There are two fundamental truisms of running a football club which can only attract crowds of around five thousand people. The first is that national media attention is likely to be thin on the ground and should be used wisely. The second is that you can’t afford to piss those hardy five thousand souls off too much. These are both lessons that the Port Vale chairman Norman Smurthwaite has learned the hard way over the course of the last few days or so. Smurthwaite has been the man in charge at Vale Park since 2012, taking control of the running of the club after it suffered a spell in administration and a chaotic power struggle at boardroom level.
The last couple of years, since the club emerged from under its cloud and won promotion back into League One, have been relatively – and, some might argue, considering previous years, mercifully – quiet. A ninth placed finish followed by an eighteenth placed finish. This week, though, Smurthwaite, who has earned himself a reputation for “shooting from the hip” in his verbal utterances, has behaved in such a way as to turn a large number of the club’s supporters and, as so often seems to be the case when these spats arise, the situation that has come about all seems to have been very easily avoidable.
His first outburst came after his team was defeated by League Two side Exeter City in the FA Cup on Sunday. Frustration at a defeat at the hands of a club a division lower is probably understandable on the part of everybody concerned with Port Vale, especially since, the following day, Exeter were drawn to play at home against Liverpool in the Third Round of the competition, but Smurthwaite’s reaction to the result – after boarding supporters coaches to apologise and seeking to discuss the matter with manager Rob Page on the touchline, was to announce that he was putting the club up for sale, telling BBC Radio Stoke that, “Officially from today, the club is up for sale,” and that, “if I thought for one moment we would be punching above our weight I would have kept the £800,000 [money that he claims to have put into the club above its planned budget for the season] and spent it on something else.”
An altogether more troubling set of headlines, however, emerged at roughly the same time as this story, when the story started to spread across the national media that Smurthwaite had alleged that he had passed up the opportunity to appoint Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as the club’s manager in 2013 because of fears of racist chanting from his own supporters. According to Smurthwaite, the opportunity to appoint Hasselbaink came after the club had been given a warning by the FA following an investigation into racist chanting at a home game with Bradford City in 2013 and, although the fact that this warning came about clearly following the actions of a tiny minority of Vale supporters, this not inconsiderable factor was, of course, either overlooked completely or buried away far below sensationalist headlines by the newspapers that reported the story, of which there were many.
That this misinterpretation of events should have come about will come as little surprise to anybody with a great deal of knowledge of the press in this country. They’ll never allow inconvenient details to get in the way of a lurid headline, and in this day and age such an allegation is an extremely lurid one indeed. The response of Port Vale supporters has been predictably – and understandably – incandescent, reaction from supporters, with Ally Simcock, the chair of the supporters club, stating that, “I think the club has had issues with racism, but I don’t believe they were any worse than at any other football club,” a statement that would be true of the vast majority of football clubs, these days.
The fact of the matter is that qualifiers buried away in the seventh paragraphs of articles on national newspapers count for very little, once a headline has been splashed everywhere. We live in a culture in which allegations of racism are amongst the most taboo that can be thrown around. There can be little question that Smurthwaite should have engaged his brain before opening his mouth. None of this, of course, is to say that allegations of racism should ever be swept under the carpet. It’s more to say that anybody dealing with the mainstream media should be wary before casting anything that could even be interpreted as a blanket allegation of this nature.
It was a point that was skilfully reinforced by the reaction of football’s anti-discrimination campaign Kick It Out, whose reaction to Smurthwaite’s comments was not to demonise the supporters of Port Vale, but to criticise Smurthwaite, in issuing a statement which read that, “This is outrageous that we have an owner admitting he wanted to protect a manager because of the possibility of abuse, he has discriminated against Hasselbaink and denied him the opportunity of being Port Vale manager.” And here lies the rub. It’s possible to conclude that Smurthwaite’s comments on this matter might even say more about him than they could ever do about Port Vale’s supporters.
It looks, however, as if this time Smurthwaite has burnt his bridges with the club. In a club statement issued yesterday, it felt as though a penny had finally started to drop within the club with regard to the ill-advised nature of the chairman’s comments. A statement appeared on the club’s official website in which an apology was issued to Vale supporters who felt that aggrieved by the allegations reported, along with promises to stay away from social media and forums, as well as a promise not to speak directly to the press any more. Some supporters will accept the apology, whilst for others the damage is already done. Either reaction is completely understandable.
The biggest irony of all of this is that the biggest single loser in all of this could plausibly be Smurthwaite himself. The statement issued by the club went on to add that it remains up for sale, so tarnishing its brand by raising this to the national press doesn’t seem like the most pragmatic thing to do. What might a passing oligarch or eccentric philanthropist make of headlines such as “Port Vale turned down Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink two years ago for fear of racist abuse from their OWN fans” (The Daily Mail), “Port Vale rejected Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink over fear of racist abuse from OWN fans, claims owner” (The Mirror) or “Vale Feared Racist Abuse of Hasselbaink” (FourFourTwo)? They’d probably tell their chauffeur to just keep driving straight past the entrance to Vale Park. And the biggest loser from any tarnishing of the reputation of the club while the club is up for sale will surely be… Norman Smurthwaite himself. It’s probably for the best of everybody that he’s kept as far from a microphone as possible until any sale of the club is completed.
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