Port Vale takeover: 'Fans are key to the future prosperity of club'
THE prospect of reviving the off-field fortunes of a failing football club would have most people running for the hills.
Who would put their reputation on the line by trying to succeed where others have failed?
Well Norman Smurthwaite would. He likes a challenge.
On the face of it, Port Vale hardly provides the most attractive proposition. Even though they are riding high in League Two, the club have been in administration for the past nine months for a reason.
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Vale were constantly struggling to keep their head above water even before it was forced to admit defeat for a second time in 11 years back in March.
But Smurthwaite, whose £1.25m takeover with business partner Paul Wildes was completed last night, can see beyond all that.
Where others might see problems, he sees huge potential and a brighter future.
The 52-year-old multi-millionaire is under no illusions as to the size of the task facing him, and admits nothing will happen overnight.
And he won't be throwing money around left, right and centre. After some initial investment, the new Vale will be largely expected to pay its way.
Instead, Smurthwaite says he intends to create a thriving company whose success is mirrored by that of the team.
Vale manager Micky Adams will be given every possible support, and there'll be room to manoeuvre where his threadbare squad is concerned.
This, says Smurthwaite, is also the start of a new era of transparency in which fans have a significant role to play, not only by coming through the gate but via their feedback, which is seen as crucial by the new regime.
It hasn't taken long for the Leicestershire entrepreneur to get the Vale bug.
When he and chairman Wildes emerged as the new preferred bidders on October 16, Smurthwaite was described simply as a finance expert who would take a back-seat role.
Things have since changed in that respect, and he's now looking forward to a hands-on position as chief executive.
"To say I'm delighted to have got this deal done is maybe not a strong enough word," he said. "This club has got into my blood and I'm up for the challenge now.
"I retired at 48, but I'm coming back to work to run Vale and take it where it should be.
"I've never failed at anything and I don't want to start now.
"I have a lot of experience of fixing broken businesses. It's what I'm good at for 30 years.
"And while this is very different to what I've done before, the model is no different.
"If you don't have any debt, which we won't have, and you don't have any excessive payrolls for people driven by ego, which we won't have, this business can only go one way and that's up. The only ego issue is ensuring I deliver what I believe this business needs. But everything we do here will be for the benefit of the club, and ultimately for the benefit of the team and the supporters."
Smurthwaite insists his plan is a simple one. He explained: "We'll try to get more people into the ground, increase our turnover, encourage people to spend more within the business and that will enable me to put money directly into the playing budget. There's nothing clever about it.
"We'll only be custodians of this club, just like everybody else before us, but I'm hoping when people look back they'll see that the club is in a better place than when I arrived."
Smurthwaite tried to reassure fans concerned by the prospect of yet another regime taking over at Vale after so many false dawns in recent years.
He said: "We will still have constraints which most clubs don't have.
"When you come out of administration, you effectively have to demonstrate what you are doing month-by-month to the Football League.
"Plus there'll be a new cap for all clubs in place next season in relation to turnover.
"We're not a Manchester City, so I can't sponsor the stadium for £50m or give that to Micky to pay for players.
"There are a couple of tweaks we can make to give us a bit of room, but the main way we're going to improve the squad long term is to increase gate receipts and our commercial activities."
Smurthwaite said he had only ever looked at football from a fans' perspective in the past, but admitted he had had to broaden his horizons since getting involved with the Vale.
"In the past, I've gone to a match watching the ball and thinking about nothing else," he added, "but since we were named as preferred bidders I've been thinking about all sorts, watching the crowd, how we can improve everything.
"I maybe not a sportsman, but I have a competitive edge and I don't want to represent anything that is not winning.
"We'll get things right financially here and then the club can only prosper. The infrastructure is already there, it just needs somebody to cuddle it and bring it on. To do something with it, rather than destroy it, as has happened in the past.
"I want us to be in a position where we have a business that can take the football club to where it should be.
"This stadium is better than League Two, the ability of our squad is better than League Two and the manager is better than League Two, so I'd like to get out of this division as soon as possible.
"The infrastructure of this club would fit alongside the likes of Coventry and Birmingham without any problem, and the good thing about this club is that we actually own the ground now.
"But rather than set long-term goals or talk about things fans would love to hear, I'd rather we are judged week in, week out and match-day in, match-day out.
"It's wrong to talk about the dream of playing in the Championship when we haven't got proper toilets in the stadium for people to use. We'll get our priorities right."
It sounds like a sensible approach, and Smurthwaite is being careful to walk before he can run.
"It's a business which needs a lot, but not a lot," he added. "That sounds like a contradiction, but there are stupid things which are broken and simply by fixing them we'll make Vale Park a better place.
"The only way we can influence things on the pitch is by creating the commercial resources to increase our income. We'll filter that down to the squad.
"It's difficult to list priorities because there are so many things that are broken, damaged or tarnished – from the toilets to the stadium seating to people's perception of the business and the overall match-day experience.
"But this should not be a one-day a week venue. The resources here are massively under-used at the moment and we want to change that."
Smurthwaite is, however, keen to give every help he can to Adams who, he admits, has been doing a "magnificent job in difficult circumstances".
"If I had had my way, I'd have sealed this deal two weeks ago and that would have given Micky an extra two weeks to strengthen the squad before the loan window shuts.
"I've spoken to him and he's his own man with what he does in the dressing room. It's certainly not my job to dictate in any way what happens in there.
"But if he needs resources, and what he wants to do is within the structure I've described, then that finance will be made available. Not just now, but in January and beyond."
The new owners already have their own people in place to help oversee the changes at the club and Smurthwaite says the Port Vale business will dovetail into the structure of their existing portfolio.
"We'll have a board for operational purposes, but there will be just two shareholders – Paul, who will be chairman, and myself, and we'll take no salaries or dividends. We're planning to take nothing out of this club whatsoever.
"We're bringing in people from within our current group of businesses, but it will be a very flat structure, and even their costs will come from within the group of businesses that we run, so the finance and operational side of things will not be a cost to Port Vale."
Robin Anderson will become the new finance director and Mike Aspinall will run the operational side of the company. A commercial director will be appointed in due course.
Smurthwaite is predictably keen to drum home the message about increasing revenue, with sponsorship and the fan-base top priorities.
"We just signed a shirt sponsorship deal with UK Windows Ltd, and that sort of thing is very important," he said.
"Here is a company which is local, who are Port Vale fans and who are prepared to put their hands in their pocket and put a substantial amount of money into the club.
"Something like that is a big commitment, and anyone who sponsors the club will have to think what they get out of it.
"Despite the culture of what's gone on here in the past, I believe we can create partnerships with sponsors for our mutual benefit.
"It can be like a club in itself, which can grow and grow."
He's also determined to explore further avenues of sponsorship both of the ground and within it, all in good time.
"I don't believe you should try to sell anything in a distressed state. You quite obviously don't get maximum value," he added. "You should sell it at its best, not its worst.
"There's a lot of work to do on both the stadium and the reputation of business before we can start selling ourselves to other people.
"But though the club's reputation may be tarnished, the name is not broken and we'll look at that in the future."
However, it's the fans, says Smurthwaite, who perhaps are the key to Vale's future.
"We need to encourage more people to come along on a match day," he said.
"We're already looking at ways of improving things for them and I recently asked for a wish-list from fans of what they'd like to see.
"Around 40 per cent were common sense things which I was embarrassed to discover didn't already exist, and there were some we will definitely consider.
"But I look back to the time when the club was in the Championship and that showed there is a large fan base in this area.
"They haven't all gone to Stoke City I'm sure, but they are probably staying away because they've become disenchanted with what has gone on in the past.
"We want to encourage them to come back to Port Vale, enjoy the match-day experience again and become part of a community which will help the club and take it back to the days when it was at its height.
"Every penny of extra income will be used to maximise potential on the pitch, so my request to fans is that if you know somebody who has become disenchanted with what's gone on in the past, please encourage them to come to the game.
"If you're coming to the game, come earlier, drink our beer and eat our pies because everything we can do to increase turnover will directly go straight into the playing squad, It's that simple."
The new regime is also keen to give supporters a say in how the club is run.
"If I was a fan with the best interests of the club at heart who wanted to direct my views to the owner, I'd make sure I joined the Supporters' Club," said Smurthwaite.
"The more people that are in that, the more they can have a say about what goes on and I will listen."