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.

Levelling down: What’s wrong with the EFL wage caps

On 7th August, clubs in League One and League Two voted to introduce wage caps for the 2020/21 season. Player costs – including wages, bonuses (apart from cup and promotion-related bonuses), taxes and agents fees – will be capped at £1.5m per season in League Two and £2.5m in League One. Significant penalties will result from breaches of the limits.

Clubs also agreed to maximum 20-man squads, although there is no limit on the number of players under the age of 21 and their wages don’t count towards the cap. To give clubs time to adjust to the new regulations, squads of 22 will be allowed in 2020-21 in a transition season.

It appears that 22 of the 24 League Two clubs voted in favour of the cap, with Southend and Bradford the two dissenting voices. In League One, 16 were in favour, one abstained and seven voted against, including Ipswich, Sunderland, Portsmouth, Oxford and Peterborough. As for Argyle, while prudent financial management is at the heart of the club’s philosophy, it has previously expressed opposition to any wage cap that is not linked to income levels. It’s a fair bet then that Argyle also voted against the EFL proposal.

What does the cap mean for League One clubs?

Let’s focus on League One, since that’s where Argyle will play next season. The maths is pretty simple; for a 20-man squad, average wages for players aged over 21 must total no more than £125,000 a year to meet the £2.5m cap.

While it’s notoriously difficult to find out what clubs are actually paying their players at the moment, some snippets of information are available. Kieran Maguire, who teaches football finance at the University of Liverpool Management School and is regarded as something of a guru in the field, said in his recent book The Price of Football that average annual wages for League One players in 2018 were £164,000. He also published figures for the same year for some individual clubs. Given his reputation and connections, they are probably pretty reliable.

According to Maguire, Rochdale, Walsall, Shrewsbury, AFC Wimbledon and Blackpool had average player salaries of between £85,000 to £107,000 which would have brought them in under the new cap. MK Dons, Southend, Bristol Rovers, Portsmouth, Rotherham and Scunthorpe were paying an average of £145,00 to £160,000 which, depending on the mix of over and under-21s in the squad, would have made it marginal. Meanwhile, Charlton (£271,000), Wigan (£313,000) and Blackburn (£447,000) would have blown way through the new wage cap.

As for Argyle, in common with all others, the club does not publish the wages of individual players, or the average pay for the squad. However, the wage bill in 2018/19 for all staff – both playing and non-playing – was £5.5m, and it is highly likely that player wages accounted for more than £2.5m of that.

Clubs do have some near-term leeway to get their houses in order, with the EFL stating that: “Any contract entered into on or prior to today’s vote will be capped at an agreed divisional average until that contract expires.” Nevertheless, a lot of clubs are clearly going to be taking a long, hard look at their wage bills in the next 12 months.

A focus on wages was inevitable

EFL football finances are undoubtedly a mess, and Covid-19 has brutally exposed an existing problem. Too many clubs have been run in an unsustainable fashion, as expenditure has consistently outstripped income. With limited potential to increase revenues, and with wages the largest single component of expenditure, player costs were going to have to be tackled sooner or later.

It could be argued that the financial situation in Leagues One and Two is so dire that draconian measures are needed to prevent widespread bankruptcies. By setting a hard limit on wages, the caps will force the majority of clubs to cut their expenditure at a time when the outlook for revenues is highly uncertain. Argyle is probably fairly typical in deriving 42% of income from ticket sales, making the loss of all that cash through the pandemic hugely significant.

With no certainty on when fans will be allowed back onto the terraces, the EFL would argue that hard-and-fast guidelines are the only option as clubs cannot be trusted to limit spending voluntarily. If this measure means that, in the longer term, wages will come down to more realistic levels, helping clubs to become more sustainable, that’s obviously a good thing.

