Football: Blues try to smoke out absent landlord

Evertonians fear the club could drift dangerously in the ownership battle.
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The Independent Online
IT WAS from an acid test at Oxford, of course, that the School of Science last emerged as a first-class football establishment. Had it not been for Adrian Heath's fateful League Cup quarter-final equaliser at the Manor Ground in January 1984, courtesy of Peter Reid's hustling and Kevin Brock's hasty back pass, the Howard Kendall experiment probably would have been ditched and Evertonians would never have enjoyed the Goodison golden years of the mid-Eighties. That, however, was then. In the here and now of the late Nineties, the School of Science would struggle to pass the football equivalent of an Ofsted inspection.

Something fundamental has to be wrong when a defeat like the one Everton suffered against Oxford in this season's League Cup at Goodison on Wednesday night can pass with nothing more than a collective shrug of the shoulders from the loyal blue army. "We didn't have a proper team out," Richard Lewis said, dismissively. Evertonians like Lewis, a Goodison regular for 35 years, simply appreciate the plight of those, like Walter Smith and the board-room team of 10 months, who have been making a decent enough job of guiding a club that is not so much in Liverpool as in limbo.

With five players injured and tomorrow's Merseyside derby looming, the manager's priority last Wednesday was to avoid any more casualties. Unlike Reid, whose shadow Sunderland side walloped Walsall 5-0 with the help of just two first-teamers on Tuesday, Smith does not have the strength in depth to match the merely ambitious, let alone the seriously monied, Premiership clubs. Everton's manager, like Everton's supporters, has more serious things to worry about than the minor inconvenience of a premature Worthington Cup exit against a modest Second Division side.

"The fans are quite happy with Walter Smith and what he has done at the start of the season," Lewis said. "We just want to see Everton in secure hands. We just want a secure future."

What Lewis and his fellow members in the Everton Shareholders' Association would like most of all in the immediate future is a word or two with the man who has left their beloved boys in blue in the lurch for the past 10 months. Peter Johnson has not been seen at Goodison and not heard from in public since he resigned as chairman and left the board last November. He agreed at the time to sell his 68 per cent shareholding but has yet to relinquish his controlling interest.

The theatre impresario and lifelong Evertonian Bill Kenwright was appointed vice-chairman with a view to forming a consortium to buy out Johnson's shares. The problem is Johnson will not sell for less than pounds 50m and Kenwright's backers, it seems, are unwilling to pay more than pounds 20m for a club that has halved its debts under the new board but remains some pounds 9m in the red. The latest proposal was rejected on the eve of the season and, under the bizarre terms of the takeover panel set up last November, only Johnson, as a so-called "independent director", is made aware of any bids.

Johnson has sat tight and kept tight-lipped even though he has come under increasing pressure to sell since it emerged that he is still the major shareholder in Tranmere Rovers. Dual ownership is a contravention of football regulations but Johnson has thus far resisted a joint warning from the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League to sell his Everton shares. He also has no intention of selling up at Tranmere, according to the club's chief executive, Lorraine Rogers, who happens to be his partner. She said on BBC Radio Merseyside last week that the struggling First Division club was not for sale.

"It's a complete impasse," Lewis said. "Nothing seems to be happening. Johnson hasn't said anything about Everton in public since last November and Bill Kenwright can't talk because the takeover panel are not allowed to comment while the club is under offer. The way things are, it looks like it's just going to drag on indefinitely.

"We, the Everton Shareholders' Association, are trying our best to do something. The club AGM is at the end of October and we'll be tabling motions there. We might follow that with an EGM, to try to smoke out Johnson and make him answer questions. But, ultimately, we're no more than a pressure group. We can't dictate who owns Everton Football Club. It's down to Peter Johnson to reach an equitable solution with whoever buys it. And obviously he has the right to refuse whatever price he's offered if he doesn't think it represents value."

In the meantime, while their Premiership rivals speculate with their corporate gains - Liverpool, with their Granada money, Leeds with their BSkyB cash - Everton simply drift on. They have made a better than expected start to the season and go to Anfield tomorrow three points better off than their near neighbours. And Smith has recouped so much cash in the transfer market he has been allowed to spend pounds 1.5m on the Portuguese midfielder Abel Xavier, who made an impressive full debut in the home win against West Ham a week ago, and has taken Tommy Johnson on loan with a view to a permanent deal. Evertonians, however, need no reminding that the last time their team finished ahead of Liverpool in a final League table was the season they won their second title under Kendall, 1986-87.

They will also need no reminding tomorrow that the man controlling their club, and their destiny, was once a Liverpool season ticket holder and shareholder. "Thanks for your work, agent Johnson," one banner on the Kop mocked at the last Merseyside derby in April. Not that Everton's chief shareholder was at Anfield to see it. And not that the Jersey tax exile was on Merseyside last week to read the Moores family telling the local press that they had sold out to "the wrong man" when they accepted Johnson's pounds 10m offer ahead of Kenwright's.

"The fact is we have an absentee landlord who hasn't attended a match since November," Lewis said. "To be honest, I can see this just drifting on and on. But that would be a terribly sad thing if it happened because Everton's a super football club with fabulous traditions and fabulous supporters. It's also one of the few clubs in English football history who actually wins things repeatedly. We do turn up with an FA Cup now and again and a League championship now and then. And if you take Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal out of the equation, there are no other clubs who have done that."