Interview- Bill Kenwright: White knight with blue blood
Fulfilling a boyhood dream will tax this impresario's powers of persuasion.
Sunday 06 December 1998
"I have a real fear of the press, you know," he said. Take a piece in the Daily Mirror this week. He was 57 (not true, he is just 53), married to Jenny Seagrove (not true, Jenny is his partner) and a bit-part actor in Coronation Street (he was once, for a year, when he was 18 and the role of Gordon Clegg was hardly a bit part). The Mail has him married to someone different each week when everyone knows his one true passion is Everton Football Club. "The problem is I talk too much."
No one who had just witnessed a virtuoso performance in front of assembled journalists in the Dixie Dean lounge at Goodison would regard that as a fault. Communication breakdown has been at the heart of Everton's recent strife and here was a colourful, potential, new owner baring his soul to anyone holding a notebook, microphone or camera. He called us guys 'n' fellas and admitted that his suspicion of the press had cost him support in his own constituency last time. He charmed, reminisced and joked. He talked of the moment he became a Blue (Manchester United 2 Everton 5, 1956), of writing a letter to the directors when they sold his hero, Dave Hickson, to Aston Villa - he also wrote to Hickson, who still has the letter tucked away in a desk drawer - and of his reception the previous night at the opening of the new production of Blood Brothers. One man had thrust a card into his hands. Only later did Kenwright open it to discover the message "to support your takeover of Everton FC" and pounds 2,000. Conscience money perhaps.
His last takeover attempt, during the most turbulent season in Everton history, had foundered finally on fans' wavering support. At Christmas, Kenwright had the prize within his grasp; four days before the final match of the season, he bowed out of a protracted and damaging power struggle with Peter Johnson. The colour of money proved stronger than blue blood then. Kenwright had mortgaged his house as part of the downpayment. The finale, a 3-2 win over Wimbledon and salvation, should have been put to music.
"I was consumed by it all. I knew all the other teams' fixtures, I knew their reserve team fixtures, I had calculated what points we would need to stay up. One night, I had a show opening at the Haymarket and I sat in the back stalls, listening to Bolton v Tottenham on my Walkman. That season, I felt 33,000 pairs of eyes turning on me whenever Tony Cottee missed a goal. I want 33,000 pairs of eyes turning on me and saying 'What a great bloke'. I want to be a hero here."
Even to those cynics anxious to point out that Kenwright's considerable fortune is based on his ability to tell a story, his Everton credentials are impeccable. This is a man whose homing signal at 3pm on Saturdays brings him flying in from Las Vegas or Los Angeles, whose itinerary for paradise would involve Saturday lunch at his mum's across Stanley Park, a procession by the menfolk down to Goodison, beans, rissoles and Sports Report for tea, and who once had the match from Oxford piped into his hotel bedroom in Australia in the early hours of the morning. He danced on the bed when Adrian Heath equalised in the closing minutes, a goal which proved a turning point for Howard Kendall and the club's fortunes. "It gave me a thrill today," he said. "To come out of my private love for Everton for 24 hours."
Everton's uncertain future now rests on the ability of the former lead singer of the Chevrolets ("everyone growing up in Liverpool in the Sixties had to have a band") to translate his passion for his club into dollops of hard cash. A conservative pounds 50m for the purchase of Johnson's 68 per cent shareholding. For that, Kenwright will get an ailing club with a bloated squad, a pounds 20m overdraft, an ageing ground and a ticket to the fantasy world of the pounds 40,000-a-week footballer. Free with the privilege comes the sort of unfettered aggression which brought Johnson death threats and Kenwright on to the business end of a right hook from a drunken fan at Highbury last season. Football might be hurling itself into the arms of show business, but bad reviews, closed doors and empty pockets are the worst the stage can offer. Tradition is not so easily disposed in football's theatre of dreams nor can faults be so easily rectified. Unhappy with the lighting for Blood Brothers on Monday, Kenwright had spent most of the night revamping the set. Everton's failings are glaring enough, but have defied the design skills of four decent managers in the last six years.
"My mum rang up when she heard I wanted to take over the club and said: 'Oh son, don't.' Sam Hammam said I should think very seriously about it. Only an 11-year-old boy would want to get into something like this. Just look at the overdrafts and the players' salaries, you've got to be an 11-year-old with a man's brain. David Dein at Arsenal, he's an 11-year- old boy, Sam is a seven-year-old boy and look what he's done at Wimbledon. You've got to have that mixture of the romantic and the businessman. I know it's a risk, but I can't think of anything I would risk more for."
Over the next few weeks, Kenwright will work through his extensive contacts book. Lord Grant- chester, grandson of Sir John Moores, was an early port of call; Sir Paul McCartney, an old schoolfriend, can expect a letter. "I've got a list of people who've shown an interest, but I've not got a cheque in my back pocket. Few of them are Evertonians, a lot of them are business corporations, which is a worry. But I'm not an idiot, it would have to be safe for Everton football club.
"The important thing is the future of Everton and I'd like to play a part in that. I'm not out to make Bill Kenwright number one at Everton, I want to make Everton number one again. I've always thought there is an Everton way of doing things, with a bit of style and class. I've seen how Arsenal run their club, with honesty and intelligence and with burning ambition. I've always seen us as the Arsenal of the north. But the first priority is to put a smile back on people's faces."
Sir Philip Carter, back for his second spell as chairman, Kenwright and Walter Smith would seem the ideal triumvirate to lead Everton out of the wilderness years, a good blend of flamboyance, footballing nous and commercial acumen. The departure of Duncan Ferguson has already marked the end of an era, both on and off the field. Quite how much Kenwright knew of the deal was not the sort of gritty question encouraged in an upbeat forum. It was the manner rather than the fact of the sale which caused such bitterness, he said. By the end, Johnson was hopelessly distracted, almost shellshocked by the anger vented on him. Had Smith been consulted, he would almost certainly have consented to the Ferguson deal, but the crossed lines between them brought Johnson's well-meaning but increasingly fraught chairmanship of the club to a suitably farcical conclusion. The club sponsors, One-2-One, were not the only ones to breathe a sigh of relief.
Not much should be beyond the compass of an impresario who can sell Liverpool accents (Blood Brothers) and Greek tragedy (Medea) to Broadway, but raising enough money to buy his boyhood club will tax even Kenwright's legendary powers of persuasion. A prolonged injury to his heel earlier in the year mirrored Everton's own plight and his family are concerned that with his first film coming out on Valentine's Day next year, another - about a wartime ladies' football team (yes, the climax is to be shot at Goodison Park) - in the pipeline and shows needing constant attention on both sides of the Atlantic, shouldering the cares of such a volatile community could prove too weighty a burden.
A terrible conflict of interests is already looming. On 23 January, Kenwright is organising an Elvis Presley concert at Wembley, with video footage of live Presley shows backed by the original 16-piece band reformed for the occasion. That date is the fourth round of the FA Cup. "It's not a dilemma. I want to be with Everton, but this is 'Bill Kenwright presents', so I have to be at Wembley."
A few months early. The thought that Everton might not reach the fourth round of the FA Cup has not sullied such an optimistic spirit. Evertonians should reflect that if the man can bring Elvis back to life, he must at least have a chance of resurrecting their football club.
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