In an explosive and entertaining interview, Neil Adderley talks to Colin Fitzpatrick, Comms Officer for The Blue Union, regarding the ongoing debacle surrounding the sale of Everton Football Club. Gripping and revealing, a must read.
In what has been a tumultuous week both on and off the field for Everton Football Club, tFt’s Neil Adderley speaks exclusively in a revealing and explosive two part interview with Colin Fitzpatrick. Everton supporter, Secretary of Keeping Everton In Our City (KEIOC) and Communications Officer of Everton supporters umbrella group The Blue Union, Colin speaks openly and frankly on his past dealings with the Everton hierarchy, the press and media, football activism, and his hopes and fears for the future of his beloved Everton FC.
There is a single, unbreakable strand running through the story of 53 year old Colin Fitzpatrick’s life. Unlike his front line dealings with the hierarchy of Everton Football Club, there is no complexity to it, no duplicity, no distortion, neither any complication. It is as clear as day, as true and straight as a die. Fitzpatrick is a born and bred Blue Nose, a Toffeeman, an Evertonian.
“I’ve supported them all my life, started off like many being carried in by my dad from aged three so that’s 50 years that have flashed by; funny enough I still get carried in!”
The ‘need for assistance’ in attending Goodison Park is a firm tongue in the cheek reference to health problems Colin has recently suffered. That he mentions it in these exaggerated terms should be of no surprise. It is a self-deprecating, acerbic humour, all Scousers are expertly brought up on.
“My earliest Everton memory is a pure Kenwright moment, the wall in the ground was no more than a lip and my dad had me sitting on it when the ball hit me in the face, Labone came over, picked the ball up and ruffled my hair, the lip must have been going because a casey was a casey back in the day. I remember the season the lip was increased by about a foot, the kids had all kinds of stools and things that hung from hooks you put on the wall, the kids dads must have been doing foreigners at work all week! I’ve supported them through thick and thin, believe me there’s been a lot of thin.”
As surprising as it may seem to many outsiders, the best part of the past two decades has seen Everton Football Club and its supporters enveloped in a troublesome, turbulent and at times, toxic atmosphere. This off the field struggle, mainly, though not exclusively fueled by two very different, but ultimately, aborted stadium relocation attempts, has not only caused an, at times unbearable strain on supporter – club relations, but also fractured a fan base. It has on occasions, been pernicious enough as to have divided workmates, friends and even families.
For the vast majority of Evertonians, this damaging recent period in the clubs long and illustrious history, began on a wave of optimism as the current chairman Bill Kenwright, and his consortium of business acquaintances, succeeded in their 1999 deadline beating takeover bid for Everton Football Club. Former Coronation Street actor and theatre impresario Kenwright, an Evertonian, and the then vice-chairman of the club, led the True Blue Holdings vehicle in acquiring all of Liverpool fan Peter Johnson’s stake in Everton Football Club. The consortium, after more than a year of bitter negotiations, would pay just £20 million for 68% of the clubs shares.
Once the deal was rubber stamped, Kenwright gave an immediate assurance to Evertonians everywhere, when he said “Obviously, I am very, very happy. It has been a very long road but I am thrilled and relieved that it is now done. Acquiring Peter Johnson’s shares is only the first step to restoring a great club to where it belongs – to where it should be. If you are going to run a successful football club you need two qualities: you need to be realistic and you need a plan. I’m realistic and I have a plan.”
Those words, soothing as they may have then seemed, would come back to haunt Kenwright on numerous occasions throughout his ongoing tenure, and undoubtedly, continue to do so to the present day.
The first, and arguably the most catastrophic of failures under the Bill Kenwright administration begun with a fanfare in 2000, when the audacious £250 million Kings Dock Waterfront and Arena plan was launched. Backed by a vast majority of Evertonians, the scheme would see Everton Football Club anchoring a world class development of Liverpool’s waterfront as part of a mixed plan that included an entertainment centre, offices, retail space and housing. The jewel in the crown of which would be a 55,000 capacity, state-of-the-art stadium, slap bang in the centre of a World Heritage Status site. It was an Evertonian dream location, on ‘the banks of the royal blue Mersey,’ and with both local and national authorities having given the development plan the crucial nod, all interested parties set about working on meeting the projected cost of the project.
