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Know Your Owner – Bill Kenwright

Showman, theatre producer, lifelong Everton fan, and sill ‘searching’ for that illusive investment, Bill Kenwright is a curious conglomeration of a chairman. So, how did he get here and how can we conceptualise his tenure at Goodison.

Born in Liverpool in 1945, Kenwright keenly followed Everton from an early age and often still refers to his days in the ‘boy’s pen’; perhaps, some would suggest, over zealously when requiring a little populace support. However, it was in the arts that he made his name and fame. After wandering the streets of Weatherfield as Gordon Clegg for a year (that’s the fantastical fictional world of Coronation Street for those of you who have lived life without even the slightest glance at popular culture, thus also missing out on an intensely miserable, wailing sample of soap intro music), he moved into the starry West End world of – jazz hands at the ready – ‘showbiz baby!’ and became a hugely successful theatre producer. Bill Kenwright Ltd is now one of the most prolific theatre companies in the world; responsible for hits such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and blah, blah, that’s enough of that.

Having been a member of the Board of Directors Everton since 1989, Kenwright rose to the position of deputy chairman in 1999 after successfully securing a £20 million bid for 68% majority share in the club from the incredibly, immensely, massively unpopular Peter Johnson. In the summer of 2004, Kenwright replaced Sir Philip Carter as Chairman.

A true blue and seemingly accessible and genial (chair)man, his time at Goodison has coincided with steady on field improvements, whilst he has openly stated sound investment and a buyout is both required and being actively perused, yet he remains a divisive figure. There are a number of legitimate factors for this, but let’s be a cheery bunch and start with the positives.

As alluded to, Everton under Kenwright have progressed to a point of regularly competing for, and finishing in, a European spot. This is quite some turnaround; looking up the table with optimistic eyes as oppose to the nervous glances over the shoulder for much of the 1990s. A great deal of this is, of course, due to messiah Moyes. An extensive appraisal of Moyes is not required here, but he has successfully brought stability, altered expectations, demonstrated transfer market shrewdness on a relatively limited budget and assembled a side boasting grit and gift. Kenwright took a chance on Moyes – a manager with no previous Premier League experience – and kept faith when, for example, Everton finished 17th in 2004; this trust was duly repaid with Everton finishing fourth the following year.

Together they have managed to be economical in attracting talent, constructing a prototypical Everton-esque player along the way, whilst keeping the wage bill sustainable and relatively low by Premier League standards. The clubs record transfer fee has also been broken four times under Kenwright (Fellaini the latest at £15 million in 2008), though this is a somewhat inevitable necessity parallel to general economic and market development. The clubs debt is also low by Premier League standards and turnover was actually increased last year (2008/09) reaching just under £80 million.

Added to all this, the passionate boyhood fan as Chairman is a somewhat romantic image. Moreover he has been open in saying his ‘kind of chairmanship’ cannot compete with the new-breed of mega money-men; thus the search for investment is apparently proceeding ‘24/7’, whilst the government-rejected ground development in Kirkby was supposed to push the club forward in a competitive manner and engender a more attractive business proposition.

So, overall, a ‘good egg’? A stable, if slightly cash-strapped, owner overseeing on-field improvements, doing his best to compete with the might of foreign billionaires, and giving little to grumble about? Well if only it was that easy. As Everton fans will know, give the egg a little tap and cracks will show.

Firstly, in quick retort to the above, turnover may have increased last year, but an operating debt was still recorded. Moreover, the turnover was largely a result of on-field exploits and increasing TV revenue and, although relatively modest in these heady hedonistic times, the debt is still a perturbing one. Kenwright often talks in glowing, eulogizing terms about Moyes. It is clear why. Moyes has succeeded with little to spend and been forced into selling top players to oversee debts and finance signings. It is largely thanks to him that Everton have progressed into a strong top-tier outfit, ticking-over nicely, and perhaps buying Kenwright latitude.

More long-running criticisms and shortcomings are evident. The search for investment, particularly regarding NTL and the Fortress Sports Fund, is a good place to start. After an investment package with NTL unfortunately collapsed in 2001, with Everton on the verge of securing £30 million, it was the Sports Fund debacle in 2004 which really stuck in the throat. Having continually professed the investment was imminent, the funds never materialised. This was after numerous media performances and EGM (extraordinary general meeting) assurances in which Kenwright remained certain that the deal would be completed soon. Coming at a time when Kenwright faced a power battle with director Paul Gregg, the ‘promise’ of pretty green certainly helped to cement his position at the club.

Whether all the blame for these false dawns and broken promises can be fairly levelled at Kenwrigth is debatable. Nevertheless, the ongoing search for investment is, well, ongoing. Many were left dismayed when former commercial director Peter Trembing swiftly found investment for Notts County having left Goodison, whilst a number of other Premiership clubs have also been successful in this sphere (though clearly with varying degrees of fortune, leaving some in a precarious position and Everton perhaps lucky to have escaped).

In terms of the ground, the failure to secure the funds for the King’s Dock project in 2003 – a 55,000 seat stadium situated on the waterfront – is now viewed as a particularly poor missed opportunity. Meanwhile, though now abandoned, the controversial Kirkby proposal has left Kenwright with a substantial amount of critics; both those who were against it from the off and those who felt misled by the information – regarding cost and logistics – given prior to the vote (as indicated in a Toffeeweb poll).

Kenwright is largely an endearing figure. When you look elsewhere he seems saintly in comparison, but Everton fans won’t want to compare their state to the misfortune of others. Still presiding over a team with increasing on-field success, but also still short on money, still looking for a new home and the investment to take Everton to the next level…the show keeps rumbling on.

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Article title: Know Your Owner – Bill Kenwright

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