Turmoil Week: Port Vale
Following SJ Maskell’s torrid Pompey prologue of yesterday, the spotlight now falls on a second club beginning with P: the Valiants from Burslem in Staffordshire and a business that has fallen on decidedly hard times after punching above its weight for much of the nineties. We last heard from Tom Bourne in June; his coruscating post casting a light on troubling events at Vale Park. Now, he brings the story up to date – and it ain’t pretty reading.
Who said following a football club was easy? Summarising Vale’s often traumatic 2010-11 season in these pages back in June, I signed off with the thought, ‘The only thing that is certain, is that things are uncertain. Surely next season can’t be as dramatic. Can it?’ Well, yes it can. Events in recent months have been fast-changing, baffling, chaotic and difficult to keep track of, as a catalogue of misinformation and disturbing revelations have emerged, all centred on the question of Vale’s latest ‘ownership’.
The last 12 months in Burslem have been played out against a backdrop of suspicion, mistrust and deceit, but there were hopes that the 2011-12 season would be the start of a new era, one that placed a premium on the relationship between the club and its supporters.
The arrival of each new season is met up and down the land with familiar tales of shattered dreams and broken promises, but there was finally some hope for optimism in ST6 over the summer. The semi-removal of the deeply unpopular V2001 regime was finally accomplished (with directors Mike Lloyd and Glenn Oliver surviving the cull), albeit leaving the Valiants with a dysfunctional board as a result of the club’s EGM. Micky Adams, arguably Vale’s most popular manager since John Rudge, returned following his own traumatic time at Sheffield United. Added to this was the promise of significant new investment. Finally, years of living a hand to mouth existence were coming to an end, to be replaced by a new era of openness and transparency, overseen by the self assured new CEO, Perry Deakin. Or so we thought.
In fact, this much heralded era of openness and transparency lasted only about a month. Things had started off promisingly enough. An overhaul of an under-performing Commercial department began. A new catering contract with Azure was signed, along with the announcement of a ‘staggering increase’ in commercial income for the first quarter of the financial year. Unfortunately, none of this news told fans anything remotely useful, or gave any definitive figures. This was becoming a trend with many of the club’s official press releases. By telling the supporters practically nothing, it then becomes very hard to prove or disprove the statement. Being economical with the truth would be one way of describing it; others wouldn’t be so generous.
The latest saga centred on Vale’s much trumpeted £8 million pound investment from American synthetic pitch manufacturer, Blue Sky International. Hang on, I hear you say. Haven’t I read about another American synthetic pitch manufacturer showing an interest in the Vale? Yes, you have. You wait 135 years for one and then two turn up at the same time. Former Chairman Bill Bratt spent six long months working ‘day and night’ on a deal with Ameriturf, only for it to be ridiculed within about five minutes by concerned supporters.
The club’s initial announcement of Blue Sky’s investment was mysteriously released at 5pm on the day of Vale’s home match with Bradford City. The announcement said that the club had secured a deal which would see an initial £5 million investment into the club over the next 12 months. The partnership would also see developments to Vale’s training facilities, completion of the Robbie Williams suite and – a real vote winner if there ever was one for supporters – an additional £2.5 million earmarked for ‘community outreach facilities’ throughout Stoke-on-Trent. To this day, I have yet to meet a single person who has any idea what a community outreach facility is. When asked how much the club would actually see of this money, director Mike Lloyd replied, ‘All of it’. The problem with the deal, it was to transpire, was that much of it was news to Blue Sky and their CEO, Hank Julicher.
At the time of the announcement regarding BSI’s proposed investment the club went to great lengths to assure sceptical fans of the deal’s merits, despite obvious doubts. The first of these emerged when fans discovered that Blue Sky was set to invest only an initial £150,000, with businessman Peter Miller providing a further £250,000. Mr Miller, a man who seemingly appeared out of thin air – a feat quite remarkable for someone of his physical stature – would go on to make quite an impact during his short spell at the club.
Who is Peter Miller? Is he a Vale fan? Well, no. He had no previous connection with the club or the area. Is he a white knight, a rich businessman prepared to ride to the rescue of a small provincial club? Well, no. If he was rich he would hardly have required the huge salary it was eventually announced he would be getting. Does he have a track record of success in football? Well, no. He is principally known for brief and controversial involvement with Northampton Town and Luton Town. How he came to be involved at all remains deeply mysterious.
One of the notable themes throughout the turmoil of recent times has been the constant diet of mistruths that supporters have been fed. An example is the specially arranged Q&A between Deakin and supporters on September 28th. Deakin categorically stated that he had ‘purchased’ £100,000 worth of shares, paid for with his own money. This would prove to be false.
Unlike the battle to remove V2001, where supporters felt they were often ploughing a lonely furrow, this time they found a powerful ally in the local newspaper, The Sentinel. Following the announcement of Vale’s staggering new investment, things appeared to be going a little too quiet for many supporters’ liking. Following enquiries by the paper, the club were forced to issue a statement confirming that there had been a hold up in Blue Sky’s investment, but assured concerned fans that this was a mere contractual issue, which had been caused by Thanksgiving in America.