The exemption of under-21s from the cap should also offer more opportunities for younger players, as clubs will be incentivised to include more of them in the squad. It will probably open more doors for loan moves for those players, offering them proper game-time rather than simply bench-warming. On the flipside, players may come to regard an approaching 21st birthday with trepidation, as their clubs calculate whether they merit their squad places and the chunk of capped budget that their wages will now take up.

But wage caps have serious downsides

While there are certainly some merits to the salary caps, the negatives more than outweigh the positives.

 The biggest problem by far is that a simple wage limit ignores one of the most basic rules of financial life – matching expenditure to income. While It would be reckless for a club with an income of £2m to spend the full £2.5m on wages. for another club with income of £6m, a £4m wage bill would actually be far more prudent. The salary cap might limit the potential for vast over-spending, but it is certainly no guarantee of responsible financial management.

It is also demonstrably unfair to clubs that are doing the best job in developing their sustainable income base; by placing an absolute limit on wages, the salary cap punishes well-run clubs. Those that are successful in growing attendances, bringing in commercial income, developing a hospitality business and making money from identifying promising talent and selling it on at a profit, are being prevented from investing in the playing side of the business.

For the starkest demonstration of this, take a look at relative crowd sizes. Is it really fair that Sunderland, who attract around 30,000 supporters, should be forced to have the same salary budget as a club in the same division – Accrington Stanley – with average attendances below 3,000? What’s the incentive for clubs to build their income base if they can’t use it to bolster their most important asset – the playing squad?

The bottom line is that the EFL has decided to drag all clubs down to the same level because some can’t be trusted to operate responsibly, and because those who oversee the league have failed to intervene effectively when clubs have behaved recklessly. This is deeply unfair.

The playing field is uneven across the divisions

It doesn’t always feel like it, but one of the defining principles of English football is that the four top divisions are connected through a system of promotion and relegation. Since any team can move up to the higher levels, it is fundamental that all divisions should operate under the same rules. However, this ideal has just been shredded since no salary limits have been introduced in the Championship or Premier League.

With regard to the second tier, the EFL says that; Discussions continue with Championship Clubs in respect to amendments to their own financial controls’. So there is absolutely no guarantee that Championship clubs will vote to introduce similar rules, leading to the question of why the EFL has gone ahead with a salary cap for the third and fourth tiers regardless.

As for the Premier League, there is no potential for an absolute salary cap. FFP rules in place there, while far from perfect, do adhere to the principle that income and expenditure are linked, making the framework totally different to that for the bottom two tiers.

We now have a situation with three different sets of regulations across four divisions. The League One and Two wage cap blows a big hole in the idea that the leagues should operate on a level playing field.

The gap between the top and bottom two divisions will widen

The primary impact of this will be to further widen the gulf between the top and bottom two divisions. If no salary cap is introduced in the Championship, it will be almost impossible for a promoted League One club, having operated with a £2.5m annual wage cap, to compete in the Championship with clubs wielding budgets many times that figure. However active they might be in the transfer market before taking their place in the higher division, it will mean they are starting from a much weaker position.

Even if a salary cap is imposed in the Championship, the word is that it is likely to be set at £18-20m a year, vastly greater than the £2.5m League One limit. This potentially hands a big advantage to clubs relegated to League One from the Championship. According to the EFL statement, “Clubs that are relegated will be permitted to cap all contracts at the divisional average prior to the Club’s relegation until those contracts expire.” In other words, depending on the structure and timing of player contracts, a Championship club could be competing for at least a season in League One with a budget up to eight times that of other clubs in the division.

Inequality has always been part of the game of course, and Championship clubs often come down to League One with bloated budgets, especially the double-drop merchants still enjoying Premier League parachute payments. The difference with the new regulations is that by preventing existing League One clubs from spending more than £2.5m on wages to compete, it is cementing that inequality in law, giving relegated clubs a much greater chance of instantly bouncing back into the Championship.

It will also make it even less likely that lower league clubs will make meaningful progress in the League and FA Cups, further sanitising those competitions and ensuring that an ever-narrower selection of ‘usual suspects’ will lift the trophies.

