200% has observed events at Burslem from a distance over the summer, as Port Vale appeared to be slowly edging towards an exit from administration. In recent weeks, Vale have begun to slowly edge nowhere. In the first of a two-part piece, Mark Murphy summarises what has happened, and what hasn’t happened at the club since April. In part two, he will try to detail why.

Last April, there were three bidders interested in buying League Two Port Vale out of administration Since then, a preferred bidder was selected, proof of funds produced, a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) agreed with creditors, including the local authority, ownership documents signed and the preferred bidder declared “100% owner” of the club. At the time of writing, there are three bidders interested in buying League Two Port Vale out of administration. So why has so much happened, yet nothing changed? First signs were good, even to the jaundiced eye required to look at modern-day football club administrations. Co-administrators Bob Young and Gerald Krasner of Begbies Traynor selected their preferred bidder using the straightforward criteria of who offered the most money to creditors.

With Rangers’  administrators tying themselves in Glaswegian knots to satisfy all sorts of competing interests, it was refreshing to see Young and Krasner adhere so precisely to their primary objective as officers of the courts. And they were open with fans about creditors’ interests and the long-term interests of Vale. Both interests were to be served. But creditors came first. Lancashire businessman Keith Ryder supplied the most money for creditors and was duly selected preferred bidder from a final shortlist of three which included successful local businessman, fans’ favourite and long-time Vale suitor Mo Chaudry. Chaudry had done more to unify Vale’s support during the protracted power struggle which preceded and at least partly caused the administration. However, as he later confirmed, his offer provided little tangible for Vale’s creditors.

Ryder was something of a mystery presence. But links quickly emerged between he and what fans still routinely reference as “the discredited former board of directors,” Ryder having loaned Vale £100,000 in January and therefore being a creditor himself Connections with the discredited directors are an eighth deadly sin in Burslem. But Ryder overcame this with a series of early PR successes, among which was a commitment to unveiling a statue to Vale legend Roy Sproson, which had caused huge tensions between the discredited directors and fans. Ryder also supplied early “proof of funds” and an early willingness to talk to fans via the 1600-strong Supporters Club (SC). His CVA proposals offered creditors (including himself) a measly 3p in the £, with major creditors Stoke-on-Trent city council set to take a £1m hit as a result of writing off money outstanding on a 2006 loan to Vale.

And there were early signs that negotiations had been less than straightforward, with disputes over how Ryder would pay £800,000 to the city council for the freehold to Vale Park. Ryder himself confirmed newspaper claims that a decade-long payment plan was one of the options, something not destined to play well with council tax payers in the wake of austerity measures the council were taking elsewhere. Nonetheless, Ryder’s CVA proposals were accepted by 87% of creditors and he was just one step away from completing his takeover when last season drew to a close. At the end of May, Ryder was still that one step away, as the Football League delayed what had seemed like the formality of approving his bid while they sought “further information” on Ryder’s business plan for the club.

Ryder ‘explained’  that “we are working to complete our takeover in June, as has always been the case.” And June had indeed been the quoted month for the deal to go through. But Ryder made himself a hostage to fortune by letting slip June 22nd as the specific target date. On June 21st Football League spokesman Peter Hannan confirmed that the league “continues to await a response to the request for further information from the prospective new owner and administrators at Port Vale.” And the club only issued a formal statement on the situation in response to a story in the local Sentinel newspaper and the publication of some specifics in an SC statement. Ryder told the SC about discussions with the council on “an important ‘deed of covenant’ which the authority requires to safeguard football at Vale Park for future generations.” He added that the league were “waiting for a copy of the contract, which has been held up by detail of the covenant agreement and by the solicitors acting for various parties,” and told the SC “a deal would go through by June 22nd” adding that he was “confident that it would be completed by the end of the month.”

The football club’s statement, on June 22nd, confirmed the above, and Ryder told the Sentinel “We are working towards a completion of June 30th, and that hasn’t changed,” although it had only changed TO June 30th once it was clear that the takeover would not be completed by the 22nd. Four days later, it was reported that Ryder and the council had “reached agreement over the so-called ‘Vale Park covenant,’” and the Sentinel added a more detailed explanation of the delays, citing “a dispute over the wording of an agreement regarding what future commercial development could take place at Port Vale’s stadium.” Administrator Bob Young told the Sentinel that it was just a matter of wording, adding that “Keith had agreed houses won’t be built there but there was an issue over the future potential for sensible commercial development in relation to the ground.” The council version of this was “the flexibility for ancillary commercial development including retail, leisure and office facilities (to) enable appropriate development to complement and enhance the viability of Vale Park.”

Young also confirmed that Ryder had now sent the league their requested further information, including a “three-year cashflow plan and profit forecasts,”  as part of a “new submission” to the league, which seemed to confirm that the deal’s funding was linked to, perhaps even reliant upon, the “ancillary commercial development.” After plenty of “edging closer” headlines, the takeover appeared completed on July 6th when the club announced that “Port Vale FC Ltd is 100% owned by Keith Ryder.” This, though, only confirmed exactly what it said, not the “Ryder completes takeover” stories which briefly appeared as a result. And eleven days later, the takeover was still only edging closer. Ryder told the club’s website that “the process is taking longer than expected…(as)…deals of this magnitude have to be thorough.” It transpired that Ryder was still: “liaising with the Football League about necessary paperwork.” And he had to “appeal to everyone to stay positive.”

Supporters Club chairman Pete Williams added: “I understand the Football League are being particularly cautious with regard to Port Vale in the light of recent events at Glasgow Rangers and Portsmouth.” And Bob Young said that “quite a draconian provision by the Football League,” was holding things up. “It’s difficult for Keith to just say ‘yes’ to it just like that,” Young added. But on July 20th, it was reported that Ryder and the league had “resolved” the issue – whatever it was. Four days later, he told the Sentinel: “We have now signed all of the contracts in addition to the membership agreement from the Football League,” And while Ryder added that “this document needs to be signed by the Football League itself,” the paper felt ready to claim it was “likely that Ryder will be uncorking the Champagne at some point this week.”

And then…nothing. Ryder went underground, refusing even to answer the SC’s calls. On July 31st, Bob Young told the Sentinel: “I am treating what he says with a fair bit of scepticism.” And it emerged, unexpectedly, that money was now the major problem. Ryder had funded Vale players’ wages, 50-50 with the players’ union, the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) and funded Vale’s pre-season trip to Ireland, although it wasn’t clear whether or not this was a loan. But despite claiming “I have seen proof of funding,” Young was forced to issue a “put up or shut up” ultimatum to Ryder. SC chairman Williams claimed that “he just wants a bit more time (24 hours) to complete the deal.”. And, predictably, that deadline was missed.

Young was forced to re-open negotiations with “two alternative bidders,” including one of April’s unsuccessful bidders (not Chaudry). And new problems have emerged with every passing day. The ground is not yet fit for the purpose of staging league football, fans were told just last week, a situation being rectified by those fans, probably as I type. And, perhaps more disturbingly, the vast majority of the first-team squad are taking legal advice on proposed changes to their contracts in the light of the ownership vacuum. Two-year contracts given to a number of players during the summer were signed by Ryder. And the administrators, legally unable to take on such “long-term” liabilities while the ownership situation remains unresolved, have proposed making the contracts yearly, while honouring the financial terms. “No-one has walked away,” said Vale’s PFA rep Gareth Owen, “but players will have to consider their futures.” As will Port Vale as a whole, after a summer full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, has put them back to square one.

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