Port Vale… Not Again?
Yes, again. Last month, I started what I hoped was an epilogue to Port Vale’s takeover saga. Then Plymouth Argyle’s concluding fortunes took priority and Vale took their place lower down the article queue. But not before I wrote the following: So, farewell, then, internal strife at Port Vale. For now, anyway. As, hopefully, predicted in these pages recently, the Burslem-based League Two promotion contenders don’t have off-field bickering to contend with any more, at least not in an organised sense.
Elections and appointments to Vale’s new-look board – only one remaining member from the eight in charge of the club in 2010 – have been completed, with, some might consider, surprising haste. All-but-one of the long-campaigned-for resignations has now physically happened. Two of the three long-campaigning groups have issued “ceasefires.” The first part of renovation work at Vale Park, promised as part of the multi-million pound investment deal which has sparked recent progress, has begun. And the team are in the promotion play-off positions at the time of writing.
At this point in most articles about club finances, there’s usually a rhetorical question along the lines of “what could possibly go wrong?” or some smart-alec comment about a bright future, followed by three dots and an ‘er.’ In this article about Vale there is very nearly no need for all that nonsense. After all, what could possibly go wrong? In any normal football club, a hold-up, for “contractual reasons,” of about 2% of a promised multi-million pound investment would be a “snag”; especially when the deal already seemed to be bearing fruit elsewhere. But Vale hasn’t been a normal football club for a long time.
A total breakdown in trust and the complexities of the proposed investment have led to some close-harmony singing of “I told you so” by the understandably considerable number of cynics among Vale’s support. A £150,000 “cash investment” from US “synthetic grass specialists” Blue Sky International (BSI) has “encountered contractual issues”, according to a club statement on Tuesday. The statement tried to assure concerned readers that these “are currently being dealt with by chairman Peter Miller and vice-chairman Mike Lloyd.” And it also ‘assured’ them that Vale were progressing the “projects announced around” the investment “without delay.”
There were three things wrong with these…er…three points. Firstly, BSI had “this week purchased £150,000 of new shares”, according to Vale’s official web-site, on…30th September. Secondly, neither Miller nor Lloyd were names to associate with assurance. Miller had been in post a matter of days yet was already embroiled in Vale-based legal controversies (below), while Lloyd was the remaining representative of the “old” Vale board. And thirdly, one of the projects supposedly progressing “without delay,” the refurbishment of the Robbie Williams Suite at the club’s Vale Park ground had, it was soon announced, been…delayed. Chief Executive Perry Deakin reportedly claimed the delays were due to “logistical” issues unconnected to the investment. Approximately no-one believed him.
Vale fans have grown over-accustomed to disbelieving club statements, or reading between their lines with a powerful microscope. And Deakin was worryingly keen to claim that the BSI deal was “not dead,” after suspicions had been raised by and among supporters that it was. These suspicions developed because it had been, as they say in the movies, “quiet…too quiet,” after an October packed full of “further” investment announcements and boardroom comings and goings. And because BSI themselves had announced a straightforward sponsorship of League One outfit Yeovil Town (which included a familiar pledge to sponsor North American and Caribbean pre-season jaunts for a decade).
The convoluted battles to replace the old boardroom guard ended in early October. Bratt finally, physically, left the building, with all the dignity for which he was so admired (“It wasn’t my intention to leave…I was told to…I still had something to offer”). And local businessman Mark Sims finally gave up his headline-seeking attempts to avoid the boardroom seat to which he was elected in June. But controversy surrounded new directors Perry Deakin and Miller. Fans questioned whether Deakin could serve as CEO and board member without an undermining conflict of interest. Some did so with the genteel quizzicality of Dad’s Army’s Sergeant Wilson (“do you think that’s wise, sir?”), others with borderline hostility. Supporters Club members actually voted narrowly against the appointment in a poll on how to use celebrity Valiant Robbie Williams’ proxy vote (although Deakin was actually declared elected a fortnight earlier).
Miller, meanwhile, appeared from out of nowhere, with the maximum individual investment of £250,000, a startling desire to join the board and no concern with trivialities such as “due diligence,” which overwhelmed Sims. The 52-year-old Surrey-born businessman boasted a CV including spells as Northampton Town’s CEO, Aston Villa’s ‘Head of International Development,’ and service “directly under” Sir Bobby Robson (a vote-winner if ever there was one) at Newcastle United. He also boasted an uncanny ability to make all the right noises about the club’s recent past (“there are clearly things here that need to be changed”), the “real energy and passion from the club’s fantastic supporter base” (about which he might currently be less enamoured) and “the real roots of the club” laying “within the local community” (even if the board no longer does).
He produced a couple of oddball phrases. “As I keep saying, talk is talk”, he noted – his American sense of irony intact – before exclaiming “I am at a point in my life where my intentions are to be here…for the rest of my life,” which seemed a bit much for someone so new. But fans appeared prepared not to “judge us now, judge us in 12 months,” as 70% of supporters club voters backed his successful directorship candidacy (although he was actually declared elected earlier that day). Yet since joining the “new” board, which soon elected him chairman, matters Vale have unravelled again. BSI’s Yeovil deal raised the first eyebrows. Their dual involvement did not breach football’s regulations as sponsorship isn’t an “interest” in a club. But some fans thought BSI would focus on Yeovil instead of, rather than alongside, Vale.
