Football: The chairman who thought too small

Goodison fans have turned against the hamper man whose fingers were in too many pies. By Alan Nixon
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IT IS safe to say that certain streets on Merseyside are at their meanest today for Peter Johnson, the Liverpool fan who became Everton chairman, via Tranmere Rovers. But he never planned it like this.

Johnson's football life began as an Anfield season ticket holder with a blossoming food hamper business on the Wirral and dreams of closer involvement in the game. Such aspirations became reality a decade ago at Prenton Park, Birkenhead, the run-down home of Tranmere Rovers. Merseyside's third club had been on the brink of extinction when Johnson and his wallet came along.

Rovers would probably not be around today but for his intervention and, after a flirtation with relegation from the Football League, he spent wisely and took the club to successive play-offs that almost brought the fairy-tale of Premier League football.

A man of disarming charm, and wit, you would not imagine his wealth as he walked round the friendly suites at Tranmere, taking a genuine interest in all. Thoroughly approachable, he is a real football man.

Only those could not see the big picture objected when Johnson made his bid for Everton when they needed the money five years ago. The takeover was protracted, some of the Goodison old school threw mud about his Liverpool past, but eventually, and inevitably, money talked and he took control of one of Britain's biggest clubs.

Blind eyes were turned as Johnson switched allegiance without really severing links with Tranmere. It was nod-and-a-wink stuff within the game that Johnson still had a big say at Tranmere, but few were in the mood to force him to cut his ties and perhaps see a club forced to close.

Everton prospered instantly under Johnson when Joe Royle took the club to FA Cup victory over Manchester United in 1995, but therein began the disagreement and decline. Royle wanted to speculate to accumulate, while the chairman looked to trim the budget. Royle had wanted to sell Duncan Ferguson and replace him with Tore Andre Flo.

Johnson's transfer interference and a series of poor results saw Royle depart. Dave Watson took over temporarily and refreshingly admitted the side was half a dozen players short of top quality. Howard Kendall mistakenly followed and certainly did not provide them.

Disillusionment set in on the terraces and within Peter Johnson's head. His vision of a successful but inexpensive club and a route to a hoped- for FA post, was disappearing before his eyes.

Two major diplomatic blunders sealed Johnson's fate. His decision to plan a move out of town and dump Goodison infuriated the diehards who once again saw him as a Red in Blue clothing. The way he bungled Kendall's departure was worse.

Kendall was doomed long before the end of last season, relegation only avoided by good fortune. Money had been withdrawn and then the manager was made to dangle grotesquely when many knew he had already been voted out at a board meeting.

When Kendall was finally put out of his misery, Leicester's Martin O'Neill balked and Johnson hurriedly appointed Walter Smith under the noses of Sheffield Wednesday.

With typical bluster he proclaimed the new man as his first choice in the suite where he would be castigated a couple of months later at an Emergency General Meeting calling for his head. For all Johnson's clever manipulation of the meeting, some telling blows were struck.

Many Everton fans voiced their fear that he was now an absentee landlord, unable to run a club from his new Jersey base.

On Monday night the patrons of The Winslow, the watering hole opposite Goodison Park, were among the first to know about Ferguson's departure. In their way, they are the barometer of local feeling. Around 20 spilled on to the streets, anger in their eyes. As they stood bemoaning the departure of their hero, you could not help feeling that the next exit - by Johnson - is the least they deserve.