The amount reported to cover the cost of the football related aspects of the development were approximated at £155 million, of this amount, Everton were required to produce just £30 million. The remaining £125 million would be achieved by a mixture of private and public investment, including stadium naming rights, regional development agency money and private finance. As time and deadlines were passed, eventual rumours that Everton were unable to meet their apportioned costs, slowly began to surface. In an attempt to quash talk of the clubs inability to meet their end of the deal, vice-chairman, Bill Kenwright, now infamously announced the clubs required £30 million contribution was not only in place, it was in fact ‘ring fenced.’ Calamitously for the development, the city and the club, it seemed nothing was further from the truth.
In April 2003, just over 3 years after its inception, the Kings Dock Waterfront Arena scheme was dead in the water. The public and private money that actually was ring fenced, was lost to the city forever as the Liverpool Vision development agency, together with Everton Football Club, released a joint statement confirming the Everton board of directors could not raise the cash to meet its end of the deal.
Not more than 15 months later, Everton chairman Kenwright, sanctioned the sale of Wayne Rooney to Manchester United, for a then reported £30 million.
Colin Fitzpatrick recalls that time, almost exactly a decade ago, and significantly, points to the failure of Bill Kenwright and his board to deliver, as a precursor to what would be a second stadium relocation plan that too would ultimately fail. Although not before it severely fractured the Everton fan base.
“I hadn’t really worried too much about the Kings Dock save going to see the model,” Colin explains. “I was all for it and was gutted when it fell through, I was aware that since the takeover from Johnson it was all a little bit too seat of the pants style ownership but to be honest I probably felt that of most of the clubs. I’ll also hold my hands up to being pretty much ambivalent over Bill (Kenwright) taking over from Whippy (Sir Philip Carter). I welcomed it to be honest, never had time for the man when he failed to take Thatcher to task over the unjust European ban and we all know why.
What’s amazing is he’s back on the board delivering the square root of nothing as he has always done; nothing but an administrator from Littlewoods in the right place at the right time, or the wrong place if you take the view of many a blue.
When Kirkby came about I listened but quickly realised that this wasn’t a Kings Dock and the more I listened the more I thought….CON.”
The messy collapse of Kings Dock led to a very public power-struggle for control of Everton between the now Chairman, Bill Kenwright and fellow major shareholder and board member Paul Gregg. It was a wretched two year battle in which Kenwright and fellow board member John Woods, who between them owned 50% of shares, always allowing them to outvote Gregg, saw Kenwright, heavily backed by the local press, eventually holding on to power at the club. Leaving Gregg’s 23% stake in the club to be bought in October 2006 for £7.2million by BCR Sports. A British Virgin Islands offshore vehicle, fronted by Kenwright’s fellow showbiz acquaintance and mutual friend of retail tycoon Sir Philip Green, Las Vegas based Anglo-American, Robert Earl.
Within three months of Robert Earl’s arrival on the Everton board, the then CEO, Keith Wyness, announced the club had entered into an “Exclusivity Agreement” with Tesco Stores PLC to explore the possibilities of relocating Everton to Kirkby, a small town of just 40,000 residents, outside of the Liverpool City boundaries in the neighbouring borough of Knowsley. The deal, a three way partnership, including the landowners, Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council (KMBC), would see Everton move to a 50,000 stadium as part of a planned massive retail development in Kirkby town centre, to be anchored by a Tesco hypermarket.
Despite the clubs initial December 2006 announcement, promising small shareholders and supporters of only an ‘exploration of possibilities,’ by the summer of 2007, the plan to move Everton Football Club out of the City, was set in stone. Albeit dependent, as with the earlier Kings Dock scheme, on a successful ballot of season ticket holders. It would be within these few months, that the Everton supporters ‘protest’ group, Keep Everton In Our City (KEIOC) was formed and Colin Fitzpatrick, who from the outset believed the Kirkby scheme to be fundamentally flawed, would take his first steps into football activism.
