The Two Unfortunates Health Checks: Port Vale
Having kicked off our new Health Checks series at the end of 2018 with Paul Wilkinson’s excellent account of the past, present and future of Crewe Alexandra, we are pleased to welcome back a stalwart of the Two Unfortunates’ decade long history, Tom Bourne. Here, Tom runs the rule over fortunes at Port Vale while he can be followed on twitter at @thethomasbourne.
When asked by the esteemed editor of this website to provide an updated health check on the Vale following my series of articles on the club’s financial turmoil several years ago, Rob Langham offered the useful titbit that ‘Vale are a club where are an article could be similar had it been written at any point in the past five years and, I suspect, the next 5 too’. Which is an all too accurate and sobering thought, as the club, since the heady days of the 1990s, has tended to find itself in some form of self-inflicted malaise, whether on or off the pitch.
The Past Five Years
So, in health terms where are the club 5 years on from those articles? Having endured almost 3 seasons of the worst football of my lifetime on the pitch and the club increasingly directionless off it, you could say, overweight, unfit and unless some serious lifestyle changes are made, at risk of premature death. By the close of 2018, Vale had won just 9 out of 46 games, ranking 85th out of the 92 clubs. A statistic which accurately reflects the state of affairs and should act as serious wake up call.
While much of the focus was on financial issues at the time, there was at least some stability on it. Out of the gloom of administration came a glimmer of sunlight and hope. A memorable promotion, courtesy of Micky Adams and Tom Pope’s 33 goals, a rare high point since the turn of the century. Mid-table respectability in League One followed, but with Adams’ departure early the following season, his tenure reaching a natural end point, his assistant Robert Page firstly kept the side in the division, before ending the next in a satisfactory 9th placed position.
Much of Vale’s on the field woes can be traced back to the end of the Adams reign, though ultimately one man will be seen to be held responsible, owner and chairman Norman Smurthwaite. Though Adams himself could be somewhat of a marmite character, he did a fine job at Vale and was the last of the battle hardened, experienced managers that the club have had, whilst still retaining the ego and ambition to succeed. Perhaps more importantly, Adams was something of an unofficial CEO as well. One revelation in his autobiography, Micky Adams, My Life in Football, Adams recalls a meeting with Smurthwaite regarding a new contract. “He told me that any contract offer would not be forthcoming, and he was shelving any talk about fresh terms and we should continue as we were. To be honest, I was seething. He then hit me with another verbal right-hander: I need your help. I don’t know how to run a football club.’” Well, as Vale supporters will testify, nothing has changed in the intervening years. Adams introduced shirt sponsors, helped negotiate kit deals and was a key in getting Vale a 20 per cent sell on following Jordan Hugill’s move to Preston North End, a move which subsequently earned the ‘club’ a whopping £1.9 million.
In my previous article, I wrote of Smurthwaite’s decision to dispense with Page, who – whilst cautious – was viewed as a bright, articulate young manager, respected within the game and by his players. However, it appeared not everyone felt the same. Notably Smurthwaite. An FA Cup defeat at Exeter City being the catalyst. The pitch side bollocking Page was subjected to suggested his departure was imminent. Though he survived until the end of the season, and snapped Northampton Town’s arm off after their offer to manager them, his decision had effectively been forced by Smurthwaite’s desire for change.
The squad was dismantled after several players were offered reduced contracts in the hope that they would be rejected. Vale needed strengthening in a couple of areas, notably a wide player and a striker to challenge for a play off place, or, if Smurthwaite had set his heart on a change of management, to pay the going rate for an experienced manager. To continue the health theme, if the patient needed teeth whitening it was given open-heart surgery instead.
Among the players to depart was the talismanic Pope. Smurthwaite suggested there was better value to be had. In truth, Vale couldn’t afford to lose him. The exciting ‘change’ appointment was the hapless Portuguese Bruno Ribeiro and his rag tag and bobtail collection of players sourced via You Tube and a dubious sounding recruitment agency. Maybe that’s the same thing. If that sounded like a disastrous decision, then so it proved. An expensive mistake which need rectifying by Christmas. However, the January transfer window weakened the side, with Alex Jones leaving for Bradford City and key players Anthony Grant and Jak Alnwick departing to Peterborough United and Glasgow Rangers respectively. Michael Brown failed to prevent the inevitable relegation.
