Kenwright on the brink as rival turns up heat

The Everton crisis: Rooney's future remains the backdrop as emergency meeting is called and True Blue chairman is urged to stand aside to make way for new investors
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The Independent Football

There is a picture that has thrown the crisis at the heart of Everton Football Club into the open. It's an image - innocuous enough - which could lead to the break-up of the company who control the club, a takeover by new investors and the departure of chairman Bill Kenwright.

There is a picture that has thrown the crisis at the heart of Everton Football Club into the open. It's an image - innocuous enough - which could lead to the break-up of the company who control the club, a takeover by new investors and the departure of chairman Bill Kenwright.

The picture is of Everton director Paul Gregg signing a new shirt-sponsorship deal in Bangkok. Next season, Everton will be backed by Thai Breweries, with the brand Chang Beer on their shirts, in a deal worth £1.5m. Hardly in the same league as Manchester United, or Liverpool, and lasting just one year.

That may tell its own story about the state of Everton. But it's the presence of the otherwise anonymous Gregg, the wealthiest shareholder, that provoked debate back on Merseyside. The influential local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, took notice. Just who was he? Its sports pages have been buzzing, especially with the departure of the club's chief executive, Trevor Birch, after just six weeks, and an editorial was published: "Someone must take charge of the situation - quick".

Gregg, 62 and worth £127m, had also grown alarmed. He is no football fan, and didn't attend a game last season. Supporters have constantly questioned his commitment. Indeed, Gregg's involvement stems purely from his long-standing friendship, through the theatre world, with Kenwright, which goes back to the 1970s when they collaborated at Southport's Floral Hall. But, as Gregg has told friends, he doesn't need to be a fan to see that things are going wrong. And Gregg thinks Kenwright is simply in denial.

There is also, despite Gregg's protestations, his £7.5m invest-ment to defend and Everton's £35m-worth of debt. Interest alone is £2.8m a year. So Gregg, emboldened, from his Far East trip and negotiations back on Merseyside, by the knowledge that he could bring in £15m of outside investment, and planning a £15m fans' share issue, broke cover. The day after the editorial he called the Echo, explained his five-year plan, and the battle lines were drawn.

In the middle was Wayne Rooney. Birch wanted to sell him to generate cash, Kenwright was reluctantly concurring if a bid were high enough, and Gregg used this as an opportunity to state his sadness. With his showbusiness dealings, Gregg has always believed in one thing. Star names. That is why when he announced the Thai deal he stood before a huge photograph on Rooney. Losing The Kid, he said, would be an indictment of Everton.

Something had to change, and that something, he clinically concluded, was the dissolution of True Blue Holdings, who own 72 per cent of the shares... and the removal of Kenwright. Gregg hit home. An email was sent to Kenwright and directors Jon Woods, a Kenwright supporter, and Arthur Abercromby, who resigned last week, on Thursday. They - along with Gregg's wife Anita - make up True Blue, formed in 2001.

The email spoke of the "frustration" Gregg felt in "being unable to persuade you that we needed new investment which I believe would only be forthcoming if you were prepared to relinquish control of the club". At present, Gregg said, it was impossible to attract investors, as they would get little in return. He added that stepping down would "renew your support on Merseyside and return credibility to the fan and shareholder base".

A board meeting will take place tomorrow afternoon. Even more damaging for Kenwright, a passionate, committed supporter, is the backing Gregg appears to have garnered from the fans. A petition has been delivered demanding an extraordinary general meeting, and this must take place between 13 August and 17 September. It will probably happen sooner rather than later and, right now, it is difficult to see Kenwright surviving even if he is not the type to succumb to pressure of this sort.

"To me, it is not a question of Bill Kenwright or Paul Gregg but the principle of whether we can carry on with True Blue Holdings, which appears fundamentally flawed and has shown it cannot work together as a team," says Steve Alinson, chairman of the Everton Shareholders' Association.

Support has swung behind Gregg because he at least appears to offer an alternative. As one club source put it: "It's a case of move over Bill or we're going down. It seems he cannot see the wood for the trees." It has been a difficult summer for Kenwright. Next Saturday his latest production, which has bombed at the Gielgud Theatre, closes three months early. It's called We Happy Few. Not a title that could be applied to the Everton board.

But, typically, he is fighting back. Kenwright, suspecting Gregg simply wants his money back, is trying to secure investors and must be frustrated at the lack of details over Gregg's investment plans. A friend of Kenwright, the billionaire Philip Green, may be approached, while shareholders such as Jimmy Mulville could up their stake; but, although wealthy, Mulville is not in the financial league needed.

Today Kenwright will continue talks with Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford, over the £13m, five-year contract the 18-year-old has on offer. Kenwright would dearly love to tie that down now but is aware that Stretford wants to stall until the end of the transfer window on 31 August to see what is offered elsewhere. Kenwright can't let that happen. He has also moved to replace Birch, with Aberdeen's chief executive, Keith Wyness, in the frame and, finally, players are being signed.

Astonishingly, 16 have left, with just two so far arriving. Following the signing of Millwall's Tim Cahill and departure to Fulham of Tomasz Radzinski, talks were opened on Thursday with PSV Eindhoven's Mark van Bommel, but that may mean Thomas Gravesen, with just a year on his contract, is sold.

After all, the manager, David Moyes, has just £1.5m, including wages, in his transfer kitty. It's one out and one in - which is almost impossible with just 22 professionals on Everton's books. The situation, compounded by the club's need for a new stadium and Liverpool's refusal to ground- share, makes a further mockery of the £7m bid for Alan Smith. Despite their claims, Everton never had the money. "A PR disaster," moaned one source, who said it only added to the pressure.

Moyes's own position, despite the rumblings of players such as Radzinski, his sometimes abrasive style and the fact that Everton achieved their lowest points total last season in their 115-year history, is absolutely secure. They need him to stay, even if Portugal's coach, Luis Felipe Scolari, claims he was approached as a replacement. Moyes, currently on the club's tour to Texas, is frustrated and would welcome change at the top. "Something will have to give here," he said after the 5-1 defeat to Manchester City which closed last season.

Instead, things have got worse. "Everton could be relegated because of boardroom upheaval, part-time ownership and full-time shambles," says Ian MacDonald, the vice-president of the Everton Independent Supporters' Club. Both Gregg and Kenwright would, in their hearts, struggle to disagree. With their theatrical backgrounds, they know they have turned a drama into a crisis.