Port Vale: Norman’s Conquest
After Port Vale’s FA Cup third round replay triumph over Plymouth Argyle, Mark Murphy thought it would be opportune to revisit the two clubs’ financial fortunes since they emerged from administration and ownership crises. And what a tangled web they both have woven. Next up… Plymouth’s hotly-disputed role in the business machinations of James Brent, the high-profile local “entrepreneur” who took the Pilgrims out of administration in October 2011. First, though, the Valiants…
Port Vale fans can be forgiven for their transparent battle-fatigue. After the well-documented tribulations under the “Valiants 2001” regime which (mis)managed the club from… er… 2003, (see 200% in passim) they had to endure the falsest of dawns when Lancashire businessman Keith Ryder’s plans to take the Valiants out of administration dissolved in a vat of broken promises at the start of last season. So it is that current owner Norman Smurthwaite can make all sorts of mistakes in his running of Vale AND resemble Ken Bates in a fright wig, without quite being scrutinised and criticised as if one of the rogues gallery of previous Vale directors had done likewise.
In October 2012, two months after the Ryder fiasco, Yorkshire-born venture capitalist Paul Wildes emerged as preferred bidder, the straight man of, yet dominant partner in, a double act with Smurthwaite, a 52-year-old retired “finance expert” from Leicestershire (despite the stereotypically northern name). Wildes made all the right noises, promising support for manager Micky Adams and transparency in Vale’s business dealings. And the fact that Wildes wasn’t linked to failed previous regimes gave Adams the basis for a strong promotion challenge. Cracks emerged when Vale went on a wretched run in March. But they, seemingly, closed up again by the time Vale sealed promotion.
Given all that surrounded Vale in recent years, it was remarkable that Adams ran any sort of coherent football operation, let alone one that threatened the play-off places. So, given a clear run at promotion, it was perhaps not surprising that Adams’ team achieved it. But Wildes’ departure in mid-May was surprising. He and Smurthwaite only gently referenced differences over the direction of the club and Smurthwaite insisted that “nothing Paul has done to the club has been detrimental. Paul had some great ideas & we’ll be following through with the vast majority of them. I don’t want anyone to think that we fell out…that simply isn’t the case.”
But it was a real ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us’ scenario (Smurthwaite overlooked the standard “Paul would be welcome back any time” spiel in his farewell comments). Wilde admitted: “(we both) felt there needed to be one man at the top.” However, both felt they should be that man. Smurthwaite had a solution. The parting had its roots in a March defeat at Bristol Rovers. Smurthwaite revealed to a fans forum last week that after the Rovers match, Adams “nearly got the sack and it wasn’t me who was going to sack him” – although Wildes said last May that “I certainly never considered sacking him.” And, already unhappy at the contrast between Wildes’ ambition (considerable) and his financial input (considerably less), Smurthwaite chose this moment to give his Vale partner an ultimatum.
He explained in May: “Paul asked me to stand down from the company day-to-day, enjoy the football and continue to support the club financially. I said if you think I am going to sit in the stands and send you a cheque every February, you need to get off the pills. I offered him three options. I said he could buy into the club at 50% of what I had invested & we would continue as joint chairmen, he could buy me out or he could leave… he chose to go. I felt Paul needed to…make the kind of commitment I had made. Because of the way he was profiling himself, most people assumed he had invested in the club.” That said, he expressed surprise that Wildes “could throw away his involvement just like that… that somebody making such a profile for himself could simply walk away.”
Smurthwaite initially insisted that Wildes’ over-ambition was not ruinous. “We might have taken on too much too soon in one or two areas.” However that story soon changed; from “I’m gutted Paul isn’t here, he did an excellent job” and “he’s like my baby brother” (!) to condemnation of just about every decision Wilde ever took. “That’s another brainwave which unfortunately will be with us for four-and-a-half years now,” he said of Vale’s new ticketing system, last week. And he wasted none of the opportunities afforded him by the local Sentinel newspaper to place responsibility for Vale’s problems firmly at Wildes’ door and to confirm that the “£1.25m” part of the “£1.25m takeover” was “all the clown Smurf’s money.”
The largest Sentinel puff-piece came on August 2nd, heralding the start of the season. Back then, apparently, Smurthwaite didn’t “like talking about how much money he’s pumped into the club,” a reticence he ably overcame for the article and has kept at bay since. The Sentinel got the guided tour of a Vale Park where “everything looks shiny & new.” In February, Wildes gave BBC Radio Stoke the first hint that he was starting to lose the run of himself when he outlined plans for the new ticketing system, a club superstore, relaid pitch, refurbished ground and expanded coaching and youth set-ups. In August, the Sentinel gushed over it all, at length, with Smurthwaite declaring: “No longer do I want Port Vale fans to have to settle for second best.” He made brief reference to “finding some unpleasant surprises and dealing with problems I didn’t expect.” But the article hurriedly moved onto “exciting times are ahead.”
All these column inches counted for nothing in October, though. Smurthwaite banned the paper from the Vale Park press box, after it ran what this site rightly called an “innocuous story about the late delivery of replica third shirts.” Both sides in the dispute rated highly on the pomposity meter. And many fans backed Smurthwaite, also believing that Sentinel journalist Michael Baggaley – who wrote the ‘offending’ article – should pay to watch Vale like everyone else (because there’s no work involved in match reports). But the shirt story wasn’t the real story. Smurthwaite had “befriended a member of the local Sentinel team during the ten-week period that Paul Wildes was contemplating leaving” and “confided in this individual with various specific factual details.” Smurthwaite didn’t say, and wasn’t asked, why he had done this and what the individual was supposed to do with the information.
