Port Vale Football Club: Under New Ownership

So. Farewell then. Norman Smurthwaite. From Burslem anyway. As, sort of, predicted in these pages.

Predicting Smurthwaite’s departure from League Two Port Vale didn’t make stuck-out neck history, granted. But it was still a relief that he sold Vale, club AND ground, to wife-and-husband long-term bidders Carol and Kevin Shanahan. ‘Never tempt fate with Norman Smurthwaite’ remains sound advice while he remains involved in football. But for the Valiants at least, the future is Norm-less.

The price the Shanahans paid is football-trademark “undisclosed.” They consider it worth paying, though Kevin starkly admitted it was “a silly amount of money…in no way related to what you would buy a football club for.” So, it seems Smurthwaite got his “director’s loans” back, the £2.4m put into Vale over six-and-a-half years while he ran it at a loss which puzzled many fans, especially after Jordan Hugill’s January 2018 transfer to West Ham netted Vale £1.8m via a sell-on clause.

Days into their reign, the Shanahans, with Carol leading the charge, are still in the “making all the right noises” phase. A near-immediate interview with BBC Radio Stoke’s Lee Blakemore included talk of “almost liberating the club.” Other interviews stressed the need to reach out to fans “who have disappeared over the years.” And there have been every-opportunity references to “the Port Vale family,” Carol telling the club website’s Matty Roper that “to me, Vale Park is the family home.”

And she stressed to Blakemore that ensuring “the freehold and the land around (Vale Park) is now owned by the club,” was fundamental because “the income streams from anything at Vale Park will now go straight into the club,” which was perhaps THE “big change” from the Smurthwaite era. And in cautioning that “there is a lot of work to be done on this stadium,” she kept her promise to the Stoke Sentinel newspaper’s long-time Vale correspondent Michael Baggaley “not to over-promise.”

Among the “right noises” were strong hints that the jobs of manager John Askey and CEO Colin Garlick, both generally well-regarded by fans, are safe. Askey talked of “everybody” being “on tenterhooks” before the takeover but you sensed he felt more on tenterhooks than most. Garlick, meanwhile, seemed job-application-anxious to tell Blakemore that the Shanahans had “put their money where their mouth is” and “gone out on a limb to secure the ownership of the club.”

Neither need have worried. Carol told  Blakemore and Baggaley: “As a fan, I watched half the season without John, and the other half with John, and I preferred the half with John. The football was a lot more successful. A joy to watch. He was set a task to keep us in the league and he fulfilled that task and gave the fans a lot of hope.” And Askey has said he is “in negotiations” having been “offered a contract.”

Meanwhile, Carol told Roper: “We must talk about Colin Garlick because he’s been a superb servant for Port Vale behind the scenes, he’s been absolutely amazing. He’s always been available to speak to during the (takeover) process and I’m really looking forward to working with him. I think it will be really good to start putting some of his ideas into place.”

Initial comment from press and fans alike was always going to be positive because the Shanahans are “not Norman Smurthwaite.” But while some of it has sounded a little… fawning, the fawners have plenty of base material with which to work.

Carol and Kevin have run their own IT business, Synectics Solutions, since 1992. And reports of their “illustrious career” have dazzled with jargon, Synectics Solutions being a “Fintech organisation” providing “predictive analytics and data services” (a bit Cambridge Analytica for some, perhaps) to financial and insurance clients worldwide and major UK government departments. They have won all the innovation awards available out of Staffordshire, plus a “Queen’s award for innovation” this year. And what the Queen doesn’t know about predictive-analytical innovation isn’t worth knowing.

That this has produced record company turnover of only £17.2m in 2018 (reported in the Sentinel as £20m) may be worth pondering for another time. But that’s more a criticism of the media coverage (I mean, what I DO know about predictive analytical innovation isn’t worth knowing). Because, in sharpest contrast to Smurthwaite at Vale, the Shanahans at Synectics have turned regular six-figure PROFITS since 2012.

And if you want charity work, Carol has it, and has the right to talk about it all she likes. She has chaired Port Vale’s own Foundation Trust since July 2017. And, along with Kevin and “overseen” by Synectics, she founded the “Hubb Foundation” (incorporated in December 2018 and launched in February 2019) which does all sorts of good deeds with local disadvantaged children during school holidays.

Smurthwaite being Smurthwaite, it would be unsurprising if he bellyached (with plenty of belly to ache) about fans’ ingratitude for “saving” Vale.  But conservative estimates put Kevin Shanahan’s “silly money” at £4m, £2.85m profit for Smurthwaite since November 2012, £485,000 net of director’s loans. If he genuinely thinks he deserves more for what he has done to Vale, then he already has too much. Silence would be Smurthwaite’s best option on Port Vale, now and forever. He also doesn’t seem to be disappearing from the game altogether. Last year, he purchased Nuneaton Borough’s Liberty Way stadium, whilst he remains linked with taking over at the freshly-relegated Notts County.

It isn’t guaranteed that the Shanahans will be successful Vale owners. Football’s test of ownership fitness and propriety is nothing of the sort. And the foibles of individual clubs can always turn the most capable business people into gibbering business wrecks. Inadequate though the Football League’s Owners and Directors test is, there is no foolproof guide. However, a football club’s ideal ownership model would surely strongly resemble people such as the Shanahans.

There is a sizeable Port Vale rogues gallery, particularly though not exclusively from their spells in administration in 2002/03 and 2012. Who can recall Bill Bratt, Valiants 2001, Mo Choudry and Perry Deakin without shuddering? So, true football fans, even Stoke City ones, can surely only wish Port Vale and their supporters all the luck, and synectic solutions, available.