adherence and enforcement is inconsistent. The reality is that, in most cases, the EFL and the clubs collude to accommodate the ridiculous inconsistency of the standing rules, with blind eyes turned week in, week out across the country.

Why is Argyle taking a hard line on standing?

The big question then is why Argyle, apparently uniquely among League One and Two clubs, has chosen to take a militant stance (excuse the pun) on this issue. There are three possibilities.

The first is the EFL is telling all clubs in the lower three tiers to radically tighten up on standing. I suspect we can discount this since we would have almost certainly heard about it if the EFL was clamping down across the board. No other club appears to be engaged in the face-off with fans that we are seeing at Home Park right now, so it doesn’t look like a blanket directive from the governing body.

The second possibility is that the EFL has singled out Argyle for special attention, perhaps because the club needs a licence for the re-built Mayflower or for some other reason. If the EFL really has specifically threatened the club with financial and other penalties if supporters continue to stand, why would Argyle not say so when it has nothing to lose and everything to gain by going public? It would lend legitimacy to the club’s warnings that persistent standing could lead to fines, the refusal of a licence for the Mayflower or some other sanction, and would also divert the fans’ ire away from the club and onto the EFL.

The third is that Plymouth Argyle has decided to embark on a unilateral crusade against standing fans for reasons of its own. If that is the case, I can only wonder why the club has chosen this particular hill to die on at this moment in time. In a post-relegation season, with a new manager, a substantially new team and a new stand to fill, it would be a very peculiar strategic move to put it mildly.

As I see it then, those are the only possible explanations for the current focus on standing at Home Park, and the club now needs to come out and say which one of those is correct. Continuing to send the same message on social media and repeating it through megaphones on match days is clearly not working and serves only to damage the relationship with supporters.

Time to rethink

So where does the club go from here? Unfortunately, by setting off down this road, Argyle has made it more difficult to reach a compromise. There’s undoubtedly an element of machismo here on both sides. For its part, the club is in danger of backing itself into a corner on this issue. On the other side, the supporters feel victimised and resentful and some may react in ways that they might regret in future. Dealing with this situation now, before any more damage is done, is critical. Some individuals within the club are already being targeted, on social media and with chants during the game, which no right-thinking supporter wants to see.

If Argyle really faces the threat of significant sanctions because of the standing issue, then supporters should be told, and they need specifics. If, on the other hand, this mess is the result of a unilateral decision on the part of the club, a serious rethink is required. The supporters that do stand create a lot of the noise and atmosphere that Ryan Lowe and his players consistently praise as motivating factors on the pitch. Dealing overly harshly with them would not only be counter-productive but would seriously sour the relationship with most of the other fans as well.

It’s simply not good enough to keep repeating the same mantra that ‘you can’t stand at football matches’ because, as I hope I’ve shown, the situation is not that simple either in theory or, more importantly, in practice. Should we continue down the current route, it would only serve to undermine what Ryan Lowe and his players are trying to achieve on the pitch and what the new regime at Home Park is striving for off it in terms of fostering a stronger connection between supporters and the club. Something has got to change. And it’s got to happen soon.

 

Extra Time: Diary of a football fan (aged 56 and a half)

A basic principal of writing about football, especially for non-neutrals like us, is to avoid taking to the keyboard right after the final whistle. In general, I agree with that. You don’t always see key incidents clearly when you’re in the stadium and don’t have the stats to confirm what you thought you saw over the 90 minutes. In other words, wait for the perspective and rational thinking that comes 12 or 24 hours later.

Wise words which I am now about to ignore. If football was only about cold analysis, I wouldn’t bother with it. Since it’s as much about raw emotion, I’m going to write about how it felt in the moment itself, watching Argyle lose to Cheltenham on Saturday. Here’s my diary of the day.

Kick-off minus 60’ I see the team selection as we’re parking the car. Happy with that. Relieved to see Edwards back in the pivotal midfield role and it’s about time Cooper got his chance at right wing back. Pleased that Telford’s starting – just hope he’s fully fit (spoiler alert). Same back three as against Cheltenham. Hmmm, could losing Canavan’s aerial ability come back to bite us (spoiler alert number two)?

Kick-off minus 30’ Pick up a match day programme, which is pretty good these days. Still too much ‘filler’ history, though. I’d really like to read up on the players that we’re about to face but instead we have ‘Ten post-war Cheltenham Town classic campaigns’ and a further two pages on ’Ten players who had more than one spell at Cheltenham Town.’ I doubt many Cheltenham fans care very much about that stuff. I certainly don’t.

Kick off minus 10’ Pilgrim Pete picks a kid out of the crowd for the pre-match penalty challenge. The mascot powers a low strike off the inside of the post, past the hapless child ‘keeper, before celebrating with unseemly gusto in front of the Devonport. Hope that’s not going to be the day’s best finish from a man in green (spoiler alert number three).

And we’re off…

2’ Cooper gets the ball on the right and immediately cuts inside like Riley never does. Nice.

