Port Vale: Out With The Old, In With The…. Who?
On February 26th, local businessman Mo Chaudry said “administrators could be called in within two months” to League Two Port Vale. And this assessment, which appeared in the local Sentinel newspaper on February 26th 2011, found some unlikely – and probably unknowing – supporters as the old Vale Park regime finally disappeared. Former Chief Executive Perry Deakin hinted at a future as a Rory Bremner-lookalike during his short stint on the BBC’s weekly regional football magazine show Late Kick-Off on Monday, which he followed up with a long stint in the Sentinel.
Meanwhile, former board colleague Mike Lloyd combined a BBC Radio Stoke interview with an appearance in the Sentinel and a rightly-aborted attempt to tell his tale at a Supporters Club meeting last Sunday. The pair sounded more co-ordinated than usual, if equally insincere. But the slivers of sense they spoke were overwhelmed by a smell of “it was not me, it was the other three.” The line was that administration, formalised on Friday, was ‘a long time coming’ rather than the current board’s fault. And Deakin claimed: “we’ve done reasonably well to get as far as we have in the season.” His thinking was: “when you start a financial year with zero in the bank and you need three-quarters of a million, then you have a problem,” which was nicely understated. This tied in with his attempts to move considerable blame to ex-chairman Bill Bratt.
Bratt noted with comparable understatement last week that “the club isn’t being run right.” Deakin suggested Bratt had “conveniently” forgotten the “zero in the bank” stuff and kindly reminded him that: “that was on his watch.” Deakin showed Late Kick-Off viewers his plausible side. But having been with Vale fans watching the team draw at ex-financial basket-case Accrington Stanley, BBC presenter Laura Mullen was resolutely unimpressed. Deakin said he was “desperately sorry” for unpaid players and staff, hoping in vain that Mullen wouldn’t distinguish between being desperately sorry for them and desperately sorry to them. When he noted that “I haven’t been paid either” Mullen simply snorted something which sounded like “doesn’t make it right,” and asked three more times “will you apologise?”
“I am desperately sorry,” Deakin repeated, this time desperately sorry “that the club is in the position it is in.” If he wasn’t going to give an out-and-out apology, he did at least admit the board “have to take responsibility” and had “made some errors.” Compared to Lloyd’s…er…’robust’ defence of the board’s actions, this was some mea culpa from the ex-chief executive. After considerable periods of inappropriate media silence, Lloyd appeared everywhere last weekend. However, at the Supporters Club meeting, his attempts to explain Vale’s financial woes were shouted down to the point where SC chairman Pete Williams suggested it would be best if he left. Having been berated for previous no-shows at SC meetings, Lloyd blamed a “blame culture” for this rejection. But any sense of injustice was misplaced. The meeting was publicised by Williams as “an opportunity for fans to…come up with ideas to assist the club at this critical time and was widely advertised as such.
As one supporters club member put it, unanswerably: “I thought the purpose of this meeting was to look forward to the future. As far as I’m concerned, you have absolutely no role in that future, so I’m not sure what you’re doing here.” “I would hope that I could continue to support the club,” Lloyd told BBC Radio Stoke’s John Acres twenty-four hours earlier. But having refused even to agree that Vale’s plight was down to financial mismanagement, he would need to be an old-fashioned ‘master of disguise’ to do so safely. “It is not mismanagement at all, it’s just a question of not enough money coming in to pay overheads,” Lloyd suggested, making a distinction between the two that would have been lost on most listeners. And he maintained a line he’d taken on his rare recent public appearances, that supporter protests were to blame for a drop in income this season, despite his first words on the BBC website recording of the interview being: “I don’t think there’s a blame culture here, John.” (He soon changed his tune on that, as we have seen).
But when an audibly-irritated Lloyd returned to the subject, his accountancy skills deserted him, as Vale’s “substantial” loss of income “because of demonstrations outside the ground” increased from “£200,000 estimated this season alone” to “at least £250,000 just in this present season” within a single sentence. Mind you, these protests were clearly huge. Deakin told the Sentinel of “people turning up for conferences, meetings and dinners” at Vale Park’s banqueting suite, “having to pick their way through protesting groups,” which implied a St. Paul’s Cathedral-style tented village of demonstrators.
While both men largely indulged in the same old, same old, there were also some revelations – and pertinent points. Lloyd appeared genuinely surprised that Vale’s youth set-up had gone as unpaid as other Vale staff as Lloyd he acknowledged that the requisite finance was “in a separate trust pot” of Football League funding. One to watch, that. But this wasn’t Lloyd’s first plea of ignorance, of course, having spent much of the season claiming unawareness of most boardroom activity. He did say, however, that the administrator would find no surprises in Vale’s books, making the unlikely-sounding but possibly correct claim that “on the administrative side, the club’s run well, always has been.”
