Put our differences aside is the only thing that makes any sense

Norman Smurthwaite.

Norman Smurthwaite.

Just get it sorted. That seems to be the opinion of many level-headed Port Vale supporters as Norman Smurthwaite’s ban on The Sentinel continues.

Forget that respected football writers with a national profile have backed this newspaper.

Forget that the legend that is Robbie Earle thinks a football club banning its local paper is tantamount to self-harm.

I think a lot of Vale fans have taken the view that, whatever the rights and wrongs of this dispute, ultimately it is in the interests of both parties that we seek a speedy resolution.

They are absolutely correct which is why, behind the scenes, that is exactly what The Sentinel has been trying to do since last Friday.

We hoped this row would be resolved days ago and drafted a joint statement – as requested – in an attempt to overcome the impasse.

It seems that statement isn’t acceptable but, rather than having another go at it, we now have to wait until next Tuesday for a meeting – at which presumably we’ll go over the same old ground we did during this Tuesday’s negotiations.

Personally, I can live without it.

After everything that’s gone on during the last three or four years it breaks my heart to see Vale and the newspaper I work for falling out.

Or rather, the Vale owner and this newspaper falling out.

I guess you have to have lived through it – like all Vale supporters did – to appreciate the upheaval, uncertainty, anger and embarrassment at the time.

I certainly never want to go through anything like that again.

For the Vale owner to now fall out with the media organisation which best supported the fans and club during those troubled times seems utterly nonsensical to me.

It’s about 12 months ago to the day since I was on the car park at Vale Park in the pouring rain giving an interview to BBC Radio Stoke’s Stuart George on the breakfast programme.

I was still on the Port Vale Supporters’ Club committee at the time.

Vale was about to come out of administration and I got into an argument with a council taxpayer called Peter, from Trentham, who told me the club wasn’t worth saving and would be bust again with a year.

I told him Vale was worth saving, that the club was an essential part of the city’s heritage and that the new owners wouldn’t let it go bust.

Consequently, Peter – if you’re reading this – you owe me breakfast.

On that morning it occurred to me that the new owners had an opportunity perhaps unlike any previous chairman or chief executive to take over at Vale Park.

The club had no debts, the fans were united, Micky Adams’s team was performing terrifically well on the pitch, and the relationship between Port Vale and this newspaper was stronger than it had been at anytime during the 15 years I have worked here.

Since then our sports team has worked hard to promote the club – providing season ticket publicity and telling our readers about events and the new club shops.

I was given a personal guided tour around Vale Park by the chairman in July and wrote a very positive article for our pre-season supplement which talked up the changes taking place at Vale Park and emphasising Norman Smurthwaite’s hard work and investment.

We’ve also talked several times about problems and potential problems facing the club and I’ve done my best to help him make the club stronger. Furthermore, I’ve personally invited Norman to all of The Sentinel’s flagship community events – the City of Stoke-on-Trent Sports Awards, The Sentinel Business Awards and the recent Our Heroes Awards.

Why? Because he is an important figure in the local community and we want Port Vale to be represented at these dos which provide excellent networking opportunities.

All of this is true and the chairman knows it.

Yet here we are with the team sitting pretty in League One and in a decent run of form and the chairman and this newspaper are at loggerheads.

Over what? A perfectly legitimate story about a delay in the arrival of 1,000 shirts. (Friday’s phone message to me said the ban related to us running ‘negative stories about his club’).

Or possibly because, as the Editor was told, The Sentinel doesn’t make a direct financial contribution to the club in order to be able to cover matches (no newspaper in the UK does).

Or possibly because of the way we handled a story back in May. (The Vale chairman approved the contents of this story before it went to print and it hasn’t been brought up for five months or more).

Having devoted so much time, effort and resources to helping supporters win their battle to save Port Vale why would The Sentinel or I publish anything which we knew would harm the club and damage our relationship with the owner and the fans?

The answer is: We wouldn’t and we haven’t.

Whether you believe me or not, it is an indisputable fact that both Port Vale and The Sentinel working together is good for both the club and the newspaper and for the benefit of the city, local communities and, of course, the club’s commercial partners.

