OVF editor Rob Fielding believes it would be a huge risk to sell the football club and not the Vale Park stadium.
In recent weeks there has been much speculation that Port Vale’s preferred buyer may want to purchase the football club only and rent the ground from current owner Norman Smurthwaite.
Port Vale split into two companies
The football club and Vale Park were split into separate companies when Norman Smurthwaite and his then business partner Paul Wildes bought Port Vale FC.
Smurthwaite has told the local media that he thinks there is no cause for concern if he maintains control of the ground. He told the Sentinel: “There is a covenant in place insisted on by the Football League. In the event that the club is sold separately from the ground it would trigger a 25-year rental lease at a set rent that is considerably less than the market value.”
While Norman Smurthwaite has moved to reassure fans that any split would not leave the club homeless (he told the Sentinel that there is a 25 year rental agreement at “considerably less than market value”) I am sure that nevertheless the majority of fans would be deeply concerned if the club was separated from ground.
Firstly, a purchase of the club only would increase speculation about whether a buyer has the assets to take the club forward. Vale need an owner with deep pockets along with the passion to commit to taking the club forward. Smurthwaite has said that both club and ground are available to buy jointly if a buyer should wish to do so. If they don’t or can’t, it would undoubtedly set alarm bells ringing.
There would be other concerns too. The club would have virtually no tangible assets (the value of the players is clearly something that cannot be tangibly measured) and twenty five years is also not that long in the lifetime of Port Vale FC. Finally, I think it adds an extra layer of complexity with two companies with two owners and presumably potentially two different views (what happens if the club’s plans include changes or developments to the stadium but the owner disagrees, for instance?).
For many other clubs, splitting club and ground has led to trouble and in 2014 leading blog Two Hundred Percent commented on Vale’s decision saying “such a split is rarely deemed to be in a club’s interests.”
Having said that, it’s fair to point out that it can work in some circumstances. The Bescot stadium is owned by brothers Jeff and Robert Bonser. The club pay the pair £460,000 per year to play there. But with Walsall riding high in League One and with little sign of any problems with the arrangement (bar the occasional complaint from Walsall fans) the agreement seems amicable.
So it can work. But in my view, Walsall is a rare example and there are far more examples where it doesn’t work. Many other clubs who lose control of their stadium – Bristol Rovers, Brighton and Charlton Athletic to name just three – suffered turmoil and years of hard work to get back onto a level playing field.
For this fan, it seems to be a risk too far.
I would hope that should Norman Smurthwaite still want to sell the club, he sells the whole club, stadium and all. In other words, if he wants to sever ties with the Valiants, he should sever them completely and sell the club as one entity. In doing so, he will also potentially alleviate any fears fans may have.