Decisions, decisions

With football supporters regularly lambasted for their fast-changing opinions on their sides' staff and players, it sometimes turns out that the ficklest fans can actually be found in the boardroom – as Sir Bobby Robson has found out of his chairman, Freddy Shepherd

Anyone who has looked at football internet message boards will know the form by now. Alongside the well in­­formed contributors, there are always a few who offer only irate bluster and bombast, often expressed in capital letters. Unfortunately for Newcastle United supporters, one such person appears to be in charge of their club.

Freddie Shepherd (“You know who we want to buy – that Kloovert”) didn’t exactly cover himself in glory during the summer when he announced to the press that Sir Bobby Robson would be departing at the end of the season, before Sir Bobby himself had been given the news. Subsequent wheeler-dealing in the transfer market, of which his manager appeared to know very little, will not have boosted Freddie’s standing around St James’ Park. And now the coup de grace, with Sir Bobby sacked four games into the season, essentially because a referee didn’t think that Craig Bellamy was heading goalwards when dispossessed by Thomas Sorensen’s hand at Villa Park on August 28; a Newcastle team with Alan Shearer demoted to substitute lost the match and Sir Bobby was gone – an honourable man deprived of a dignified exit from football.

Of course, the Newcastle board may simply have been waiting for the first defeat as a convenient excuse to make a change, but why wait until after the season had started, especially given that they don’t seem to have a replacement lined up? Gérard Houllier was quickly installed as 7/4 favourite, but insisted that he knew nothing about it – and this may be true given Shepherd’s assertion earlier in the year that the next manager “would be a Geordie”, which seems to narrow the field rather. (If this bloodline rule had been in place earlier, some would say that Sir Bobby himself wouldn’t have qualified as he’s from Langley Park, a long way from Tyneside.)

However, the obvious candidate, Steve Bruce, will cost at least £5 million to prise away from Birmingham and it seems unlikely that Shearer would be placed in sole charge straight away. “In this business there is no room for sentiment,” said Shepherd. Nor, he might have added, for any sort of coherent plan­ning.

One group of people who should be appreciative of Shepherd at the moment is Everton fans. Without Newcastle’s surprise appearance as bidders for Wayne Rooney (their confidence bolstered, it appears, by the fact that Shepherd’s son, Kenny, does some work for Rooney’s agents), Manchester United would have had the field to themselves and therefore have paid a lot less than the £25m they finally parted with. In fact, after the deal, Sir Alex Ferguson admitted that had Newcastle not started bidding and Everton started negotiating, he would have waited for some future transfer window before making a move.

Everton might not have had time to spend any of the proceeds but they have at least forestalled any prospect of coming under pressure from their creditors – Leeds and others will know what sort of effect that can have on team morale. However, Shepherd’s counterpart, Bill Kenwright, has come under a blizzard of criticism lately (some of it from within the boardroom) and now faces what seems likely to be a hostile EGM in early September. As mentioned in WSC 211, a “Kenwright Out” campaign began during the close season; members of the Ever­ton Shareholders’ Association have since accused him of making the worst misjudgement in the club’s history and insist that he will be forever known as “the man who sold Wayne Rooney”.

It is fair to say that Kenwright has not been the most dynamic of chairmen over the past few years as the club has sunk further into bottom-half mediocrity. It might also be argued that the right time to look for investment to reduce the club’s considerable debts (which have now led to an rather odd alliance with a Brunei-based investment fund connected to the influential agent, Jerome Anderson) was the summer of 2003, when Everton just missed out on a UEFA Cup place.

But it still seems absurd that Kenwright should be singled out, in some sections of the press as well as among a vocal minority of Everton supporters, for not doing more to hold on to Rooney. Having stalled on signing a new contract since Euro 2004, the player’s advisors waited until three days before the transfer window closed before formally requesting a move (and that only happened after what seems to have been a stormy meeting with David Moyes). Rooney may have been Everton’s best player of modern times, but if he doesn’t want to stay at the club then Kenwright and his board are entitled to look for a buyer now, especially given that the alternative was losing him for nothing later.

Everton have endured turbulent times since their last championship-winning team in the late 1980s, but they are among the 18 clubs to have won the League since Newcastle United last did, in 1927. With a man of the calibre of Freddie Shepherd at the helm, that run is likely to go on for a while yet.

From WSC 212 October 2004. What was happening this month