Port Vale For Sale: Normal For Norman
“We’ve been here before,” noted the Stoke Sentinel newspaper’s Michael Baggaley, as Port Vale owner/chairman Norman Smurthwaite announced that the club he helped take out of administration in November 2012 was for sale. LAST April.
Last month, Smurthwaite pepped up his up-for-sale announcement. Vale fans have long-urged Smurthwaite to leave the club as he found it. They meant “debt-free.” Instead, on 23rd March, the 58-year-old Smurthwaite told BBC Radio Stoke that if a buyer wasn’t found by 5th May, the season’s end, he would put Vale EXACTLY as he’d found it… in administration.
Takeover talks currently appear to be progressing with (very) local business Synectics Solutions (their offices are an underhit backpass from Vale’s imaginatively-named Vale Park stadium). And Carol Shanahan, co-owner with husband Keith, chairs the Port Vale Foundation Trust, the club’s charitable arm. They are demonstrably Vale’s best future option. But being better barely matters in modern football. And THEY have been here before too.
Smurthwaite knows the controversial club owner’s playbook by heart. After all, the mentor the Football League assigned to him when he was a league newbie was then-Blackpool chairman and charm school drop-out Karl Oyston. Yes…really.
And Smurthwaite has extensively utilised the playbook since taking full control of Vale in May 2013. portraying himself as a financial saviour, while practising financial obfuscation, lambasting the media, lambasting fanbase critics, labelling acquiescent fans the “true” supporters, splitting ground from club while still owning both. And, of course, not being a very good owner at all.
He is, however, building a nifty little football stadium-based property portfolio, having bought National League North crisis-mountain Nuneaton Borough’s Liberty Way stadium last July. His motives are foggy, if obviously financial (he often gives the impression that he doesn’t know one end of a football from the other). And two clubs look uncomfortably dependent on them.
Smurthwaite puts up ‘Vale for Sale’ signs with Christmas-decoration regularity. In December 2015, it was his mature response to a costly FA Cup defeat to Exeter (who were then drawn at home to Liverpool). It was not a “distress sale,” he stressed, 11 months after stressing that Vale was “screwed” and “would last three weeks,” without his money.
Four parties bid, but Vale announced on 5th March 2016 that Smurthwaite had terminated all negotiations, “with immediate effect,” having trousered received a deposit from one, unspecified, bidder. Defining ‘immediate effect’ very loosely, Smurthwaite flew to America four days later to meet an, unspecified, consortium, admitting that if the talks failed, Vale would be off the market. They failed.
Twelve months later, four parties bid again. Smurthwaite told the terrific “OneValeFan” (OVF) website that two, unspecified, “hedge-fund” bids were “acceptable financially.” Both requested “exclusivity.” Neither were “locally-based,” ruling Synectics out. There was also a crackpot Norwegian bid, based on ‘optimistic’ asset valuations and forecasts of 20,000 crowds at future Vale Championship games.
Talks failed again. Fans were critical again. Malcolm Hirst of the ‘North London Valiants’ fan-group insisted “I could understand one mistake but we seem to lurch from one crisis to the next disaster.” And Smurthwaite responded with a thousand-word stare of a statement, playbook ranting against “keyboard warriors” (yawn) and others.
When Vale were relegated in May 2017, they were “for sale” again. This time his statement was uncharacteristically contrite, as he decided with a “heavy” and previously undetected, “heart” to “stand down as Chairman with immediate effect and relinquish all duties.” He surprisingly claimed Vale’s “most important asset” was “you the supporters.” And he admitted his summer 2016 choice of Portuguese manager and ‘friend of Jose Mourinho’ Bruno Ribeiro “clearly seriously damaged” Vale, “resulting in Sunday’s relegation.”
Yet while transferring Vale’s ‘day-to-day’ running to CEO Colin Garlick, he remained owner. And there had seemed only one logical reason why, the ‘Director’s loans’ which he continually claimed kept Vale solvent. He “paid in £1.2m” in 2012/13 and £800,000 in 2013/14. In November 2015, Vale’s accounts revealed a surprisingly specific “£2,549,579 owed…on director’s loan account.”
Each time, he said he would “not continue to pump in money,” because after three years’ pumping, “we are going nowhere, so clearly something is wrong.” And in February 2017, he said the loans were “around £3.7m.” So, “something” was still “wrong.” Yet, despite more Ribeiro-based contrition (“my mistakes cannot be shifted to anybody else”), Smurthwaite declared “I will not be walking away.” This didn’t sound encouraging for the takeover talks he simultaneously publicised. But ‘consistency’ isn’t his middle name (too big a birth certificate, for starters).
