Port Vale In Administration: The End Of The Beginning
“It will be the perfect administration, if true,” wrote the BBC’s Matt Slater on March 19th, in response to Port Vale joint administrator Gerald Krasner’s prediction of getting a deal with creditors signed off by the end of April. Krasner, to the surprise of no-one with experience of the self-confident Leeds United ex-chairman, was being somewhat bullish. But Vale’s administration, thus far, has been a relatively trouble-free experience, if not perfect for everyone. It has certainly been less fraught than what preceded it, although the failure of long-time fans’ darling Mo Chaudry to even make the short-list for “preferred bidder” status will deny the administrators universal acclaim – as will joint administrator Bob Young’s insistence that the previous regime, “fans consortium” Valiant 2001, hadn’t done that bad a job.
The preferred bidder, Lancashire businessman Keith Ryder, is almost inevitably a property developer – amongst other ‘talents.’ It is almost as if there is, among administrators’ duties and objectives, a clause obligating the short-listing of property developers. This could have been so, for all the knowledge of the administration process displayed by Vale people recently. The ‘guilty parties’ included team boss Micky Adams who has complained over a different issue almost every week. “He can be a bit prickly,” Young told last week’s fans’ forum, to knowing laughter from the audience. And they also appeared to include Chaudry, whose curious public proclamations culminated in an ill-timed, ill-informed rant at the administrators’ which could have been designed to fatally undermine his prospects of becoming preferred bidder.
The failure of Chaudry’s bid is the latest of many disappointments for many Vale fans. Their faith in the 51-year-old Staffordshire entrepreneur’s ability to ‘save’ Vale proved shockingly unfounded, as his bid failed even to make the administrators’ shortlist of two. It was, Young noted, “significantly below the offer we have accepted.” The extent of Chaudry’s failure seems almost as shocking as the fact of it. The usual head-bangers among his critics have suggested Chaudry didn’t really want the club and that his Vale involvement was an 18-month PR stunt for other business ventures, such as leisure facilities Waterworld and the M Club. On the surface of it, these claims are outlandish. Chaudry has expended a lot of time and energy for a mere self-promotion. Yet alternative explanations seem outlandish too, as we shall see.
The often blind, faith in Chaudry meant 27% of respondents to an on-line poll wanted his bid accepted regardless of the competition and even though he hadn’t even bid yet. And the blind faithful are portraying his bid as a minor triumph which “promoted wider interest in the bidding process, I expect to the benefit of the club,” and “was the benchmark against which the other bids were measured.” ‘Unlikely’ would be a polite term for these theories, the latter clearly being a nonsense as Chaudry did not submit his bid until the proverbial, almost literal, last minute. Chaudry’s most public ranting concerned the anonymity of rival bidders. Unable, as per, to stop telling others how to do their job, Chaudry claimed to be “dumbfounded” that the administrators were allowing bidders to request and receive anonymity. “It is surely in everybody’s interests for those people to discuss their plans and strategy,” Chaudry declared. “The last thing Vale needs is a repeat of the situation which got it in a mess,” he added, neglecting to explain how potential bidders’ momentary anonymity would make this “mess.”
He insisted that “fans should be able to make some sort of judgement” of bidders’ “credentials” and “motives.” But he was “surprised that the fans have accepted the position of the administrator.” And he was probably more than surprised when the moderator of independent but Chaudry-sympathetic fans’ website One Vale Fan Rob Fielding said, correctly, that Chaudry’s suggestion would “help rivals to plan their tactics…especially those who are still to lodge a bid…such as Chaudry himself.” The former “Secret Millionaire” (no irony intended) also insisted that “there can’t just be a knee-jerk reaction in selling to the highest bidder.” But his past experience of administrators’ legal duties should have told him how wrong this was.
Young wasted no opportunity to stress these duties, in the media and at length during fraught discussions at last week’s fans’ forum, where he almost pleaded with supporters to “understand” administrators’ “duty to the creditors to accept the highest bid.” So Chaudry should have known not to publicly claim that “this isn’t just about buying the club from the creditors,” or insist that “the more money you give to the creditors, the less you have to sustain the business.” Such talk can only have harmed his prospects. He had an advantage over ‘new’ Vale bidders. He said he only “started his fact-finding exercise” on March 16th, which may have surprised those who recalled his apparently inside-informed predictions of financial doom if his takeover bid last spring wasn’t accepted. However, as he rightly observed, “I have been more involved with what has been going on at Vale over the past year-and-a-half and know all the characters.” And having done “a lot of research” he didn’t “think anyone else could have done such extensive preparation.”
