Time To Change The Guard At Port Vale?
Sheffield Wednesday supporters will recognise the plot. Against a backdrop of declining fortunes for Port Vale’s team, including getting out of a division of the Football League at the wrong end, their directors said they were embarking on a search for “investment” to stem financial losses, reverse on-field trends and get the club back to its rightful place in English football. But the “investor(s)” had to have the “best interests of the club at heart.” So, despite years of searching, the board – or at least a majority of it – have found increasingly ‘unorthodox’ ways of rejecting every investment proposal received.
Both sagas have had a cast of thousands, including speculative bidders and people you’ve heard of (famous Vale fans including a perennial World Darts champion and a singer in a popular beat combo). Port Vale’s board also appear to be on its last legs, with the prospect of a convoluted, divisive club share structure being swept away by the multi-million pound swagger of a new 100% owner and the prospect of a happy ending. Although, as at Wednesday – where the takeover by ex-Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric was headlined by one cynic “Tax evader buys tax evaders” – events may yet turn again.
Vale went into administration in 2002 with debts estimated at £2m. That was a lot of money in those days. And it still is a lot of money… and it is again the club’s estimated debt. Vale were bought out of administration in February 2003 by self-styled “supporters’ group” Valiant 2001. Valiant 2001 were not a Supporters Trust. But they were supporters, chairman Bill Bratt noting, correctly, that “every single member of Valiant 2001 can justifiably claim (to be) committed supporters,” adding “I myself have been a supporter for 54 years.” There were other bidders for Vale in 2003. These included the Icelandic consortium running Vale’s bitter local rivals Stoke City – whose understanding of the term ‘conflict of interest’ must have temporarily deserted them. And a local businessman called Mo Chaudry, of whom we shall hear much more.
Bratt and company were, and still are, credited with saving Vale from possible extinction. But they were unable to save it from perennial financial struggle. Investment was sought from the beat combo singer, Robbie Williams, and in 2006 he hoovered up £249,000 shares which were lying around, becoming the club’s largest shareholder. But Williams was, if you can embrace the concept, a ‘silent’ partner. And his investment merely temporarily plugged a gap. By September 2008, Bratt was admitting publicly that “I feel the board and I have taken the club as far as we can… new investment will be required.” And he added: “I will happily stand down if it will allow someone who carries the backing of the supporters to take Port Vale forward. If that new investment can be found then I’m happy that anyone following in our footsteps will find a strong and healthy institution that finds itself struggling only on the football pitch.”
The idea of a football club being both strong and healthy and struggling on the pitch (only!) was a contradictory one and not even everybody on Vale’s nine-man board was convinced. Boardroom divisions had come bursting to the surface after relegation from League One in 2008 and the dismissal of popular manager Lee Sinnott. The search for investment began against this backdrop. Bratt’s willingness to step aside for the greater good was put to immediate test by a “North-West based consortium” headed by “England international Earl Barrett” – one of Graham Taylor’s many ‘alternative’ selections. But Bratt claimed he’d merely shown a group of “4 or 5 people” around the ground at the request of a fellow director and that there had been no talk of investment, which seemed at odds with Barrett’s talk of, well, investment.
According to Bratt, the consortium was showing greater interest in “£3m of building land” around the Valiants’ Vale Park ground. But, Bratt noted: “that amount of land isn’t around us.” Bratt didn’t have long to wait for another group of five to ask for the tour. They were “foreign-based” and reluctant to be identified, even to Bratt himself, he claimed. Even their ‘public’ spokesman refused to be identified and they set a tight deadline for negotiations over a ‘document of intent’ they had sent the club. The spokesman was a “business turnaround specialist from Essex.” Bratt had little problem tarring the mystery consortium with the “asset-strippers” brush. And their credibility wasn’t strengthened by their spokesman’s confusing explanation for their anonymity.
“There is no consortium until an agreement in place. The personalities need to be confirmed, depending on the figures.” And Bratt wasn’t prepared to discuss an agreement until those “personalities” were “confirmed.” Joseph Heller (the author of “Catch 22”) couldn’t have made it up. Nevertheless, the suspicion was growing over Bratt’s true willingness to sacrifice his position. And the urgent need for investment was highlighted in November, when the club announced punishing losses of nearly £400,000 for the financial year to June 2008 – “the price of relegation”, according to the local Sentinel newspaper. Bratt tried to reassure fans that Vale’s future was secure. But he slightly undermined his own argument by attempting to take credit for slashing the club’s wage bill. “We had to cut it down,” he warned, “otherwise we would have gone out of business.” So when he tried, the following spring, to pin fans’ fears of administration on “supposed friends of the club spreading malicious rumours,” his opponents could simply refer him back to his previous answer. The rumour about malicious rumours suggested that Bratt had got the “How to look like you want to sell a club when you don’t want to really” book for Christmas.