I don’t want our end of season special (hopefully a promotion special) to be canned because we have no photographs taken at home games. I’d like that Vale souvenir to put with all the others we do.

Neither do I want blank spaces or filler images in our match reports. I’d rather see a picture of a fellow Sneyd Greener celebrating his goals, thank you very much.

Neither do I want a nice bloke and a terrific sports writer like Michael Baggaley prevented from doing what he does best.

I can’t say it any clearer than this: We are ready to resolve this dispute for the good of all concerned but it really does take two to tango.

Let’s talk, put differences aside, and get back to the mutually beneficial relationship Vale and The Sentinel have been enjoying since Norman Smurthwaite took over the club.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Friday in The Sentinel

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

Good luck to Smurf but it should be business as usual at Vale Park

Norman Smurthwaite.

Norman Smurthwaite.

So the worst-kept secret at Vale Park since Robin van der Laan’s love of crisps has finally been revealed.

Paul Wildes has departed Vale Park after just seven months as Chairman.

It is a shame that the partnership which helped to see the Vale to promotion has ended.

However, the cracks have been there for some time and the only reason they weren’t public knowledge before this week is that nobody wanted rock the boat – certainly not while the team was scrapping for automatic promotion.

When Norman Smurthwaite first spoke to me it was a telephone call to my mobile. I remember it vividly: I was at Staffordshire University and the call came out of the blue one morning.

It was last October and during that first conversation he told me that Port Vale had been bought with his money.

While I don’t think Paul Wildes ever actually said: ‘It’s my money’, by the same token he did publicly state on a number of occasions that he and Norman were fifty/fifty partners in the deal.

As a result of this, I’m certain that many fans would have believed it to have been a joint initial investment which bought the club out of administration.

If this was any other football club, then perhaps nobody would care where that money came from.

But, given what’s gone on in recent years, it was clear that the knowledge that the initial investment came from Norman Smurthwaite could actually cause Port Vale fans to question the motives and intentions of the new owner/s.

I didn’t want to rock the boat and neither did anyone else who was privvy to that information, including my colleagues on the Supporters’ Club committee, and so nothing was said or done.

Everyone instead stayed positive and focused their efforts on trying to help the club achieve automatic promotion.

Since that first conversation I’ve met with ‘Smurf’, as he’s affectionately become known, on a number of occasions and spoken to him regularly.

Everything Norman has told me has happened how he said it would happen. At no point, thus far, has he given me any reason not to trust him.

He does, by his own admission, occasionally shoot from the hip – but I think supporters would rather have heart-on-the-sleeve honesty than polished flannel, especially given what’s gone before.

It’s been clear for some time that Norman and Paul’s relationship had broken down and that there was a power struggle going on within the club.

For me, the over-riding fear was that the man with the money, the passion and the genuine rapport with supporters would get fed up and walk away.

Thankfully that hasn’t happened and, instead, we have a situation where the man who bought the club, funded our January loan signings and steadied the ship after the Bristol defeat with sensible comment and a rallying call to fans (when some wanted to sack the manager who had put us second), is finally taking over as Chairman.

Presumably he will now bring in an experienced CEO who will report directly to him and surround himself with his own team.

I’d like to thank Paul Wildes for his contribution to Port Vale’s success in the last seven months – not least because it was him that persuaded Norman Smurthwaite to invest in Port Vale in the first place.

On Monday night supporters will be able to quiz ‘Smurf’ at Vale Park and hopefully that will help to allay any fears they may have.

At Port Vale, as with any club, there will always be rumours and conspiracies but I’m convinced the vast majority of fans just want what’s best for the club – even if they express it in different ways.

It’s business as usual at Vale Park so let’s just enjoy the summer.

Let’s stick together, support Norman, buy lots of season tickets and look forward to new signings in the coming weeks as we prepare for life in League One.

We’re Vale aren’t we?

Pick up Saturday’s Sentinel for in-depth Vale, Stoke and Crewe news, analysis and comment

Enjoy the moment… the real work starts now for Port Vale

Monday's souvenir edition of The Sentinel.

