Often controversial and certainly full of incident – here’s our account of the seven years association between Norman Smurthwaite and Port Vale FC.
Businessman Smurthwaite was part of the investment group, led by Paul Wildes, that took Port Vale out of administration in November 2012.
Thanks in part to the financial backing and feelgood factor of the takeover, the club earned promotion in 2013 but on 18 May, Paul Wildes (right) resigned as chairman and sold his 50% stake to Smurthwaite, who became the club’s chairman and sole owner. Smurthwaite said he was “gutted” by the move but promised that the club will be debt-free under his reign.
Smurthwaite announced a ten-man development squad, apparently a Wildes idea, which included promising striker Jordan Hugill, signed a shirt sponsorship deal with the GMB Union and also unveiled a new club shop. However, there was controversy already as the local newspaper, the Sentinel was banned from the club. There was also cracks appearing in the relationship between manager Micky Adams and the owner. In September, Adams complained about the playing budget amid confusion over the manager’s future at the club. There was also a dispute with the club’s ex-players association while the disagreement with the Sentinel rumbled on with both the newspaper and the club making accusations. The ban was finally lifted in November. Meanwhile, development prospect Jordan Hugill had come into first-team reckoning.
Smurthwaite continued an open dialogue with fans in the new year confirming contract negotiations with manager Micky Adams (right) and repeating that he wanted to stay with the club. However, despite the assurances on Adams’ contract the concerns from both the manager and the Vale players were apparent. Despite assurances that the owner and manager had not fallen out this website appealed for Smurthwaite to appoint an experienced CEO to help him run the club. The season drew to an end with a bombshell announcement from the owner that the club had been subject to a transfer embargo all season. The managerial contract situation continued to drag on with Adams demanding reassurances while Smurthwaite promised to invest in new players. Adams finally agreed a new contract in June but there was further controversy as the club ended lifetime season tickets, an initiative set-up under a previous board. Meanwhile, rising star Jordan Hugill moved to Preston for a nominal sum plus sell-on fee.
As the new season began, Smurthwaite assured fans that a winding-up order issued against PVFC Limited was merely a ‘clerical error’ and there was a further dispute which saw the club’s community scheme, operated by Jim Cooper, vacate Vale Park. After a terrible start to the season, Adams left and was replaced by assistant Rob Page. Smurthwaite courted controversy again by saying he decided against appointing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink as manager due to a racist minority of Vale fans. The comments were condemned by the Kick It Out organisation. Further controversy followed when the owner told the Sentinel that fans who only went to away games “disgusted him.”
Controversy continued to reign when Smurthwaite (right) denied he had emailed supporters regarding plans to sell the club claiming his email account had been “hacked.” By this point, the owner’s relationship with the manager had deteriorated and following an FA Cup exit to Exeter, Smurthwaite had to deny he had sacked the manager. He then created a full-blown crisis by putting the club up for sale.
The 2015-16 season ended relatively controversy-free only for things to erupt again over the summer. Rob Page accepted an offer from Northampton Town and left to become their manager. This prompted an extraordinary summer even by Smurthwaite standards. A host of experienced players left with captain Carl Dickinson saying new contracts offered by the club were for significantly lower salaries. Dickinson joined Michael O’Connor, Richard Duffy and AJ Leitch-Smith in departing Vale Park while Anthony Grant submitted a transfer request.
How would Smurthwaite react to the mass exits? In extraordinary fashion. After saying the club had three outstanding candidates and taking advice from Jose Mourinho, Smurthwaite opted for the club’s first foreign manager – the untested Bruno Ribeiro (right). A host of mainly continental signings were made with Smurthwaite claiming that “the conveyor belt of talent arriving at Vale Park has started…”
Ribeiro was replaced by assistant Michael Brown (right). Smurthwaite said a Plan B (to sign more experienced players) was in place but a disastrous January transfer window saw Vale lose highly-rated keeper Jak Alnwick and midfielder Anthony Grant. Neither player was adequately replaced and in March Smurthwaite told this website he was considering offers for the club. The club were relegated back to League Two at the end of the season.
A contrite Smurthwaite attempted to win back fans over the summer. He stood down as Chairman and said he would not be involved in the day-today running as he handed over to CEO Colin Garlick. Practically all of Ribeiro’s continental signings agreed pay-offs while Vale appointed Browm on a permanent basis. Meanwhile, local company Synectics Solutions made a bid for the club which was rejected by Smurthwaite. Brown made an awful start to the 2018-19 season and had departed by September. Smurthwaite blamed Colin Garlick saying his CEO had opted to give Brown the role of manager and announced that he would be back as chairman and in charge of the daily club business. Club legend Neil Aspin was appointed as Brown’s replacement with legend John Rudge as his mentor.
In January, former Vale striker Jordan Hugill joined West Ham earning the club a substantial sell-on fee. Aspin (right) was able to save the club from relegation from the Football League while in the summer Smurthwaite added to his portfolio by becoming the owner of Nuneaton’s stadium. As a result of the deal, two Vale players were loaned to the non-league side. Aspin’s first full season in charge did not match expectations and the team was struggling by Christmas.
In January Aspin resigned and with no manager in place, the club had yet another poor January transfer window. Fans discontent was growing as Vale had funds in the bank after two cup runs and the Hugill transfer income. A Supporters Club meeting the day after the transfer window shut resulted in a day of action with a protest march and the reforming of the Black and Gold protest group. In March, Smurthwaite rejected another bid from Synectics Solutions and fans held a red card protest against the owner.
The tipping point came on the 23rd March when an appeal for funds by the Supporters Club prompted an extraordinary response from Smurthwaite. The owner said he would put the club into administration if a buyer wasn’t found by the 5th May – a move which drew criticism from the local MP. Synectics Solutions soon put in another bid and despite other interest from other parties, Synectics Solutions entered an exclusivity agreement on the 2nd April.
Finally, on the 7th May the takeover by Synectics Solutions was confirmed as Smurthwaite’s eventful and controversial reign came to an end.