Vale actually made a £466,343 profit in 2016/17. But this was due to player sales, sell-on fees and £100,000 in afore-mentioned exclusivity payments. And although sale talk re-emerged in March 2018, genuine prospects seemed as distant as ever. This was emphasised by a Q-&-A session with fans on 22nd March, which showcased all that was wrong with Smurthwaite’s financial integrity and social skills (yes, it was a long meeting).
He bemoaned Vale’s “£140-£160,000-per-month” losses “from January to April,” a misleading figure from the four specific months without season-ticket or, for League Two strugglers, major (FA/League) Cup income. He claimed that, by June 2017, director’s loans were £3.4m, although the club’s 2016/17 accounts later declared £2,870,495. Whither THAT half-a-million?
He claimed it would cost £820,000 to fund Vale’s close season and said any potential buyer had to find that money, despite advising fans to “forget how much the club will be sold for, it is more important who it is sold to.” He blamed “propaganda on social media” for the breakdown of previous Synectics negotiations.
Pressed to reveal his asking price, he asked a fan how they would feel if he asked them for their asking price for their home, temporarily mislaying the concept of estate agent windows. Pressed again, he snorted: “None of your business, please sit down.” And when he denied receiving “£200,000 in exclusivity payments from three prospective buyers, his interrogator replied: “ I have an email here from you telling me that.”
“Port Vale’s finances don’t add up,” OVF editor Rob Fielding wrote after the meeting, prompting “a wide-ranging telephone conversation” with Smurthwaite, “on a large number of issues.” Vale “employs so many people that we run three payrolls,” Smurthwaite ‘explained,’ like it was reassuring that League Two strugglers had “up to 300” non-playing staff. Nor was it re-assuring that “contrary to what has been said elsewhere, Port Vale is not self-sufficient,” despite not having “paid a penny in stadium rent.
A buyer was “waiting” and Synectics were a “natural fit” with the “right infrastructure.” He claimed he was more worried about whether bidders could “finance the club” after buying it, again contradicting his Q&A declaration about selling to “the right person.” But he sounded more worried still about getting his loans back. And with no-one offering THAT, Vale again remained unsold.
2019’s shemozzle began with a ‘no-confidence’ vote at a 31st January meeting of Vale’s supporters club. “We’d” been “here” before too. In September 2017, supporters club members “voted overwhelmingly” for an informal motion. This time, though, “100% of the people in attendance backed the vote,” according to the organisation’s announcement of “PEACEFUL” demonstrations (their emphasis) before and during Vale’s 16th February home game with Morecambe.
Twenty-four hours earlier, Smurthwaite (heavy-hearted, again) had accepted manager Neil Asplin’s resignation, after a 0-0 at bottom club Notts County left Vale six points above the prospect of regular match reports in the Non-League Paper. Supporters club chair Mark Porter called this “football oblivion.” And the “unprecedented support from fans” at the meeting showed their disaffection “with the way the club is being run.” They wanted Smurthwaite to reveal “his plans” for Vale’s future, “or even better put the club up for sale at a fair price.”
Smurthwaite acknowledged that fans had “genuine concerns.” But he claimed “sponsors” were “cancelling attendance at fixtures due to fears of being caught up in an unpleasant protest.” And, unspecified, “threats and abuse towards myself, my family and staff” had “escalated to a disgraceful and disgusting level.”
The, peaceful, protests galvanised Vale’s fanbase. Veteran fan-group “Black and Gold Until its Sold,” was relaunched to share rhyming protest slogan duties with “Turf Out Smurf” (mercifully, Vale isn’t owned by a relative of Jeremy Hunt). Yet, despite Vale ending February one place and three points above the drop zone, Smurthwaite rejected Synectics’ £3.5m offer (“their third in three weeks”), nearly three times what he’d originally paid.
Carol Shanahan said the offer “to take over as quickly as we can get it through the league and move forward,” was for club and ground “because Port Vale is one entity.” It was £500,000 up front, £3m over five years, plus £400,000 from specific transfer revenue. But Smurthwaite replied: “sorry, not interested, please get back to your day job and continue the sterling work in the community.”
Swapping patronising pig-ignorance for third-person pomposity, he explained: “The owner bought the club for a single payment consideration, and when the owner sells the club it’ll be for a single payment consideration, The owner will not consider any offers where it’s conditional for the owner to provide a mortgage to (a bidder).”
Protests, naturally, expanded. The Guardian’s Ben Fisher headlined his 13th March Sportsblog with Porter’s “football oblivion” quote, although March results had pulled Vale four points safer from it. And the supporters club started a ‘GoFundMe’ page “to take the peaceful protests to the next level.”
