Is FIFA’s monetary decision the final nail in a venerable English football club’s coffin?

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The widespread angst caused by FIFA overlooking England's World Cup bid was felt most keenly in a distant corner of the countrym, says Terry Pierce...

Wednesday saw a repeat of an all-too-frequent occurrence as another Football League club had a date with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in the High Court. Plymouth Argyle, like Sheffield Wednesday not long before them, were facing a winding-up petition over a tax debt. Argyle owe HMRC £760,000 and have been given 63 days to come up with the cash.

The club were initially presented with the petition on October 23, after which their bank accounts were frozen, resulting in the non-payment of wages to players and all other staff. The Devon side’s directors are fully confident that a combination of new investment and the sale of their top players in January will enable them to raise the funds and survive the latest scrape, while they are also seeking a validation order to un-freeze the club accounts, enabling the payment of wages to resume.

But the future of the League One side still looks bleak, especially when compared to the excitement and hope the club were enjoying as part of England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Plymouth was one of 12 cities bidding for the right to be a host city had England’s bid been successful. Home Park, Argyle’s home since 1901, would have been in line for major redevelopment and the club and city would only have benefitted had FIFA’s Executive Committee members awarded the World Cup to England.

"It doesn't look like anyone's coming...."

The main focus of Plymouth’s bid centred on the fantastic effect the World Cup would have on the city, South Devon, Cornwall and the South-West region as a whole. The potential of the club and the region is often spoke about with great positivity. There are only a handful of professional sides in Devon while Cornwall has never had a club in the Football League, and a successful World Cup bid would have aided Argyle in attracting a larger section of the regional community.

It was hoped that the bid would bring huge financial and cultural benefits to the region, and that the club would be able to improve its fanbase by attracting new fans from the substantial catchment area it lies within. Home Park would also have been completely redeveloped, with the new stadium having a capacity twice that of the current ground, giving the club, city and region a world-class facility.

Traditionally yo-yoing between the second and third tiers of the Football League, the Pilgrims have reached both the League Cup and FA Cup semi-finals but enjoyed arguably their greatest recent period at the beginning of the last decade. Under the guidance of former Scotland international Paul Sturrock and then fellow Scot Bobby Williamson, they celebrated two promotions in three years, taking them from the bottom division to the Championship.

Happier times for the Pilgrims

A combination of a redeveloped Home Park and success on the pitch saw crowds rise sharply, and it looked only a matter of time before top-flight football visited Devon for the first time. The club went on to flirt with the Championship play-offs under Ian Holloway before Sturrock returned and, in 2008, took them to tenth in the second tier, the club’s best league finish for over 20 years.

With the side doing so well on the pitch and crowds soaring, the future looked bright for the Pilgrims and got so much brighter when they became a bidding city for the World Cup bid. But unfortunately on-field success came at a cost as the financial difficulties began to mount. Many of Argyle’s better players moved on and last year the club returned to League One. Crowds are plummeting, with fewer than 5,000 attending the recent home fixture with Dagenham and Redbridge. Under new manager Peter Reid, the few who are still in attendance seem to have another relegation battle to endure.

And now the one great hope, the silver lining among the rapidly darkening grey clouds, has been extinguished by FIFA.

The World Cup coming to the South-West would have been a huge boost for the region, and the legacy of investment in local business and sport would have improved the sporting landscape of Devon. And it would have secured the future of Plymouth Argyle, a proud club with fiercely loyal fans who deserve the hope hosting the World Cup would have given them.

However, the decision of Sepp Blatter & Co, in their infinite wisdom, to ignore the technical reports and pitches and award the right to host the 2018 World Cup to Russia has not only dashed the excitement of English football fans across the country, but even called into doubt the very existence of Plymouth Argyle, a club rich in tradition and history.

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