Uncertain Times at Port Vale
On this day, the Summer solstice, supporters should be wedged into a period where footballing issues come second to family holidays, all those cultural pursuits that we’ve neglected for the past 10 months, and DIY. Instead, though, too many of us are forced into a state of continued misery where ownership wrangles and uncertainty over our clubs’ futures mean that we’re still glued to the headlines, unable to go a day without logging on to the messageboards to keep up with the unfolding drama. At Port Vale, supporters are very much involved in ongoing efforts to revive their ailing club; Valiants supporter Tom Bourne lets us in on the whole story.
Although not widely publicised outside the Potteries, events at Vale Park last season must surely have ranked among the most chaotic in the Football League. A season that promised so much and yet delivered so little descended into a scarcely believable farce that has since paralysed the club. After months of claim and counter claim, propaganda, in-fighting, back-biting and scare-mongering, hopes that the club’s long awaited EGM would bring a definitive resolution proved to no avail.
Having taken the club out of administration in 2003, the current Board, many of whom are life-long fans, were in credit with supporters after working hard to turn things round in those early years. However, a failure to secure much needed investment, spiralling debts and a breakdown in relations with the very supporters on whom its charter was based (“To run the club openly, democratically and to give the fans a voice in the running of the club”) has led to increasing dissatisfaction. With a seemingly credible bid on the table from local businessman and Secret Millionaire Mo Chaudry getting nowhere, the mood has changed, with previously staunch supporters of the regime now questioning the direction of the club and the motives of those in power.
It was in August that the first signs of the off-field discontent that would overshadow much of the season were seen. New York-based businessman Mike Newton went public with his efforts to take over the club after becoming frustrated with a lack of communication from the Vale board. Newton impressed many with his passion and enthusiasm, although not all were enamoured with his haircut, choice of footwear and affiliation with boyhood club Stoke City. The Board’s response was to reject Newton’s offer 5 to 3, angering many with the lack of explanation of the reasons why.
On the pitch, Vale were sitting pretty in second place in League 2 in mid December. However, the departure of manager Micky Adams to Sheffield United saw the wheels begin to fall off, with the Vale eventually finishing in eleventh position.
The loss of the club’s prize asset and the arrival of yet another new investor in town saw the Board come under increasing pressure. December’s AGM had seen the resignation of long time director Mike Thompstone, but it was local millionaire Chaudry who was making the most noise. A familiar tale began to surface, but for the first time a prospective investor had the support of a large section of the fan base. The Black and Gold campaign was subsequently set up by a group of supporters to:
– enable fans to have access to information about potential investment;
– make the current Board accountable for any decisions they make about such investment;
– continue a disciplined and orderly form of protest until the Club is under new ownership.
The campaign soon threw its weight behind Chaudry’s bid and peaceful protests began after home games.
Meanwhile, on the pitch the excitement that usually greets the arrival of a new manager didn’t last long. The former Stockport County boss Jim Gannon was confirmed as Micky Adams’ successor on 6th January 2011. Gannon was well known to Vale fans for his spell as a player at Stockport during the 1990s, when the two clubs enjoyed a fierce rivalry. Having achieved promotion from League 2 with County by bringing through and selling young talent, the Irishman appeared at first glance to be an ideal fit for the club. However, you didn’t have to dig deep to find a different story. Gannon had a reputation as a firebrand, an abrasive, difficult character who could fall out with his own shadow.
A more urgent problem arose from Gannon’s needless and reckless desire to tear up everything that had gone before. Vale required evolution. What they got was a revolution. Out went Adams’ favoured high tempo 4-4-2 and in came Gannon’s slow, methodical, continental 4-2-3-1 formation. Out went fans’ favourite Gary Roberts. In came lumbering Peterborough loanee Exodus Geohaghon as the ‘defensive shield’ in midfield. A quick internet search at the time didn’t sound too promising. The Peterborough Evening Telegraph’s Chief Sports Writer Alan Swann remarked of Vale’s new signing, “‘Exodus Geohaghon has massive presence, but then so would a woolly mammoth and you wouldn’t ask one of them to mark Marcus Tudgay”.
In the midst of this, Vale’s promotion hopes were swerving worryingly off course. A defeat at local rivals Crewe, in what was probably Vale’s worst performance of the season, resulted in an alleged dressing room altercation between Roberts, Gannon and club captain Tommy Fraser.
