Lest we forget… we almost didn’t have a Port Vale to support

The Port Vale Supporters' Club meeting in January 2012 at which a letter was signed by fans calling for a police investigation into the club's affairs.

The Port Vale Supporters’ Club meeting in January 2012 at which a letter was signed by fans calling for a police investigation into the club’s affairs.

As Port Vale’s preparations for the new season continue, everything looks rosy.

Owner Norman Smurthwaite continues to please the faithful with his own unique brand of public relations.

The club has a popular new shirt sponsor in trade union the GMB and the impressive new club shop is the flagship for infrastructure improvements at Vale Park.

Season ticket sales are going well in the light of a remarkable, against-the-odds promotion to League One, and some quality additions to the playing squad have created a genuine buzz around Burslem ahead of the big kick-off.

So as an exciting new season dawns, is there any point – some will say – in dredging up the past?

Because that’s exactly what yesterday’s news about the liquidation process for Valiant 2001 and the ongoing police investigation does.

Many supporters have welcomed the announcement that insolvency practitioners Begbies Traynor have become liquidators for the company which formerly owned Port Vale.

But others may well question the merits of digging through the ashes of the most turbulent time in the club’s history.

Some may argue that it is perhaps better to let sleeping dogs lie and focus on all the positives as the club enjoys a much-needed period of stability in terms of finances and leadership.

For me, however, the situation just isn’t that simple and I am pleased that Begbies Traynor will soon be attempting to recover further monies it believes are owed to creditors.

As we all watched as the incredible promotion campaign came to a conclusion in May, a few of us still had half an eye on some unfinished business.

We knew the police investigation instigated by the Supporters’ Club into the activities of some former directors was still trundling along.

We also knew that the administrators for Valiant 2001 would very soon become liquidators and that their powers would increase dramatically as a result.

Now Begbies Traynor can throw their weight behind the task of determining whether there was any wrong-doing on the part of directors who ran Port Vale prior to March of last year.

I well remember, in the midst of the battle to remove the remaining members of Valiant 2001 from office, there was a very raw anger at the way in which fans – and especially shareholders – had been treated by the board of directors.

There was a belief, which I shared, that supporters had been misled over the proposed Blue Sky investment, misled over the issuing of so-called ‘nil-paid’ shares and not told at all about the infamous ‘Gibraltar loan’ which involved the re-mortgaging of Vale Park from under the nose of key creditor Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

I recall how Supporters’ Club members canvassed fans on the turnstiles before one home game in 2011 about the election of Perry Deakin and Peter Miller to the board of directors in the mistaken belief that they had personally invested £100,000 and £250,000 respectively into Port Vale.

Of course, it was subsequently revealed that neither man had paid for the shares which they used to vote themselves on to the board and which, effectively, devalued the shares owned by more than 900 ordinary fans.

These supporters dipped into their savings and used their hard-earned wages to buy shares in the belief that they were helping their club and would forever own a little piece of their beloved Vale.

To have those shares – hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds’ worth – wiped out when the club was placed into administration by the city council was a bitter pill to swallow.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Supporters’ Club was right to ask Staffordshire Police to investigate the running of Port Vale by a board discredited in the eyes of many fans.

I am convinced that, if financially viable, the liquidators should use all powers at their disposal to chase up monies owed to Valiant 2001 – thereby recouping as much cash as possible for out-of-pocket city council taxpayers.

In my opinion this genuinely is a case of justice being seen to be done in the eyes of those who lost out and were treated so shabbily by some former Port Vale directors.

It’s about making sure that every single penny that can be recovered for creditors is recovered and perhaps ensuring that fans of other football clubs don’t suffer the same losses and humiliations inflicted on Vale supporters.

We can, of course, all look forward to the new season but it does us no harm whatsoever to remember how close we came to not having a Port Vale to support.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel and my Vale columns every Friday, during the season, in The Sentinel

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A cautious welcome to Vale’s (new) preferred bidders


This time there will be no counting of chickens. The champagne will remain well and truly on ice for several months yet and that is no bad thing.

Today’s public confirmation of Paul Wildes and his business partner Norman Smurthwaite as the new preferred bidders for Port Vale Football Club is, however, a welcome step in the right direction.

Whether or not the deal will actually happen and whether or not Mr Wildes and Mr Smurthwaite have the money to lead the troubled League Two club into a bright new era remains to be seen.

They’ve certainly got their work cut out to win over a fanbase which has been lied to, misled and spectacularly let down in the last few years.

After the previous anointed one, Lancashire businessman Keith Ryder, did a Lord Lucan there was a lot of head-scratching and a good deal of finger-pointing.

A minority of Vale fans blamed the administrators and the Supporters’ Club for being ‘taken-in’ by Ryder.

