Screaming blue murder

As Everton desperately search for investment, they have ended up pinning their hopes on someone with no real interest in or like for football. Richard Knights looks at their desperate situation

If Evertonians thought the nadir had been reached in the final match of last season with that 5-1 drubbing by Manchester City, they hadn’t reckoned with the close-season implosion and an unseemly all-out civil war between directors Bill Kenwright and Paul Gregg.

When Kenwright bought out Peter Johnson in 1998 he was hailed as a hero. Everton’s decline had been precipitate during Johnson’s four years in power. The hamper salesman and lifelong Liverpool fan was saluted at Anfield during a derby match with a banner that read “Agent Johnson – Mission Accom­plished”. The problem faced by Kenwright is that, although he’s not short of a few bob, he’s not in the filthy-rich category. To buy-out Johnson’s 72 per cent shareholding he was forced to assemble True Blue Holdings, (of which he controlled 32 per cent) along with three other people – former Apollo Leisure magnate Paul Gregg holding 36 per cent and local businessmen Jon Woods and Arthur Abercromby with 32 per cent between them. The remaining 28 per cent of shares are owned by small independent shareholders and Lord Grantchester, part of the Moores dynasty who once owned the club outright.

But Kenwright and Gregg have now fallen out over attracting new money into the club, which would dilute the power of True Blue Holdings, effectively operating as a board within the board. In protest at these shenanigans and poor performances, fans formed the group Evertonians for Change. Partly in response to this Kenwright asked chairman Philip Carter to stand down and chief executive Michael Dunford was replaced by Trevor Birch – the man who rescued Leeds from administration. The close season has exposed the club’s dire financial position, with 17 players leaving to be replaced by Marcus Bent and Tim Cahill – less Fantasy Football more Supermarket Sweep. There was the risible £7million “bid” for Alan Smith, then the Robbie Savage saga and the ignominy of being scoffed at by Birmingham for offering to pay on a four-year hire-purchase scheme, as if he was a second-hand car. Oh, and 11 players are entering the last season of their contracts.

With the board under pressure from David Moyes for money, Birch resigned after six weeks and was swiftly followed by Abercromby. Moyes has been a reassuring presence in the crisis, but even that façade has cracked with an attack on his methods by the Fulham-bound Tomasz Radzinski and rumours of a rift between the manager and other players. The Wayne Rooney saga has further destabilised the club; fans have grown increasingly restive as his agents haggle over his new contract. Kenwright has made it plain that selling Rooney would help pay Everton’s debt – currently £40m, with annual interest payments of £2.8m.

During the past four years there has been little new investment into Everton. The new stadium at Kings Dock was abandoned at the 11th hour, leaving the club with an outdated stadium, especially parts of the Bullens Road. Paul Gregg claims he can attract £30m in new investment if True Blue Holdings is wound up and converted into ordinary shares. This has won the support of the shareholders’ association. Lord Grantchester, who gives the distinct impression of a dilettante down to his last few Rolls Royces, was said to be underwriting the Gregg plan, but has recently distanced himself from it. Kenwright has so far declined to consider the takeover proposal which he says is lacking in detail – there are suggestions that he believes the club would be asset-stripped by a Gregg regime. Gregg seems to be winning the PR battle, however, claiming that he would give Moyes a transfer fund immediately if Kenwright resigns and a new board is formed.

As the generals squabble there are increasing signs of mutiny among the poor bloody infantry, with protest banners at the pre-season game with Crewe Alexandra. It says something about the current state of affairs that for some Everton fans hope is epitomised by Gregg, an Oxford-based multi-millionaire who hasn’t watched a game for 15 months and by his own acknowledgement is “not a football fan”.

From WSC 211 September 2004. What was happening this month