The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part Two

Neil Adderley speaks exclusively in a revealing and explosive two part interview with Colin Fitzpatrick.

The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part Two: Goodison Park by @KevenBanks
Goodison Park by @KevenBanks

 

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.

The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part Two

Wasted millions – Wasted years

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 advisers, 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 had set in motion a pivotal intervention which, despite a report in the Liverpool Daily Post to the contrary, would see Liverpool City Council joining 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!” Explained Fitzpatrick.

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.”

The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part Two: Keeping Everton In Our City

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 three 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 and KMBC Destination Kirkby planning application had been rejected.

Trevor Skepton's thunbnail sketch of a shared stadium on Stanley Park

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 long term 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 Everton 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 there 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.

Goodison Park's historic Bullens Road stand.

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 relationship, 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.

The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part One

For a detailed archive of the Kirkby debacle and much more, visit:

http://www.keioc.net/

Neil Adderley

Father | Scribbler | Dreamer | Evertonian |

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