“There was a pre-season match on one of those balmy summer evenings, don’t ask me who we were playing, everybody who knows me will tell you I couldn’t even tell you who we played last week or the score, I just watch Everton on the day and that’s it. The KEIOC guys had draped banners all over the Winslow pub on Goodison Road, I knew what they were saying about Kirkby and as I walked past I recognised one of them as an old school friend. One thing led to another and after the ballot I ended up at a meeting, met people who knew a lot about the club, some really good blues, you know, the type that you say as a term of reference, “he’s a good blue” or “a good Evertonian,” these were in another league. I can’t even begin to tell you the things some had done to help the club, they were just a pleasure to be with.
There were also people who were politically savvy, people like Dave Kelly and Ann Adlington, and I knew in the long term that was the way to go. Protest was fine as far as it went, it draws attention to a cause and satisfies those who are angry but real progress is made behind the scenes and KEIOC evolved from a protest group into a pressure group.”
In the weeks between the announcement of the ballot and the actual vote, Evertonians found themselves bombarded by a PR campaign in overdrive, led by the club and with the full editorial backing of the local press. Current and ex-players, ex-managers, the chairman, the CEO, celebrity supporters, the leader of KMBCs ruling Labour party, and Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, were lined up, one after the other, to explain to supporters that Kirkby was the only rational option to secure the very future of Everton Football Club. Supporters were warned in no uncertain terms there was and would be ‘no plan B.’ The local press and media ran with headline stories promising Evertonians ‘a world class stadium,’ ‘£50 million handouts,’ ‘the best transport links to any stadium in the UK’ and a significant rise in ‘the transfer war chest for manager, David Moyes.’ According to Colin, the fact that 41% of Everton season ticket holders voted against the Everton board of directors ‘Destination Kirkby’ relocation plans, was a minor miracle.
“The ballot was what really made my mind up, it was clear that they were pulling the wool over the eyes of the fans and the small shareholders. Something didn’t add up, certainly the arithmetic didn’t, the figures were changing from one press piece to the next and when the ballot pack arrived that was it. I sent it back, complaining that it was unjust on the basis that Everton were allowed to place a piece of pro-kirkby literature in the pack, but KEIOC weren’t allowed the same privilege to express their views.
The selection process was also questionable, easy to identify people who regularly attend, over members of Evertonia, you could see what was coming and they limped over the line they drew themselves. This was no Kings Dock style victory, there were too many who opposed this, and the club knew it.”
If KEIOC’s post-ballot relations with the Everton hierarchy highlighted anything, it was, says Fitzpatrick, just how far ‘the club’ were out of touch with a large section of the fanbase. Moreover, it would be their huge underestimation of a supporter group in its infancy, that would ultimately prove to be a vital achilles heel for Kenwright, his board and the handful of staff and hired help working on behalf of the Everton chairman, on the Destination Kirkby project.
The battle lines had been quickly drawn and KEIOC, faced with a long campaign and up against the juggernaut of multi billion pound company Tesco, as well as a Premier League football club and a politically backed Local Authority, realised they would have to immediately hit the ground running. The groups initial point of attack would be to counter the ongoing, well planned and slickly executed Everton/Tesco/KMBC public relations and media campaign.
One initial obstacle faced by KEIOC and Fitzpatrick, was the large number of supporters who simply accepted the point of view of revered business guru’s such as Tesco’s Sir Terry Leahy and of course, a show of blind faith in an Evertonian chairman, Bill Kenwright.
“There wasn’t any time to re-educate fellow supporters and so the decision was taken not to focus on building up a mass base of support but rather, to structure the group as a network of supporters affiliated to the organisation.”
Initially unbeknownst to the club and their partners, the KEIOC network rapidly spread and would include Evertonians who crucially, were also experts in their own particular field, all of whom were sympathetic to the groups aim of keeping Everton in the city. The wide range of support for KEIOC came from amongst others, architects, political activists, councillors, MPs, financial strategists and transport experts, solicitors, barristers, QCs, stadium designers and perhaps most significantly of all, Evertonians with intimate and expert knowledge of incredibly complex planning regulations.
Colin’s personal dealings with the Everton hierarchy during, what to most Evertonians will always be remembered as the ‘Kirkby Debacle,’ reveal an eye-opening, sometimes bizarre, commonly hilarious and seemingly almost always fraught relationship. It is an exclusive first hand insight into the workings of Everton Football Club under the influence of a handful of middle aged millionaires, led by chairman and major shareholder, Bill Kenwright.