Further stories of discontent amongst senior pros began to emerge. There was talk of Gannon being placed on gardening leave. Somehow, 24 hours later, Vale produced their best performance under the new boss to defeat promotion rivals Rotherham United. However, the feeling was that another disaster was just around the corner.
Maybe not a corner. More a section of the M6. A story so bizarre it had to be true saw a bust up between Gannon and his assistant Geoff Horsfield. Both left the team bus, which travelled on unattended by any coaching staff. The story has been told to death. What the truth is only those involved know, although allegations emerged regarding the conduct not only of Gannon, but also of Horsfield. What was clear, was that the pair could no longer work together. This gave chairman Bill Bratt and Co the perfect opportunity to display strong leadership. Instead, the incident was swept under the carpet, but this was to come back to haunt the Board. Gannon, clearly unhappy with the lack of support shown, appeared to sign his own death warrant with his team selection at Accrington. An unsavoury incident involving Geohaghon and the travelling supporters was to be the last anyone saw of both the unpopular player and manager. Gannon needed to be shielded from supporters at the end of the match and failed to travel back to the Potteries with the team.
With the promotion charge faltering, so the campaign for change at boardroom level intensified. The Starve ’em Out petition was set up, calling for a boycott of season ticket sales and sponsorship until the removal of the present regime was achieved. As things stand, the club could lose well over £500,000 in revenue.
Lifelong fan and businessman Mark Sims joined together with Chaudry in a revised bid, which also got nowhere. Despite previously sponsoring the club to the tune of over £200,000, Sims also appeared to be persona non grata with the Board. If any supporters remained unconvinced by the future direction of the Vale, Sims’ open letter to Bill Bratt, issued on supporters’ website One Vale Fan, should have removed any doubt. All of which led to supporters’ group the North London Valiants calling an EGM in an attempt to remove the Board.
The EGM on 1st June proved to be a confusing and complex affair. A vote of no confidence in the Board was carried, although the attempt to scrap the maximum individual shareholding of 24.9% failed. Directors Peter Jackson and Stan Meigh were voted off, although chairman Bratt and directors Glenn Oliver and Mike Lloyd survived the coup. Sims, meanwhile, was nominated for a place on the Board. Although a large majority of shareholders voted for the removal of the Board, they effectively remain in power as a result of their own personal shareholding. In addition to this was a late change in voting. Robert Lee, who held £50,000 worth of shares through his company Broxap, was rumoured to have previously agreed to sell these to Chaudry, with the owner in waiting assured that Lee would vote against the Board come judgement day. However, an eleventh hour change of heart emerged, as two unnamed directors agreed a deal to buy the shares themselves. Unfortunately for Chaudry and Sims, who was to be sponsored for a place on the ‘interim’ board by Lee, they only discovered this development as they arrived at Vale Park on the morning of the vote. Fortunately, celebrity fan and major shareholder Robbie Williams agreed to sponsor Sims instead. This came after earlier agreeing to give his proxy vote to Dave Felstead of the Port Vale Supporters’ Club, ensuring that the ‘rank and file’ would have their voices heard.
The aftermath left only three directors remaining, one short of the club’s own Articles of Association, which requires a minimum number of four directors. With the club in limbo and unable to sign players, it was suggested to manager Micky Adams that he join the Board, sponsored by ‘ex’ Director Stan Meigh, a move that has subsequently gone through. The news was understandably met with anger from supporters. Although Adams’ intentions were completely honourable, he displayed naivety in getting embroiled in club politics. The offer of a directorship was also made to the North London Valiants, of whom Malcolm Hirst was nominated.
As things stand, Sims is carrying out his own financial due diligence on the club before deciding whether or not to join the Board, whilst Hirst has agreed a conditional offer of a directorship whilst remaining steadfast in attempts to facilitate change. Chaudry, meanwhile, is threatening to take legal action, believing that Lee went back on a written agreement to sell Broxap’s shareholding to him.
At a time when the club should be bending over backwards to repair relations with the fans, they have only succeeded in alienating and disenfranchising a huge section of the supporter base. This relationship is now surely irreparable.
The only thing that is certain, is that things are uncertain. Surely next season can’t be as dramatic. Can it?