Three years ago, the publication of accounts for the holding companies of Arsenal and Everton provided a stark contrast between clubs who were, at the time covered by those accounts, three places apart in English club football’s pecking order. While Arsenal were opening superstores in Vietnam, Everton were forced to outsource their own merchandising due to poor performance. The gap between the best and, as Everton then were, the best of the rest, was more of a chasm. Even since then, only the monumental sticking plaster applied by the management skills of David Moyes has masked the reality of a club stagnating while competitors have progressed. Spanish midfielder Mikel Arteta seemed to personify the continuing chasm between Everton and the top division elite to which they not-so-long-ago belonged, with his deadline-evening move from to Arsenal. Even football analysts’ confusion about the merits or otherwise of Arteta appeared to tell a tale. A player so pivotal to Everton was a panic overspend by a desperate Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. In that assessment lay the up-to-date overall assessment of the two clubs’ relative standings in English club football.

Moyes’ sticking plaster was ripped painfully away (taking plenty of proverbial body hairs with it) by chairman and major shareholder Bill Kenwright’s revelations, to supporters umbrella organisation ‘The Blue Union’ (TBU) last month. In a controversially transcripted and published interview, he admitted Everton’s financial situation was as dire as critics, including the four supporters’ organisations under TBU’s umbrella, had been claiming, especially since the club’s 2010 accounts were published in February. TBU has been born from Everton’s inability to ‘compete’ with clubs with which supporters believe Everton should be competing, especially in the transfer market.  Tottenham, with a comparable average attendance, were oft-quoted competitors last season. The occasional envious (and probably surreptitious) eye has been cast over Liverpool’s new ambitious-sounding owners. And Everton’s inability to match “the likes of” Stoke City’s transfer spend has heightened and focused supporter disenchantment.

So established supporters campaigning groups such as ‘Keep Everton in our City’ (Keioc) – formed in opposition to Everton’s proposals last decade to move outside Liverpool’s city boundaries – were joined by newer blood such as ‘Evertonians for Change,’ (E4C) formed early in 2011 to “seek positive change at the club through fan action and involvement.” And these groups joined with ‘The People’s Group’ and two-year-old “independent fansite” ‘School of Science 1878’ to form TBU at the start of last month, with a manifesto addressing “the true facts surrounding the stagnation of Everton Football Club”. However, the public spat between Everton and TBU, in the wake of TBU’s verbatim publication of their conversation with Kenwright, revealed more than just a financially desperate football club.

Supporters’ complaints were as much about Everton’s communication of its situation as about the situation itself – a topic prominent in TBU’s manifesto, which referenced a “lack of transparency and accountability”, and in published correspondence between E4C and CEO Robert Elstone. The club’s reactions to Kenwright’s “revelations” suggested these complaints had merit. But the most crucial evidence was Kenwright’s performance in the transcripted meeting. He was arrogant, defensive, contradictory and downright ignorant. And even amid the headline revelations, these attitudes leapt from the transcript. “No-one can sell the club better than me,” and “you’ll never get a better salesman than Bill Kenwright,” the ‘theatre impresario’ declared when asked “why hasn’t the club been sold?” “When was the last major sale of a football club?” he continued. “Liverpool” and “Blackburn”, TBU replied. But, apparently, Liverpool “weren’t sold, they took over the debt,” and “who would want Blackburn?”  “The thing I’m getting is there’s not enough money in the world,” was his choice from the catalogue of ‘current economic climate’ excuses. However, even when there was a bit of money about, efforts to sell the club were embarrassing. If you want to see an Everton director jump ten feet high, sneak up on him and whisper ‘Fortress Sports Fund’ in his ear.

Kenwright carried on blowing his own trumpet regardless: “You’ve got a chairman who keeps the spirit of our football club like no other…when I am not here, you won’t half f***ing notice,” he added, in case the point had been missed. He was ultra-defensive about board member and clothing industry billionaire Philip Green, denying that Green was any more than an advisor and accusing the TBU reps of being “potty” for quoting claims that Green was more involved. His admission that “the Pienaar money has gone to the bank”, the £3m Tottenham paid in January 2011 for Everton’s 2009/10 player of the season, backed TBU’s view that transfer income “has gone to pay debts.” It also appeared to be at odds with Kenwright’s insistence that “85p in the £ goes back into Finch Farm” – Everton’s training complex.

Questioned on the club’s ‘other operating costs’ of £23.8m, he had to ask “what do you mean?” before providing…no answer whatsoever. “Well, surely as chairman you should be aware what these other operating costs are?” asked a clearly stunned TBU rep. “No, absolutely not,” Kenwright replied, “And why should I? I can’t break the accounts down for you” – accounts, it should be noted, which were signed on the Everton board’s “behalf” on 31st January 2011 by “W. Kenwright CBE, Director.” “You’ve got to accept your lack of knowledge,” he told the reps later (oh, for a mirror at that point). “And even if you’re like me, you’ll get the knowledge but it will take six or seven times to get it.”  He clarified that “it took me ten years”, which was a stunning enough admission of ignorance from a Premier League club chairman and major shareholder. But he didn’t clarify how many years it would take before his knowledge of £23.8m worth of ‘other operating costs’ (30% of Everton’s entire declared turnover) would extend beyond: “I don’t know. I have no idea.” Just as stunning was his repeated insistence that “all I can see is every other football club in the country wanting to be like Everton Football Club.”