“Football clubs will always treat fans like they’re thick and don’t understand the real issues, the clubs are a bit like politicians in that respect, remember they wouldn’t even allow the people of Kirkby a ballot on the stadium issue, they said, “the complex issues are too complicated for residents to understand”.
Fitzpatrick explains how meetings with the club were always frosty.
“Dealing with (former Communications Director) Ian Ross was like dealing with a child. Dealing with (former CEO) Wyness was ridiculous. I once brokered a meeting between the club and Malcolm Carter of Bestway, who genuinely wanted to explore the possibilities, alongside Liverpool City Council, for the Bestway site which, with the help of the council, would have been a one kilometre city centre site with a myriad of possibilities. But Everton brought in condition after condition after the initial agreement so the meeting failed to take place. Carter was disgusted with the club over how he was treated and no doubt the club were pleased they avoided the meeting as they were “under orders” from Sir Terry Leahy.
Any relationship with CEO Keith Wyness came to an end when his bullying nature got the better of him and he attempted to set the lawyers on KEIOC.
I always believe the best form of defence is attack and any bullying from lawyers gets published no matter how much they complain. They attempted to act against the owners of the KEIOC site, there’s a problem there, it’s owned by a Mr W. Cuff whose address is Goodison Road. The club’s lawyers attempted to serve a cease and desist letter on KEIOC but first of all sent it to a Japanese dentist of the same name! They then found out about Will Cuff.”
For those who are not aware, Will Cuff was a legendary former chairman of Everton Football Club and was also a Solicitor in the City of Liverpool.
“The ironic thing was his practice survived him and continued under his name until they were bought and absorbed into a larger firm of solicitors and you guessed it, they were now Everton’s solicitors, so they were effectively attempting to serve a letter on themselves!”
“It set the tone for the future, KEIOC ran rings around what were essentially amateurs when it came to stuff like this. The naive supporters who knew no better would always question why we didn’t have better dialogue (with the club), when of course, we were aware of the contempt we were treated with, so it made no difference, we set out to expose them.
They still refuse to acknowledge the Blue Union and as for members of the Shareholders Association (SA), I’m simply embarrassed for them, the report from the last meeting with the clowns is a disgrace, the Shareholders Association are finished.”
The meeting referred to was held on 8 February 2013 and had seen a democratically elected member of the shareholders Executive, banned from any meetings between the two bodies. This was the first of a series to be held throughout the year between the SA and Everton. With the club represented by CEO Robert Elstone and Communications Director, Paul Tyrrell.
According to the SAs minutes of the meeting, Everton CEO, Robert Elstone, was clear on the clubs policy of refusing to acknowledge specific Everton supporters groups.
‘Mr Elstone expressed his disappointment that the Executive were intending – against his repeatedly stated wishes – to include in their group, members who are active in the Blue Union. He reiterated that he will not engage with anyone who has played a part establishing or promoting that organisation’s activities.
He said any further attempts by the Executive to include shareholders who are known members of the group in dialogue would be a further breach of trust he has placed in this process and result in his immediate withdrawal from future discussions.’
Certainly for Colin Fitzpatrick and others who have expressed their concerns regarding the off the field running of the club, the disdain for supporters and groups alike, is seemingly a recurring theme threaded through the recent history of Everton Football Club.
“To this day, they still treat the fans and small shareholders with contempt.”
Through information gathered from its growing network, it became rapidly apparent that the Destination Kirkby scheme was nailed on to be subject to a Government planning public inquiry. KEIOC openly warned Everton of the consequences of the added costs and vitally, the time delay involved in a ‘calling in’ of the planning application. The club, perhaps with an ulterior motive, denied a public inquiry was inevitable, and vowed to press on with the fundamentally flawed venture.
KEIOC were advised by experts sympathetic to their cause, including high ranking members of the Government, that the planning application put forward by the triumvirate of Everton, Tesco and KMBC would be ‘called in’ by the then Secretary of State. The message from KEIOC was loud and clear and similarly brought by the group, to all those who would be impacted on by the scheme.
“The application must be refused due to a massive departure from local, regional and national planning regulations.