Monday’s souvenir edition of The Sentinel.

The euphoria surrounding Port Vale’s promotion (I’m going to call it that, irrespective of the mathematics) won’t die down for sometime yet.

Certainly not until after this weekend’s final game away at Wycombe where the party will doubtless continue.

The scenes at Vale Park and around Burslem after the final whistle on Saturday will live long in the memory.

What was especially nice is that the players, the manager and even owner Norman Smurthwaite were able to celebrate with the fans in the pubs and at a curry house in the Mother Town.

Port Vale is nothing if not a family club and to see the images of key players in the promotion sharing their success with those who make the turnstiles click was special.

It was a great bonding exercise and terrific marketing for the club as the serious business of planning for life in League One begins.

Vale’s attendance on Saturday was 12,500 (admittedly, it looked like more) – but in truth many of those were there specifically to share in what promised to be an historic occasion.

If we’re being brutally honest, the club’s hard-core support in League Two during the dark days of the last 18 months has been around 4,500.

We had the best away support in the division but while that makes such a difference to the players it doesn’t put any money into Vale’s coffers.

Saturday showed the new owners, the club’s employees, lapsed fans and would-be recruits the potential of a club with a ground that is ready-made for Championship football.

The trick now is to convert those who enjoyed an emotional afternoon on Saturday – all the wives, brothers, children, fathers, mothers, grandparents, friends and workmates – to become regulars at Vale Park.

In reality the work of the new owners is just beginning because Micky Adams’s players have done wonders this season and, as a result, expectation levels have now risen considerably.

Anyone who’s been watching Vale regularly knows that we are half a dozen key players short of a team which can compete with the best teams in League One.

And compete we must.

I don’t think anyone should be using the word consolidation. Aspiration is the word we should instead be using. We should be aiming for the play-offs by strengthening the squad through smart signings over the summer.

Then, once we’ve got the 50-odd points on the board which will make us safe, we can see where the season takes us.

Off the field Norman Smurthwaite and Paul Wildes know they are at the start of a long road.

They know that we still tend to run out of refreshments on match days. They know that the seats in certain sections of the ground are a decade past their use-by date – sun-bleached and frost-wrecked so as to be brittle enough to shatter if a ball hits them.

They know Tommy Cheadle’s is too small and not really fit for purpose. They know the Lorne Street needs finishing.

They know the pitch needs re-laying – irrespective of the magic groundsman Steve Speed and his team work.

They know there’s a terrific opportunity to finish the oft-talked about Robbie Williams suite.

They know that Port Vale needs to build bridges with local communities and start getting into local schools to nurture the next generation of fans.

They also know that the honeymoon period hasn’t really ended for them.

Barring a blip about six weeks ago when the team wasn’t performing, Messrs Wildes and Smurthwaite haven’t seen supporter unrest and haven’t had to deal with anger and frustration at games, in the media or on the internet.

The acid test for them will come if we lose six games on the trot and are sitting in the bottom three half way through next season.

That’s when you have to hold your nerve as the owner of a club and not get swept along by disappointment or have a knee-jerk reaction.

This sport is the graveyard of many a fair-weather owner and it is good to know that Norman and Paul who, (by their own admission) are not football people, are ‘in it for the long-haul’.

I certainly hope so.

They have been as good as their word so far, backed the manager in the transfer market, and done their best to listen to fans’ concerns.

In return, I hope supporters will give them time and all the backing they need when the going gets tough.

After everything that’s gone on in recent years – the protests, the boardroom shenanigans, the broken promises, the fantasy deals, the administration, the bucket collections, the vanishing bidder and finally a takeover – this season’s achievement must rank up there with one of English football’s greatest comebacks.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget that very soon the administrators who successfully sold the club will soon become liquidators for the old Valiant 2001 business.

This will give them far greater powers and certain people who owed Valiant 2001 (and its creditors) money can hopefully expect a call soon.

Let’s also not forget that, thanks to the Supporters’ Club, Staffordshire Police are currently investigating allegations of wrong-doing by some former directors of the club.

These activities don’t affect the Port Vale which has just been promoted to League One but I’m sure they are still important to the many fans and shareholders who lost out when the club went bump.