An “incensed” Smurthwaite also went “next level,” with his headline-grabbing administration threat. He claimed: “It was morally wrong to set up a funding page” for a campaign which “has done irreversible damage” to Vale. who apparently “lost” an, unspecified, “major sponsor, from 1st July, for £500,000.” ‘Black and Gold’ “respectfully” revealed that he “informed us of this lost sponsorship before any protests had taken place” and suggested there was “a strong case” that he had done “considerable damage to the club, on-and-off the pitch, before any protests began.”
Smurthwaite was immediately, comprehensively condemned. So, he ‘revealed,’ on 25th March that an, unspecified, ”Asian consortium” wanted “to pay £2.8m” for Vale “and rent the stadium” from him. And, bingo, on 2nd April (fans checked the date, I’m sure), Vale formally confirmed “a Confidentiality and Exclusivity agreement” with “the Shanahans,” rather than Synectics, “regarding the purchase” of club and ground “in their entirety.”
Significantly, Garlick’s staff would help them “through the legal process and the Football League compliance procedure.” Not a Smurthwaite in sight or, crucially, sound, as the parties promised to keep schtum “while the process is ongoing.” And fan protests are suspended for the duration.
Smurthwaite may wish to focus more on Nuneaton, where he began acting as a self-styled “facilitator” to help Boro’ find new owners and has since been acting like he owns the place (ground AND club). He has struggled to shake off suspicions that he does own the place. There were reports that he’d insisted he could sack then-manager Nicky Eaden when they met in September.
In response, Smurthwaite’s solicitors published a letter saying that he’d acquired the ground “and nothing else” and “did not acquire any interest in Boro Leisure Ltd, Nuneaton’s holding company, and never intended to do so. But Boro’s ownership when he began “facilitating” was a mystery.
Previous owner Lee Thorn said he had ended his involvement in June and he formally ended his club directorship on 1st August. But his controlling shareholding disappeared from public view. Smurthwaite hadn’t managed to “facilitate” anything other than ground rent and no-one appeared to own Boro until former non-league player and “refurbishment company” owner Nick Hawkins emerged in early November.
There is a disheartening football-business logic to the Liberty Way purchase. Suburban Coventry-born Smurthwaite is a Coventry fan. They will likely need a new home soon, for a many well-documented, dismal reasons. Nuneaton could be that home, with a slight bend to league regulations, which Smurthwaite surely knows.
This would explain his awkward-bugger attitude to being Boro’s landlord, confirming last November that he had “threatened to take possession of the stadium because (Boro) haven’t paid me their rent,” which left “the landlord no option” (more third-person pomposity) “but to invalidate the lease.” Leaving an empty stadium for…
In February, Smurthwaite told the Coventry Telegraph newspaper that “the plan” to help Boro “doesn’t seem to have done any good at all.” Indeed, Boro were relegated shortly after body-swerving an HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) winding-up petition when an unspecified local businessman paid a £32,000 tax bill. And the prospect of multiple relegations or extinction looms if their financial fortunes don’t reverse rapidly.
Smurthwaite meanwhile denied he had ever “spoken to anyone at Coventry” about anything other than arranging a pre-season fixture. But if he wanted to quash speculation that he’d given the issue of hosting Coventry in Nuneaton much thought, the Telegraph interview didn’t help.
He claimed Liberty Way would be “big enough…if Coventry wanted to put a 25,000-seater stadium there. It has the space to do that.” And he suggested that “Coventry should consider selling” its Ryton training ground “and using Nuneaton instead. “That would work,” he insisted. Well, for him certainly. Especially if Boro went bust or were relegated so far that he could legally own both them AND Vale. Not that he’d given the issue much thought. Such co-incidences take a lot of planning, after all.
Still, maybe Smurthwaite DID buy Liberty Way “to give a lifeline (to) an area to which I have a personal affinity,” as he claimed last Oct…no, you’re right. Especially considering his strange comments last July, about “finding out” that he owned a football club after the deal was done. Grounds seem to be his bag. “I was in the process of buying another League Two stadium last year,” he also revealed (he was linked to Torquay United in 2015, after reports that he intended to retire to Devon).
In December 2015, Smurthwaite claimed: “I have never lost money on a transaction in my adult life and I am not starting now.” Given his record at Vale, you have to wonder how. And while Vale remains unsold and financially self-insufficient, their ‘director’s loans’ figure increases, which equally increases Smurthwaite’s asking price, as he won’t lose money on his Vale “transaction.”
There seems little other way out than to give Smurthwaite his money back and tell him to fuck off. Because a Shanahan is surely better than a Smurf, But, as ever in modern football, being better barely matters.