Lloyd also noted, possibly correctly, that Vale were not unique in the Football League’s lower divisions in losing money. “One…point…seven…million…pounds,” he spelt out indignantly, referencing Crewe Alexandra’s losses over two years. Acres saw the hole in that argument. “But they’re not in administration, are they?” And Lloyd’s response, citing Alex’s “much lower wage bill,” merely focused attention on Vale’s much higher one. Former chairman Peter Miller’s salary had only just been discussed, with Lloyd suggesting there was “very little” between Miller’s and Deakin’s combined salaries and those of predecessors Bratt and “(Graham) Mudie as commercial, working three days a week.”
Asked why Miller had been offered “£100,000, a house, a car, flights to America”, for a “previously unpaid” role, Deakin highlighted the link between Miller’s remuneration and the notorious “Blue Sky” investment deal “the package was very much part of that deal.” When the deal collapsed, Miller’s payments stopped. Lloyd, though, simply highlighted the generous salary the board authorised for Bratt in the combined roles of chairman and chief executive – reminding listeners of another of the old board’s ‘offences to be taken into consideration.’ Of course, that phrase may yet prove genuine rather than illustrative, thanks to both Lloyd’s and Deakin’s insistence that Vale’s financial misfortunes pre-dated this season.
Lloyd suggested, with breathtaking ignorance even for him, that “people think this has come out of the blue” while Deakin told the Sentinel that Vale would have faced administration by the end of August were it not for commercial deals. Deakin wasn’t quoted directly by the paper on this, and was partly blowing ‘his’ commercial department’s own trumpet. But, as one Sentinel reader noted, “this raises the question of whether the club has continued trading insolvently throughout the season.” Lloyd found time for a sneaky dig at Chaudry. “Of course, he could go out and fund the administration if he wanted to,” he commented, knowing that Chaudry’s business sense had ruled out such generosity and profligacy.
But he was soon back to the old mantra, blaming protesting supporters, particularly the “Starve ‘Em Out” (SEO) group which attempted to force the board out with a season-ticket boycott. “The campaign reduced the season-ticket sales, didn’t it?” Lloyd noted, acknowledging SEO’s success. “So, what can you do?” Even asking that question exposed his directorial inadequacies. And as for his closing comment to the Sentinel on Vale’s future: “who can say what will come out the other end?”…well…I’ll leave you to make up your own jokes. Deakin’s conclusions were altogether smoother. He admitted more failings than perhaps expected, even that “I was a bit naïve” to accept the “very rosy picture of the finances” painted for him by Bratt. He also held his hand up, or at least waved it about a bit, over the £100,000 of shares he said he’d paid for but…er…hadn’t. Deakin said the board had “felt it was the right thing to do…(no, really)…because it allowed Bill (Bratt)…and Glenn (Oliver, fellow ‘unpopular’ director) to step down.” And he added: “We believed we were giving supporters what they wanted,” which was true to the limited extent that Bratt and Oliver were out. But: “In hindsight, it just caused more damage,” which was even truer.
However, confessional mood or not, Deakin still skirted round the fundamental point. In September, he said he’d invested £100,000 of his own money to buy the shares and this played a crucial role in getting him elected onto the board. But even if the shares were paid for, Deakin admitted, “I was never going to own them, they were always belonging to Blue Sky.” In other words, he was elected under false pretences, something which no apology for naivety could cover. Deakin was PR-smarm to the last, though. He was “poised to join Gillingham” before being approached by Bratt. And he admitted that his job research hadn’t stretched beyond “a look at the club’s website…and there didn’t appear to be any issues there.” “I should have looked at the Sentinel’s site,” was his rather weasily conclusion. Lloyd would certainly have been better informed by doing so.
Two mystery investors were mentioned over the weekend. Deakin offered most detail, citing a £1m investment for 20% of the club. “We were very close…until one of the investors, at the point of transferring funds, got cold feet very suddenly.” This would have “saved” the club, for this season at least, and kept Vale’s increasingly realistic promotion play-off hopes alive by avoiding the ten-point deduction for entering administration. But the old board would have remained. And it says everything about them that fans thought promotion prospects worth sacrificing to see them gone.
Vale’s immediate future looks brighter now. Something more than not being the old board will soon be required, of course. In the meantime, there’s administrator, Bob Young, who did a quick media tour on Thursday. That Young was the administrator who actually sold Vale to Valiant 2001 is not, yet, being held against him. And his initial media forays revealed a methodical individual able to manage expectations and make people fully aware of the problems ahead. As secured creditors, Stoke-on-Trent City council can veto any “preferred bidder,” having funded Vale’s administration to the tune of £600,000 after an exhaustive decision-making process.
This is thought “brave” by those aware of the potential scrutiny from opponents of “football on the rates.” There is no sign yet of disgruntled council taxpayers considering their legal powers of opposition. But the council must eventually show that the £600,000 is well-spent, especially after £24m worth of budget cuts. Fans, meanwhile, have reversed gear – best summed up by “Starve ‘Em Out’s” vigorous rebranding as “Feed ‘Em Up.” Entering administration has done much of the job of the shareholders’ EGM – removing the old board, assessing club finances and finding a buyer. Young told local radio on Thursday that he had three enquiries “without even advertising the club.” And administration will deliver the supporters remaining wish… if local businessman Mo Chaudry is one of the enquirers.
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