The following is a guest contribution by Gordon Sparks, who has been broadcasting Plymouth Argyle’s matches for thirty years. Gordon’s been an on-air presenter with the BBC since 2001, and has been in radio since his teenage years in the late 1970s. He calls an excellent match, and more than once I’ve referred to him as Plymouth’s Dave Niehaus. I’ve known him since the first time he had me on his BBC Radio Devon show six or eight years ago. That interview was about some US election, so I came prepared for what I thought was any possible question on that election. Imagine my surprise when the final question was about who I liked for the AFC Championship Game that year (and the two or three seconds of dead air it took me to come up with something). When he’s not calling Argyle matches, you can catch him on Radio Devon at the agreeable time of 05:00 – 06:30.
It is an honour to be asked to make a guest contribution – and I must first apologise to all Americans reading this for my English spelling of ‘honor’ and ‘apologize’. But hopefully, if you stick with my quaint English language as I attempt to prove my knowledge of American sports – but in doing so making one or two comparisons. So, in a blatant undertaking to court controversy, I shall deliver a few home truths to followers of American football, baseball and basketball. You don’t know how lucky you are!
This isn’t going to be one of those ill-informed English guys spouting off about baseball being a game similar to ’rounders’, a game played by English schoolgirls – the only difference being that in baseball the men wear trousers. Nor will it be a rant about why American footballers wear all that padding (as opposed to our butch rugby players); or why an NFL game is stop-start taking three-and-a-half hours to play 60 minutes. I am a convert to American sports. Honestly. I have all the sports channels available and an avid fan of a particular NFL team (more of which I will discuss if permitted to come back here for a second edition).
Why do I think you are lucky?
Let’s paint a scenario. Your team suffers a heartbreak season. The coach has lost the plot and tactically forgot how the game should be played. Star players have left the team, going for bigger money or the potential of success elsewhere. The ‘loss’ column far outweighs the ‘win’ list. It has been a season to forget.
But there is hope.
The owner of the club can rebuild by hiring a new coach and acquiring new players. The same, of course, can happen with English sports clubs .. but here’s the big thing …
Your team will begin the next season as if nothing has happened. You can forget that in the previous campaign your highly-paid superstars failed to deliver and did not make the end-of-season play-offs. Those recent memories can be consigned to the record books and fans will arrive at Game One of the new season with all the excitement and anticipation of what success could be delivered. At Game One, every team is once again on an even keel. Competition will be as fierce as ever with divisional rivalries renewed.
Part of my professional duty is that of a football (soccer) commentator (play caller). Each week, I follow one team – Plymouth Argyle. Home or away, it matters not, my travelling studio goes with me and it is my responsibility to describe everything that happens on the pitch. In many ways, it is a labour of love as Plymouth Argyle is my chosen team. My home town club. The club in which my father gave many years of his life as a shareholder and vice-president.
This coming season, ‘The Pilgrims’ will play against local rivals Exeter City as well as going to such football coldbeds as Accrington, Morecambe, Hartlepool and Cheltenham. No disrespect is meant to those aforementioned places – they are a joy to visit and have good people running their clubs. But to any Americans reading, I wonder how many are familiar with those names.
Just a few years ago, Plymouth Argyle were playing against far bigger clubs such as Queen’s Park Rangers, Leicester City, Swansea City and Crystal Palace – all four of which are now proudly members of the English Premier League. [DB: and don’t forget Newcastle United, who both earned promotion to the Premier League and relegated Plymouth from the Championship in one match at Home Park four seasons ago]. Why the exchange of the comfortable seat and glorious elevated view of a perfect playing surface at Leicester, for the windswept position on a wooden seat at Morecambe?
If the club fails to deliver and finishes in the bottom places of the division, it is relegated. Dumped. Shamed. Ridiculed. That failure means dropping down to a lower tier for the next season to play against lesser teams. Attendances at games will suffer. There will be less TV revenue. Less advertising and commercial revenue. When a club gets hit by relegation it is not easy to finish in the top places of the lower division to reclaim its’ higher status.
How do I know all this?
Plymouth Argyle enjoyed six years in The Championship which is just one division lower than The Premier League. At the end of the 2009-10 season the club was relegated to League One. Three clubs were relegated and Argyle finished second from bottom of the 24 teams. The following year was also a disaster with relegation again after finishing bottom. This time to League Two. The 2011-12 season was another gargantuan struggle finishing 21st out of 24 and narrowly avoiding a third relegation — this time to The Conference, non Football League status. For the record, 2012-13 matched the finishing position of the previous year.
Imagine my angst. For a club in League Two, attendances were healthy in comparison to many other clubs, and many hundred Argyle fans travelled to each and every away game. Plymouth is a south-westerly outpost on the map of England. The endurance of Argyle fans has been remarkable. In the season just finished, the club fared better. But a finishing position of 10th was still some way short of winning promotion.
Before you shed any tears for the heartache felt by fans of Plymouth Argyle over recent years, that is just the start.
There have been financial problems. So much so that the club was entered into administration. A new owner was found when the club was close to going out of business. Things were so desperate that fans rallied around during an extended period when players and club staff were not being paid. In a few short years, Plymouth Argyle went from a club playing in some of the finest stadiums in the land to being a charity case. Buckets and collecting tins were rattled as fans put on events to keep the club as a going concern. Many of the players could have walked away. One did. To provide another example of how bad things were, one member of staff could not eat, existing on cans of energy drinks each day. He moved back to his parents’ house having given up his own property because he couldn’t keep up the payments on it.
During the ungracious fall from The Championship, many of the bigger names of the playing staff did move on to other clubs, but we will enter the 2014-15 season with the rejuvenated hope that rears its’ head each year. Could this be the season of hope? Will promotion be the reward after an autumn, winter and spring of 46 matches?
Has such a series of events ever occurred with any American sports team? Your NFL team may have an 0-16 record next season. Yes, it will hurt at the time. But you have the assurance that whatever happens, your divisional rivalries are safe, as are millions in TV and sponsorship revenue. Most important of all, the price of failure does not include losing the right to play at the top table again the following year.
Again, I shall repeat. I AM a fan of American sports.
But, American sport lives in a perfect world protected by a foam jacket that ensures your team will never fall from grace, always able to have big earners on the roster in sell-out stadiums. What more could you ask for?
Unless your team owner decides to move everything lock, stock and barrel.
That’s one thing I can guarantee for my team (finances permitting): Plymouth Argyle will never become London Argyle, Manchester Argyle or Birmingham Argyle.
God bless football! Sorry …. soccer.