Finally, without caps in the top two divisions, players in League Two and League One will become much cheaper in wage terms for Premier League and Championship clubs. In the future it will be even easier those clubs to pick off the best players from the bottom two divisions, and the lower league clubs will be powerless to prevent it.

So what should the EFL have done?

Of course, it’s easy to sit back and criticise. Accepting that financial sustainability is a pressing issue, what should the EFL have done instead?

Simple: link a club’s wage spending to its income. Limiting wages to a percentage of income would mean that that the more a club made from ticket sales, sponsorship and advertising etc. revenues, the more they could spend on player salaries. That’s pretty much the definition of sustainability.

Does that sound like a crazy idea? Well, actually, such a structure exists already; it’s called the Salary Cap Management Protocol (SCMP), and it’s the framework within which League One and Two clubs were supposed to be operating until last week. Under the SCMP, a League One club can only spend 60% of its normal income, which includes ticket sales, other matchday income, broadcasting and commercial revenue, plus 100% of any ‘fortune income (profits on transfers, prize money, parachute payments and equity investment by the club owner) on player wages.

While there were always clubs that tried to get around the controls, the classic scam being to generate funds by selling the stadium to the club’s owner for an inflated price, there’s no reason why it could not have been a workable solution. The EFL obviously embraced the idea of relating expenditure to income, or they would not have set up the SCMP in the first place. Replacing it with wage caps doesn’t mean they now think it was a bad idea, it’s just an admission that they have been unable to enforce the rules and have given up trying. Which is pretty shocking, really.

Football certainly does need to get its financial house in order, but salary caps are the wrong solution. While they might constrain excessive spending in the short term, they don’t tackle the root cause of the sport’s financial woes, namely the failure of clubs to cut their cloth according to their means. And they will also contribute to the widening gulf between the top and bottom two divisions in English football. How long before we see Premier League One and Premier League Two, with no promotion and relegation between them and the two lower divisions?

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: Does anyone still care about the FA Cup?

It’s FA Cup time again on Saturday as Argyle travel north to face Bolton Wanderers in the first round. A couple of months ago, when the financially stricken Wanderers were being routinely hammered by five or six goals (they conceded 20 in four consecutive games in August), this would have looked like a relatively easy fixture for the Greens.

However, Keith Hill’s arrival in the hot seat at the end of August has been a catalyst for a mini-revival, and Bolton are on a three game winning streak. They notched up two consecutive victories in the League against Bristol Rovers and Fleetwood Town either side of a win in the EFL Trophy against a team from the Manchester City crèche. So while the club is probably more concerned with moving their League One points total from a negative to a positive number, an FA Cup run would provide a nice little morale boost after a traumatic few months.

With Bolton struggling for League survival and Argyle focused on properly kick-starting their season, is the FA Cup just a distraction from the main event?

While it remains the country’s premier knockout competition, a common refrain is that the FA Cup doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Then again, since the peak crowd at an FA Cup final was way back in 1923 (126,047 officially, more than 200,000 unofficially, for Bolton v West Ham) some might say the competition has been on the slide for the last 96 years.

Seriously though – there’s no doubt that, since the 1980s, the FA Cup has come to occupy a less prominent place in the national football psyche. There are a couple of reasons for that.

Live football has reached saturation point

For one thing, back then there was so much less football on TV, and live games were particularly rare. The first live Football League match was shown in 1960, but there was a long gap until 1983 before that experiment was repeated. Other than that, only World Cup games and some European matches were shown as they happened.

So the fact that the FA Cup Final was shown live (for the first time as early as 1938) was a big deal for football supporters. Those of a certain age will recall being glued to their screens from early morning on Cup Final Saturday, as two of the nation’s three TV stations provided blanket coverage of the day’s events from about 9am. That sense that it was a truly national occasion was undoubtedly an extra incentive for teams to reach the final.