Hours before the bid deadline, he re-affirmed that “I and my professional team of advisers have given the (bid) much consideration and…(it) will be detailed, well thought-out and highly competitive.” Yet in a field of five, it didn’t even come in as an each-way bet. This may be because Ryder has paid over the odds – something we will be better able to judge when his proposals for creditors’ repayment are published this week. Maybe Chaudry and his advisers’ judgement was poor to an extent not previously spotted in his largely successful business career…or maybe Chaudry really didn’t want to succeed, despite saying last Sunday that it was “time for action to deliver on my ambition to give Vale a sustainable future.” Whatever the causes of Chaudry’s failure (for failure it certainly is), it is a wasted opportunity. On March 20th, he was quoted in the local Sentinel newspaper as saying “I don’t want to let anyone down.” But he has, not least himself.
Administration, especially the fans’ forum, has revealed how damaged the supporters have been by recent experience. Trust has all-but-disappeared, with the administrators’ integrity and ability called into largely unfair question. The fanbase has rejected the idea of a supporters-run club in favour of a “strong” dictatorship; a view which got a strong ovation at the forum. Yet they seem unable to grasp the obvious consequence, that decisions on the business are now none of their business. At the forum, Young was asked what would happen “if your preferred bid isn’t the general consensus of supporters.” Young must have felt like replying in short, sharp, possibly offensive linguistic bursts.
Instead, he politely noted that refusing the highest bid was “quite exceptional” for an administrator (“only twice in my career, spanning thirty years”). He re-affirmed his legal “duty” on best price and that “we can’t let you have a vote on who we sell it to,” which demonstrated his distaste for football business democracy. And Krasner detected that “you don’t seem to quite agree” after stating “the fact that someone would talk to you and tell you what you want to hear in itself is not justification for backing them to own the club.” Supporters fear V2001 will ‘sneak’ back into Vale – a fear magnified by ex-Chairman Bill Bratt’s less-than-helpful suggestion in the local Sentinel newspaper on March 24th that “if the club was in danger of going into liquidation then myself and other former directors could put together a rescue package.”
If this was a wind-up, it was grimly effective. Merest hints of a “Bratt” involvement put paid to early potential bidders International Piping Products. Krasner said: “three thousand hits on their website put them off completely” and added ruefully: “if that hadn’t happened, we would have had a good bid from these people.” And supporters were desperate for the administrators to guarantee that V2001 would not return, some refusing to buy season-tickets without that guarantee. Krasner had to explain wearily that “we are officers of the High Court and we cannot bar anybody from bidding” because they were unpopular.
One questioner said he appreciated what Krasner was saying but still added that “if they came back in any form or shape, there will be no more Port Vale.” And Krasner re-iterated that “as of eight o’clock tonight we have had no indication from anybody who has been involved with this club that they are in any way making a bid.” But their pleas for supporters to trust them and the process fell on ears unwilling to listen. Ears which would have been as unwilling to hear Young’s insistence that if V2001 “hadn’t had to make loan repayments, it was profitable throughout” and “it was only in the last six-to-12 months that it got into trouble” (after fans’ “Starve ‘Em Out” campaign had impacted on season-ticket sales).
Young sold the club to V2001 when he was Vale’s administrator in 2003, so he clearly had an interest in justifying that decision. But the accounts over the years told that tale too. There is already speculation about Ryder’s links to V2001, after Young’s revelation that Ryder expressed an interest in Vale in January and had therefore committed the heinous felony of “speaking” to former directors. The forum began with a “fervent hope that the administrators will pursue former directors for any monies owed to Port Vale and make them pay, quite literally, for the damage and heartache they have caused.” This appeared more important to fans than stabilising the club. And the administrators had to re-iterate that such matters were subject to on-going investigation. “We will pursue antecedent transactions,” Young noted, about nine times. But fans’ concerns about the future revolved around Chaudry. He was the forum’s ‘elephant in the room,’ until one exasperated supporter said: “There’s already been three bids and one of the preferred people isn’t one of them…so can we open our eyes and look beyond the obvious.” Well, now they have to.
The next weeks will tell a tale. Keith Ryder’s proposals to take Vale out of administration will be sent to creditors and we’ll see, if not the colour of his money, at least the “quantum,” as Young put it. And on April 18th Ryder will address another open forum at which fans can question him on his plans and his relationship, if any, to V2001. For these are still the issues to many Vale fans. This backward focus remains understandable, given the scars, and debts, left by V2001. But Vale fans must realise that neither they, nor Chaudry, have a formal say in the running of the club. Not the perfect “administration” for everyone, then.
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