TTU Season Preview 2012-13: Increasing Woe at Port Vale
One of the highlights of our Turmoil Week series of posts back in January was Tom Bourne’s analysis of the financial shenanigans at Port Vale, although Valiants fans will have been little cheered. Since then, events at Vale Park have become yet more labyrinthine and uncertainty remains ahead of Barnet’s visit tomorrow afternoon.
The ending was swift, predictable, painful, and yet all too avoidable. As gloomily predicted in these pages at the turn of the year, the club’s catastrophic mismanagement had only one obvious and dismal conclusion. Vale’s extricable slide into administration was finally confirmed on the 9th March 2012. Lancashire based businessman Keith Ryder’s deal for the club has seemingly collapsed at the 11th hour, ending a summer of hope and leaving the club in turmoil only days ahead of the coming season, thus marking the continuation of what has been a scarcely believable sequence of events in the Potteries over the last 18 months.
Months of mistruths and make believe, protests, smear campaigns, in-fighting and self- interest, all orchestrated under the watch of Messrs Peter Miller and Perry Deakin, finally unravelled. The writing had been on the wall for some time following the collapse of the pair’s much trumpeted Blue Sky International investment, of which a whopping £8 million was to be ploughed into the club.
The end game became apparent during the Valiants’ game at Northampton Town at the end of February. BBC Radio Stoke reported that the club had been issued with a winding up petition as a result of a missed payment to HMRC. The transfer embargo subsequently imposed prevented Vale from fielding new signing Chris Birchall, a move that clearly infuriated manager Micky Adams, whose patience and enthusiasm were to be obviously, publically and not always wisely evident over the following months.
If ever a piece of news set alarm bells ringing, this was it. A rather ominous and perhaps pertinent statement was issued by a spokesman for the HMRC stating, “Ensuring tax is paid on time should be at the centre of a football club’s business strategy, just as it should be for any other enterprise. Any business that regards paying tax as an optional extra, or that uses tax collected from employees or customers as working capital, is heading for trouble.” Given the stance taken by HMRC with clubs such as Glasgow Rangers, it was clear that the Vale were on the road to ruin.
True to form, Mike Lloyd and Perry Deakin attempted to deny all responsibility, going as far as to blame supporters for the club’s predicament. Lloyd started promisingly enough at least, by apologising, sort of, before going on to blame stay away fans, police and legal costs, and the starve ‘em out campaign for the mess left behind. The former Walsall chairman went on to claim that the bloated salaries handed out to the equally bloated Miller and his partner in crime Deakin did not contribute to the club’s financial woes.
Meanwhile, Deakin claimed that as a result of decisions made by others, Vale had started the financial year with a zero bank balance, leaving little room for manoeuvre. Yet during the months preceding this he was all too happy to eulogise the club’s record commercial figures. His explanation for the bungled investment was that he, along with his fellow directors, simply got ‘carried away’ with the proposed deal. “As a board we will look back on the Blue Sky announcement and everything that involved it, and there will be some regret that we allowed ourselves to be carried along on a wave of optimism because we felt it was a great deal.”
The task of safeguarding the club’s future fell to a familiar face in Bob Young. Young, now with the insolvency firm Begbies Traynor, oversaw Vale’s exit from administration a decade ago. This time he was armed with the redoubtable Gerald Krasner and Steve Currie for good measure. On his arrival at Vale Park he assured supporters that, ‘During the course of our duties, we will establish the underlying reasons for the failure of the business, and we will investigate any matters that are bought to our attention’. This was something that immediately interested supporters who had taken an active involvement in recent developments. The ‘phantom’ shares ‘bought’ by Miller and Deakin are now part of a wider investigation into goings on at the club. In the words of the old adage, revenge is a dish best served cold.
On the pitch, administration and the subsequent ten point deduction all but ended Vale’s season. Sitting only two points off the play-off positions, and arguably playing their best football of the season, the developments came as a crushing blow. Following Vale’s dismal 2-1 defeat at home to Barnet, the first match since administration was formally announced, Adams gave a typically emotional and spiky interview with local radio, in which he suggested that promises had been broken over which he would be seeking legal advice. These promises, it transpired, were over player wages which hadn’t been paid for the month of February. ‘I had been given the message that as soon as he [Young] came in, the administrator would pay the boys the money they are owed, and he doesn’t.’ Quite who told Adams this is unclear, but in his address to Radio Stoke on the Friday evening preceding the game, Young suggested it was not in his remit to pay wages in arrears, but that he had secured funding to ensure players and staff would be paid from then until the end of the season. Speculation that Adams was to walk out of the club for a second time came as a particularly bitter pill to swallow for supporters who were having to dig extremely deep, financially and emotionally at a difficult time.
A key player in recent months has been Stoke on Trent city council. During the past twenty years Vale fans have seen the local authority very much as Stoke City council, a point of view given substance by the role played by the authority in the building of the Britannia ‘Community’ Stadium and its later transfer at a knockdown price to one of the country’s richest men and by the council’s banning of the lucrative Port Vale market in August 1991.
Credit then must go to the council, and in particular its leader Mohammed Pervez, for recognising the importance of the club to the local community and the local economy. Already Vale’s largest creditor as a result of an existing £2.25 million loan, the decision to underwrite the cost of administration was a huge political hot potato, coming at a time of widespread budget cuts, totalling some £24 million. Without the council’s intervention, the story would be a very different one. Pervez explained at the time, ‘We need to make it clear we have only opened a window of opportunity for the club. We will still need to find an investor who is offering a viable and sustainable future for the club. Without this unfortunately liquidation could well be on the table again in a few months’ time”.
