Pilgrims protest as Christmas is cancelled
A year ago yesterday, Plymouth Argyle's board of directors gathered to discuss a new five-year plan for the club.
Twelve months on, the Pilgrims should have planning permission for a 46,000-seat stadium, a settled squad of committed players, a growing fan-base here and abroad, the Premier League in their sights and all the benefits of a "sound financial footing".
How's that working out?
Erm...well, the club is haemorrhaging cash and cannot pay its staff or taxes. The stadium plans are in disarray, attendances are falling and the squad is overpaid and under-performing. Oh, and they were relegated to League One in May and face an HM Revenue and Customs winding-up order in February. If this was Stalin's five-year plan he'd be calling for the firing squad.
And yet Home Park seems strangely becalmed. Not a peep has been heard from Argyle's Japanese majority shareholder Yasuaki Kagami, club chairman Sir Roy Gardner hasn't shown his face for months (he's been busy elsewhere) and the club's five other board members appear to have lost their voices too, at least in terms of going on the record. I have tried!
Meanwhile, the club's 125 employees are wondering if they'll see their December wages (or the rest of November's, for that matter) and manager Peter Reid is paying for the heating out of his own pocket.
Whether the directors are embarrassed, in denial or out of their depth, the conclusion is the same: the Pilgrims are floundering and if things don't change fast we could be looking at English professional football's first liquidation since 1992.
Happier times at Plymouth Argyle but Home Park crowds have been falling since 2005
I should pause there for a moment and let that sink in.
A large part of this job is selling stories internally, convincing the boss that this tale or that one is going to be a blockbuster. But the flipside is when you have to pour water on an excitable editor's desire for a new line.
Over the years, football's numerous scrapes with insolvency have fallen into the latter category. For almost two decades club after club has thrown itself at the mercy of Companies Court, only to be rescued by at last minute by a white knight or the stubborn refusal of their fans to let a community asset die.
I fervently hope one or perhaps both of those scenarios are still possible for a Devon institution now 124 years old, I just worry that a lethal combination of absence, complacency and incompetence could be the undoing of a club that only two years ago was reflecting on its seventh straight season of progress up the league ladder.
So what happened?
Like most tales of decline, there are as many different starting points as there are people to talk to about this - over the last fortnight I've had at least a dozen conversations with people connected to the club and I've heard a dozen different "something changed" anecdotes. Football clubs are the exception to the old maxim about success having many fathers and failure being an orphan.
But in the interest of brevity (and wanting to save something for future pieces on what will be a developing story over the next month) I will focus on the most fundamental causes for Argyle's predicament.
The first is that old favourite: hope. The upswing in Argyle's fortunes that started under Paul Sturrock's managerial reign in 2000, continued for most of the next eight years. During that time the club claimed two league titles and consolidated itself in the Championship. That brought the tantalising prospect of a first promotion to the top flight within touching distance.
Less fashionable clubs, with smaller crowds, have been promoted to the Premier League, but not many. The departure of managers like Sturrock, Tony Pulis and Ian Holloway, all hinted at a fundamental problem with the club's ability to finance a genuine tilt at promotion.
This problem spawned the next one: a series of ill-considered attempts to transform the business.
The by now traditional search for a foreign sugar daddy was too hastily conducted and then shoddily implemented. This eventually resulted in Argyle being left with a majority shareholder, the lesser-spotted Kagami, who appears to know nothing about English football or Plymouth. He's probably none too pleased either as he was sold an unlikely dream: a Premier League shop window for Japanese fans and players.
But even more damaging than selling to an absentee landlord was the decision to enter the property development business. I can count on one hand the number of times this has gone well for a football team.
I won't dwell too long on the board's attempts to transform Home Park into the South West's answer to Cowboys Stadium (although I'm happy to discuss it further below) but they have much in common with the bigger project they were so closely connected to, England's bid to host the 2018 World Cup: doomed and expensive.
The driving forces behind this were the aforementioned Gardner, a former chairman of the pre-Glazer Manchester United plc, and Keith Todd. Neither has exactly covered himself in glory since teaming up with Kagami to take a controlling 51% share of the club in 2009 but they have busied themselves with setting up spin-off companies to take advantage of the new and improved Home Park, should that white elephant ever clamber off the drawing board.
Argyle legends David Friio and Paul Sturrock parade the 2002 Division Three trophy
Unfortunately, you can also add all the other usual mistakes to the Argyle charge sheet: a rapid turnover in the dug-out, dubious decisions in the transfer market and a Pompey-esque approach to remuneration. Argyle tick almost every crisis club box.
So let's recap. The Pilgrims are burning money (Championship wages on mediocre League One gates), they have borrowed cash on a flawed redevelopment plan, the existing directors appear to have had enough (or have no more to give) and football's white knight factory isn't as productive as it once was. And everything, and I mean everything, is mortgaged already.
It won't be enough on its own, though, and with the club due back in court on 12 January to face another winding-up petition from the taxman - this time for an unpaid bill by the club's parent company - I only hope it is not too late.
Quite simply, the club has about a month to find £4m or so in ready cash to pay off their tax bill, service their debts and get them through to the summer. If that can be achieved, the wage bill will then have to be slashed by about 70% to make the club self-sufficient once more.
The scary thing is that nobody is talking about administration as a serious option. Who would fund it? How much money could an administrator extract from the business to meet current liabilities? There are only so many times you can sell Bradley Wright-Phillips and Craig Noone.
It's not like the board weren't warned, it is right there in their most recent accounts: "Current liabilities exceed current assets by £3.1m...these conditions indicate a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt over the company's ability to continue."
So I'm sorry to spoil everybody's Christmas but what's happening at Argyle is an outrage and everybody involved in football in this country should feel angry about it.