All that started to change in 1992, when Sky bought the rights to show live games in the newly formed Premier League. In 1995, they hoovered up the rights to the EFL and League Cup, then completed the set in 1999 with the Champions League. This has ultimately led to the situation we have today, with wall-to-wall live football available 24/7. It’s a long time since the FA Cup final had the cachet of being one of the very few live games broadcast on TV, and that has inevitably diminished its place in the nation’s affections.

Few clubs have a realistic chance of winning

Another factor in the Cup’s waning prominence is the widening gap between the top-flight clubs and the rest since the creation of the Premier League 27 years ago. In fact, it could be said that the narrowing of the pool of potential winners started a few years before that. While the FA Cup has been won by a team outside the top flight just eight times in its 147 year history, we have had a particularly long run of dominance by top tier clubs. Indeed, the last winner from the second division was West Ham, way back in 1980. In the 39 years since then, only 11 clubs have lifted the trophy.

The one-sided nature of the competition reached another level last season, pushing it down another notch in terms of its breadth of appeal. Not only did Manchester City’s 6-0 demolition of Watford make the final a colossal non-event, but also in the six games they played en route to winning the trophy, City scored 26 goals and conceded just three. Of course, the fact that at each stage, the draws threw up relatively easy competition for the country’s best-funded club helped a lot. But it did feel like a watershed event for football’s oldest competition.

So, if only 20 of the 736 teams that enter the competition have a realistic shot at winning it, why do fans of the other 97% of clubs care about it at all? The answer is the ultimate football cliché: ‘the magic of the cup’. The chance of a non-league or lower league club making it to the third or fourth round and drawing a Premier League giant.

It’s no surprise that those are the fixtures that make it onto TV. Who doesn’t want to watch Liverpool or Manchester City’s multi-millionaires lining up on a dodgy pitch against part-timers whose football ‘careers’ fit around day jobs as bricklayers or PE teachers?

A few years ago I handled the media relations for a non-league club that was drawn against League One opposition in the first round. And it’s true; the number one question I was asked by national newspapers and TV channels was “do any of your players have wacky jobs?”

Increasingly then, public interest in the competition peaks around the third and occasionally fourth rounds with the David v Goliath giant-killing stories, after which it’s pretty much a procession to decide which one of the five usual suspects will take their turn to lift the trophy.

All the same, most Argyle fans would admit that they want to see the team progress in the competition. Unfortunately, the recent FA Cup record has been mediocre at best. The Greens have only progressed to the third round of the FA Cup three times in the last 10 years, going out at that stage in each case. The recent highlight, of course, was the January 2017 third round clash with Liverpool, when Argyle held the Premier League club to a 0-0 draw at Anfield, earning a replay at Home Park that was decided in the Scousers’ favour by a single goal.

But the FA Cup can be lucrative

This brings us to the one way in which the FA Cup clearly still does matter to clubs at our level: money. There’s no question that an FA Cup run can be financially lucrative. Argyle’s 2016-17 FA Cup exploits brought in around £882,000, made up of £515,000 from ticket sales (thanks mainly to a total crowd of more than 72,000 for the two Liverpool games), £332,000 in TV income (the second round replay against Newport and both Liverpool games were shown live) and £35,000 in prize money for the first and second round wins.

While the financial boost was certainly welcome, it was essentially a one-off; there was no lasting uplift in home attendances at league games as a result of the Liverpool fixtures. True, the first home game after the FA Cup tie did see a crowd of 14,600 but that was the Devon Derby, which always attracts large numbers (including 1,500 Exeter fans). And better crowds towards the end of the season can almost certainly be put down to the fact that Argyle were closing in on promotion rather than to any lingering effect of the FA Cup run.

As for this season, the good news is that, should Argyle progress as far as the third round, that game would be played on 4th January, three days after the full opening of the new Mayflower stand. So, if we were to draw a Premier League club at Home Park, up to 18,200 tickets could be available.