3’ Luke Varney clatters Danny Mayor on the left touchline. I think we’ve just seen Cheltenham’s secret plan to deal with Argyle’s biggest threat.

8’ Three good runs and interchanges between McFadzean and Mayor. Lovely stuff – Cheltenham are struggling to deal with them.

10’ Cooper cuts inside and delivers a good angled ball to Telford whose shot is well saved.

11’ Cheltenham win a corner and appear to already be time-wasting with 80 minutes of the game left. That’s novel.

12’ A long through ball from Cooper is well controlled by Joel Grant and a good tackle is all that prevents the Argyle man from getting a shot away. That’s a dimension to our play that we haven’t seen too much this season.

14’ Ball played out of defence to Telford just short of the half way line. He immediately turns and drives into the penalty area before his shot is well saved. That’s something else we’ve been missing up-front. Immediately afterwards, a Mayor shot is almost turned into his own net by a Cheltenham defender. I’m feeling good about this game.

15’ Cooper’s shot looks suspiciously like it hit a Cheltenham defender’s hand in the box. Ref wasn’t even looking. I’m beginning to wonder about the man in black.

17’ Another bad foul on Mayor, this time on the half way line. Again, the ref thinks a couple of words with the Cheltenham man are an adequate response.

19’ Cooper almost bends one in from the left-hand side of the area. He poses so much more of an attacking threat than Riley in the right wing back role.

20’ Mayor intercepts a Cheltenham ball in Argyle’s half and plays it through to Joel Grant whose shot hits the keeper’s fingertips and skips onto the bar. I have the first twinges of concern that once again we’re not turning our numerous chances into goals.

23’ Noooooo! Telford goes down on the half way line with nobody near him – never a good sign. Will we ever get through a game without an injury? We’ve used about six different strikers so far this season and for the first quarter of this game it looked like we might have a winning pairing in Grant and Telford. That’s all blown out of the water as the latter trudges off towards the dressing room with what turns out to be a hamstring injury. Replaced by Ryan Taylor, which, I fear, is not a good thing. The fans around me share my concerns and the mood darkens.

26’ Mayor’s clattered again by a different Cheltenham player. They’re obviously taking turns to foul him to avoid red cards. Effective? Maybe. Sportsmanlike? Er, no.

27’ Cooper plays a good free kick into the far post but there’s nobody there. This is becoming a pattern. Since Cheltenham are apparently going to foul their way through the game, Argyle have to take advantage from the resulting set-pieces. But that’s not happening. More doubts creep in.

30’ Cooper is shoved off the ball again. The ref speaks to Ben Tozer, the Cheltenham captain, presumably asking him to tell his players not to be such naughty boys. Like that has made a difference to any team’s behaviour ever. If only there was a system of, for example, coloured cards that a match official could use to warn players or even send them off the pitch. That might work.

33’ This time Sarcevic is chopped down by Doyle-Hayes who has already been booked. Again, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, the referee declines to punish the offender further.

38’ Cheltenham ‘keeper is wasting time again. The referee has yet another word. This chap does like to talk, doesn’t he?

39’ Anybody seen the film ‘Minority Report’, where Tom Cruise plays a cop with the ‘Pre-crime Unit’ that can see into the future and so arrest people before they commit offences? Argyle fans don’t need a ‘Pre-cross Unit’ to foresee the inevitable goals conceded from wide balls and unchallenged headers this season. The Cheltenham goal comes from a simple ball out to Sean Long, in acres of space on the right and with all the time in the world to measure his cross. Josh Grant, in the vicinity of his man but with his back turned, jumps all of six inches as the octogenarian Luke Varney shuffles in to head past the luckless Alex Palmer at the far post. Cheltenham’s second chance of the game and they’re 1-0 up. The crowd behind the goal in the Devonport is silent, a mixture of disbelief and resignation.

44’ Still dealing with the gut-punch of the Cheltenham goal when Argyle have the ball in the net. We’re on our feet (standing in excitement and not persistently I should emphasise) but there’s a flag. Aimson’s effort is disallowed for a push on Ben Tozer who went down like a felled tree. It’s tough to see exactly what happened from our end, but if the Argyle man did make contact it didn’t look anywhere near enough to propel the Cheltenham captain to the turf with such drama. Were the officials conned? You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment.

Half Time: The mood on the terraces is turning gloomy. We’ve seen this story too many times already this season.

48’ Mayor cuts inside the Cheltenham box and tumbles to the ground in a tangle of legs. A braver referee might have pointed to the spot, but by this point literally nobody is surprised when he waves play on.

50’ Aimson is sandwiched between two players and Luke Varney sees yellow. Cue sarcastic cheers and applause from the home fans.

51’ Taylor receives the ball twice with his back to the opposition goal in quick succession, and as so often, his instinct is to play it back into his own half rather than turn or look for a forward pass. Can’t help thinking it would be a different story with Telford on the pitch.