There was no £52 million subsidy towards the cost of the stadium. The stadium was a low cost, £78 million construction, unfit for purpose by a leading Premier League club. The Transport plan is fundamentally flawed.
Finally, that the finances for the £78m Everton FC were liable to produce, was unexplainable and undeliverable.”
In August 2008, just weeks after the sudden resignation of Everton CEO Keith Wyness, the Labour Secretary of State, Hazel Blears, ‘called in’ the Destination Kirkby planning application for public inquiry. The high level lobbying of Government carried out by the three way partners had failed and whilst KEIOC felt totally vindicated, and allowed themselves a minor celebratory moment, Colin Fitzpatrick and the group undoubtedly knew a battle had been won.
Likewise, they were fully aware, a very public war with the hierarchy of Everton, Tesco and KMBC, was about to unfold.
The ‘calling in’ of the Destination Kirkby planning application sounded the death knell for Bill Kenwright’s horribly flawed attempt to relocate Everton Football Club out of the City of Liverpool. Yet again, and despite the pre-public inquiry resignation of original ‘Kirkby champion,’ Keith Wyness, KEIOC’s warnings to the clubs major shareholders of the madness of pressing on with the doomed scheme, fell on deaf ears. The blind refusal to refuse any sort of advice from any individual or group, who were not their own paid advisors, or those of their partners in the scheme, would cost the club millions of pounds it could ill afford to throw away. Arguably even more critical to the clubs future, would be the loss of yet more years, wasted on the folly of Bill Kenwright and his board of directors.
Colin Fitzpatrick is clear on why the ‘calling in’ was the final nail in the club’s Kirkby coffin. “The truth is the fate of Destination Kirkby was not determined by the Public Inquiry. The inquiry was the execution, a very public execution of a property con that would have succeeded if the government hadn’t called the application in, which meant it would then undergo the strict planning examination it avoided when passed on the nod of the sheep that are the unswerving servants of Knowsley’s Labour Party.”
More than a year prior to the opening of the public inquiry, KEIOC set in motion a pivotal intervention which, despite a report in the Liverpool Daily Post to the contrary, would see Liverpool City Council, join Sefton Borough Council, and Lancashire County Council in opposing the Destination Kirkby application.
As far as Everton’s stadium was concerned its fate was actually sealed on a typically bright and sunny June Liverpool morning when the monstrous application went before Liverpool City Council’s Planning Committee. KEIOC had been concerned that the planning officers report on the application was weak and failed to offer the “right” guidance to the council’s planning committee.
“Liverpool, as a neighbouring authority, had the right to support or oppose the application, so KEIOC lobbied first the leader of the council and then, the leader of the opposition group, current Mayor Joe Anderson. Both had been supportive of KEIOC in the past, in fact in the previous year KEIOC went to great lengths to have the City Council adopt a resolution supporting keeping Everton in the city. Strangely for a planning meeting the council chamber was packed. Mostly with Evertonians affiliated to KEIOC, who watched what was later described at the public inquiry by the counsel of Tesco and Everton as, ‘an unprecedented event.’ First of all Warren Bradley rose to address the planning committee, then Joe Anderson and finally, KEIOC chairman Dave Kelly. Needless to say the City opposed the application unanimously and even described it as little more than a con for a very good reason….it was!”
In the run up to the opening of the public inquiry, the opposition to Destination Kirkby was becoming overwhelming with amongst others, the neighbouring local authorities, MPs and councillors, joining KEIOC, retail giants Grosvenor, developers St. Modwens and various Kirkby residents groups in objecting to the ‘scorched earth’ planning application.
For KEIOC’s part, whilst their aim was abundantly transparent to all at the inquiry, it would be their focus on presenting a coherent, relevant opposing case, combined with producing the crucial ‘closing statement,’ that would concentrate their minds.
“We were advised by many, in particular a nationally known figure and a well known QC whose advice was clear. Get it called in and no matter what happens during the inquiry, no matter how many dirty tricks were played against us, we just needed to concentrate on delivering a powerful closing statement as this is what our objection was really going to be measured on.”
It must have been an extraordinary sight for the multi billion pound backed QC’s of Tesco, Everton and KMBC, as a ragtag bunch of Evertonians promptly entered the Kirkby Suite at 10:00 am on Wednesday, November 19, 2008. It was a portrayal Fitzpatrick and his colleagues were only too pleased to fulfill. Given the huge resources available to the applicants at the public inquiry, to describe the forthcoming nine weeks as a David and Goliath battle, can only be a fitting characterization.