Every silver lining has a cloud though, and unfortunately, unlike league games where all the ticket receipts are retained by the home club, in the FA Cup each team receives an equal 45% share. So a capacity attendance of 18,200 would only yield the same income as an 8,200 crowd for a home league game. The best financial outcome is therefore to be drawn away to a top tier team or – even better – to earn a replay and benefit from a capacity home crowd as well.

This all depends, quite literally, on the luck of the draw. And, of course, these points are all moot if Argyle can’t get past Bolton Wanderers on Saturday.


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: Show me the money!

Earlier this year Argyle owner and Chairman, Simon Hallett, announced plans to change the club’s financial year end to June (the usual practice in football to align with the timing of the season) and to publish much more comprehensive financial data starting in 2020. However, the club has gone a step further and last week released income and expenditure figures for each of the last three seasons that are more detailed than those provided by virtually every other EFL club.

At the same time, the club announced that the Chairman has converted his £4.1m loan for the refurbishment of the Mayflower grandstand into shares. The impact of this is twofold. First, unlike debt, share capital never has to be repaid. Secondly, there are no interest payments to be made. That represents a significant strengthening of the club’s financial position.

Both moves are, of course, highly positive. This level of financial disclosure is rare in football, which is odd really, since transparency debunks some of the myths around team finances, not least by showing that EFL clubs devour capital rather than lining their owner’s pockets.

The detailed figures make interesting reading and below we try to extract some insights into the financial realities of running Plymouth Argyle.

Argyle is loss-making overall

The Chairman has always said that Argyle is a loss-making business. Over the last three seasons as a whole, the club was in the red by just over £1m. Losses of £1.5m last season and just under £300,000 in 2017/18 were partly offset by a £722,000 surplus in 2016/17. However, that profit was only because ticket sales and TV revenues from the FA Cup run – especially the two Liverpool fixtures – generated almost £850,000. Without that, the club would have made a loss (of around £125,000) in that year as well.

The reason for ongoing losses is clear; stagnant income and rising costs.

Income has been flat over the last three seasons

Income in 2018/19, at around £6.4m, is 4% lower than in 2016/17. The four core elements of income are home ticket sales, ‘football income’, commercial revenue and ‘fortune’ income. Here’s what they look like:

  • Ticket sales are the largest single contributor (around 42% of the total) at around £2.6m to £2.8m for the last three seasons.
  • The next largest component, ranging from £1.7m to £2.1m (25-34% of income) over the last three years, is ‘football income’. That’s basically the central payments from the EFL and the Premier League Solidarity Payments, the amount varying depending on which league the team is playing in.
  • Commercial income – a mixture of advertising & sponsorship, club shop & programme sales, and catering – is around £1.3m (21% of the total).
  • ‘Fortune’ income is the revenue from two sources: transfer proceeds and money from Cup runs and associated TV payments. It is volatile and unpredictable, ranging from £1.4m in 2016/17 to £224,000 in 2017/18 and £501,000 in 2018/19, and can be the difference between the club making a profit or a loss.

But costs have been rising

While income has been flat, over the last three seasons the annual cost of running Argyle rose by almost a third to £7.8m. Expenditure is broken down into general running costs and wages.

  • The club has done a good job of controlling running costs – stadium upkeep, administrative and football costs (match day costs, travel expenses etc.) – which have remained constant at about £2.1m per season.
  • Which means that the overall increase in costs is down to higher wages; the salary bill grew by 55% (almost £2m) from £3.6m in 2016/17 to £5.5m in 2018/19. The majority of that increase will have been spent on the players’ wage budget.

Surprise, surprise: running a football club is very difficult

The core goals of all businesses are to increase revenues and minimise costs. Owners also need to be able to make reliable forecasts on both to enable forward planning. All of these are problematic in football.

For one thing, some key elements of income can’t be accurately forecast.

