The last few years have been difficult ones for the clubs that live on the periphery of the city of Manchester and in the shadow of the two giant clubs that dominate its football culture. Stockport County have dropped from the second tier of English football to the regional Blue Square Bet North, while Bolton Wanderers lost their Premier League status and are now a Championship club again. On the northern outskirts of the city, meanwhile, Bury FC’s problems have been a known quantity for some time now. The club was relegated from League One at the end of last season in bottom place, with the lowest crowds in the division and with alarming press releases from the club itself – a statement released in April which included the now infamous “At this moment in time the situation is now critical, we are quickly running out of money by trying short term fixes that are not working long term” before requesting the very quick fix of asking if ten individuals could step up and put £100,000 each into the club – hardly diminishing a sense of unease at the way that it was being run.
Time, however, has moved on since then. Chairman Brian Fenton, who was regarded by many of the club’s supporters as the cause of most of its recent ills, finally departed Gigg Lane at the end of May, to be replaced by Stewart Day, a thirty-one year old property developer who has been making his living in the construction industry, most notably through building student accommodation in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Day has no previous experience of running a football club, but some might consider that an advantage considering the calibre of people that have ended up running lower division football clubs in recent years. Over the last week or so, however, the first concerns over his judgement have started to become apparent with his appointment of Perry Deakin, formerly the CEO of Port Vale, as a consultant to the club.
The near collapse of Port Vale Football Club two years ago was one of football’s more understated crises of recent times. It seldom made national headlines, even though there seemed to be enough chicanery going on behind closed doors at the club to merit wider investigation. Originally appointed as the club’s CEO by the much-loathed former chairman Bill Bratt, Deakin stayed on at the club after Bratt’s resignation in the summer of 2011 and became one of the four directors of the club who earned themselves the appropriate acronym of “MOLD” (for Peter Miler, Glenn Oliver, Mike Lloyd and Perry Deakin), and he is best remembered at Vale Park for an incident that has come to be known as the “nil paid shares controversy”, in which thirty thousand so-called ‘nil paid’ shares issued to potential investor Blue Sky International were also counted as part of a ‘yes’ vote to elect Miller and Deakin as directors of the club, even though the American company hadn’t actually invested a penny into the club. Subsequent research carried out by a supporter established this, infuriated shareholders and supporters’ groups, who quickly formed the opinion both men were elected to the board under false pretences. As our own Mark Murphy commented in December 2011, “the board’s grubby behaviour has only made their task harder, and surely destroyed forever the belief that they are the people for that task.”
Though this might well be the single story for which Deakin is best-remembered at Vale Park, the turbulence of his short stay at the club didn’t end there. In January 2012 it was revealed that, with Deakin having by this time stated that they had made the investment as originally agreed, the £350,000 that they put into the club was remortgaged against Vale Park itself in breach of a loan agreement that had previously been signed with Stoke City Council, whilst further breaches of this loan agreement followed shortly afterwards when the club failed to make a repayment due at the end of January 2012 on time and failed to submit its company accounts on time. Elsewhere, the club found itself being sued by its sponsors over an unpaid loan to them, whilst a Supporters Club ceremony to unveil a statue of club legend Roy Sproson – who played 837 games for the club over twenty-three years between 1949 and 1972 – was cancelled after the club refused free hospitality for VIPs at the event, while the club even managed to become lodged in a dispute over a pre-season friendly with local non-league club Nantwich Town for which Vale were due to pay their own expenses whilst Nantwich kept the gate receipts, which Deakin claimed at first was a “gentleman’s agreement” between the two clubs for the transfer of a player but was later established to be a contractual obligation. And even all of this wasn’t all, but, well you get the picture. At the start of March 2012, the club entered into administration. At the end of last season, under new ownership, the club was promoted from League Two as Bury passed them in the opposite direction.
Day’s response to these revelations – none of which were revelations to Port Vale supporters – was bullish. A club statement read that, “We strongly believe that people should only be judged on performance and we ask that judgement is made at the end of the season rather than making comments on non-proven third party statements. The board is disappointed by some of the language being used by ‘fans'”, before adding that, “we believe it is only a minority who think this board would do anything to damage this club moving forward.” The impulse of any organisation to defend a publicly-criticised appointment is, of course, understandable, but there are several inferences made from this statement which cannot pass unchallenged. If someone is to “only be judged on performance”, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that past performance should make up the lion’s share of that appraisal, rather than simply requesting that critics hold fire until “the end of the season.” Is the club suggesting that, if the team’s performances turn around in League Two next season, that it should be they who are thanked rather than, say, the first team manager and the players? It also seems perfectly reasonable to note that many of the criticisms of Deakin are most certainly “proven” rather than “non-proven”, and there is plenty of factual reasoning to back up the reservations that some have over his appointment concerning his time at Vale Park. On top of this eyebrows may raise at the No True Scotsmanism of placing a description of critical supporters in inverted commas. It’s a trick as old as the hills, to try and imply that no-one can truly be a supporter of a football club if they are critical of those running it. Those critical of the club were there long before Stewart Day pitched up there, and they’ll probably still be there after he’s gone, as well.
Without a crystal ball, it is not easy to see where the fortunes of Bury FC lay at present, although there are few bookmakers that have them amongst the favourites to get promoted back into League One at the end of the coming season. Still, though, the club survived its last financial wobble and the custodianship is now in the hands of someone new. Perhaps Perry Deakin, his new consultant, has learned some lessons from the past and will prove to be a valuable asset to the club. Given his past, though, he has bridges to build at Gigg Lane and it is he that needs to prove that he has done so. We have seen, from countless episodes in the past, that football clubs are at their best when supporters are keeping a close eye on those running their club, and if Deakin – and now, by extension, Day, do nothing wrong from now on, they should have no reason to be troubled by Deakin’s past. They should, however, perhaps be reminded that getting involved with a football club in the twenty-first century comes with this level of scrutiny, and that if they are unhappy with it, then they are perfectly free to sell up and try something else instead. After all they both arrived at Gigg Lane of their own volition. Port Vale supporters have issued their warning. It’s now up to Stewart Day and Perry Deakin to not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Produced with the invaluable assistance of the Port Vale fan-site One Vale Fan.
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