52’ Cheltenham ‘keeper time wasting again. This is starting to get quite annoying. Make a mental note to Google him to find out if he’s ever played for Wycombe.

55’ Cheltenham go close as a cross to the far post is headed onto the bar. Argyle’s vulnerability on the break is going to be an ongoing theme I suspect.

56’ Mayor somehow squirms through a mob of defenders to get to the by-line and cut the ball back to McFadzean, whose low shot is blocked by the keeper. The Argyle number 10 is single-handedly trying to haul his team back into the game, which is impressive. Less so is that nobody else is doing much to help him at the moment.

Speaking of which, where is Taylor? I swear, he looks like a man who has just woken from a coma and has no idea who or where he is and what he is supposed to be doing. I reckon he’s touched the ball three or four times at the most in the 30 minutes since he came on.

58’ Mayor brought down again. I’m seriously worried what will happen if he gets injured, as he inevitably will if this carries on. Cheltenham break again and come close to getting a second. My son scowls at me as I grumpily predict that they are more likely to get their second than we are to score an equaliser.

59’ A clever interchange allows Mayor to get a shot in, forcing a good save. Anxiety levels about a match-ending tackle on him reach Defcon One.

60’ A Cheltenham player goes down with a ‘head injury’, miraculously getting to his feet when the trainer comes on. He’s then allowed to walk the long way to the touchline despite several Argyle players pointing to the much shorter route off the pitch and no doubt politely quoting the new FA law relating to the matter. This kind of thing makes me unreasonably angry, probably because the opposition’s gamesmanship is so obvious to everyone but the officials. The chants of ‘sh*t referee’ ringing out around the ground suggest I’m not alone.

62’ Mayor into the box again on the left and puts ball just wide of the post. A minute later, McFadzean does the same.

65’ An Argyle attack down the right side! Is that the first one of this half? The team is still very unbalanced.

70’ Cheltenham give us another scare as a cross-field ball finds Varney who shoots wide.

71’ Randell replaces Joel Grant, Cooper is pushed up to partner Taylor and Edwards moves to right wing back. I’m not at all sure about this. Randell looks awfully young and lightweight to be thrown into this melee.

77’ Sarcevic crosses from the right with nobody on the end of it. Same again two minutes later. Ryan Lowe would have poked that in during his playing days. Has the gaffer got his boots with him?

About 15 minutes to go and Argyle are looking out of ideas. This half, our attacks consist of slow build-ups around a packed Cheltenham box while the visitors threaten on the break, enjoying plenty of empty space. This isn’t going to end well.

84’ Lolos on for Cooper, who looks pretty unhappy about being hooked. And with all due respect, a 3-5-2 fronted by Taylor and Lolos isn’t quite what I hoped for this season.

85’ Cheltenham have 11 players behind the ball now. Mayor runs across the front of the defence but has nowhere to go.

87’ Mayor chopped down again. Yellow for Hussey. How do Cheltenham still have 11 men on the pitch to put behind the ball?

88’ This is getting weird. In the dying minutes, an Argyle corner is taken by a slightly bemused looking Randell. What? He plays a short corner to Mayor, who gives it back to the youngster only for him to sky the cross into the stands. Are we trying to baffle them into conceding?

90’ Five minutes of added time. Yes! There’s still a chance.

91’ Own goal from Aimson. Of course. Came from a break with our defence all over the place. What else did I expect?

92’ My son and I look at each other and without saying a word, do something we never have until now; leave before the final whistle. As we get up there’s a clack-clack machine gun fire of seat bottoms snapping back as hundreds or Argyle fans make the same decision.

95’ Lolos hits outside of the post. Apparently. But by this time we are very nearly back at the car and heading back towards the Tamar Bridge at maximum speed.

Post mortem: How to sum up that game? A cynical opposition who have clearly never heard the phrase ‘the beautiful game’, a referee with only a passing acquaintance with the laws of the game, a barrage of shots with no end product and a league table showing that we are in the bottom half of the basement division. At its best, football produces moments of pure joy that transcend the mundane realities of daily life. At its worst, it generates an impotent rage about the unfairness of the universe. I know that calm reflection will reveal much to be positive about around Argyle this season and that our ‘luck’ will turn. But leaving Home Park at 5pm on Saturday, anybody who had tried to tell me that ‘you don’t get the highs without the lows’ or that ‘the sunshine is all the sweeter after the rain’ would have been propelled through the nearest hedge at high velocity.

Normal service will be resumed next week.

Extra Time: The promotion push is still on

After taking six points from the first two games of the season, one win in the subsequent seven league games, yielding six points from a possible 21, has left the Green Army wondering whether the hype around the new Home Park regime is justified.

It’s way too early to start saying the wheels have come off Argyle’s promotion campaign, but some of the gloss certainly has. At the start of the season, the accepted wisdom was that it would take time for the new manager to get the mix of old and new faces at Home Park to gel, especially as the Argyle players remaining from last season would be expected to learn a new system. Meanwhile, the former Bury players would be playing without half of the teammates with whom they won promotion.

