Former property banker James Brent had not been to a football game for 23 years when he became the owner of Plymouth Argyle FC. David Hatcher accompanied him to a match. Photographs by Stephen Parker
He’s rich, he’s thin, he’s Harry Potter’s twin.’ That’s what they used to sing when I first came in. ‘But Daddy, you’re fat,’ my children pointed out,” jokes James Brent.
Brent is the UK’s most unlikely football club owner. The former global head of real estate investment banking at Citi had only been to three games in his life — and none in the 23 years before buying his local team, Plymouth Argyle Football Club, nicknamed the “Pilgrims”, in October.
He took ownership more or less by accident.
In a philanthropic gesture, Brent’s Akkeron Group agreed to underwrite Plymouth’s debts while the financially crippled club was being sold by its administrator, to avoid it being liquidated. In the absence of an appropriate buyer coming forward, Brent became owner by default.
His ownership meant he took on, and subsequently cleared, a £2.1m mortgage on the League Two club’s Home Park stadium from Lombard Bank, and four further mortgages. Players and staff, who had not been paid in full for 10 months — and for whom bread collections were made as it was not possible for them to claim benefits — were also honoured.
The stadium was sold to the council and a sale-and-leaseback deal was agreed.
When Brent left Citi, he made the conscious decision that he wanted to do something positive for his local community in Devon. After stepping in to save jobs and a passionately support a 126-year-old club that would otherwise have been wound up, he could be considered the poster boy for the bankers that have been bashed so ferociously since the onset of the financial crisis.
But he has also entered into an awkward-looking marriage — one with which he is only gradually coming to terms.
“I never watched football on TV before, but now I do. Plus, the kids like it on and now I realise it can actually be quite a pretty game,” he says, sipping a glass of red wine in the club’s boardroom before the Pilgrims’ league match against high-flying Crawley Town. He is surrounded by a contingent of five children — some his, some those of friends.
The tired boardroom is accessed through the gangways of milling supporters, slurping tea and munching pasties while they catch up over the previous fortnight’s events since the last home match. The Mayflower Grandstand in which it sits, where the smell of Deep Heat lingers from down the players’ tunnel, is to undergo much-needed redevelopment following the takeover.
It is a far cry from the Premier League grounds to which invitations are lavished on high-level bankers — and which Brent must frequently have turned down. But for Brent, a change of direction was long overdue.
“I came into banking at the age of 17 at Schroders, as assistant cashier [Schroders’ investment banking arm was bought by Citi in 2000], purely to get three years of experience of merchant banking before going out and getting involved in enterprise.
“Suddenly, I found myself 26 years later still in investment banking. It became clear to me in summer 2007 that the market was going to go through a correction and that it would be a good time to leave. It felt like something I had postponed for 23 years,” he says.
After spotting the trend, Brent handed in his notice in February 2008, but agreed to retain his stock and work part time, before cashing in a year later. However, calling the market was a pyrrhic victory, as he describes it, because during that period the value of his shares fell by more than 50%.
He set up Akkeron Group, and investments were made into the immature farming sector in Romania, the suppressed UK regional hotel market and a surf-wear business called Saltrock based in Braunton in north Devon (“It was having trouble and employed 85 people. I knew the father-in-law of the chief executive, who persuaded me to give some counsel, and it was going bust so I bought it … It’s great fun”).
The same month he left Citi, he became chairman of Plymouth City Development Company, an inward-investment agency.
“As I was coming out of Citi, I was keen to give back something to the community and I was keen for that, at least in part, to be local,” he says.
Ultimately, the experience was not fruitful. Its closure was announced in August 2010, when it became clear the new coalition government was about to embark on its “bonfire of the quangos”.
“They had enough money for an executive team, but everything else had to begged, borrowed or stolen from other public sector bodies,” he recalls.
But Brent was determined to have a positive influence on the West Country.
“I had formed good relationships with the public sector down here. I said that if there was anything I could help with, they should let me know.”
Although uncertain at first, ultimately Brent could not have ended up being more committed to the cause — albeit one entirely foreign to him.
“I had a call from the council saying there was a problem with the club, and they asked if I could help.
“I knew nothing about football and had never watched the sport, so I wasn’t able to get involved. I had literally no idea what the offside rule was, or who Messi was,” he says.
