On Monday, 23 November, shareholders of Everton Football Club will assemble in the city’s Philharmonic Hall for their annual general meeting.
By Nigel Ross
Bill Kenwright has been a member of the Everton board of directors for over a quarter of a century, but in this past year his health has suffered and whilst no Evertonian would wish Kenwright anything other than a speedy recovery, equally no Evertonian would place the future of the club above the interests of any one person.
He has been chairman and figurehead for the past eleven years, eleven years which to describe as turbulent would be an understatement.
As a man, Bill Kenwright certainly divides opinion, if you’re a dewy-eyed sentimentalist then Bill’s your hero, if you’re a hard-nosed pragmatic then he’s nothing but a fantasist. A Marmite personality if ever there was one.
However, when evaluating his ability as a chairman, the leader of our football club, there should be little room for personal opinion or sentimentality. Just as with football played on the pitch, it is results off the pitch that matter, and it is upon these results his performance, as chairman, should be judged.
Supporters of Kenwright will point out that, if nothing else, he is an Evertonian who has brought stability to the club.
Detractors will point to a failed sixteen year hunt for investment, two failed ground moves, a third failing to materialise, a failed ground redevelopment scheme and a failure to keep up commercially with our peers.
The most damning failure of all is that the club has failed to win a single trophy in twenty years.
Discounting the propaganda from both factions and simply focusing on the performance, has the chairman’s tenure been successful or a failure? Can his performance as a chairman be evaluated and quantified? Would he survive a shareholders vote of confidence if a show of hands was taken?
Current AGM’s bear little resemblance to those turbulent meetings of the past when directors felt the wrath of shareholders and fans alike.
On bleak winter evenings passionate supporters flocked to Goodison Park and tackled rudderless directors over issues such as investment and ground moves; the board felt so much wrath in fact, that they changed the constitution and banned the meetings for five years.
This will be the third meeting since the ban was lifted and, as with many things in modern life, they have become completely sanitised and staged managed.
Answering questions submitted in advance, under the guise of helping to make the meeting run smoother, not only allows them to stage manage the whole thing, but also gives the opportunity to supply carefully worded answers to questions, with just the right amount of added disdain to dismiss them.
The organisers and participants can ensure that little, if any time, will be left to address what everybody really wants to discuss.
No doubt it will come as a genuine surprise to the club’s hierarchy that interest in free schools, or where kits are currently available to purchase, pale into insignificance when measured against the performance of the board of directors and their chief executive. In particular the commercial deal with Kitbag, and specifically, where has all the money from the last five years kit supply deals ended up?
Money that every other club in the premier league enjoys except Everton.
Will carefully worded answers to pre-submitted questions on these subjects make any difference, or will this simply be treated as an exercise the board need to get out of the way as quickly as possible?
If the meeting follows the usual format, chief executive Robert Elstone will deliver thirty minutes of meaningless rhetoric, as he attempts to transfer his definition of success to a glassy eyed and unbelieving audience.
Perhaps Elstone will give a greater insight into the funding model he has so desperately been seeking for two years, a funding model for the promised new stadium in Walton Hall Park.
One would hope this would have been slightly more sophisticated than requesting the council not only hand over the land for free, but also asking them to borrow the money so that Everton can build the stadium.
Alas, it isn’t more sophisticated at all, this is exactly what they came up with and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why the council haven’t embraced the request.
As in common with all of Everton’s capital projects, WHP was doomed to failure from the start. Everton’s directors simply cannot invest in their own business nor raise sufficient funds for any planned development.
Having sold off or mortgaged everything to finance the business, funding is now limited to borrowing against guaranteed income streams, everything else being left to luck rather than good judgement.
Shareholders will once again be left with nothing more than a further set of broken promises and unfulfilled dreams. If the board, through its chairman, cannot deliver a deliverable plan for the future, one which their performance can be measured against, then surely, finally, it is time to replace them with people who can.
Meanwhile, the prospect of the club finally having a new owner should be greeted with open arms, the beginning of a new era in which the aforementioned criticisms can finally be addressed. Sadly, this isn’t the case, but not for the reasons from those who warn of being careful what you wish for.
There is no need to cover old ground, the information from former directors and chief executives coupled with a whole host of anecdotal evidence, points to Philip Green having a major interest in Everton Football Club.
Not to mention the recent and ongoing investigation by French journalist Dominique Rousseau pointing to Everton being embroiled in a clandestine network of financial dealings which extends from the British Virgin Islands to Monaco, Switzerland and beyond. Dealings the Premier League currently turn a blind eye to, perhaps due to modern football organisations being more concerned with money than wrong doing, as seen with the recent FIFA and UEFA scandals.
This revelation in itself is damaging enough, but when one considers Green is negotiating with Inner Circle Sports to sell the club to the highest bidder – when a far more suitable partner waits in the wings, a partner whose interest in redevelopment and regeneration through an equity deal would be mutually beneficial to both the club and city – you begin to realise that Kenwright’s legacy could have the same dire consequences that greed placed before future well-being always has.
Wouldn’t it now be in the best interests of the club for Bill Kenwright to resign with dignity and appoint an independent organisation to conduct a transparent sale of the club for the registered owners?
Kenwright can’t conduct the sale due to his ill health, and neither Jon Woods nor Robert Earl have any practical involvement with the club whatsoever.
As for Robert Elstone, his inexperience and performance as CEO would exclude him from such a role, so it’s clear that a professional must be employed to deliver a sale which, as company law dictates, is in the best interest of the business and not its directors.
After years of failure and no semblance of a deliverable strategy for the future, if this is not the best way forward then shareholders and supporters alike deserve to hear what is; or perhaps the board have their hands tied, and are in no position to adopt a strategy that outside interests don’t agree with?
With all the suspicion, ambivalence and uncertainty surrounding not only the future control of Everton Football Club, but also its present ownership, the only cast iron guarantee concerning the 2015 AGM is that non of these questions will be answered.
The “He’s my friend therefore your friend” line simply no longer holds any credence, and with the authorities now taking a serious interest in this kind of behaviour, the storm clouds of uncertainty will continue to gather over Goodison Park.