In that sense, starting with two wins probably lulled us into a false sense of security and subsequent results may be a fairer reflection of what remains, in that horribly over-used phrase, ‘a work in progress’.

Some are already questioning whether Lowe needs to modify his playing style. After less than 20% of the season, and in light of what he achieved at Bury with the same system, that’s surely a crazy idea. In any case, the point is moot as the manager reiterated after the Northampton defeat his commitment to a possession-based 3-5-2: “I need 75% or 70% possession, minimum 65%, and when you do get that, you end up winning the game most of the time.”

Few believe that the manager should move away from his attacking style, but a common criticism is that Lowe lacks a ‘Plan B’. The argument runs roughly like this. If the opposition work our system out and figure out how to nullify us, we’re in trouble. If they press when we try to play out from the back, we’re in trouble. If they stick a couple of players on Danny Mayor, we’re in trouble.

There’s some validity in the latter point. Port Vale and others have employed some ‘robust’ tactics against Mayor, and the man wouldn’t be human if he didn’t fight back occasionally. Which might explain why he’s currently one yellow card away from a suspension. So there is some vulnerability there.

But the idea of switching to another system if the favoured approach falters isn’t realistic. The aim should be to make sure that the players execute Plan A so effectively that the opposition can’t stop them, even if they know what’s coming.

The real clue to the manager’s thinking on the current stuttering form lies in his comments after the Port Vale defeat: “There are two or three people letting us down.” Strong words for a manager who doesn’t make a habit of throwing players under the bus. We saw the result of that in his team selection for the trip to Crawley.

Lowe’s message then is that the issue lies not with the system, but with some of the cogs in the machine – the players. Some might say that he’s trying to deflect attention from himself and blame others, but everything we’ve seen of the manager so far suggests that is not his style at all.

So what are the key personnel issues for Argyle at the moment?

Defence:

The cliché about the 3-5-2 is that you don’t need to worry too much about conceding goals as long as you score more at the other end. The good news is that the goals conceded per game ratio has fallen to 1.2 compared to last season’s crippling 1.7 average. However, there is some legitimate concern that in Wootton, Canavan, Sawyer and Tafari Moore (Ashley Smith Brown has already been moved out on loan) we still have the core of the defence that shipped last season’s 80 goals.

Critics of the system say that the opposition are happy for Argyle to have lots of possession in their own half, waiting to hit them on the break. The vulnerability to counter-attacks puts a premium on quick, mobile defenders, not a description you would apply to Messrs. Sawyer, Canavan and Wootton. The formation also requires steady build-up play from the back, demanding an ability to pass the ball accurately in front of their own goal. However Wootton, and to a lesser extent Canavan, appear prone to making costly errors in this dangerous area of the pitch.

Finally, and while this is not specifically related to the tactical system, Argyle struggle to defend balls played into the box from wide areas, whether from set pieces or open play. Before last night, four out of the nine goals conceded so far this season – including two instances where the single goal was enough for Argyle to lose the game (against Newport and Port Vale) – had come from these scenarios. That’s an issue that, in theory, can be dealt with on the training ground, but as yet, there’s no sign of it going away.

Midfield:

A key characteristic of Lowe’s system is getting the ball up the flanks via the wingbacks. The issue here is clear. While the left side pairing of Mayor and McFadzean is working very well, the same can’t be said of the other wing, where the combination of Riley and either Sarcevic or Connor Grant is much weaker.

Unfortunately, the finger must be pointed at Joe Riley, who is just not in the same class as his left-sided counterparts. His crossing ability is highly suspect, with most balls from the flanks played along the ground where they are easily cut out. He also can’t, or won’t, cut inside into the box, which makes life easier for defenders. Riley has scored only one goal (from a direct free kick) and, more tellingly, has zero assists so far this season, a damning stat for a wingback. He must be on borrowed time.

Joe Edwards has filled in for Riley for two games now, but that takes him away from the holding midfield role in which he has excelled so far this season. Jose Baxter is a capable deputy there, but can struggle with defensive duties when Argyle are under pressure.

Attack:

Lowe’s style demands two old fashioned, goal-scoring strikers, but he hasn’t been able to settle on a favoured pair so far. Taylor, Telford, Joel Grant, Moore and Rudden (plus Lolos with a couple of substitute appearances) have rotated through those positions in the first nine games of the season, but only Taylor has scored more than one goal.

In fact, Argyle’s 14 league goals have been shared among no fewer than 10 players, with nobody scoring more than two. With the exception of Taylor, players with two goals apiece (McFadzean, Sarcevic and Edwards) are all midfielders.

In contrast, of the 17 goals bagged by League Two top scorers, Swindon, eleven have come from just two players – Eoin Doyle (7) and Jerry Yates (4). Grimsby have the next highest goal tally with 15, of which James Hanson has scored five. Argyle’s lack of one or two reliable goal-getters is an issue given the system they are playing.