For now, however, Port Vale fans can enjoy the moment and reflect on just how far their club has come.

From the blink of oblivion to promotion and celebration.

Who would have believed it?

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

Smurthwaite calls for noisy fans and no let up as Vale close in on promotion

The Bycars End on Friday night.

The Bycars End on Friday night.

Four wins from the last four games is what Port Vale owner Norman Smurthwaite wants from the team as they close in on automatic promotion.

Speaking ahead of the vital home game against Aldershot, Vale’s chief executive said he expected no let up from the team he has dubbed ‘the entertainers’.

He said: “Micky and the lads know exactly what they have to do and the fans will have done the maths.

“I certainly don’t want the chairman or owner of any other club pointing a finger at us and saying we took our foot off the gas at any stage of the run-in.

“I want us to finish on a high with four wins and take that form into next season. I don’t see any reason why we can’t do that.”

Smurthwaite paid tribute to the role supporters have played in the club’s successes so far this season and called for fans to be a twelfth man again tonight.

In the wake of Friday’s 7 – 1 drubbing of promotion rivals Burton Albion, he said: “When I saw our players before the game I could sense they were up for it.

“As they stood in the tunnel the noise was immense and I think it really lifted the lads. There was a sparkle in their eyes and a swagger about them I hadn’t seen before.

“What followed will live long in the memory. It was a terrific advertisement for the club and basically said to people who aren’t among our hard core of fans: ‘If you want to be entertained, come to Port Vale’.”

Vale dropped the price of admission to just £9 for the Burton game and saw the crowd swell to almost 11,000 as a result.

Smurthwaite said: “That attendance has certainly given us some food for thought as we consider season ticket and walk-up prices for next year.

“Listening to the chanting competition between fans in the Railway Stand, Bycars End and Lorne Street was just brilliant.

“It was the kind of atmosphere that our fantastic away following generate. I am so proud of them when we travel.

“They have definitely been the difference in some games this season – like in the last 15 minutes against Chesterfield where we snatched a point.

“The trick for us now is to create that kind of buzz for all our home games.”

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

Let’s stick together and finish the job

Vale manager Micky Adams.

Vale manager Micky Adams.

It’s amazing what a difference a win makes: How, a clean sheet and a couple of goals can reinvigorate supporters and inspire some optimism.

This time last week there were some, probably a minority, calling for Micky Adams to be sacked. Perhaps some still are.

But to have given the manager the boot with eight games remaining and us sitting in the automatic promotion spots wouldn’t have made any sense at all.

Not to me, at any rate.

If we get to the end of the season, don’t get promoted and then our new owners want to discuss the manager’s future with him behind closed doors then fine.

But you don’t sack your manager when you’re third in the table. Unless, of course, you’re owned by a Russian billionaire.

Yes, our form of late has been poor. Yes, the manager has to take some responsibility for team selections and tactics that haven’t paid off.

Yes, in an ideal world we would all have hoped the Ryan Burge Twittergate incident could have been handled differently.

I, for one, just want to see the lad who has been a key component of our successful midfield back in the team ASAP.

But for all of the disappointment and frustrations of the last month or so, we still find ourselves handily placed for the run-in.

When times get tough then that is when the manager, the player and the club itself need our support.

That’s when we need to take a step back and get some perspective.

That’s what Norman Smurthwaite provided with his calm assessment of the situation and rallying cry to fans this time last week.

Twelve months ago we were in administration and had you told Vale fans back then that in a year’s time we’d be second in the table most would have laughed.

Had you told most supporters that we’d have new owners who would have increased the wage budget for players by 40 per cent they would have scoffed.

We are in good shape and it is still all to play for this season. Let’s stick together and finish the job.

Let’s forget about the teams around us and forget about winning the league. That would just be a bonus.

Finishing in the top three and avoiding the lottery of the play-offs has to be our priority.

Seven cup finals: That is how we have to approach the remaining games – starting tomorrow with what, on paper, has ‘home win’ written all over it.

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.

‘Not the time for falling out. The players and manager need a cuddle…’

Vale co-owner Norman Smurthwaite.

