Protests at Everton? Just what is going on?

Bill Kenwright As a Liverpool fan, I don’t comment on Everton too often. However, I like to write about the Premier League in general, and sadly, the ongoing financial problems Everton are suffering are big news at present.

On Saturday, before the game against Aston Villa, the Blue Union, a coalition of various Everton supporters groups and websites, is planning a protest march against the lack of investment in Everton and against the way the club is currently being run. Evertonians generally don’t protest (many fans are completely against the actions of the Blue Union), so the fact that some will be taking to the streets is an indication of just how serious these fans feel the problem is.

There have been increasing noises about the perilous state of Everton’s finances in the past couple of years. There were (unconfirmed) rumours of wages being paid late last season and rumours started that the banks have started to call in their debts to the extent that most of the money coming into the club is being sucked out by the banks.

Alarm bells started to ring this summer, when rumours emerged that Everton missed out on the transfer of goalkeeper Andy Lonergan because they were outbid by Leeds United and couldn’t match the transfer fee. Normally, there’d be nothing too unusual that, clubs get outbid all the time, but what makes this different, and worrying to Everton fans, is that the fee was in the low six figures, a sum of money that a club of Everton’s stature should easily be able to raise. The Blue Union recently met with Chairman Bill Kenwright, secretly recording it and a transcript was published. It outlined just how bad Everton’s financial problems are. Kenwright has admitted that the club cannot borrow any more money to buy players, a situation they have been in for years.

Everton were unable to sign anyone permanently this summer. They hadn’t signed anyone, except re-signing Eric Dier, a teenage defender on loan, before deadline day, when they managed to sign on loan Royston Drenthe and Argentine striker Denis Stracqalursi. The club sold one of their best players in Mikel Arteta and one of their few strikers in Jermaine Beckford on deadline day, and the concern amongst Everton fans is that Moyes will not get that money to spend in January as it will be eaten up by the banks, which is what happened to the money generated from the sales of Steven Pienaar and James Vaughan.

Evertonians are realistic. They know that David Moyes was never going to be given the funds that Roberto Mancini or Kenny Dalglish got to spend this summer. They were not expecting Everton to go out and sign a team of galacticos. But when they see the kind of signings teams like Stoke, West Brom and Wolves all managed to make this summer; they want to know why Everton can’t do the same.

Make no mistake; this isn’t a middling, mediocre, also-ran club we’re talking about here. Everton are England’s fourth most successful club, one of England’s oldest teams and a founder member of the football league. Everton have spent more seasons in the top division of English football than any other club, and only Arsenal has spent more consecutive seasons in the top-flight than Everton. As their song goes, they’re a grand old team to support, and they are extremely well-supported. Despite their fans being somewhat success-starved, with only one trophy in the last 24 years, an average of 36,000 fans still go to every home game.

However, Everton have been stuck in a Premier League no-mans land for a while. They are capable of beating anyone in the league when they play at their best, but are unable to sustain a challenge at the top for a whole season due to a lack of funds. What I find most impressive about Moyes’ Everton sides is that they always give themselves a chance to win, no matter how well or badly they play. It is very rare that you’ll see Everton beaten by three or four goals, they always manage to stay in the game and are capable of salvaging something from a game they haven’t played well in. A perfect example was their game at home to Man United last season. Everton were terrible in the second half and trailed 1-3 going into injury time, only to find some inspiration from somewhere and came back to draw.

Despite losing Arteta and Beckford, Everton have a team that should still get a top ten finish, but fans are frustrated that once again, Everton seem to be standing still whilst other teams around them improve.

When the Premier League was formed, the amount of money that poured into the game, meant that almost every team had a chance to really grow both on and off the pitch. Unfortunately, Everton were really badly run at the time and had a board that made some terrible decisions both in terms of managerial appointments and business deals that prevented Everton from really entering the modern era of football for years and the repercussions of some of those off-field decisions are still being felt today.

Evertons fans have had to watch in horror as the club has lurched from one off-field disaster to another. There was a failed media company investment, where Everton had splashed out in the transfer market in expectation of a forthcoming investment. The investing company went bankrupt the day they were meant to hand over the cheque to Everton, leaving Everton in a financial hole that they had to quickly sell players to get out of. Then there was the proposed investment by Fortress Sports Fund, a Brunei-based fund, which dragged on for months and months without ever actually coming to anything. It emerged recently that Everton somehow manage to lose money on their own merchandise, and had to sign a really restrictive deal in order to reduce those losses.

Everton have been up for sale for a while now, and there seemingly hasn’t been much serious interest. On the face of it, Everton should really be attractive to investors, as there is huge scope for growth. Part of the reason Everton are struggling to attract investment may be that they are somewhat limited in the amount of money they can attract from corporate sponsors. Goodison Park is an old, antiquated stadium that doesn’t have particularly good corporate facilities, so Everton struggle to attract the corporate big-hitters to work with them, which is how teams increase their revenue. Everton need to either modernise Goodison or build a new stadium desperately. So any potential buyer of Everton would have to pour probably hundreds of millions into building a new stadium or redeveloping Goodison, before seeing any sort of return, which is off-putting.

Everton failed to secure land in a prime spot in Liverpool city centre a few years ago for a knockdown price, amid boardroom infighting, which would have been perfect to build a stadium on, they also recently failed in a bid to build a stadium in partnership with the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, just outside Liverpool city limits. At present, most Evertonians are warming to the idea of a groundshare with Liverpool, though I’ve made my feelings clear previously on why I think that’s a bad idea and an idea that’ll never get off the ground.

In Bill Kenwright, Everton have a chairman who genuinely loves his club. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to name another Premier League chairman who even comes close to loving their club as much as Kenwright does. The problem is that maybe Kenwright’s love for the club sometimes clouds his judgement, he seemingly only wants to sell to someone who loves Everton as much as he does, which may be impossible. There was a recent meeting between Kenwright and the Blue Union, which was secretely recorded and the transcript published, in which Kenwright came across as being somewhat in denial of Everton's problems. Part of the problem is that, much like the Hicks and Gillett era of Liverpool, the communication between the board and fans is appalling, so with no information coming from those in the know, fans are filling in the blanks for themselves.

The Blue Union says that it doesn’t want to oust Kenwright from the club, but want to see the sale of the club being taken out of his hands. A statement from the group said they want Everton to “appoint a fully autonomous group of professional individuals who can effectively develop and implement a strategy that will identify and sell the club to a buyer who can demonstrate an ability and a genuine desire to take the club forward on both a commercial and football level."

Blue Union spokesman Joe Jennings added “We hope as many like-minded Evertonians take the opportunity on Saturday to convey their unhappiness at the current situation.

“The Blue Union wish to tackle the issues not the individuals. It would be wrong to say we are simply protesting about the lack of investment in the team. No Evertonian wants the club to spend money they have not got. "In any case, the club are in no position to do so because the current board have disposed of all the tangible assets (Everton sold their former training ground for £9m, but all the money went the banks, they now lease a training ground). We're now disposing of the only assets which are left, the intangibles, the players.

"Evertonians want strong leadership and a strong board with a strong business plan.”

Everton’s motto is ‘Nil Satis Nisi Optimum’, nothing but the best is good enough. Unfortunately Everton’s current board hasn’t been able to live up to that statement for years. It looks as though the patience of Everton’s fans is starting to wear thin, and they are willing to openly show their dissent.

I realise that as a Liverpool fan, my comments may not be appreciated by Evertonians. However, first and foremost I am a football fan, and any true fan of English football can derive no pleasure in the problems currently being suffered by one of the biggest names in English football.