But clearly it wasn’t to pass them on to his sports editor, who approached Smurthwaite “with the information that had been disclosed in confidence… when it became clear to the Sentinel that Paul may be leaving.” Smurthwaite “took great exception that the confidential information was being used against me and the club,” but didn’t explain how. When the ban was lifted, however, he told BBC Radio Stoke: “When I was parachuted into the club in May, on my own, when everybody else was celebrating promotion, I was looking at the abyss. I could not believe what I found.” Nor could he tell the BBC what he had found, beyond its potential to “wipe the club off the face of Football League existence.” No big deal, then. And whether this information played any part in Wildes’ departure remains the subject of speculation.
Other financial concerns have followed. In December, he confirmed rumours of Vale losing “vast amounts of money”, claiming “I will have paid in £1m this season, so, yes we are.” He estimated that this would be £1.2m before the season’s end, although the FA Cup run should have dented that figure. This would have surprised any Vale fans who read in May that “an average attendance of 6,500 was being built into the budget,” a figure Smurthwaite called “conservative but realistic.” As the Sentinel reported when Smurthwaite revealed Vale’s losses: “The news comes despite the Valiants averaging 7,406 home attendances this season.”
It transpired that Smurthwaite’s definition of “home gate” was home fans. In December he said the “budget required 5,000 season-ticket holders, a minimum of 1,500 cash paying home fans and a minimum of 1,000 cash paying away fans.” It was as if Smurthwaite was playing with figures to deflect from the budgetary mistakes he couldn’t pin on Wildes. For instance: “I (said) in 2012 that we needed about 7,500…to be competitive in League One. I didn’t expect the accounts department – who are all no longer here – to actually put a budget on that basis.” So, why say it? Little wonder one fan told the Sentinel that Smurthwaite “does nothing other than confuse me.”
On December 23rd, the national People newspaper reported that Smurthwaite had emailed agents to tell them Vale couldn’t currently pay monies due to them. Confirming the veracity of the People story, he said “the previous chairman and directors ran the club day-to-day and were responsible for the budget we are now trying to work to.” He also “admitted” that “while I funded the club, I was in effect a silent partner.” Aside from difficulties imagining Smurthwaite as a “silent” anything, it begged the question as to why the CEO wasn’t running the club “day-to-day.” He did garner a reputation for fan-friendliness and took to the inevitable “Smurf” nickname to the extent of turning up for one match dressed as one.
But despite the Sentinel reporting that he had changed from a “finance expert who would take a back-seat role” to “a hands-on chief executive”, Smurthwaite appeared to revert to his original role soon enough. He was, for instance, “not party to the contracts & deals for which the agents’ fees were due.” And in May he claimed that “the best way I learned about (what was) going on was reading the Sentinel.” Smurthwaite did say in November 2012 that he would “take no salaries or dividends.” Vale fans could be forgiving for thinking they’d barely got their money’s worth out of him as CEO.
Meanwhile, last month, in the column marked ‘oh, by the way,’ Smurthwaite revealed that Vale no longer owned Vale Park. In October 2012, Wildes said: “We actually own our own stadium, which is a huge benefit.” But Smurthwaite confirmed to fans last week that “When we bought the club, Paul, & I believe this to be one of the only good things he ever did, split the business so the stadium is owned by one company and the operating club is owned by the other.” Such a split is rarely deemed to be in a club’s interests. But it is clearly in Smurthwaite’s interests as the landlord. He told fans that it meant he would be “there…to pick up the pieces” if “this business went bust” or if “cast-iron people” to whom he might sell the club “ever did screw it up.” But fans would be more confident that “there is no rent being charged, no funny business going on” had he not kept the split quiet for fifteen months. There is no suggestion of any “funny business.” But Smurthwaite told fans that “four stand sponsors (are) paying me £87,500.” It is not clear whether that money went to the stadium owners – Alchemy Land – or the club’s operating company, PVFC Ltd.
That issue took on added resonance when Smurthwaite told players’ agents last month: “PVFC Ltd has no assets, so any attempt to wind-up the company will result in no payment made to any of its creditors.” This suggests that the stadium owners, not the club’s operating company, hold assets such as the players’ contracts. Such details, including the terms under which Vale play at Vale Park, and the precise relationship between the two companies, should be clarified, given his claim that “the club has no debt and I have no debt.” And Smurthwaite’s reaction to such pressure should be studied.
All-too-often recently, he has responded with emotive phrases such as “If you think I have lost the plot, tell me now, and I will go.” And, as he noted last week: “I am the bank. If I drop dead you are shafted.” Hardly the reassurance many Vale fans seek. Not all of them, as Smurthwaite has also said, “are not happy unless we are in turmoil.” There are a lot of good things to say about Norman Smurthwaite. He was, after all, an astute-enough “financial expert” to afford semi-retirement in Portugal at the age of 48, despite that expertise periodically going missing during his Vale tenure. Yet the closer you examine his time at Vale to date, the more there is to at least question. And the need for vigilance is not diminished by the team’s adjacency to the League One play-off places, or the genuine prospect of a place in the fifth round of the FA Cup. The next set(s) of accounts to emerge from Burslem will tell a tale, if you know where to look, and in which company. What that tale will be remains uncertain.
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