As time ticked by towards the club’s winding-up order deadline on 31 October, the situation became more desperate, and Brent softened.
“It became clear the club was going bust and, if the administrators didn’t have confidence there would be an outcome, then they would liquidate it. I said I would work with the council and underwrite the process. They messed around with a number of people who, frankly, in my view, were never going to buy. Our underwrite was hit very late in the day, and we ended up buying the club on 31 October.”
And just like that, Brent, entirely oblivious to football for the past 23 years, owned a football club.
“As I spent more time on it, and we put a team in it to understand the process, I got very enthusiastic about it. When I thought an Irish consortium was going to buy it, I was actually quite disappointed.”
Brent’s property expertise will help to rejuvenate the club, as the redevelopment of the Mayflower Grandstand will be partly funded through the development of a low-density, sports-related leisure scheme that has been outlined in the city council’s area action plan. But Brent says it is nowhere near enough to show a profit on his investment.
“I had a huge number of calls from the real estate market, surprised that I had done the deal. Everyone believed it was a property deal with a football club attached. There is a transaction to be done here, but not one to justify buying the club,” he says.
At 2.50 pm he is whisked away by security to the Devonport end, where the most vocal supporters sit. The shunning of the directors’ box appears to be a show of solidarity. He is quickly recognised by the green army, who show appreciation of their saviour.
“There’s only one James Brent, one James Breeeeent …” they chant.
Draped in the green and black scarf of the green army “ultras”, Brent appears to be in the process of becoming a fan, not just a donor.
s the game starts, the supporters become more eager to engage. Although he is oblivious to the fans’ pleas of “Brent, give us a song”, he does acknowledge them with a wave.
He is sitting in front of what is probably the single most animated fan in the whole ground — who regularly jostles him. But Brent is not concerned, as he is absorbed in the match. His ears prick up when the chant “stand up if you love the greens” resonates from the crowd, and he is up out of his seat like a shot.
The Plymouth players are passing the ball around crisply but have no luck penetrating the cast-iron Crawley defence. After 45 minutes on level pegging, Plymouth concede an injury-time sucker punch from a set piece.
Pain and glory
“The only business that has ever woken me up in the middle of the night has been football,” Brent says, as he migrates back to the directors’ lounge.
“At the end of every month I used to receive a very decent salary cheque. But now at the end of the month I need to find £3m to pay everyone — actually £5m — so it changes the dynamic.”
His insomnia has not been without end product. The club was eight points adrift at the bottom of the table when the takeover was completed, and
the Football Association had barred it from signing new players because of its financial situation. Since then, new arrivals have rejuvenated the club and, although it still lies just within the relegation zone, its form has been that of a team vying for the play-off places.
Despite the success, Brent does not believe it is possible to make a profit running a football club.
“With the catchment we have here and the support of the ‘green army’, it is possible to make it a successful, sustainable, non-loss-making League One or Championship club. My view is that we can break even.” He stretches to touch the table in front of him. “Sorry, I’m very superstitious.”
The hard wooden chairs of the directors’ box are the venue for the second half, which, like much of the first, involves some pretty possession play, but few chances.
As the final whistle approaches, the sense of urgency heightens around the ground. Plymouth chuck players forward in a last-ditch attempt to
get on level terms.
In the 90th minute, the best move of the match results in a sweet ball across the Crawley box — but the chance is deflected agonisingly wide. Brent is anxious. He has his head in his hands.
From the resulting corner there is a goalmouth scramble, and the balls pops up for a Plymouth defender to score an acrobatic, overhead kick from
a narrow angle, into the corner. It is a great goal that Brent celebrates with a fist pump and a broad smile. Shortly after, the final whistle blows to loud cheers.
“Should have taken up smoking — it would been better for my health,” Brent says, afterwards.
Over the other side of the boardroom there is a curious wooden plaque commemorating past club chairmen. The list stops at Sir Roy Gardner in 2009, under whose tenure the club’s financial problems sharpened. Peter Ridsdale took on the role when the club was in administration, before leaving in December for Preston North End.
Since then, Brent has held the role of interim chairman. He is keen to pass on the baton to a member of a new board that he is in the process
of assembling, “once it has settled in”.
And when the time comes, will he ensure his name is painted in gold?
“I’ve done the best I can and there’s no shyness. I’ll have my name up there because I’m proud to be associated with this club.”