Crawley – Reasons to be cheerful

I think we may look back and see this game as a turning point. The gut-wrenching penalty that put Crawley back on level terms after Argyle had overturned the early deficit has inevitably coloured people’s reaction to the result. But if we can get beyond that, there were several significant factors about the game.

First, looking at the team selection, we can have a pretty good guess that the ‘two or three’ problem players that Lowe mentioned after the Port Vale game were Wootton, Canavan and Riley (though the latter didn’t play at Vale Park). I have a sneaking suspicion that Ryan Taylor might also be on the fringe of that group.

Most significantly, the manager took the axe to the Canavan-Wootton pairing that had, until then, started every league game so far this season. That might be a bit harsh on the former given his aerial prowess, but his unfortunate tendency to lose his man, particularly when crosses are coming in, may have tested the manager’s patience once too often. As for Wootton, in the early games of the season he looked transformed from the error-prone, wayward passing player of last year, but seemed more recently to be slipping back into his old ways.

With Josh Grant demonstrating his quality in every game he’s played, and the newly fit Will Aimson (of whom Lowe clearly has a very high opinion) staking his claim for a place last night, you’d see them starting for the foreseeable future. Both are more mobile than the players they’ve replaced and have the ability to get forward when needed. Indeed, Aimson was only a world-class save away from scoring what would have been the decisive goal last night.

In the middle, Edwards more than justified his move to right wing back. His overall play, not to mention the small fact of two goals, was a stark contrast to Riley. The problem is not so much whether he is capable of playing there, it’s more about losing his influence in the pivotal holding midfield role.

Of course, Lowe does have another wing back option in the form of George Cooper. A glance at the highlights of his career so far amply demonstrates his crossing ability from both open play and corners, while he can also run at players and come inside to deliver angled crosses to the far post. Ryan Lowe himself was on the end those balls more than once when the pair played together at Crewe. Cooper’s favoured left foot might suggest that he’s not a natural choice for a right wing back, but he played on that flank very effectively at Crewe. One caveat is his relative lack of defensive experience, perhaps explaining why Lowe didn’t put him in last night against a Crawley team whose main attacking threat comes down that side.

Strikers remain, arguably, the area of most concern. With both goals last night coming from a midfielder and Byron Moore, who has already missed four games, apparently injured yet again, it doesn’t feel like we are any closer to finding the best front pairing. As long as the goals keep coming from elsewhere in the team, maybe that’s ok. But a striker or two capable of hitting double digits in terms of goals this season is almost certainly a prerequisite for promotion in this tactical setup.

Overall though, there were a lot of positives to take from the Crawley game. Argyle were by far the better team on the night, as the stats amply demonstrate. Eight shots on target compared to Crawley’s three, 13 corners compared to four, superior passing accuracy in all areas and 60% possession. And it was not pointless possession either, with more forward momentum from the back than we have seen in many recent games. Some of that was down to the willingness of Baxter and Sarcevic to turn and drive forward from midfield and look for angled through balls. As for Mayor, the player still attracts some criticism, partly due to the inflated expectations that accompanied him to Home Park. I’m not having any of that though, and the doubters just need to look at his role in the build up to both goals last night to see how pivotal he is.

Sure, there are still issues. Can we defend a lead? Do we have the ability to win ugly when needed? Why do we seem to lose the plot when playing away from home? But overall, if Argyle play like they did against Crawley for the rest of the season, we will win far more than we lose.

Ryan Lowe seems much closer to arriving at a settled line-up and this feels like a team that’s only going to get stronger as the season progresses. I’m still convinced that Argyle have the raw material for a very strong promotion challenge.

Extra Time: Bury and the Looming EFL Crisis

It’s been a busy start to the season for Argyle fans. Between the League and Carabao Cup, by the end of August Argyle will have played eight matches. With five of those at Home Park and an away game at Newport within relatively easy reach, we’ve been spoilt.

So spare a thought for Bury fans. Thanks to their ongoing financial woes, they’ve seen no football so far this season, with six games postponed as we write. With the manager, several staff members and five players fleeing the sinking Bury ship over the summer to move to Home Park, we’re naturally watching events at Gigg Lane with interest.

Every football supporter must be aware that all is not well in EFL-land, where financial pressures that have been brewing for decades are rising to dangerous levels. The most obvious manifestation of which is that Bury and Bolton Wanderers have both started life in League One with 12-point deductions after entering administration. Unlike Bury, at least Bolton have been able to kick a ball in anger.

Sadly, Bury’s situation is starting to look terminal. At the end of 2018, new owner Steve Dale took over from Stewart Day, a man who made the bullish statement in the last set of accounts that, “I will continue to support the club for as long as it takes to become successful…both on and off the pitch.” Less than six months later, he bailed out, leaving around £8m of debt.