“On reflection, I think we initially bit off a bit more than we could chew in getting involved in the inquiry. It was very similar to a law court environment and without doubt the QC’s, barristers and lawyers were in their element. We, on the other hand, were fish out of water but fish that would learn very quickly and stand our ground. Dirty tricks were employed against us but we also weren’t averse to doing the same. I can’t go into too much detail but someone who shall be nameless had a terrible habit of responding to inquiry officials by email and then later accidentally copying them in on other emails with private documents attached in full knowledge that a certain amount of gossiping was taking place!! Oh how we played the enthusiastic amateur card, Bill (Kenwright) would have been proud!!!”
After 37 working days of argument and counter argument, the no nonsense planning inspector and chair of the public inquiry, Mrs Wendy Burden, invited all parties to present their crucial closing statements. Not though, before KEIOC lightened the mood by presenting Everton CEO Robert Elstone with a Keep Everton In Our City – car sticker, which was gratefully received by the second club CEO to have worked on the Kirkby project. And with the inquiry programme officer sporting a fetching Everton shirt with her name ‘PARKER,’ emblazoned on the back, the proponents and opponents of Destination Kirkby, prepared themselves for the finale of a nine week marathon.
“The day came that we were waiting for, at the very end of the inquiry. When your closing statement was delivered. Unlike during the rest of the inquiry, you were not interrupted by anybody. I suppose the inquiry people had by now rumbled that we were a bit more organised than we let on. At the beginning of the inquiry we delivered box after box of inquiry documents, all professionally bound and containing more evidence than even Everton had submitted.
The closing statement was prepared by myself, and the meff who’s writing this article!!!
Instead of delivering an impassioned plea about Everton leaving the city, it was planning objection after planning objection after planning objection, and we left in the full knowledge that we gave it our best and that, it was inevitable it was going to be refused permission by the secretary of state.”
In closing the public inquiry, and regardless of the rather desperate pleas of the Tesco, Everton and KMBC representatives for the inspector to ‘fast track’ her decision, Mrs. Burden indicated that due to the sheer size and complexity of the planning application, it would be at least six months before the inquiry report could be ready to go to the Secretary of State for consideration. Despite regular contradictory noises from both Everton, Tesco and the local press, it would in fact be a full 10 months before the new Secretary of State, John Denham MP, would deliver the final axe to the neck of Destination Kirkby.
The intervening months between the climax of the public inquiry and final decision, allowed KEIOC to once again focus its attention on exploring alternative plans for the Everton stadium issue. Unlike the club, who had stubbornly and blindly put all their eggs in the Tesco basket, KEIOC were and remain open to investigate all possible avenues. A case in point and one that is possibly more relevant today as it has ever been, is the spiky and perennial debate around a shared stadium for Everton and Liverpool football clubs. Colin’s work with architect and stadium designer Trevor Skempton, only served to reinforce his views on the myriad of complex difficulties a shared stadium throws up.
“After the inquiry, we investigated alternative solutions to Everton’s stadium problem. Myself and Trevor Skempton produced quite a substantial document looking into the possibilities of a shared stadium and presented it to both the leader of the council and the leader of the opposition group in the leaders office. It was an interesting exercise, sited in the area around Liverpool Waters, it was purely a design concept that addressed the potential problems of a shared stadium in many innovative ways. Two problems with the concept were relatively insurmountable. Firstly Bradley took the concept to John Whittaker at Peel and he had no interest in a stadium whatsoever. The second problem is that Everton and Liverpool have such diverse target markets that it would be relatively impossible and completely undesirable to accommodate such a potentially compromising situation, particularly for Everton. People who unthinkingly state that a shared stadium is the best solution for the City are complete idiots in my opinion.”
Very nearly 3 years had passed since Keith Wyness announced Everton’s plan of relocating to Kirkby, when, in late November, 2009, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, John Denham MP, revealed the joint Tesco, Everton, KMBC Destination Kirkby planning application had been rejected.
