Port Vale – Bullet The Blue Sky
After months of turmoil – preceded by years of worry and struggle – Port Vale’s tale could be nearing a happy ending, provided the right protagonists hold their nerve and the decision-makers do something like ‘the right thing.’ When last we were in Burslem, boardroom changes were afoot, with the prospect of two new directors, both popular with supporters campaigning for boardroom personnel changes. A feisty EGM on July 1st had produced some cock-eyed poll results. The ‘old’ board lost a vote of no confidence yet three of them, including humungously-contentious former chairman Bill Bratt, were narrowly re-elected thanks to the vagaries of shareholder ‘democracy.’
However, fans’ favourite candidate, local businessman and long-time Vale sponsor Mark Sims was also elected. But he refused to take his seat until he got a detailed “look” at Vale’s “books” and all the old board – re-elected or not – resigned. Fans’ group North London Valiants (NLV), who had called the EGM, were also invited to nominate a director. And with post-EGM ‘interim’ chairman Mike Lloyd and recently-appointed CEO Perry Deakin making genuine-sounding conciliatory noises, a new era appeared to beckon. Vale being Vale, however, the route has been the dictionary definition of circuitous and mistrust has remained rampant, at least in some quarters. Neither Sims nor NLV’s nominee, their chairman Malcolm Hirst, became directors. Both chose not to because their similar pre-requisite conditions – a look at the books and mass board resignations – were not met, while the club quickly and robustly defended their position, as they have since Deakin became CEO.
NLV said demands that Hirst meet investment and liability responsibilities were “totally unacceptable.” They claimed the board’s offer of a seat was “hollow and disingenuous” as incumbent directors had “made it quite clear they would not step aside,” and that they were “threatened with legal action” by Vale, although there were no details. The club, as they already had with Sims, claimed that their demands of NLV were in line with the club’s “articles of association” (the rules, essentially) and that a “motion to change the articles” to allow Hirst to by-pass them was “decisively rejected by shareholders” at June’s EGM – decisively rejected by the old board’s block vote, the statement neglected to add.
By way of compromise, they offered Hirst a “representative position” on the board that “would allow NLV a voice, without having to undertake the requisite responsibilities, which they helpfully listed at length, to stress how much of a compromise they were making. They claimed that a proposed letter by NLV to shareholders “included a defamatory statement… completely without foundation,” hence the threatened legal action to which NLV had referred. And the closing paragraphs gave up all attempts at a conciliatory tone, accusing NLV of “having an agenda at play here”, making “political gestures,” and “frankly unreasonable behaviour.” Woooh. With NLV’s boardroom seat neatly folded away, it was time to do verbal battle with Sims, and Vale got their retaliation in first this time.
In early August, Sims urged unpopular former directors Bratt and Glenn Oliver to “step down… if they want unity… if they don’t, I won’t join the board.” A week later, the club announced Sims’ “successful application to become a director.” They reported that Bratt was resigning and that Lloyd – one of the less unpopular of Vale’s old guard – had met fans’ groups that very day (August 11th) to “discuss further change and progress.” This good news was neatly juxtaposed with their “regret” that “we accept Sims’ decision not to join the board.” After lengthy discussion with Sims “relating to the financial information he had scrutinised, and other aspects of the club’s operations,” and a “cordial and productive” meeting with directors “at which many issues were discussed,” Sims wrote to the club listing “a comprehensive list of his demands” prior to any further meetings. “Clearly and without question,” the club statement continued, “it would be impossible for the club to comply with this list of ‘demands,’” – although the statement neglected to include any details. Oh, and by the way, “Perry Deakin is currently in negotiations…relating to significant commercial investment in Port Vale” which were “at a delicate and advanced stage,” – so no details could be provided. And Bratt “confirmed in writing that he will step down from the board immediately after this investment has been secured.”
The board’s statement was brilliantly choreographed, making Sims appear old news, with unreasonable “demands” while Vale had “almost secured” new investment and shown a “willingness to engage” with supporters’ groups, – if not yet a willingness to agree with them. “A new era genuinely beckons,” the statement grandly concluded, and you could imagine a number of ‘floating voters’ among Vale shareholders agreeing. Sims’ response was three times as long. He agreed with the chronology of the club statement but next-to-nothing else. He backed up his claims that he was only “made privy to (financial) information that the board allowed me to see.” And he re-iterated that Bratt and Oliver must step down, accusing Oliver of standing “singularly in the way of change.” Paragraphs were devoted to the board’s “despicable” treatment of former bidder Mo Chaudry. And he concluded: “I shall not step foot in Port Vale FC either as a fan, sponsor or investor unless both Bill and Glenn leave the board.”