Revenue from Cup runs and associated TV income is impossible to predict. Not only because of the uncertainty around performance on the pitch but also because it depends on pure chance. In the FA and Carabao Cups, the name of the opposition club drawn out of the bag and whether it’s a home or away fixture can be the difference between earning a few thousand and hundreds-of-thousands from a fixture.

While we’re on the subject of cup runs, the release of these financial figures should finally put to rest the nonsensical argument that the ‘windfall’ from the Liverpool FA Cup games has somehow been siphoned off, when it has actually just gone back into the pot to run the club and keep the red ink at bay.

Transfer income is equally random. How many would have predicted a half-a-million pound bid by Rotherham for Freddie Ladapo last summer?

Finally, even central payments from the EFL and Premier League can’t be relied upon, as they are dependent on the League in which the team finds itself. Last season’s relegation which, lest we forget came on the back of the finest of margins, means that Argyle’s revenue from that source drops by £420,000 this year.

Running a football club must come with a large dollop of frustration and feelings that it’s a case of one step forward, one step back. The number of unpredictable factors makes financial planning extremely difficult, meaning that the only sensible course of action is prudence on the expenditure side.

Wages are the main cost, unsurprisingly

Speaking of which, although the club can manage the day-to-day running costs to a large extent, rising wages across the game as a whole are largely out of the club’s control. Since wages account for 70% of expenditure, again, a significant part of the profit and loss account is at least partly subject to market forces.

Sticking with wages for a moment, the figures also give the lie to the idea that Argyle has been excessively stingy in the last couple of years, exhibiting a ‘lack of ambition’ on the pitch. In fact, wages have risen substantially in the last three seasons, from 53% to 86% of income. While this is far from the highest in the EFL – many clubs are spending more than 100% of turnover on wages – only the most reckless would suggest that Argyle should emulate the clubs gambling their long-term future by stuffing the team with high priced talent and rolling the dice (Bury FC, anybody?).

Another common view is that the club under-spends on players relative to the crowds it attracts. Argyle is very fortunate to enjoy top two or three average attendances in the Leagues in which it competes, but ticket revenues still cover only a third of the club’s total expenditure. The harsh reality is that ticket sales are still nowhere near sufficient to fund extravagant spending on transfers and wages.

Reasons to be cheerful

That all sounds a bit gloomy, but in fact there is every reason to be positive about Argyle’s financial future:

1. Gates have held up and the new Mayflower is a big opportunity

The good news is that the outlook for the largest contributor to total income, ticket sales, is positive.

First, despite relegation, the average attendance so far is almost identical to that for the whole of last season at 9,860. Admittedly we’re only five league home games in and crowds have tailed off a little since the start of the season, dipping below 9,000 for the visit of Cheltenham. But compared to 2011/12, the last time Argyle dropped into the bottom tier, when the average gate plummeted to 6,915, the picture is much rosier. The Ryan Lowe effect certainly helped to shift season tickets in the summer, with the club reporting in mid June that 5,500 had already been sold.

And we are, of course, looking at a 50% increase in capacity, to around 18,000 when the new Mayflower Stand opens at the end of the year. Bigger crowds are the most obvious route to higher sustainable revenues for the club since, aside from some additional policing and stewarding costs, most of the money spent on those additional tickets represents extra profit for the club.

Of course, boosting attendance is easier said than done. The most common idea is to cut ticket prices on the assumption that demand will rise as prices fall – a theory known as price elasticity of demand. In plain English, if you cut the price of something, you will sell more of it and vice versa. So halve ticket prices and attendances will double from the current 9,000 odd to the 18,000 new capacity. Total ticket income would be the same but you’d have more fans, creating a better atmosphere and selling more shirts, programmes and pints of beer. In theory.

This is the model that Bradford City tried, but results have been mixed at best. After slashing prices to £150 for an ‘Early Bird’ season ticket for the 2015/16 season, the average attendance rose from around 13,300 the previous year to 18,100. However, since then, average gates have fallen to the point where home crowds are running at around 14,100 this year, even though season tickets were still priced at that £150 level. Financially the club is almost certainly worse off and they have now painted themselves into a corner to the extent that it’s much more difficult to get fans to accept higher prices, even if the club’s financial position demands it.

