Valiants! I hope you’re enjoying a break and that this message finds you and your loved ones in good health during this most strange of festive periods.
It’s New Year’s Eve. A time to reflect on the year that has been and to look forward to the new one we are about to usher in.
For every single one of us 2020 has been extremely challenging. Every walk of life has been affected, tainted you might say, by the pandemic and restrictions having to be enforced by Government to control the spread of the virus.
If any of us had been told 12 months ago what was to happen from March onwards I dare say we’d have scoffed at the notion of lockdowns, hundreds of thousands of job losses, school closures, and the entertainment and hospitality industries completely closed – including, of course, the suspension of professional sport.
Yet all of these things came to pass and they have dominated the news agenda and continue to affect us all in a multitude of ways.
During the past 12 months I have given a number of media interviews and in one I was asked: “What, that you know now, would you have liked to have known when you bought a football club?” I replied: “That there would be a global pandemic in our first season! It wasn’t in our plans…”
Following the excitement of our trip to Man City back in January we went on a good run of results on the pitch and were building in confidence and optimism when suddenly I found myself in an EFL meeting voting to stop the season while Port Vale sat just a point outside the playoffs.
It’s a moment that will live with me always, having to make a decision that felt like (and I am sure was) the right thing for football at that time – even if it didn’t give us at Port Vale what we wanted, deserved and had worked so hard for.
Given that the country then moved into lockdown when all entertainment and hospitality had to stop (including the concert for Robbie Williams’ return home to Vale Park) we turned our focus on to the community element of the club.
The amazing results our volunteers and staff produced have been well documented (well in excess of 200,000 meals delivered and engagement with 50,000 people in need across the city) – as has our successful Christmas campaign – and we are still delivering every day to families who have been referred by our partner schools.
It fills me with enormous pride to see Port Vale being recognised nationally as having the heart and soul to be much more than “just” a football club.
But, at our core, is football. That’s who we are and what we are about.
Of course, the priority for Kevin and myself throughout this year has been to ensure that Port Vale FC as an organisation weathers the storm created by Covid.
This is a challenge for all clubs as there isn’t any income through the gates and yet virtually all the costs are still there.
I have to be totally honest and say that the Government have been particularly unhelpful, offering little or no financial help.
Meanwhile, you – the Port Vale supporters – have been phenomenal.
Throughout the year we have felt you alongside us, investing in season tickets, merchandise, and even coming to lunch on the Sundays when we were able to provide them.
A huge thank you from both of us. We continue to work with our club staff to ensure we provide as much value to you as we possibly can.
We understand, however, that the value you most want to see is success on the pitch and it’s certainly been a mixed start to the season.
The team settled in well to the new regimes imposed by Covid. Having spoken to them I know that the biggest change is playing games behind closed doors.
The fans, as the “twelfth man”, are a vital member of any team and you are missed greatly. The results were going our way and we were flying high through September and October.
It was, therefore, all the more of a shock when the results went against us through November.
When I look back at the whole of our time since taking over at Port Vale, the turn round of the club itself was our initial focus followed by the handling of all the disruption and uncertainly caused by Covid.
But it has been the experience of running a club where the results are not good enough on the pitch that has been the steepest learning curve for Kevin and I.
Speaking personally, I am first and foremost a Port Vale fan and I hurt when my team loses and falls short of expectations – just as all you fellow Valiants do.
As such, I completely understand (and share) the frustrations you have all felt through November and December.
I have realised during the past couple of months that my focus needed to change.
Whilst the club has many supporters it only has one leader and, whilst being a fan is a huge benefit, it can’t be the major driver for me.
I have been thinking about our time (almost 30 years) of running Synectics and how we respond to a critical issue there – with sharp focus and clear minds to separate the root cause of a problem from the symptoms it throws up.
My engagement on social media was the first thing I’ve had to adjust this season.
I love speaking with everyone and I miss you all terribly but chatting before a match or on the phone is totally different to being tagged on literally hundreds of messages that I can’t possibly (and, in truth, it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to) read and respond to.
We do, however, ensure that everything is read as we want feedback – the positive and negative – because it’s the best way to understand and learn.
Hopefully, you’ve also noticed that I write in every single match programme (something new for this season) – in the knowledge that it drops into the inboxes of around 4,000 Season Ticket holders ahead of every home game.
When the Directors and I recently had a virtual meeting with the Supporters’ Club I was also happy to agree to a virtual fans’ forum and I know this is something that the SC Chair Mark Porter is looking to arrange.
Whilst being a custodian of the club and responsible for ensuring that we achieve the best possible success, given whatever circumstances surrounding us, we are also employers.
I have always been very clear that I take our duty of care to all our staff, players, back room and club staff, very seriously.
As much as supporters would like regular updates of what is happening behind the scenes at the club very often we are limited on what we can, or often should, say.
When I or the club have something to say and we feel it is appropriate to do so we won’t shy away from saying it. In the same way that I won’t shy away from making difficult decisions. I do this every day – it’s just that few will ever get to see and hear about such decisions.
Rest assured we all spend every waking moment working on how to improve Port Vale – both off and on the pitch.
Having sat through many matches in the past where this wasn’t the case I have been pleased (other than the obvious couple of exceptions) with the performance of the team this season but, they understand as well as we do, that this counts for nothing without the result to back it up.
Clean sheets and goals is what the game is all about.
Difficult and disappointing as the last two months have been (and they have…) I remain confident that, when we have overcome our significant injury problems, our squad is capable of competing with and beating any team in League Two. We know we can. Now we just have to do it.
Looking to the New Year, my fervent hope is that the pandemic goes away but, in the meantime, that it doesn’t adversely affect the health of our fans, club and sport too much; that Port Vale continues to grow, improve and be the successful club you are proud to support; that we increase our engagement with you all and that we win games on the pitch. No pressure, then…
Now I must express a few, obligatory end of year thank-yous.
Firstly, all of the staff at your club have worked so hard (in the worst possible circumstances) on your behalf and we couldn’t be more grateful.
I also want to thank you, the supporters, on behalf of myself and everyone at the club for the way you have backed myself, Kevin and the club through this most unpredictable and challenging of years.
Without your support, with the absence of fans at games and significant revenue from hospitality, Port Vale would be even more disadvantaged.
However, even with this money, with increased merchandise sales and grant aid amounting to around £400,000 from the Premier League, your club will find itself almost £1 million down in terms of the anticipated revenue for this season.
We will, of course, continue to work to reduce this shortfall and Kevin and I will continue to support the club financially but that deficit is the stark reality facing our club at this time.
A reality inflicted upon us by the pandemic. A reality which colours everything.
Finally, I must thank my family which – alongside my (adult) children, Kate, Rose, Patrick and Francesca, includes my long-suffering PA Ben – have kept me and Kevin upright along this journey through their patience, humour and understanding. We love them to bits!
Here’s to a happy, healthy and very successful 2021 for us all. Keep the faith! UTV.