The return of Pope the following summer rekindled hope, but a faltering start in which Brown made Ribeiro look like Rinus Michels led to his inevitable departure. Fans of nostalgia or Port Vale in the 90s would have been delighted with the appointment of former captain and club legend Neil Aspin as manager, with the legendary John Rudge in an advisory capacity. Aspin had carved out a post-playing CV with various non-league clubs, Harrogate, Halifax and Gateshead. Whilst enjoying some success at Halifax, including the development of a certain Jamie Vardy, that no other league club had appointed him after a decade in non-league was perhaps telling. Rumours that then Macclesfield Town manager John Askey, operating on one of the lowest budgets in the National League, was actually offered the job on worse terms than his existing ones were suggestive of the market Vale were shopping in.
Given the mess he inherited, the side with only 5 points from the opening 11 games, Aspin did well to keep the side in the division. Early signs were encouraging. Vale enjoyed a storming December, a draw at Colchester United, wins against Carlisle United, Cambridge United and eye catching victories over Coventry City and a thumping 4-0 win over Champions elect Luton Town. That was to be as good as it got. Once more, the transfer window wasn’t kind to a Vale manager. The limited but effective Gavin Gunning received a more lucrative offer from Forest Green Rovers and Burnley loanee Tom Anderson was recalled and subsequently loaned out to League One Doncaster Rovers. What followed was a truly grim second half of the season. Vale survived by a solitary point, winning only two games after New Year. That was almost single handledly down to the redoubtable Pope, who at 33 and carrying a catalogue of injuries remains something of a throwback player and character. In an era where players change clubs more often than underwear, Pope has been a credit to the club he supports and currently stands one goal away from the 100 mark for the Valiants.
The Current Situation at Vale Park
Hopes were a little higher, if still realistic, of an improved season this time around. Aspin recruited some much-needed leadership. Scott Brown, arguably Vale’s best player so far this term, was a smart bit of business after being an ever present in goal during Wycombe Wanderers’ promotion last year. Leon Legge, likewise in defence, has added some much needed ballast. The signing of striker Ricky Miller, a player with plenty of ability but also plenty of baggage has proved less of success, his solitary league goal coming on the opening day of the season.
A 6-2 home defeat to Lincoln City proved a low point for Aspin, with five goals conceded off set pieces. His tetchy post-match interview where he took umbrage with people questioning his team selection, despite that selection consisting of 4 centre backs in defence, a centre back in midfield and a full back on the wing seemed justified. In fairness, the team responded in the image of its manager by rolling up their collective sleeves and grinding seven points out of the next nine, with three clean sheets. However, since the home win over Bury at the end of October results have suffered. What looked a make or break month of fixtures for the trajectory of Vale’s season, against teams towards the wrong end of the table, yielded little. With only a single point taken in home games with Cheltenham Town, Grimsby Town and Oldham, Athletic alongside draws at Morecambe and Macclesfield Town, it was little surprise that Aspin began to come under pressure. Despite kicking off the New Year with a creditable point at leaders Lincoln City, Aspin’s downbeat post-match interview gave the impression of a man who had had enough.
In truth, being a teenager during Vale’s golden period of the 1990s, I find it very difficult to be critical of the man. An inspirational player, and a decent and honourable man who clearly cares passionately about the club, there remains a huge amount of goodwill towards him. However, the aforementioned 2018 record has been poor. A particular bugbear among supporters has been an overly conservative approach, something also labelled against him at Gateshead, and a seeming over reliance in interviews on the importance of endeavour and hard work, surely a prerequisite among footballers. In fairness to Aspin and his predecessors, it has to been noted that it is a difficult job and one that he and his coaching staff are certainly not over-remunerated. He cares, the players seem to be playing for him and for man of his standing, regardless of your views of him as a manager, it has been disappointing to hear some of the more personal abuse he has suffered. Which is exactly why the club needs to adopt a more enlightened approach towards appointing managers. From Roy Sproson to Brian Horton, Martin Foyle, Dean Glover and now Aspin, former players, no matter how legendary, end up leaving in a manner unbefitting of their playing status. Whether change to the managerial position is made or not, it is only a change in ownership that will see the club move forward.
Which brings me on to the current state of the club’s financial health, of which little is truly known. With much focus on the state of on the field matters, things have been more sedate off the field, though that reflects more on a weariness and sense of apathy among supporters who have been ground down over the years, rather than to a sense of contentment with what is happening.
The initial feel good factor, post-promotion, with Smurthwaite hoisted on supporters’ shoulders has long since dissipated.
Concern among supporters is a lack of transparency, with very little detailed accounts published regarding income or wages. What’s for sure is that anytime an owner of a football club splits the ground from the club, alarm bells begin to ring.
If having overseen the club’s decline from 9th in League One to 20th in League Two wasn’t bad enough, there has been a litany of errors (too many to fit into one article) to compound it. From the pronouncement that he rejected Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as a potential manager due to a racist minority of supporters, to the complaint of being assaulted by supporters (an incident that Staffordshire Police could find no record of), while his PR and diplomacy tends to be more in tune with Donald Trump’s.
Over the last few seasons, the club has received some much-needed income. As previously mentioned, the sell on fee for Jordan Hugill, other transfer sales, alongside fees received for youth players total over £2.5 million, yet very little makes its way into the playing side of the club. Although there is little documented on the club’s commercial income, Smurthwaite has previously stated that the club is losing £80,000 per month. When compared to clubs of a similar size, for example, Tranmere Rovers, who when in the National League, were turning over some seriously impressive numbers and making a profit of over half a million pounds, you wonder why Vale’s figures are so depressingly poor in comparison. You can draw your own conclusions to that question, but either the club is incredibly poorly run, or that money is going out of the club, possibly to pay back Smurthwaite’s Directors’ Loans. Now you could reasonably say, well it’s his club and it’s his prerogative do what he wants with any of the money generated, but it’s certainly not a model conducive to achieving any success on the pitch. At the time of writing, promises made by Smurthwaite that unbudgeted revenue generated by cup runs, the televised FA Cup game against Sunderland as well as money from the second payment of Hugill’s sell on fee have not materialised. You often wonder why football owners up and down the country are so keen on holding on to supposedly failing, debt-ridden businesses.
Over the last few months, attention has centred on the plight of National League North club Nuneaton Borough following Smurthwaite’s purchase of their Liberty Way stadium. Confusion followed with no one appearing to know who actually owned the club, with Smurthwaite passionately denying it was him. This excellent piece by Chris Evans explores the situation in detail, but suffice to say, Smurthwaite made few friends over the saga. Following Nick Hawkins’ purchase of the club, he claimed that Smurthwaite had reneged on an agreement not to charge rent for the period until a new owner was found. Goalkeeper Cameron Belford seemed to speak for the whole of Nuneaton when referring to Smurthwaite as ‘a bit of a prat’.
None of which is to say that the club is anyway rotten to the core. A club at this level should be one which engages with the local community and the Port Vale Foundation Trust, the club’s community scheme, continues to do some sterling work, along with the Port Vale supporters club. The media department has overseen a massive improvement during the last year, providing some excellent insight into behind the scenes activity, while the club’s Youth set up continues to thrive, with several of its number being sold on to Premier League clubs. 15 year old Nelson Agho, the latest off the production line, appeared as a substitute in Vale’s checkatrade win at Walsall in November. Unfortunately, modern football means that lower league clubs are rarely the ones to benefit from their talent.
The Next Five Years?
So where next? Much of the anger of recent years appears to have been replaced with apathy, as if the all turmoil has worn down many supporters, though there were signs during the 3-0 home defeat to Colchester United that animosity is building among the masses towards Smurthwaite. For now, the current manager and owner remain, but there are enough recent examples, such as Stockport County or Chesterfield, that there is only so long you will get away with systemic failure.
What are Vale? A selling club? A club that produces it’s own players? A club which is well run? Or a club which exists week-to-week and result-to-result with little idea of its ultimate direction. It’s certainly a club which needs a spark and preferably new ownership. History can’t keep repeating itself.
As to the club’s health, the patient is willing, but is the Doctor?