Plenty of clubs are in financial difficulties but only a couple can appeal to recording artists for salvation. Port Vale fan Rob Rushton talks about Robbie Williams's unwillingness to provide financial help to his hometown club
I cannot recall the exact date, but I vividly remember Port Vale playing Watford in Division Three in the mid-1970s, when the Vale fans behind the goal sang: “You can stick your grand piano up you arse,” to Watford chairman Elton John. Either good advice, or pure jealousy – you decide – as Elton’s millions boosted Watford up the league to the First Division.
About 25 years on, it came as no real surprise to Vale fans when the club announced in December 2002 that due to rising debts the club was applying for voluntary administration. Relegation from Division One in 2001, failure to progress in domestic cup competitions (other than winning the LDV Trophy in 2000), the collapse of ITV Digital, more relegation battles in Division Two and declining gates had led to an untenable financial situation. Vale were losing £500,000 per year and although their debts were small in comparison with other clubs (around £2.4 million) the last straw was a final demand for almost £600,000 from the Inland Revenue. Administration would hold off the creditors while a recovery package was set up and was the only way out for chairman and majority shareholder Bill Bell, who, coincidentally, was also one of the club’s major creditors.
Robbie Williams, a mere twinkle in his dad’s eye or, at most, a toddler when we were serenading Elton John, is a lifelong Vale fan. He has put time and money into showing his support for the club, once, famously, jetting in from Los Angeles to play in Neil Aspin’s testimonial match. Wearing his replica shirt on stage in Manchester when appearing with Take That boosted Vale’s finances with the profit from 10,000 shirts sold to his teenage fans. But a visit to Vale Park and seeing behind the scenes put him off investing in the club.
Later, allegedly, Bell approached Robbie, offering a place on the board in exchange for a cash injection. RW reportedly refused, though, saying he wouldn’t invest in Port Vale while Bell still had anything to do with the club. So when Bell called in the administrators, Vale fans held their breath, waiting for Robbie to step in. Hopes rose, too, when Bob Young, representative of the administrators Poppleton and Appleby, publicly announced that he is a football fan and he would work to try to keep football at Vale Park. Young wasn’t there merely to strip the assets and sell up.
But though a number of parties came forward to express an interest in buying the club, the highest bid, worryingly, was an anonymous one, later identified as coming from the Icelandic business consortium that owns Stoke City, fuelling the fear of ground-sharing and ultimately merger with our local rivals.
With Bell on the way out, Young wrote to Williams in Los Angeles asking if he would now put his money where his heart is, but Bob clearly wasn’t holding his breath. Robbie’s management company replied that their star, who had recently signed a record deal with EMI reputedly worth £80m, would not be investing.
Claims that Williams had paid£10m for a private box at Chelsea raised accusations that he was turning his back on his home team and he was drawn to telephone the local paper to publicly state his position: the box at Chelsea actually cost less than £50,000 and was a gift for his manager.
At some time in the future, he went on, he would love to be a director of Port Vale, but he would need to be based in Stoke to do that and for the present he has his career to follow, which means that he has to spend the majority of his time in LA, so he can’t become an investor as he is just not around.
Stick around to keep an eye on his investment? After the way the club have been run for the past few years, who could blame him for that?
From WSC 202 December 2003. What was happening this month