In an interview with the Sentinel in March 2009, he dredged up the line about investors failing to make firm offers (“it’s been said that we’ve turned down investment from various people, but we haven’t”). And he quickly followed that up with the old chestnut about investors “falling by the wayside” as soon as they were asked for “proof of funding.” Some interested parties deserved to be in the wayside, like ex-AFC Bournemouth chief executive Alistair Saverimutto. Saverimutto was at Bournemouth for eight disastrous, incompetent months, incompetence which was in inverse proportion to his self-belief. A clearly unimpressed Bratt noted: “He’s talking about whether we are interested in him becoming our chief executive…whether we are interested or not is a different kettle of fish.” Bratt was Vale’s chief executive. But, for once, his self-preservation didn’t seem misplaced.
Next up – in April 2009 – were the club’s shirt sponsors Harlequin Properties, who reportedly hoped to buy a 24.9% stake in the club – the maximum allowed under club rules designed to avoid one individual having overall control, a sensible measure in most football club ownership contexts. Not that Vale needed the money or anything, but Harlequin – a property company specialising in luxury developments in the Caribbean – also offered to lend the club £150,000 as part of the whole investment offer. And having strenuously denied rumours that he stood to benefit personally from the deal (“a blatant misrepresentation of the actual details”), Bratt announced that talks were underway.
The Harlequin rumours led to accusations from an increasingly fragmented fan base of directors following their own personal agenda when setting up possible future investment. But Bratt was insistent that Harlequin had been a tremendous help to the club. “They are generous football people and they’re the best sponsors we’ve ever had,” he declared, adding that “the whole board agreed the deal was a good thing for the club.” Company owner David Ames had the same self-confidence as Saverimutto, without the chronic inabilities. “Everything I’ve done has been successful,” he insisted. He even kept a straight face while suggesting ITV pundit, and Harlequin “consultant,” Andy Townsend as a potential director. Now that was a success (unless he was serious…). And Bratt maintained they were “decent and honest people.” Yet, for reasons possibly adjacent to Harlequin’s stated wish to cull four directors, ‘negotiations’ over the firm’s offer dragged on without conclusion.
Despite his prevarications on the investment issue, Bratt had – and deserved – his supporters amongst Vale people. Although some sniffed at his supposed £50,000p.a. Chief Executive’s salary, many recognised that he’d done a lot of good for the club, particularly in its darkest hours. Yet it has been increasingly difficult to justify his attitude to major investment offers. In June 2010 New York-based, locally-born businessman Mike Newton made a £400,000 investment offer, hoping to persuade a majority of a divided board that his plan to replace Bratt as chairman and bring in his own chief executive would do the trick. He sold himself directly to Vale’s support on an “I am not Bill Bratt” ticket. And his self-confidence was firmly in the Ames/Saverimutto region. But his PR-heavy campaign didn’t find favour with everyone. £400,000 was cheap for the control he was seeking. It wasn’t that helpful an investment in a club losing almost that amount each year (his increased offer of £500,000 only set aside £400,000 for debt clearance). And it was hard to disagree with Bratt’s assertion that “we should not be negotiating in the public arena,” even though the suspicion remained that Bratt’s opposition was more based on him losing his jobs than the “best interests of the club.”
Newton’s proposals were defeated by five boardroom votes to three. But despite claiming that he would accept any board decision to reject his proposals, he hung around, suggesting he would make offers for the shares of the three directors who’d supported his bid and claiming, incorrectly, that the club was about to post £500,000 losses and would be soon be threatened with administration again. Slightly too conveniently for some, a group of US investors appeared on the scene, prepared to negotiate in confidence and to match Newton’s proposed investment. But Bratt’s initial welcome didn’t last when their investment offer became a bid for control. And they, along with everyone else in the Valiants saga, took a back seat when Mo Chaudry re-appeared on the scene earlier this month, armed with a £1.3m bid for control, promises of £3m investment and the support of a fan base weary of Bratt’s excuses for not selling up and going, two years and two months after claiming he had taken the club as far as he could.
Vale’s losses for the latest financial year may not have been the half-million Newton claimed. But they were still a fear-inducing £372,000 – back to the price they had paid for relegation two years previously. And Bratt’s insistence that his continued presence was still in the best interests of the club just didn’t wash with enough people anymore. The board, apparently unanimously, rejected Chaudry’s proposals out of hand which suggested all sorts of personal agenda, because it didn’t make sense financially to do so. At the AGM, however, Bratt succumbed to fan pressure (although he denied that) and decided to meet Chaudry after all. He added that the secretive Americans had supplied investment proposals in a 30-page document which the board hadn’t read yet. And said the board were developing their own business plan, which they were going send to shareholders “in the next few weeks.” Of all Bratt’s reasoning for maintaining his presence at the club, these had the most damning desperation-to-credibility ratio.
Chaudry will travel to his meetings with the board armed with the locally-significant support of World Darts champion Phil Taylor, which put Taylor, who is friends with both Chaudry (his financial advisor) and Bratt, in a “difficult position” (one week before this year’s World Championships… thanks, Mo). But Bratt is now in the most difficult position. Even if Chaudry’s proposals were to somehow prove not in Vale’s best interests, Bratt would be accused of crying “wolf” by supporters and shareholders. And it is getting to the stage where Vale cannot afford to reject any more investment offers, flawed or not. As Sheffield Wednesday fans will recognise, for Bill Bratt, it is time to go.
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