Football: Johnson poised to sell Everton

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The Independent Online
CONFUSION AND chaos reigned at Goodison Park last night after confirmation of the departure of Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle United for a fee of pounds 8m.

Earlier in the day, it appeared that Walter Smith was ready to resign as manager in protest at Ferguson's departure, though by the evening this possibility seemed to have receded, to be replaced by reports that the Everton chairman, Peter Johnson, is ready to sell the club. Johnson hopes to conclude a deal with an as yet unknown buyer for around pounds 60m.

Ferguson has signed a deal with Newcastle worth pounds 8m over four and a half years, making him the best paid player at St James' Park. Newcastle's offer was too big for Sunderland to match.

Smith, saying he had been left in the dark by Johnson over Ferguson's departure, ordered an emergency board meeting shortly after learning that Ferguson was on his way. The former Rangers manager only learned about the transfer when Ferguson told him he would not be at training because he was being transferred.

Friends of Ferguson, who has an Everton tattoo, said that he was so upset by the move that he went into hiding when he was told about it over the weekend. The player's father first went public with the story after Monday night's victory over Newcastle, tearfully telling fans in the pub across the road from Goodison Park that his son was leaving. Many fans stood in the street afterwards to shout at Johnson.

The size of Ferguson's contract with Newcastle, on top of the transfer fee, proves that the manager, Ruud Gullit, has won his fight to open the Newcastle coffers. The size of his salary will also raise Alan Shearer's eyebrows as it betters his wages despite the fact that he is still the club's record signing. Gullit does not want to lose Shearer, but is no longer pandering to him at every turn as has happened in the past.

Last night, Shearer was insistent that he wants to stay at Newcastle, but said he was confused by Gullit's suggestion that he, Shearer, was unhappy at the club.

"As far as I am concerned I am staying at Newcastle United - but at the moment I really don't know what the board and the manager are thinking," the England captain said. "All I want is to be part of a successful Newcastle United team. I love this club in a way that only a Geordie could understand."

After Monday night's game, Gullit had said that Shearer, currently out of action with a hamstring injury, was not for sale, but added: "I don't know if he as a player really wants to stay and that is the point."

As Ferguson enters St James', there were reports yesterday that David Batty wants to leave the club. Batty has grown disgruntled with his lot under Gullit, who left him out of a recent game without telling him why. The England international is also upset at criticism levelled at the team by Gullit although Batty himself has not been singled out.

Over at Goodison, there is uncertainty over Johnson's future. Not surprisingly, Smith wants assurances about the club's future transfer policy, and is keen to ascertain whether he has money to buy players. However, Johnson will not be giving Smith funds, as Ferguson has been off-loaded in order to balance the books before the club is sold.

However Johnson may now be gone just as quickly as his former captain and leading goalscorer, and sources close to the millionaire, who made his money selling food hampers, suggest he has already found a buyer. The Everton director Bill Kenwright has been trying to put a consortium together to meet Johnson's asking price, but his group are not thought to be favourites.

Everton fans will be delighted if Johnson goes swiftly. He has always been regarded as a Liverpool fan who had unpopular ideas. He was criticised at a recent AGM for his failure to communicate adequately with the fans and the fact that he spends much of his time in Jersey. His Everton shares are owned by a company on the island. The sale of Ferguson will surely be the final straw for the supporters, but also probably the last act of a man who knows his time is up.

Johnson's departure would also raise question marks about Smith's future - a new owner may want to bring in his own man. Smith has spent heavily since he came from Rangers, but they are still in the relegation zone.

For his part, Smith is just four months into a lucrative three-year contract and would lose a hefty pay-off if he were to walk away. But he could make a case that Johnson has undermined his position and could even lodge an action for constructive dismissal. Smith tried to keep a lid on his emotions after the win over Newcastle on Monday night but he was furious with Johnson as the details unfolded.

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