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?

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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

‘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.

I look forward to tweeting-up with everyone (Come on Vale…)

The Twitter home page of yours truly.

The Twitter home page of yours truly.

The Leopard Hotel in Burslem has played host to some big names during its long history.

A couple of years ago none other than the crown prince of pop music himself, Robert Williams esquire, turned up with his entourage to engage in a night of ghost-hunting at the famous hostelry.

It is not known whether our Rob communed with the spirits of guests who once frequented the ‘Savoy of the Midlands’ as The Leopard was known.

However, he certainly followed in the footsteps of some illustrious names that night.

Names like Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley who met in the Burslem hotel 248 years ago next month, to be precise, to discuss the building of the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Yes, some of the great pioneers of the industrial revolution once supped at The Leopard and tonight their modern day equivalents will be doing just the same. Sort of.

The Sentinel’s digital staff – the people in charge of our online operation – have organised ‘a tweet-up’ this evening.

OK. I’ll admit I had to look up what it meant. Basically, a ‘tweet-up’ is a face-to-face gathering of people who use Twitter.

In this instance, it’s a chance for users of the social network to meet up with their favourite/most annoying Sentinel journalists and, crucially, other influential Twitter users from our neck of the woods.

I can’t promise that the conversations will be as deep and meaningful as the one had by Wedgwood and Brindley in March 1765 but we’ll give it a go.

Tonight’s meeting of ‘tweeps’ (check me out with the lingo) underlines just how much The Sentinel has changed since I first arrived at Etruria 15 years ago.

Back then email was in its infancy, this newspaper didn’t have its own website and there was no such thing as Twitter or Facebook.

Nowadays our ‘digital audience’ (people who visit The Sentinel’s website) is more than 513,000 a month and this figure is continuing to grow at a rapid pace.

The immediacy of the internet trumps newspapers, television and even radio reporting and it’s something that even Luddites like me have had to embrace.

Indeed, most journalists would be worried if it weren’t for the fact that so much of what’s written on the web is nonsense and, thankfully, people still rely on trusted brands for their information.

Sentinel newspaper. Sentinel website. It’s all still The Sentinel, I guess.

What’s interesting to me is the kind of people from our patch who use Twitter to communicate with their friends/colleagues/contacts/fans and the wider world.

You’d be suprised at who’s tweeting and perhaps, more so, by who isn’t.

Stoke City and Port Vale players, darts maestros Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis, England cricketer Danielle Wyatt, mobile phones billionaire John Caudwell, the Chief Constable of Staffordshire, Vale chairman Paul Wildes, stage star Jonny Wilkes, your MPs, local councillors, and the chief executives of some major employers locally, to name but a few, are all at it.

What’s more, some of them even write their own tweets. (You can usually tell by the spelling mistakes).

Tonight a fair few of them will be meeting up at The Leopard.

In a pub that’s more than 250 years old a bunch of people, some of whom have only ever met ‘virtually’, will be brought together by the wonders of modern technology and the promise of a pint.

Yours truly (@MartinTideswell) is even being forced to miss watching Vale beating Wimbledon just up the road in order to be there.

Hacked-off because there’s too much Stoke City and not enough Port Vale in the paper? Or vice-versa? Our Sports Editor Keith Wales (@SentinelSportEd) will be having his ear bent about that old chestnut.

Want to talk campaigns or have an issue with one of our stories? The Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief
(@MikeSassi) will be explaining his thinking.

Have a question about The Sentinel’s Business Awards? Our Business Editor (@annking) can probably help.

Fancy venting your spleen about the city council’s plan to relocate its civic HQ from Stoke to Hanley? Our local government reporter Alex Campbell (@CouncilReporter) will be only too happy to listen.

Then there’s our star turn – my columnist colleague and ascerbic TV critic John Woodhouse
(@jwoody67), who will be doing a Twitter-related stand up routine. I kid you not. (He’s quite good, actually).

I just have one request: If you’re one of the Twitter users who’s going along to The Leopard tonight, go easy on my colleagues, won’t you?

Most of them don’t normally leave the safety of The Sentinel’s bunker to meet their followers/readers in person.

In fact, it might be better at the start if you limit your conversations to 140 characters until they all get the hang of this talking lark.

Mine’s a Diet Pepsi and a bag of dry roasted peanuts, by the way. Cheers.

*To sign up for tonight’s tweet-up email: chris.hogg@thesentinel.co.uk or david.elks@thesentinel.co.uk

*A video of tonight’s tweet-up will be posted on The Sentinel’s website at 9am tomorrow.

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday

The Leopard in Burslem.

The Leopard in Burslem.