After facing a winding-up petition last spring, the new owner agreed a rescue plan (a CVA) whereby creditors would receive a percentage of money owed. The EFL have demanded that Dale shows he has the money to pay off even the reduced debt and to fund Bury’s League One campaign this season. After many postponements and much bluster from the owner, Friday 23rd August looks to be a real line in the sand, with a ‘hard exit’ from the EFL awaiting the club if Dale fails to come up with that proof.

The outpouring of sympathy for Bury supporters from fans of other clubs is understandable, since many have seen their own teams teeter on the brink of oblivion in recent years. But the hand-wringing and calls for somebody to ‘do something’ to rescue the club are not particularly helpful if we really want to understand how Bury got into this situation and how other clubs can avoid a similar fate.

Blame for the current problems at Bury, Bolton and other clubs has been laid at various doors. The EFL for failing to monitor the clubs under their remit, reckless owners who endanger clubs for reasons of personal ego or financial gain, TV companies who funnel cash only to the elite at the top of the pyramid, greedy Premier League clubs hoarding football’s riches, the list goes on and on.

Neither fit nor proper

The EFL certainly has a case to answer, frequently failing to enforce its own rules. The big one in the case of Bury is the ‘fit and proper’ test. Football is a magnet for dodgy chancers, seeking to profit from a club in some way, and also the well intentioned but deluded whose ambitions are hopelessly financially unrealistic. The EFL’s job is to protect them from both by investigating whether a prospective buyer is “fit and proper” under its owners’ and directors’ test, and has sufficient funds from a legitimate source to fund the club. It has the power to block a takeover if it is not satisfied.

In Bury’s case, not only did the current owner take control last December without undergoing any of the tests, eight months later he still has not complied with the requirements. Meanwhile, the club stumbles towards extinction.

It’s easy to heap blame on the EFL but their failure to enforce the fit and proper test hides a deeper issue. Namely that as it operates today, the business model of lower league football is busted. The potential to boost revenues is limited while costs, particularly wages, continue to spiral upwards, meaning there’s no queue of well-funded, legitimate businessmen eager to pour money into League One and Two clubs. That might explain why the EFL seems less choosy about who it allows into the football owners club these days.

Promotion roulette

Reckless owners also have to take a share of the blame. At Bury, it’s an all-too familiar case of unsustainable spending. The seeds of the current problems were sown under the previous owner. In 2013, Stewart Day unveiled a five-year plan to win promotion to the Championship. At which point the usual scenario – spending money to acquire a highly paid squad – started to unfold. But instead of promotion, the high-priced side was relegated back to the fourth tier in 2018.

The result is that despite bouncing back to the third tier, the club was left with £7m of debt repayments due within the following 12 months. Perhaps the most egregious example of financial mismanagement at Bury was the revelation that Stewart Day had recently borrowed an additional £3.7m, £1m of which was secured on the Gigg Lane ground with an eye-watering 138% annual interest rate.

There’s a whiff of regulatory neglect here as well. Under the EFL’s Salary Cost Management Protocol, only 60% of League One and 55% of a League Two club’s income can be spent on player wages. Whether that was enforced in the case of Bury seems highly questionable and, in any case there are plenty of workarounds. Transfer fees, for example, are not included in that capped amount.

And painful though it might be to acknowledge, supporters also have to take some responsibility. Constant calls for more ‘investment’, particularly on the playing side, and joy when an owner rocks up with big ambitions and what looks like an open chequebook, suggest that prudent financial management is a pretty low priority for the fan base. Wanting the best for your club is something all football fans share, but we sometimes need to take a long look in the mirror. We’re happy to call for higher expenditure but less keen to take responsibility when the wheels come off.

Here again, it’s down to the EFL to take the hard decisions that the fans are not in a position to do so. Even if that comes down to basically protecting them from themselves.

Blame it on Sky

A common refrain is that the TV companies have distorted football’s finances, to the detriment of the lower league clubs. When Sky paid a record £5.2bn for Premier League rights in 2015, it did indeed seem as if the rich were going to continue to get richer. So is it ‘wrong’ that TV revenues are hoarded by a relatively small group of clubs at the top of the game? It certainly makes me feel very uncomfortable, but the cold reality is that the TV companies are only doing what any businesses’ shareholders would demand, namely maximising their income. If that means showing the same small number of Premier League clubs repeatedly, that’s what they are obliged (by their owners) to do.

You could argue that when rights to show football in this country are auctioned, there should be a proviso that the winning bidder has to show a proper spread of games outside the top division. If that means that the rights go for a lower sum, depriving some of the top Premier League clubs of some revenue, then so be it. I for one think that would be a price well worth paying to funnel some cash to the lower divisions. But until that day comes, it would be futile to expect the TV companies to act against their own commercial interests.

Should the big clubs come to the rescue?

The other familiar argument is that the big boys – in the case of Bury, presumably Manchester United and Manchester City – should step in to save the club. Lovely though it sounds, this is another total non-starter.

