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.
The Colin Fitzpatrick Interview, Part One
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, 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 Scouser’s 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 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 declared: “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 a 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. 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 passed, eventual rumours of Everton FC being 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 being heavily backed by the local press and 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 of Liverpool 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 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 (the then) 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 and 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.’
“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 by Fitzpatrick 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 then 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: