It is virtually impossible to forecast the next misdemeanour, potential or otherwise, to emerge from Port Vale’s boardroom, without descending into the realms of bad-taste fantasy (one of the major protagonists revealing themselves to be a woman trapped in a man’s body, for example).
Presumably believing Christmas to be “a week to bury bad news,” Vale chairman Peter Miller informed everyone, including all fellow board members apparently, that he’d re-mortgaged the club’s Vale Park ground to facilitate a £277,000 loan covering “short-term” cashflow problems, caused by the collapse of the much-vaunted “investment deal” with American sports turf firm Blue Sky International (BS).
Vale fans whose cynicism dwarfed their arithmetical ability immediately assumed the money would pay for the £350,000 worth of Vale shares that Miller and chief executive Perry Deakin claimed to own – and used to vote each other onto the board in the autumn. This theory was only debunked when Deakin revealed that he had never paid for and never owned those shares. This came in a lengthy interview with the local Sentinel newspaper last week, during which Deakin all-but-said “I was only obeying orders” during months of spin, disingenuousness and downright untruths. And in the midst of all this, the board casually announced that Miller’s three-month term as chairman was to end on New Year’s Eve – the three-month term that was previously mentioned by the board on precisely no occasions whatsoever. There are probably few more lies to tell about the collapse of the BS deal and the board elections supposedly connected to it. And even I, as an outsider, have no more indignation to offer. So the gods alone know how true Vale fans feel right now.
The whole truth behind the collapse remains elusive, however, as protagonists on both ‘sides’ have been exposed as liars. The Sentinel has jumped on the anti-board bandwagon with such gusto that it has overlooked the dishonesty of one of its main sources of damning documentation, BS Chief Executive Hank Julicher. Julicher would stand condemned in some eyes for asking Miller “where’s the beef?” in reference to financial commitments Vale were supposed to make as part of the BS deal. But documents “obtained by the Sentinel” shortly before Christmas revealed that BS were to “fund the purchase” of £500,000 worth of Vale shares – £250,000 in Miller’s name, £100,000 in Deakin’s and £150,000 in the Julicher name.
This exposed some crucial lies told by Deakin, most notably the one about putting £100,000 of his “own money” into the club, which had almost certainly persuaded significant numbers of small shareholders to vote him onto the board. Without these votes – and, of course, the 100,000 votes that this share “purchase” itself provided – Deakin’s election would almost certainly not have happened. Any legal challenge to Deakin’s election would have to prove this. Deakin’s own words last week, especially “I don’t own any shares”, would have made that task appreciably easier. However, it also exposed some crucial lies told by Julicher. Among the Sentinel’s first “revelations” were that the BS deal collapsed because Vale suddenly demanded a £500,000 “up-front” investment and that BS had made no commitment to, or arrangements for, any such thing. Clearly they had.
For Vale fans, though, Deakin and Miller’s continuing presence on the board is the key issue. Both “gentlemen” are now club ex-employees, Deakin serving out three months’ notice as CEO and Miller having served what the other directors now claim to be his full “short” term as chairman. However, the old year ended with new acting chairman Mike Lloyd offering his own version of “it wasn’t me, guv” to the Sentinel, which included the stark admission that Miller’s departure was “run past the club’s lawyer” and “could be subject to legal ramifications.” Miller’s original, and infamously generous, terms and conditions were originally subject to a review “by the board of Port Vale FC after a three-year period,” according to a September 5th letter from Deakin to Miller, which was leaked to the media in early December. Lloyd told the Sentinel “that was amended at a later date by the full board, including Peter.” This suggested Miller’s agreement but, in common with most things Vale directors have said in recent years, closer scrutiny suggested different. The truth of this matter has yet to emerge, as Miller sped off back to the States for the festive season, leaving the club to deal with the “ramifications” of the Vale Park re-mortgage. These include the scrapping of manager Micky Adams’ plans for the January transfer window, as transfer funds promised by Miller were clearly BS funds. There is also speculation that the re-mortgage breaches the terms of Stoke-on-Trent city council’s 2006 loan to Vale, £2.25m of which is still outstanding. And council officers are also reportedly “in dialogue with the board” over short-term repayment prospects.
In short, Vale are screwed. Technically, the board require Deakin and Miller’s continued presence to function constitutionally. The prospects of investment – at least by anyone sane – are zero. The club wouldn’t need quarter-of-a-million pound loans if income even remotely covered expenditure. And the team’s pre-Christmas advance on the League Two play-off positions has been halted by consecutive defeats over the New Year period. The blame for these problems is mostly being placed with Miller, who is being convincingly portrayed as the “mastermind” behind the BS plan for both investment in, and control of, the club. And his curious involvement with a failed takeover at Luton Town has been cited as evidence of past footballing misdemeanours.
In 2003, while Miller was at Northampton Town, as “Cobblers commercial director” (a phrase which now works on at least two different levels), he was a “consultant” to “businessman” John Gurney on “commercial matters” in Gurney’s unorthodox attempts to enter football, first at Peterborough United, then at Luton. The “legendary” Barry Fry saw Gurney off at Peterborough (possibly proving that you can’t bull**** a bull****ter). But Luton were briefly under Gurney’s control except, apparently, in early June 2003 when Miller “on a brief visit to this club from Northampton Town took it upon himself to dismiss the club’s manager and assistant manager.” Miller’s view of this involvement differed slightly: “I have not or never have been in any business partnership/relationship whatsoever, in particular with regard to any aspect of matters relating to Luton Town FC or its associated redevelopment with John Gurney.” Miller did, however, admit that he was asked by Gurney to sign letters to then Luton manager Joe Kinnear and assistant Mick Harford, informing them that they were leaving the club. “Reluctantly, I signed the letters in the capacity of Consultant,” Miller said, by way of no explanation whatsoever. This Luton situation was many thousands of words more involved than this. But if Miller thought that the above explained anything, then his explanation for his Vale conduct, should he ever produce one, will not impress. Just for now, though, the Vale blame game is for outsiders to play – do you blame the monkey(s) or the organ grinder. Thankfully, the Supporters Club (SC) are focusing on the club’s immediate future instead, dealing with the past only in so much as Miller and Deakin still need to leave the board and be replaced immediately.
At present, the SC are following the proper constitutional route of an Extraordinary General Meeting of shareholders, with legal action as a back-up. And, hopefully, all the lessons will have been learned from last June’s EGM when three of the five directors very narrowly defeated motions to remove them after some bewilderingly late changes to voting intentions. The anti-board faction felt they had sufficient support when celebrity – and major – shareholder Robbie Williams allowed his votes to be used against the board (his original intention to abstain would have left the directors safe from eviction). But major club sponsors Broxap, and their CEO Robert Lee, also switched sides, allowing directors Mike Lloyd, Glenn Oliver and, most galling of all, then-chairman Bill Bratt to survive. Now, the SC have united all protesting supporters groups behind the moves for a new EGM, including the North London Valiants (NLV) who called the June EGM. The SC and its membership has become more radicalised since June, with more of the shareholders amongst its membership seemingly prepared to oppose the directors.
NLV’s Malcolm Hirst morphed into Winston Churchill for the occasion with “It is a battle we must win, it is a battle we can win and it is a battle we will win”; on the beaches, if necessary, presumably. And, probably crucially, one of the directors who was voted out in June, Stan Meigh, has thrown his weight, and his 13,004 votes behind the campaign to oust his erstwhile boardroom colleagues, along with what the Sentinel reported as “30,000 shares he owns jointly with fellow former director Peter Jackson.” Jackson was also a former particular hate figure among Vale fans. And accepting Jackson’s support is possibly the biggest sign that Vale fans have learned some crucial lessons in realpolitik since last June.
Should this EGM produce the desired result, an interim board of “interested parties” will be appointed to evaluate any new bids for the club. This is largely seen as shorthand for local businessman Mo Chaudry’s bid, as Chaudry garnered Vale fans’ support throughout 2011. He made a well-timed public re-appearance in Vale’s tale last month, telling BBC Radio Stoke that the “experiment” of fan-ownership “evidently has not worked” and that “the club needs…someone that can take them to where they really belong.” Someone called Mo Chaudry, naturally. His comments about the “experiment” of fan-ownership have been left scandalously unchallenged, even by Vale fans themselves, whose desire for a more democratic and accountable club seems to be manifesting itself in support for dictatorship via a 51% shareholding – the basis of Chaudry’s rejected bids for Vale last year.
Chaudry certainly represents a football business model which has at least partly failed. But he seems best-placed to unite the fanbase. And that unity is vital. Vale’s finances are in a dire state. They are little worse than many other lower division clubs, whatever the old board’s inadequacies. But that isn’t saying much. In September, Lloyd said that the club was on track for much reduced losses of “under £100,000 for the financial year ended 30 June 2011.” And he trumpeted this as a “particularly good year financially.” But it was not. The reduction was at least partly due to compensation Vale received when Adams joined his hometown club Sheffield United last January, a significant, one-off payment. And regardless of the dubiety of its source, a £277,000 short-term loan to cover running costs is not “a good sign.” So the forthcoming political machinations at Vale need to be quick and clean. And even then, they are only the start of Vale’s road to recovery.