For one thing, there are strict limits on clubs buying stakes in other Football League clubs. So that leaves a ‘donation’. But does anybody seriously expect the American owners of United or the Middle Eastern backers of City to put their hands in their pockets to rescue Bury? And would it be a one-off injection of funds or an ongoing commitment to keep the club alive? It’s a financial and ethical quagmire that no large club is going to step into.

Another question is where does the duty to save local clubs start and finish. If they save Bury, what about Bolton? Then what happens when Oldham or Rochdale or Wigan get into financial difficulties? Do Premier League clubs have an obligation to rescue lower league clubs within a certain radius of their ground? Thirty seconds thought is all that is needed to show that the whole big club rescue idea is a non-starter

As an aside, one irony of the Bury situation is that the main stand at Gigg Lane is named after Neville Neville, the father of Gary and Phil. That would be the same Gary and Phil Neville currently helping to bankroll our friends at Salford City. Why didn’t they choose to back their father’s club rather than the (then) little non-league club down the road from Old Trafford? Suddenly, this whole ‘they should do this or that’ thing starts to get very complicated, doesn’t it?

Bury could be only the first of many

If, as seems likely, Bury do face extinction in the very near future, they may not be the last. The basic economics facing EFL clubs are bleak.

The potential to increase revenues is very limited. Attendances, particularly in Leagues One and Two, are unlikely to rise meaningfully, regardless of individual club initiatives. English Football gates peaked in 1948 in a post-war Britain that didn’t exactly offer a feast of alternative recreational opportunities. In 2019, a myriad of other attractions compete for the public’s leisure time and money. Commercial revenues also have a ceiling on them. For example, just as newspapers have suffered from the rise of online advertising, so football clubs attracting only a few thousand fans will struggle to sell stadium, programme and shirt advertising to businesses that have so many alternatives.

If the upside for revenues is minimal, the only solution is to bring costs under control. That means putting the genie of wage inflation back in the bottle and, since individual clubs are powerless to change wage structures, that would require a concerted top-down effort by the EFL and Premier League. I’m not holding my breath.

History says clubs are living on borrowed time

What’s remarkable is not that some clubs will go under, it’s that many more have not done so already. Football clubs are extremely unusual animals in the overall business landscape. Many of them have been around for well over 100 years – Bury is 134 years old. Very few organisations in other business sectors have survived that long. How many companies from the 1880s are still in business today? Of the 100 UK companies in the FTSE stock market index as recently as 1984, only 24 were still alive in 2012.

Many football clubs are living on borrowed time. If they were ordinary businesses, a huge number would be extinct by now. They’re lucky that wealthy people who adopt a very hardheaded approach to their other businesses have, until now, taken a different attitude towards football clubs. They fund them and indulge a business model that they wouldn’t tolerate for their other ‘normal’ operations. How much longer that will continue is anyone’s guess.

To return to the Bury example, there are eight league clubs within 20-odd miles of Gigg Lane; Manchester United, Manchester City, Burnley, Blackburn, Bolton, Rochdale, Salford and Oldham. In business jargon, it’s a very crowded market, and in most other industries would be completely unsustainable.

The bottom line is that football clubs don’t have some divine right to exist, they don’t live in some parallel world where the normal laws of economics don’t apply, even though plenty behave as if they do and some have paid the price.

What can be done?

If nothing is done to address the underlying issues facing EFL clubs, Bury’s demise might be only the first of a tsunami of failures in the coming months. Unfortunately, action can only be taken at a national level, by the game’s governing bodies and even the government themselves.

There is a strong case to be made that football is a unique national ‘treasure’ and is such a part of our communal life and cultural landscape that it deserves special treatment. It is in many cases the only social glue that holds communities together, particularly in some of the poorer parts of the country. On that basis, some form of top-down intervention to restructure the game could certainly be justified. Without that, I’m afraid many clubs are facing a bleak future.

Extra Time: Crewe-sing to the top of the table

Last season we had to wait 12 games, nine whole agonising weeks, for Plymouth Argyle’s first league win. This year? 90 minutes. I know I know, it’s only one game, it’s a long season and we mustn’t get carried away. But who could begrudge long-suffering Argyle fans the chance to celebrate a 3-0 opening-day win away from home?

Argyle boasts a charismatic young manager, a run of quality signings, a new stand due to open in the autumn and a club that, in contrast to so many floundering peers, is on a firm financial footing. No wonder there has been a mood of optimism around Home Park in recent weeks.

There have been a few minor hiccups – pre-season friendly defeats to Truro City and Torquay – but at least there was no repeat of last season’s 5-1 thrashing at the hands of a Yeovil side that would go on to be relegated from the Football League. Overall, the events of the close season ensured that supporters went into the opening weekend with high hopes.

The ‘Ryan Lowe effect’ has been central to all this. People who knew him insist that behind Derek Adams’ slightly dour façade was a fundamentally decent man and there’s no reason to doubt that. However, it can’t be denied that Lowe’s chirpy Scouse persona is in stark contrast to his predecessor. The fact that it appears entirely genuine means that he won the affection of Argyle fans from the moment he walked into Home Park.