Lloyd was clear where responsibility lay, telling the BBC on August 12th: “Unless we could meet all his conditions… he would not be joining the board. It’s a disappointment, but it’s Mark’s choice.” Hours later, genuine “lifelong Vale fan and regular commercial sponsor” Nigel Meakin revealed he was refusing a directorship for similar reasons. It was clear that he and Sims were working together, which, on planet earth, was no bad thing. However, the club issued a detailed, methodical destruction of Meakin’s arguments and claims to be “without a political agenda.” The language was ruthless. Meakin’s “completely unprovoked attack” was “littered with admissions of unethical behaviour and lies” with “too many untruths…to respond to them all individually.” Meakin said he had never met Sims which was “completely untrue.” And he had “a clearly admitted plan of deceit and subterfuge (demonstrating) the methods to which individuals will sink to progress their own agenda.” You could almost hear a cry of “that’s our job” in the background.
Former bidder Chaudry issued a re-hash of Sims’ and Meakin’s arguments the following week. But these identikit statements, which some thought a concerted effort to undermine the board, were overtaken by Oliver’s announcement of his resignation once “major investment” was confirmed. Sims gave a grudging, “cautious” welcome to this while claiming, probably correctly, that Bratt and Oliver were only leaving the board as he and Chaudry weren’t joining it. Even radical fan campaigners were moved by Oliver’s departure to suspend their protests while, wisely, “reserving the right to call directors to account if the promises being made at the moment prove to lack substance.” And these “promises” have proved the real game-changer, the multi-million pound investment by American “sports construction” experts Blue Sky International (BSI), which is due to benefit Vale to the tune of £8m, directly and indirectly.
The new leading boardroom figures are Lloyd, whose tone and attitude have been a glaring contrast to the borderline-paranoia of Bratt’s last years, and Deakin, who has no baggage from direct association with the old regime. And they have delivered this new investment, well within the timescale they set themselves and with an openness which, while far from complete, has surprised and swayed many Vale fans. In May, Bratt had announced a “£1.6m” sponsorship deal with Ameriturf, a US synthetic pitch manufacturer. It was not a bad deal. But it wasn’t the major investment Bratt was claiming, just prior to the EGM, for reasons thought not unconnected to that meeting.
Whilst Vale were in America, Deakin and Lloyd – cheekily, as Ameriturf sponsored the trip – began negotiations with BSI over a deal five times Ameriturf’s, although it remains unclear what investment there will be in Vale’s team – a major priority for protesting and non-protesting fans. The deal was advertised as £5m over the first year, £8m overall and tied to extensive ground and training facility development, with BSI fulfilling Ameriturf’s £500,000 US tour sponsorship commitment. The deal also confirmed Bratt and Oliver’s departures. And Deakin’s faith in it was such that he announced he would seek shareholder approval to join the board and invest £100,000 of his own money into Vale to “underline that belief,” twice the required investment commitment that other recent board candidates had baulked at.
Yet doubts remained. After years of false investment dawns, fans’ default position was scepticism. BSI would gain a board seat, the chair probably, and Vale would be a “showcase” for BSI’s work. But £8m seemed a lot to pay and it wasn’t clear what BSI’s shareholding would be and what commitments Vale would have to make in return. Reaction was divided, mostly along old pro- and anti-board lines. Lloyd promised to present the deal to fans and shareholders at an open meeting. But, in a nod to tradition, he drew back from that promise and fans were instead invited to submit written questions via the Supporters Club. They submitted 141 questions and within a week got a surprising number of clear answers and commitments. “No former or soon to be former directors” would either be involved or benefit. There were no management fees “whatsoever”, no loans “or requirements for 51% shareholdings”. “All revenue generated” by new facilities “will be to the benefit of PVFC.” And so on, for pages.
The overall view leans towards ensuring delivery on the board’s commitments rather than offering the old blanket mistrust and opposition. But that message hasn’t got through to everyone. The Supporters Club have “Tunstall-born pop star” Robbie Williams’ proxy vote. And SC members can vote on how to cast that proxy (24%) in the forthcoming poll on Deakin’s board candidacy. For allowing this, the SC have been accused of “putting Deakin on the board” while it was suggested that SC chairman Dave Felstead had been “offered a seat”, even though the SC are fulfilling their moral and legal obligations to the full, something the club board have long been pilloried for neglecting, by those same accusers. Yet if the still-disaffected fans took time to assess the current situation, they would find that they are winning, or have won, all their battles.
Only Lloyd remains from the ‘old’ board. Finances have improved, although BSI will need to fulfil the most pressing financial obligations. And the team have started quite well under manager Micky Adams and would be strong promotion candidates if BSI’s investment strengthened his squad. The war is nearly over. And as long as fans remain vigilant and committed to holding the board to continuous account, it is there to be won.
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