There was a dust-up over the club’s offer of a supporter-elected board member, and the board’s not unreasonable insistence that they should have some control over the appointment to ensure that, as Deakin said, “we can work with them” (for example, no Chaudrys or Sims’ need apply). “Is it so they can find someone who shares their opinions?” said one fan. “Hardly democracy, is it?” noted another, clearly unaware that company boards usually…aren’t. The supporters’ club’s principled acceptance of the offer is on hold thanks to latest events. There’s a kerfuffle over the February date for the club’s next AGM, 14 months after the last ‘annual’ meeting, and the timing, 10.30 on a Wednesday morning. Such timing is quite normal for company general meetings (Arsenal Holdings plc being a recent, topical example) but Vale fans instantly saw it as an attempt by the board to keep hostile shareholders from attending and asking horrid questions…which latest events have again provided.
Even an issue as superficially straightforward as manager Micky Adams’ resignation as a director has become a controversy. Adams joined the board in July to bring the number of directors up to the four required to function legitimately. Now that there are four other directors, he has stepped down. But his sponsor, formerly vilified director Stan Meigh, says he withdrew that sponsorship, suggesting Vale ‘lied’ again in claiming Adams had “opted to step down.”
Miller also caused a transatlantic stir with his comments about Ameriturf’s sponsorship deal which was subsequently usurped by BSI’s eight times more lucrative package. Having introduced both firms to Vale, Miller must have felt well-positioned to compare the two and their Vale deals. But he concluded that “it doesn’t bear comparison…the (BSI) deal is better for the club.” He teasingly suggested it “would not be appropriate” for him “to say why” he hadn’t “wished to be associated with…Ameriturf’s desire to come into the UK market,” before adding, more enigmatically still that “they hadn’t done what they said they would.”
Some fans saw this as justification for their occasionally vicious anti-Ameriturf campaign after that deal’s May announcement. In hindsight it is possible some of this vitriol was aimed at another Ameriturf. But this Ameriturf saw Miller’s remarks as a cue to threaten legal action against Vale. Some two months after being jilted in favour of BSI, Ameriturf have ‘discovered’ a £54,000 hole in their finances where Vale’s money should be, as well as it now dawning on them that an Ameriturf “officer and a director” helped do the Vale/BSI deal.
Ameriturf weren’t just after the money and figured that Vale would have plenty if the BSI deal was that good. Oh no. But their President Tim Hollinger’s lawyer told Vale they’d “let them off the hook,” if they paid “$86,294…and 12 cents…which covers what we paid” for Vale’s pre-season North American jaunt “and other (unspecified) costs.” Vale declared they were “aware” of the correspondence but left their recently-busy and soon-to-be-busier solicitor to “deal with it,” adding “no further comment.” Miller claimed he was “put up as a chief executive without a contract.” Hollinger himself suggested Miller had an Ameriturf contract stating “how he can behave as an officer of the company.” And Miller, suspiciously well-prepared for this eventuality, said he had “an attorney letter that clears me of any conflict of interest.”
And now… more “contractual issues.” The purest speculation, and only the true inside-informed can do any more, is that these surround the messy transfer from Ameriturf to BSI, or that Vale have somehow fallen short on their “end of the deal,” with a mid-table League Two outfit perhaps not providing the exposure for BSI’s services that was originally envisaged. Amid the 141 questions asked of the BSI deal by fans back in September, the suggestion was that it was “underhand” to “forge links” with BSI “when another sponsor is paying for the privilege.” The club’s answer by-passed this ethical issue, baldly stating that “tours present clubs with executive opportunities to network for the benefit of the club. They do not prevent interaction with another group of investors.”
Another fan asked what had happened to the Ameriturf contract and was assured that the club was “contractually able” to “dismiss it.” But Ameriturf clearly believe there are contractual issues, around the money they paid to give Vale “the privilege” of “forging” BSI “links,” and with Miller. Such is fans’ mistrust that they won’t take Vale’s side, even against the previously-vilified Ameriturf. The genuine possibility that all this really is just a “snag” is not been widely-entertained at all. And even though fans were prepared to give BSI twelve months to deliver, they aren’t now.
Deakin promised “a full and detailed report regarding our partnership with BSI as part of the upcoming AGM.” But at a supporters club meeting this week, the board were given “ten days” to address fans’ concerns in public, or else supporter group protests, put on hold to give the new regime a chance, will restart. Deakin also promised an update “when the issues…are concluded” (not “resolved”, necessarily), although this didn’t register with irate fans. Many fans don’t believe the BSI partnership will last until the AGM. And, as has been said before in these pages, there is no reason why they should, beyond blind loyalty, given the club’s track record on honesty, transparency and plain, straightforward competence, under board-after-board.
Port Vale – not again? Yes, again.
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