Therein lay a major problem. Just who exactly would want to take on the club? Widespread fears that a consortium involving previous directors was more than justified, although Young did his best to ensure supporters that this would not be tolerated. News of an anonymous bidder sent fans into a state of frenzy, while revelations of interest from Staffordshire based firm IPP prompted a deluge of emails to the company, who subsequently announced they would not be pursuing their interest, owing to the amount of publicity their possible publicity stunt had incurred.
All of which left the spectre of one man. Long- time suitor Mo Chaudry. The Waterworld owner has proven to be a somewhat divisive figure among Vale supporters, not necessarily through any fault of his own. Wittingly or unwittingly, Chaudry has arguably been the most important player throughout this story. It was his initial interest and very public campaign to wrest the club from V2001 that precipitated the mood for change, one that became a very powerful vehicle empowering supporters to reclaim what was seen as rightfully theirs. The appalling way in which his bid and he himself personally were treated by those in charge opened the eyes of people who were previously staunch supporters of the fan-led regime. V2001’s motto of ‘For us all’, began to look increasingly like ‘For us, and anyone but Mo’. However, this was also reflected among supporters. Many saw Chaudry as the rightful saviour no matter what, while others remained sceptical and were happy to sit back and see what the best deal was for the club. This was a sad reminder of just how much damage had been caused by those in charge.
As for the man himself, Chaudry had taken more of a back seat, although after declaring his interest once more, the signs of a successful outcome appeared distant from the moment he openly criticised the administrator’s policy of allowing potential bidders to remain anonymous. “I’m dumbfounded by all of this. Surely we’re not in a normal business when you keep things behind the scenes in a cloak and daggers scenario. The fans should be able to make some sort of judgement call on the credentials on the individual and what their real motives are for the club.” Given Young’s clear expression that he was duty bound to accept the highest offer for the club, Chaudry was never likely to be a serious contender, having previously stated that he wouldn’t overpay for the club to pay off existing debt.
That honour went to the little known Keith Ryder. Given the level of mistrust amongst supporters, speculation as to who Ryder was and what his motives were, went into overdrive. Especially when the two most feared words known to football supporters, ‘Property’ and ‘Developer’ were uttered by Young.
This speculation was only heightened when news broke that Ryder had expressed an interest in investing under the doomed regime of Miller and Deakin, even going so far as to loan the club £100,000 back in January at a time of crippling cash flow problems. Essentially a private individual, Ryder conducted himself impressively in his brief early dealings with supporters. His meeting with fans at an open forum on the 18th April suggested that he was exactly the kind of sensible, professional businessman the club required. With supporters having been put through the mill by the previous inhabitants of the Vale Park boardroom, Ryder appeared, at least, a welcome change from those that promise the earth and deliver little.
However, if supporters had learned one thing over recent times it is that nothing is straightforward. Despite Young’s continued pronouncements that the deal was only days away from completion, days turned into months. Persistent delays led to growing frustration and impatience, with fans becoming increasingly restless at a time when reassurance has been difficult to come by. Despite hopes for a fresh start and the building of bridges between supporters and the boardroom, the Vale faithful have once again been treated with utter contempt. Little if any news was made public, despite the best efforts of the Port Vale Supporters Club.
The reason for the delay appeared to change daily; with the increasingly mysterious Ryder stating only a simple signature from the Football League was required to rubber stamp the deal. Evidently this was not true; the real reasons for the deal’s collapse will become clearer over the coming days and weeks. The mystery only deepens given that Ryder paid a non-refundable deposit of £70,000 on becoming the preferred bidder, supplied Young with proof of funding confirming he had the necessary finance to complete the deal, paid half of July’s wage bill, funded a pre-season trip to Ireland and handed Micky Adams an increased playing budget enabling him to ‘sign’ half a dozen players. Not the obvious behaviour of a man hoping to get out the deal.
Ryder finally got in contact with the supporters club to claim ‘personal problems’ were the cause of the hold up. Quite how the situation has been allowed to escalate and whose version of events are true only time will tell. Nevertheless, it is the supporters who are once more left to pick up the pieces. Matters fast became embarrassing, if they weren’t already. With the new season nearly upon us, season tickets have only just been issued; sponsorship and commercial activity appears to be non-existent, and for much of the summer there has appeared to be no one actually running the club on a day to basis.
An example of this resulted in Vale’s pre-season friendly with Coventry City played behind closed doors as essential maintenance work had not been carried out, leaving the club without a safety certificate. Once again the generosity of the Vale faithful has seen this rectified. While supporters awaited developments, the Football League sent back player contracts signed off by Vale’s would be saviour. Young assured the authority that Vale will be able to see out the season as a going concern, giving time to find a new buyer in the meantime. A suggestion that the players effectively sign rolling monthly contracts until such a time a buyer is found resulted in the squad seeking legal advice. Thankfully a compromise has been reached, with the original contracts now being honoured; though the administrators will not be responsible for any liabilities should the club be liquidated in nine months’ time.
The fact the club has been taken to the brink of extinction through pig headedness, incompetence and mismanagement on a colossal scale is nothing short of scandalous. It has been a sorry tale over these past 18 months, one that has caused divisions among supporters and driven away countless others. The biggest job of whoever takes over will be to try and win back those whose love and belief in the club has been shattered by recent events. Many long standing, devoted fans have gone; some will never return. As for me, I’m thankful to still have a football club to support. It’s a start.