Hats off to the Norman and Paul. Now let’s get the Pontiff signed up…

valebadge
Talking to Vale fans this week there’s confidence and hope in abundance that this season we will finally climb out of the lowest tier of English football.
This confidence is based on two things: Firstly, the majority of performances thus far by a terrific set of lads, put together on a shoe-string by Micky Adams and his staff, which have put us top of the league and, secondly, the addition of four vastly experienced players who will help to steady any nerves for the run-in.
Supporters know full well that our destiny is in our own hands. We’ve all done the maths: Every three points now represents one step closer to automatic promotion.
Since Norman Smurthwaite and Paul Wildes took over the club there’s been a steady drip, drip of good news from a club that used to be the dictionary definition of calamitous.
Off the field Papa Smurf, as our chief executive is affectionately known, has been beavering away doing all the unglamorous but rather important stuff like sorting the infamous toilets in the Railway Paddock and working hard to bring in lots of new sponsorship.
I would venture to say that Norman isn’t your ‘normal’ football club chief executive – if such a thing exists – and we, the fans, are all the better for having someone who is a businessman, first and foremost, at the helm.
It’s also really important that someone does the ‘people stuff’ and gets out and about meeting local people and Vale supporters from all backgrounds and he’s certainly doing that.
Paul Wildes, meanwhile, is the ‘face’ of the club. He is the chairman and figurehead – saying all the right things to the media and even creating a profile on social network Twitter.
Together, Norman and Paul are slowly starting to turn the ship around through a combination of sensible stewardship and innovative commercial and marketing initiatives.
I can only commend them for their endeavours thus far and hope that when the Supporters’ Club holds it AGM on February 12 plenty of people turn up to show how keen Vale fans are to work with the new owners.
The one nagging concern I do have is this week’s big talking point among fans which is the fact that leading scorer Tom Pope isn’t, as we were led to believe three months ago, contracted to the club until the end of next season.
We all know the Pontiff loves playing for the club he supports and he has indicated he wants to stay in Burslem.
I can only hope that the gaffer can persuade him to pledge his future to the Vale and that he gets the contract his efforts deserve.
Some fans argue that Tom has ‘only had one good season’. This isn’t true.
He worked his socks off last season too for scant reward in a team that was far less creative and where he had to play second fiddle to Marc Richards.
Now he’s sharp, hungry and a brilliant leader of the line.
It’s a rare thing when a local lad is banging in goals for his team and I sincerely hope we don’t lose him next week or over the summer.

New signings are spot on as Vale plan for promotion and stability

valebadge
The very fact that we have brought in three new signings – one of whom is a former fans’ favourite that the Football League wouldn’t let us sign earlier in the year – shows just how far the club has come in the last 12 months.
That the new owners are working with Micky Adams to possibly bring in even more players to strengthen the squad for the promotion push speaks volumes.
There’s obviously a real desire to push on and take advantage of the magnificent position the lads and the coaching staff have put the team in – in spite of the odds being stacked against them.
Automatic promotion really is in Vale’s hands now. Win nine of the remaining 20 games and draw a few and we’ll go straight up as one of the top three teams.
That is eminently achievable with the squad we have and the firepower Vale’s frontline now packs.
There have been a few gripes from some fans about the fact that Darren Purse is no spring chicken and that Lee Hughes isn’t on everyone’s Christmas card list.
Both are, by their nature, relatively short-term signings to bring invaluable experience to the squad as we face what will inevitably be a tense run-in and they make absolute sense to me.
Frankly, I don’t care if the goal that clinches our promotion to League One goes in off Hughes’s backside.
If the gaffer thinks that players like Hughes and Purse will add a bit of steel and nous to the team to see us over the line then I’m all for it.
I won’t forget the lads whose goals put us second in the league: Jennison Myrie-Williams, Ashley Vincent, Louis Dodds, Ben Williamson and, of course, local hero Tom Pope.
They, along with Chris Neal, Doug Loft, Ryan Burge and Sam Morsy will have to continue to perform at their best to finish the job they started in May.
I would like to think that they, and the likes of Joe Davis, are the future and that they are all in Micky Adams’s plans for next season as he keeps one eye on creating a squad which can compete at a higher level.
Paul Wildes said this week that he would like to work with Micky Adams for the next five to 10 years.
What I take from that statement is that he understands the value of both the manager we have and the value of stability and continuity. He’s spot on.

That was the week that was. So where are Vale now?

To have so much good news in seven day should hopefully have put a smile on the face of every Port Vale fan.

It has been a week of milestones which has delivered relief and happiness in equal measure.

The unveiling of the long-awaited Sproson Statue was a day for young and old alike to savour.

Eleven years in the making, involving the efforts of literally hundreds of people, the finished product is an inspirational masterpiece.

The fact that so many people were there to witness the ceremony spoke volumes about the high regard in which the Sproson family is held.

The York game itself was something of a damp squib: A poor performance and a game in which we were lucky to escape with a point, if truth be told.

However, that was swept under the carpet on Tuesday evening when news finally filtered through that the club had been bought.

Congratulations to Norman Smurthwaite and Paul Wildes and good luck to them in the coming months and years as they look to build the viable, successful business they are promising.

Having spent some time with Norman and knowing something of their track record it seems we may actually have owners who know a thing or two about customer service.

They’ve got a bargain and understand that the potential of Port Vale is massive – if they can a) increase the number of bums on seats and b) make Vale Park a thriving business venue when we are not kicking a ball about once a fortnight.

That Vale thumped sorry Bristol Rovers four-nil just hours after the takeover had been confirmed really was the icing on the cake.

So where are we now, as a club, in the cold light of day?

We are out and administration and debt free. There are no loans involved in this buyout.

The administrators will soon become liquidators of the old Valiant 2001 and some previous directors could well have to answer for their actions.

We have new owners who have pledged to take nothing personally from the club in terms of salaries or dividends.

We have a quality manager and a good squad which is perfectly capable of achieving promotion and which will now be strengthened.

The fans have a respected voice in the Supporters’ Club which the new owners have stressed they want to work with.

What’s more, local lad Tom Pope is banging in goals for fun while Roy Sproson watches over his beloved Vale Park.

Pride has been restored.

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