Vale co-owner Norman Smurthwaite.

Norman Smurthwaite says he knows exactly what the Port Vale players and manager need right now – and it’s not criticism.

The club’s chief executive and co-owner has called on supporters, home and away, to get behind whoever wears the shirt.

Smurthwaite said: “What the players and the manager need at this moment in time is a cuddle. They need us – the owners, the staff at the club and – crucially – the fans, to put our arms around them and make them feel warm and loved.

“We can all see what is going on. We know that results haven’t been going for us, but criticising the players and the manager who have put us in the automatic promotion places won’t help.

“Every other team and set of fans is out to get us. Our team and our manager are there to be shot at, and we can help take some of the heat off them by encouraging and supporting them at this difficult time.

“The younger players aren’t daft. They know that this is their time and they know that unless they do the business they could end up painting and decorating Vale Park rather than playing here, which is a real privilege.

“Of course, fans are entitled to their opinions and I understand their frustrations, but the truth is that everyone at the club is just as disappointed as them at the way things have gone recently.

“I can assure the supporters that no-one hurts more than the players and the manager when we get beat. Micky Adams is a proud man and he doesn’t accept failure.”

On the subject of the manager, Smurthwaite was unequivocal in his support.

He said: “Micky Adams is going nowhere. He will be at York on Saturday, he will be with us until the end of the season and I fully expect him to be with us next season when we will hopefully be in League One.

“There is no doubt that Micky Adams was one of the key reasons for me buying this football club.

“As much as I saw potential in the stadium, I could see that we were lucky at this level to have a manager of his calibre and experience.

“I was also struck with what he and the group of players he had assembled had achieved in the early part of the season before we came in and spent money to strengthen the squad.

“If ever I’m feeling low I think back to that terrific day in the FA Cup at Sheffield United. I was so incredibly proud – even though we lost the game.

“On that day I saw our potential. I saw how we could stand toe-to-toe with teams from a higher level, play good football and have fantastic supporters.

“It is about re-discovering the spirit of earlier on in the season when the club was fighting for its life.”

On Tuesday night, midfielder Ryan Burge took to Twitter to claim he was just five minutes away from Bristol Rovers ground on Tuesday when he received a text saying he was not in the Vale squad.

Asked what he thought about players voicing their disappointment at being left out of the squad on social media, Smurthwaite said he was disappointed.

Smurthwaite said: “In a perfect world this kind of thing wouldn’t happen and issues between the manager and the players would remain behind closed doors.

“However, I trust the manager and the players to get their heads together and sort these kind of things out.

“They are grown-ups and they’re paid to do a job. This isn’t the time for fallings out.

“At the end of the day we need the best possible team out on the pitch on Saturday – irrespective of personal grievances.”

Despite Vale’s recent poor run, Smurthwaite said he was still “loving” the challenge.

He added: “It was unfortunate but I had to be away for a few days and I returned to a real storm.

“But nothing will divert myself or Paul (Wildes) from our goals. We are here for the long-haul.

“I hope that the fans can see that we’re doing our bit and are happy with what we are doing.

“It is a massive learning curve because we are still relative newcomers to the business of football, but I’d like to think the fans can see that we’ve done everything that’s been asked of us.

“As an example, the wage bill for players and player support has gone up by 40 per cent in the time we’ve been here. That’s a significant investment to try to help the manager.

“Paul and I, and our staff, are working hard – perhaps doing the not-so-glamorous things which make the business sustainable because we want to build Port Vale up and go higher.

“There are lots of positives, lots of things we are working on which the supporters aren’t aware of just yet, but which will help the club down the line and improve the experience for fans.

“However, we understand fully that all that matters in the end to our customers is what happens out on the pitch on a Saturday or a Tuesday evening.

“I don’t believe that our early season form was a fluke. The fans know what our lads are capable of. We’ve seen the best of them and we’ll see it again soon – I’ve no doubt about that.”

For all the latest Port Vale news, views and pictures pick up a copy of The Sentinel. The Weekend Sentinel on Saturday includes The Green ‘Un sports paper with extensive Vale coverage.