Given past events, not all were convinced. The club’s cause wasn’t helped by news that Ameriturf were warning of legal action and seeking a payment of $86,294.12 to avoid court action after Vale ditched their proposed investment in favour of the deal from Blue Sky. What made things even more interesting was that Tim Hollinger, CEO of Ameriturf, claimed that Peter Miller was a founding member of AGS, and was ‘intricately involved in the formation and business of Ameriturf Global Sports – in particular the Port Vale deal’. Hollinger went on to add that, ‘Mr Miller [subsequently] brought Blue Sky into the investment, because he thought he would make a better deal with them, and my understanding is he received a cash payment from them’.
Worse was to follow. A further expose by the Sentinel revealed that neither Miller nor Deakin had purchased a single share between them. Both Deakin and Miller were subsequently voted on to the board of directors by shareholders in the mistaken belief that this information was correct. Deakin calmed startled supporters by reassuring them that he had issued a ‘promissory note’ to put the money in, and had since paid for his shares in full. All of which was with his own money. The Sentinel could find no evidence of this. The legal ramifications of such a move are unclear, but the sheer nerve of the pair was astounding.
During a meeting with the committee of the tireless Port Vale Supporters’ Club, Miller and Deakin stormed out when confronted with this information, their petty retaliation being to lock supporters out of a meeting that evening, which was to have been held on club grounds. What was arguably even more disturbing were documents showing the contract handed out to Miller on his appointment. These revealed that he had secured himself a rather tidy deal to become Vale’s new Chairman: a salary of £100,000, eight Business class flights per year, accommodation, the provision of a vehicle and ‘reasonable` business and sustenance expenses. I guess that depends how big your appetite is. How a club in Vale’s position could possibly justify handing out such a package is mind-boggling.
Meanwhile, Julicher responded to stories of the ‘contractual snag’, claiming the only snag was, well, that the deal was dead, if it ever existed in the first place. Speaking to the Sentinel, Julicher commented, “I can tell you categorically that Blue Sky will not be investing in Port Vale Football Club.
“The deal is dead and has been, in my eyes, for a long time. I simply don’t know where these figures of £5 million and £8 million came from. It was never our intention to invest that kind of money into Port Vale. I’d have to be crazy or on drugs to agree to such a thing.”
Copies of the contract showed that Blue Sky was only ever planning to invest a maximum £500,000 and that this was dependent on the club securing millions of pounds of funding. Here, things really started to unravel. Despite continually telling supporters he had paid for his shares, Deakin then revealed that he and Miller actually planned to fund their share ‘purchase’ via Blue Sky themselves. Now, not only was this dishonest but it also contravened the club’s articles of association, which prevents investors from acting together to buy shares. This was indeed used as justification by V2001 to turn down local businessman Mo Chaudry and life-long Vale Supporter Mark Sims’ joint bid back in the summer.
Sensing the proverbial was about to hit the fan, Deakin hastily announced his resignation, though added to the sense of fun by somehow having us believe that mysterious forces were at work, and that he had been placed in an ‘impossible position’, through ‘no fault of my own’. So, the man tasked with running the club from top to bottom was merely doing what he was told. If you were being generous, you could describe the board as incompetent, at best. Deliberately misleading supporters would be a more accurate description.
If the story couldn’t possibly get any more depressing, news that Miller had remortgaged Vale Park did just the trick. The loan, dated the 6th December, was taken out with Gibraltar based Continental Solutions. Just who is behind this company is, at the time of writing, unclear. The mortgage was in clear breach of the club’s existing loan from Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which precludes the club from taking on any more debt while the original loan remains in place. Speculation that the loan was taken out to pay for Miller and Deakin’s shares was denied, with the explanation being that it was needed to keep the club afloat and pay for day to day operations, including player wages. Given that Deakin and Chairman Peter Miller (who was conspicuous by his absence at this point) both stated that they had purchased their shares, worth £350,000, it would seem more than a little odd that the club should be so short of money at this point. This didn’t stop the club issuing a statement on December 29th, stating that Miller’s chairmanship would terminate at the end of the month. The reason given was that his appointment was only intended as a fixed term contract until the end of the year, with Miller tasked with sourcing new investment following the collapse of Blue Sky International`s proposed deal. This is the same deal that up until a few weeks ago fans were being assured was very much alive. Laughable.
This was a marked shift in language from the board, with the remaining directors seemingly attempting to place the blame entirely at Miller’s feet. Lloyd, himself, denied any knowledge of the loan, even going as far as to claim his position was somehow tenable.
As for the future, who knows what financial skeletons there are in the Vale Park closet, with administration looming as a very real possibility? Former director Stan Meigh has pledged to back the Supporters’ Club in their attempts to push for another EGM and the removal of the current board. The majority of supporters are watching this development warily, with the prospect of any former directors returning to the fold providing an uneasy sense of déjà vu. The fact that Meigh has subsequently held talks with Bratt and potential new investors, shows their desperation to regain power at all costs.
One of the most heart-warming aspects of this sorry tale has been the continued passion and determination of the Vale fans. Although loyal and long-suffering, it would be fair to say that the Vale faithful have historically been somewhat more tolerant than our neighbours down the A500. The events of the last 12 months have proven otherwise. In an era of greed and commercialisation, it can sometimes be forgotten just how much football clubs mean to their community. The Vale boards, past and present, have chosen the wrong people to pick a fight with. It’s one I’m convinced they will not win.
There has been a collective failure and an abuse of trust by those tasked with safeguarding the club’s future. Trust and patience ran out a long time ago. It looks like being a long, hard winter once more at Vale Park. Things can’t be as dramatic next year. Can they?