I seriously doubt that such a strategy is under consideration at Home Park. However, it would be surprising if the club wasn’t devoting considerable energies to finding ways to take advantage of Home Park’s increased capacity and get more bums on seats after Christmas. Expect some imaginative marketing schemes to bring in new faces to experience an Argyle game in the coming months.

2. Season ticket sales have risen substantially

Season tickets are an area where the club has made significant progress already. Annual season ticket revenue has increased by almost £600,000 since 2016/17 and the balance between season ticket holders and those who buy tickets for individual games has shifted significantly in favour of the former. On average, season tickets now account for 61% of the revenue for each home game, up from 41% three years ago.

While the per match revenue from season ticket holders is lower than for tickets bought for individual games, that is more than offset by the cash flow benefits of the up-front season purchases in the summer. And season ticket holders tend to be more loyal of course. Indeed, the fans deserve credit for showing their support by buying season tickets that are priced at the high end of the range for the division.

3. Yield per spectator has risen

Despite season tickets offering a cheaper per game price, the yield per spectator – calculated as the income from home games (season tickets plus individual game tickets) divided by the total attendance at home league games over the season – has actually been rising. It’s up almost 15% since 2016/17 season, from £8.98 to £10.30 in 2018/19.

This statistic might seems a bit obscure, but is actually critical for the long-term success of a business such as football which, like airlines, is about selling seats without pricing tickets too cheaply (so missing out on revenue) or too expensively (deterring customers). The data suggests that Argyle has been doing a pretty good job in this area.

As a side note, that £10.30 per game yield probably seems low compared to the price of individual tickets or the per game cost of a season ticket. However, it should be remembered that a good percentage of tickets sold are concessions and also that 20% of the cost of each ticket goes to the government in the form of VAT.

4. Increased commercial income potential from the Mayflower

The redevelopment of Home Park last season and into this has reduced commercial income and has also increased costs in some areas (the provision of temporary changing rooms and staff office space for example).

The old grandstand produced revenue through supporters paying for a premium match day experience and by attracting sponsorship. For example, tickets could be purchased for the Tribute Lounge, while businesses would buy match-day sponsorship packages. The redevelopment meant that match day hospitality was shifted to alternative venues such as the Life Centre and a local hotel, but this incurred extra costs and deterred potential attendees.

The opening of the new Mayflower is a big opportunity to boost revenue. The premium experience is likely to be considerably more attractive and the club will now be able to generate income outside match days through conference and hospitality facilities. It will be tough for Argyle to replicate the success of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park, but there is nevertheless considerable potential for developing a long term, stable revenue source.

Overall then, there are clear avenues for the club to gradually increase its income in the coming seasons.

Argyle is in good hands

It’s easy to get depressed looking at football finances, but Argyle is actually in a very sound position compared to most other EFL clubs. Virtually debt-free and with stable ownership, Argyle is also unburdened by the property development shenanigans, webs of cross-shareholdings, inter-company loans and holding company trickery that bedevil so many other clubs.

But it’s also important to appreciate that the nature of football finances drives the business philosophy of the owner. Recognising that there are large areas of revenue outside the club’s immediate control and in the face of constant wage pressure, Simon Hallett will continue to run the club on prudent lines. The central concern is to ensure that Argyle is still playing football in five, ten, fifty years time, surviving when he is no longer around to inject funds into the club. The only sure-fire way to do that is to achieve a long-term balance between costs and income.

That will not always sit well with fans. Justifiable caution will occasionally be seen as a lack of ambition and some will yearn for extravagant spending in pursuit of promotions and trophies, even at the risk of the viability of the entire club. Once again, sadly, we have to point to the example of Bury as the reason why this will not, and should not, happen down here.

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.