Lowe is a man who appears comfortable in his own skin, mingling with fans for a combined players/supporters team photo at the Spanish training camp and happy to pose for selfies outside Home Park. That might all sound a bit superficial, but make no mistake, these things do matter. Fans are more likely to make the effort to travel across the country to support a manager who seems genuinely in awe of their dedication. So when things go wrong during the season, as they inevitably will at some point, there’s a reservoir of good will to draw on.

The club’s efforts to engage with the fans, via open forums with the Chairman and new Chief Executive amongst other things, also appear to be paying dividends. The new culture of transparency and openness will go an awful long way with supporters. It’s clear that there is some savvy business thinking at work behind the scenes at Argyle these days. Paying a fee for Ryan Lowe’s services looks like a very good investment as it has secured the transfer of several members of a talented Bury squad who otherwise would not have considered continuing their footballing careers in the south west.

Speaking of away support, it was hugely impressive to see 1,600 Argyle fans – the best part of a third of the total crowd – making the 500 mile round trip to Crewe. The sight and sound of the Green Army dominating opposition stadia this season is likely to be a regular occurrence. Last season’s average League Two gate was around 4,500, about half that of League One. With the four top teams in terms of crowds – Lincoln, MK Dons, Notts County and Tranmere –all exiting the division last May, average attendances are likely to be lower this year. With the exception of Bradford, whose home gate averaged more than 16,000 last year, the Pilgrims will likely make up a significant percentage of the crowd at most away games.

Clichés about the importance of the ‘12th man’ slip off the tongue easily, but you have to think that having thousands of your own fans turn up at grounds all over the country must give the team a significant boost.

It’s worth putting the Argyle fan base in perspective. Look at Salford City – favourites to win League Two, marginally ahead of Argyle, Mansfield and Bradford. Salford, inevitably, were the Sky Sports pick for the first televised match of the season but for all the fuss, they only averaged home crowds of 2,500 last season, though they did draw 3,416 on Saturday. That’s still only two thirds of their capacity, disappointing considering it was the first Football League game in the club’s history.

It would be easy to resent the spotlight in which Salford find themselves as a result of their famous owners and substantial financial backing. Winning four promotions in five seasons probably doesn’t hurt either. But that shouldn’t bother us. That level of scrutiny can be a curse as well as a blessing so we should be happy to let them have the limelight for now.

As for the Crewe game itself, McFadzean, Palmer, Edwards and Joel Grant impressed the most. The third goal, with McFadzean scampering up field to overlap Mayor before slamming the ball into the top corner at an angle he had no right to overcome was pretty breathtaking. Yes, those were the dying moments of the game when Crewe were throwing everyone forward, but it surely epitomised the kind of buccaneering Ryan Lowe brand of football we were promised.

The midfield was probably the main area of weakness, with Mayor and Sarcevic not exerting the level of control we had hoped for. But that will surely come in time. The defence appears to have done a solid job and Palmer in goal was many observers’ man of the match. You can’t help feeling that we are a bit light at the back though, with the three amigos – Sawyer, Canavan and Wootton – the only group of players that were all at Home Park last season. Obviously the line-up will be bolstered when Aimson is fit, but there’s still a risk of being short there should injuries start to kick in.

And while the final ball appears to be problematic for the wingbacks, who are critical in Lowe’s system, (something that was certainly evident in the Bristol Rovers friendly) the general consensus is that they had a pretty decent game. Oh, and one of them scored two out of the three goals.

Meanwhile, we still haven’t seen Dom Telford in action and Jose Baxter remains a bit of an unknown quantity. By all accounts though he’s a prodigious talent whose career has gone off the rails somewhat. How exciting would it be to see him get back on track under Ryan Lowe? Overall, there’s a feeling of real anticipation when you look at this season’s squad and it’s going to be intriguing to see how it all shakes out over the course of the season.

Critics might say that the result flattered Argyle a bit and that Crewe really should have got at least one back. Looking at the highlights, they have a case. But the fact is, they didn’t. Last season was all about how Argyle should have won, should have held on to a lead, should’ve done this or that. Football is full of those kinds of moments. If the shoe is on the other foot this season and if Argyle get results that occasionally flatter the team, I’m not going to complain. Because if you achieve that all season, it’s not just ‘luck’.

And the fact is, that we’ve been told that Lowe’s attacking approach comes down to scoring more goals than the opposition. The bottom line is that we could have conceded two and Argyle would still have come away with all the points. I’ll take that all day long.

So it’s all systems go for the first home game next Saturday. We must surely be looking at a 10,000 plus crowd and we can only hope that Colchester United, used to playing in front of just 3,000, won’t know what’s hit them when they walk on to the pitch. There will be plenty of bumps along the road in the coming 45 games, but I for one am pretty excited about the season ahead.