And in case this point was drowned out by the noise of TBU reps’ jaws dropping, he emphasised “every one of them, every single one of them.” “Every one of them has spent money this window, though,” noted one rep. “So what? Kenwright replied. “I’m telling you every other football club wants to be like Everton.” He did, however, neglect to say why. But he added: “If you’re going to judge everything on spending money in the transfer window, that’s up to you, it’s not for me”, which is handy, really, given Everton’s record. “If that’s what we’ve got to worry about, guys, considering what’s going on in the world, Norway, East Africa…” Of course, there was plenty more “to worry about.” Kenwright begging the bank not to “kill us this season,” which caught national media attention. And cameos like Kenwright on his support for Moyes in the transfer market: “On average, we give him £5.6m every year…nine years, that’s £45m”. With arithmetic like that, no wonder the banks wanted a word.

So Kenwright’s revelations served to at least partially justify the existence of the protest groups. In February, Keioc secretary Colin Fitzpatrick was so outspoken in his call for ‘regime change’ that the Liverpool Echo newspaper received a club ban for publishing it. Fitzpatrick called for greater transparency from the club, was heavily critical of the board’s business plan and expressed what the Echo’s Everton correspondent Greg O’Keeffe called “fears Everton could come under pressure from the banks to cut its overdraft by selling players,” the only thing off-target with his theory being that it was already happening. E4C’s objectives echoed Fitzpatrick’s and echoed further criticisms of Everton for replacing AGMs with “stage-managed shareholder forums.” TBU’s manifesto incorporated these same themes.

Club responses, mostly through Elstone, have veered between ultra-defensive and downright insulting. In February, Elstone defended the club’s “constant dialogue with all its fans,” noting the club’s “award-winning” website and its “audio-visual updates” and multi-media encouragement of “interactive dialogue which we review and act upon.” Two months later, a more cocksure Elstone addressed a “fans conference” which he said was to “update (fans) on the issues we believe are important to you” (my emphasis). He then promptly derided supporters’ questions about investment, the club’s sale and future stadium plans as “tabled on various yellow slips that are flying around the room (by) a group of people who have decided they are the six questions they want to ask.” And he added: “Forgive me if I am overdoing their credibility…but I may as well start by answering those six questions,” before letting the mask slip by admitting that answering the critical but completely pertinent questions was “going slightly off-script.”

Then in July, Elstone began his blog on the club web-site: “A few Evertonians continue to bombard local and national media, imploring them to ‘expose the inadequacies and errors of the board and management of the club.’” He dismissed their claims as “beefed up by errors and speculation.” He expressed his confidence that “despite the loudness” of the media bombardment, the criticisms were “not a majority view.” And said the fans’ central issue “where does all the money go?” was “easy to answer… it goes to Finch Farm… youth development… scouting, medical and coaching…on players; as simple as that.” Meanwhile, club communications officer Ian Ross was calling the protest groups “ill-informed children… united under the twee banner ‘The Blue Union,’… they lie, they abuse, they spit at people like me…they don’t matter to me and they don’t matter to 99% of those Evertonians who can read a balance sheet.”

However, the real reason Everton were so upset at the publication of Kenwright’s revelations was that they ‘revealed’ the fans with the yellow slips, the unusual ability to write loudly and the spare saliva were criticising efforts to sell the club, incoherent ground development plans and money servicing “serious debt”… were right. This is not to say that the protest movement is above criticism. The club may have been arguing about the morality of publishing in an attempt to “undermine the value of the detailed report” and deflect attention from the issues raised. But TBU would clearly have known Kenwright’s request that there should be “no notes” would also have meant “no secret recordings.” And it was grubby of TBU to say there was “no proof that the meeting was taped,” having produced a multi-thousand word transcript five days after it happened…unless the transcriber is also a “memory man” in a travelling circus.

Their launch statement was sloppy, with schoolboy errors such as declaring that they “would tow the line of no political party.” One fan commented that “I realise you are not sitting an English GCSE but… you’ll need to raise your game… to engage directly with Everton, who are now a corporate entity.” And although it was a minor points, they was worth making (see?). TBU’s objective “that we would assist” this corporate entity “in their endeavours to attract investment and/or a takeover” was breathtakingly presumptuous for such an infant organisation with, surely, insufficient relevant expertise. And when the grammar was right, the language was more akin to a Socialist Workers’ Party leaflet, with politically-sound but meaningless claims about being “inclusive not exclusive” (as opposed to…?) and a whole paragraph on opposition to discrimination, sectarianism and sexism, which was entirely proper but should perhaps have firmly been category marked “goes without saying.”

Notwithstanding all of that, though, TBU are largely the good guys (and gals) in this tale. TBU’s now-proven claims about the club’s recent past and sincere, pertinent worries about it’s near future, demand far greater respect than they are currently afforded. And while TBU may still be some way from a place at the table for meaningful negotiations on Everton’s future, they are a growing force, not least because Elstone and Ross might as well be listed as a ‘recruitment officers’ for their attitude. Hopefully for Everton, the valid points they are making will be taken seriously by the club before it is too late.

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