Prior to the full inspectorate report being published, a formal letter from the Secretary of State’s office, spelt out the main conclusions against the development to the interested parties. The scheme, as KEIOC, back in the early summer of 2007 had correctly predicted, had breached a raft of national and regional planning policy. The whole project was rejected outright. According to a senior aide of Mr. Denham MP, “when it came to the crunch, the Secretary of State had no other option.”
All parties with a vested interest in the planning application, whether for or against, were made aware a decision was imminent 24 hours before the official word was broken. It was a very nervy time for almost all Everton supporters, as Colin recalls.
“The day before the decision, which I think was the Wednesday, we knew an announcement was being made the next day, we even put it on our site which was probably a bad move as the phones never stopped. I remember, I think it was Billy Thorndyke, better known in Everton circles as Billy Bullens, who said “everyone was panicking except Dave (Kelly) and Colin.” People were on a roller coaster of emotions but I never doubted the politicians and experts we’d had, they were a great bunch of Evertonians. Even our QC was a blue!!
When the announcement came, in the early evening, the phones were ringing off the hook, a lot of KEIOC were at Hull City for the game. One guy on the way to Hull, and convinced the decision was going to go against us, drank a bottle of Jack Daniels to commiserate and drank another on the way home to celebrate!! We didn’t gloat or anything, the three or four line announcement of the decision is still on the KEIOC site.”
In the aftermath of the rejection, Bill Kenwright broke his longterm silence on Destination Kirkby when quoted in the Liverpool Echo, on November 29.
“The first thing to say in terms of Kirkby is that the chapter is over and the book is closed. The motivation has only ever been to improve the finances of the football club. They need to be stabilised, improved and expanded. As everyone knows, the club doesn’t currently have a chairman or a board in a position to do those things.”
It was, when you take into consideration the storm that had surrounded the Kirkby project, an understated, somewhat anemic, throwaway statement from the Everton chairman. It was as though he had neither a hand in the project, nor any comprehension of the effect on the fanbase. As if he hadn’t been at all affected by it.
Whilst some fans called for Kenwright’s head, others, including some local journalists, urged the Everton chairman to lead the club into a reconciliation process, a call to bring the club and supporters together. Regrettably, none of those things were to happen.
Throughout the duration of KEIOC’s Kirkby campaign, the relations between the group, Everton and various other interested parties, including the press and media, varied over time, sometimes wildly. Fitzpatrick has no qualms in expressing some sympathy with local journalists whom, at the time, had produced more balanced reports that ‘simply weren’t published,’ nor in revealing a ‘reasonable relationship’ between KEIOC and the then fresh faced CEO, Robert Elstone.
Sadly for all concerned, and more than three years on since the Kirkby project met its end, the relations between supporters groups and the club leadership, are in effect, irrevocably damaged.
The Blue Union was a coming together of various concerned Everton supporter groups with a similar purpose and design. As Communications Officer of the supporters umbrella organisation, Fitzpatrick passionately explains its origins.
“The Blue Union was a tremendous solution to the problem of many fan groups with slightly differing aims and objectives all wanting to have a go at what they at least knew was the root cause of the problem at Everton, the ownership. Without the structure of the Blue Union certain things would never have happened. The protest marches must have chilled the management to the bone, well we knew they did. Watching Goodison Road filled with Evertonians fed up with the years of lies and deception was fantastic. The keyboard warriors who criticised those guys who protested mean nothing to me, call me old fashioned but some loner sitting their in their underpants telling match going Evertonians that they’re wrong from the middle of some god forsaken place, I tend not to worry about. I worry about the lads outside the pubs and on the sidewalks clapping the marchers; put your pint down and do something for your club. We let the Spirit of Shankly lads see the videos from the march, they were amazed how we got so many, all they got was three hundred. The public meetings we held were very well attended to. It goes to show there’s a real passion for information out there, beyond the Neanderthal offerings of sites that pander to the club hierarchy, the ones they can rely on.”
Patently, if there was ever an opportunity to address the fracture between supporters and the hierarchy of Everton, the collapse of the Kirkby debacle was it. However, the lack of initiative or will from Everton to address the elephant in the room and with supporters groups now calling for the Chairman and board to appoint an independent group of professionals to oversee the sale of the club, a 14 year objective yet to be fulfilled by Kenwright, it seems the opportunity may have been forever lost.
This week, Monday, 11 March to be precise, ex-footballer turned broadcaster, Stan Collymore, dedicated more than two hours on the national radio station, TalkSport, to Everton Football Club. He had been approached by a club spokesperson who, for some unthinkable reason wanted to remain anonymous, yet had agreed to answer a list of 12 questions put together by Collymore. Amongst the answers garnered from the former employee of Manchester City, was the ‘revelation’ that Bill Kenwright and his fellow major shareholders were willing to sell their stake in Everton and valued the club in the region of £125 million. The biannual link to ‘Middle Eastern interest’ also reared its familiar head.
Question number four on Stan Collymore’s list, ‘Why has there been no sale of Everton Football Club? Also received a familiar comeback;
‘The stadium issue is a millstone around the clubs neck.’
I thought it would be remiss not to ask Colin Fitzpatrick for his view on the same question. Colin’s answer turned out to be somewhat more detailed than that of the anonymous Everton spokesperson.
Why has there been no sale of Everton Football Club?
“If anything has been proven, in recent years, it is that the directors are only interested in obtaining the maximum amount of money when they depart. Kenwright admitted to chasing a guy to sign the contract to sell the club who lived in a bedsit in Singapore. Obviously, it would never have happened but the fact he was chasing him should concern every Evertonian.
Then there was the Kirkby con, in which the £52 million cross-subsidy, that was meant to pay 40% of the total cost of the stadium didn’t actually exist, but was a value that would have ended up on the balance sheet and realised once the club was sold. A need for a new stadium did not drive the move to Kirkby, it was the chance to correct the balance sheet that was being slowly eroded. The recent revelation that they’re looking for a £125 million return, after paying just over £20 million, only confirms what they’re in it for.
Don’t get me wrong, if they’d invested in the infrastructure, made sure the commercial dealings were the best we could get, I’d be the first to wish them best of luck. The problem is they haven’t done any of that, they’ve used the assets to keep the club going. Under Kenwright’s leadership, we’ve gone from a £20 million positive balance sheet in 2000, to a £44 million negative balance sheet today. We find the business simply doesn’t generate any money and that’s what a business is for.
A key metric used to calculate this, EBITDA, has been falling and falling at the club in recent years, from almost £9 million in 2008 it’s now dropped to minus £6 million. The reason for this is the commercial performance of the club, it simply isn’t good enough and what do the board of directors do to alter this situation? What do the individual members of Everton’s board actually do anyway? I often see, as opposed to hear, people say, “Be careful what you wish for” when they talk about Kenwright, not a ringing endorsement obviously, but that’s about all people can say before following it up with a list of clubs that have got into trouble. I always wonder why the previous owners of those clubs sold out to these people, and nine times out of ten it’s all about money, as much money as possible and there’s the problem, our board, a board with a justified reputation for failure and a readily stated desire to obtain £100 million, tells me they’d sell to anyone. Thankfully people who have earned their money have looked at our club, looked at the books and looked at the asking price and said you’re having a giraffe.
Of course in 2013/14 Everton should increase their turnover by £25 million due to the new TV deal but TV money has increased before, without any finding its way to the club.”
Sadly, and somewhat bizarrely, given the fractious past of supporter – club relationships, judging by the outcome of the recent meeting between Everton CEO Robert Elstone and the Shareholders Association Executive, relations between the Everton hierarchy and the supporters who are genuinely concerned about their clubs future, are seemingly at an all time low. Remarkably, Everton Football Club’s officers, chairman and board of directors find themselves in the peculiar position of refusing to acknowledge the very existence of a section of the clubs own match going fanbase.
At some point, in the very near future, this damaging stand off between Chairman, board and officers of Everton versus supporters and supporters groups, simply has to be resolved.
For the good of Everton Football Club, something has got to give.
Colin Fitzpatrick was talking to Neil Adderley, March 2013.
For a detailed archive of the Kirkby debacle and much more, visit: http://www.keioc.net/
For more Everton and football related talk, check out David Kennedy’s forthcoming book, released in the autumn, ‘Fan Culture In European Football: The Influence of Left Wing Ideology’ which features an exclusive chapter by Colin Fitzpatrick.