In fact, Bob Young from administrators Begbies Traynor, subsequently admitted that he had perhaps given the first preferred bidder too much time to come up with the cash.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing and, in fairness to the administrators and the Supporters’ Club, no-one can deny that Ryder had given every indication he wanted to do the deal.

After all, why would he give up his non-refundable deposit of £60,000, and shell out tens of thousands of pounds more in paying for things like half of the monthly wages bill if he didn’t intend to go through with the takeover?

I met Keith Ryder privately three times and found him to be a perfectly decent, plausible and candid bloke.

As did the vast majority of the 500 plus Vale supporters who listened to him speak at a fans’ forum event.

Yes, I had my reservations about a man who didn’t seem to exist on the internet and who didn’t have what I would call ‘a proper job’.

But despite what conspiracy theorists and know-it-alls might say after the event, there really was nothing to indicate that Ryder would do an 11th-hour vanishing act.

The lesson that many of us have learned by closely following the Port Vale saga is that football clubs tend to attract opportunists, egos and eccentrics.

Unfortunately, the likes of Stoke City Chairman Peter Coates – a local man with a passion for his boyhood club and, crucially, the brass to match his ambition – are extremely rare.

Thus, after the unmitigated disaster of the fan-owned club experiment, the Vale is forced to take its chances with businesspeople who see potential in the club and believe they can turn a profit down the line.

There’s nothing wrong with that. Indeed, most supporters will tell you that what Vale is actually crying out for is hard-nosed business people with some commercial know-how.

I hope Paul Wildes and Norman Smurthwaite are two such blokes and I know the majority of fans will give them a fair hearing and a cautious welcome – irrespective of what has happened in the last couple of years.

One of the positives to come out of this troubled time is that Vale fans have, for the most part, pulled together and become critical friends of their club.

Many are well-read, well-informed and care enough to devote countless hours to scrutinising developments at Vale Park – both on and off the field.

However, this is a double-edged sword and internet forums inevitably attract a minority of attention-seekers, troublemakers and people with axes to grind.

Thus Mr Wilde’s character, business interests and personal wealth have already been debated to death before he’s even been unveiled to the media.

The fact is, whether we like it or not, Port Vale is a club in administration and we’ll get what we’re given by the administrators whose job it is to seek the best deal for the creditors.

I actually think Begbies Traynor deserve enormous credit for agreeing with Stoke-on-Trent City Council to cap their fees – effectively working for several months for no additional money.

Had Port Vale not been dealing with administrators who are local to the area and had it not been for the support of the council I dare say we wouldn’t have two professional clubs in the Potteries anymore.

Today Paul Wildes, the man who wanted to take control of Darlington not so long ago, will be presented to Vale supporters experiencing a whole range of emotions – from hope to fear and suspicion all over again.

I am sure he and his business partner are well aware that their would-be customers have had a really rough time in recent years.

Fingers crossed, the first thing they will do is reassure ordinary Vale fans of their intentions regarding the club the supporters have fought so hard to save.

I have to say I was heartened by yesterday’s statement about holding a fans’ forum as it shows they clearly understand the need to invest time and effort in building up trust.

I hope they also realise that it would be commercial suicide for them to become friendly with any previous members of the board of directors at Port Vale or for these individuals to be seen swanning around the ground again as if they own the place.

Thankfully, they have already had the good sense to distance themselves from previous bidders for the club which is a smart move.

The new men will know that the current squad is doing a remarkable job under difficult circumstances and I hope Messrs Wildes and Smurthwaite will work to tie players down on proper contracts as soon as possible.

I think most of us reckon this Vale side has a genuine shot at promotion if we can protect what we’ve got and strengthen in key areas. Investing in the squad is a sure-fire way of the preferred bidders earning the goodwill of fans who have been starved of success for so long.

Presumably, Mr Wildes and Mr Smurthwaite realise that Micky Adams is a good manager who, together with his back room staff, is doing a tremendous job while the club remains in administration.

Micky and his team were led up the garden path by previous directors and badly let down by the first preferred bidder.

That being the case, I hope the new men don’t mess the gaffer around.

Finally, when I meet them today, I will tell Mr Wildes and Mr Smurthwaite that on Saturday, November 17, a statue honouring Port Vale’s greatest servant – Roy Sproson – will go up at Vale Park.

I am sure they will understand that this is an important day for many reasons and that the unveiling of this sculpture, funded entirely by Vale supporters, symbolises that this is a club with a proud heritage and an extremely passionate and loyal fan base.

I would simply ask, therefore, that the preferred bidders help us make it a day to remember.

Read my Port Vale articles every Friday during the season in The Sentinel