Everton chairman Bill Kenwright – the epitome of the fan owner – discusses the European Super League
Bill Kenwright is sitting back on his sofa on the top floor of his offices in Little Venice. He is wearing a light blue shirt and dark blue trousers. So am I. I know the rules in his place of work: red attire is not allowed lest it conjure thoughts of Liverpool.
Anyway, he is thinking about the ill-begotten and unlamented European Super League and he is quoting Oscar Wilde, which is entirely what one might expect.
The Everton chairman and theatre impresario recites a line from An Ideal Husband, one of his most acclaimed productions, that he thinks best sums up the self-destructive folly that proved the undoing of the billionaire owners of the Big Six.
Bill Kenwright has opened up to Sportsmail about his thoughts on the European Super League
‘One should always play fairly,’ says Kenwright, a wry smile playing on his lips, ‘when one has the winning cards.’
Kenwright was at the Premier League meeting last week of what he calls the ‘Fair Fourteen’ clubs who helped to face down the coup plotted by the Glazers, John W Henry, Stan Kroenke, Daniel Levy, Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour.
He says he knew even then that the plan would never work because the owners of the Big Six had made the fatal mistake of underestimating the passion of English football fans.
‘The executives of the six clubs are colleagues of mine and in some cases friends,’ says Kenwright, ‘but it seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it, that the main thrust came from the three American owners.
‘They weren’t prepared for it. I knew they weren’t prepared for the backlash. They weren’t prepared for the passion of the fans and a leader in football has to have passion. You just have to. And you have to have passion for your club.’
Kenwright discussed the European Super League saga which saw England’s ‘Big Six’ upset fans
Kenwright is the epitome of everything Joel Glazer, Henry and Kroenke can never be. He is the personification of everything they were ready to destroy. He is everything they were ready to sacrifice in the pursuit of a few dollars more.
Because Kenwright, the head of Everton, The People’s Club, until 2016, is the personification of the love of English football’s history and tradition that they do not understand.
He is in the middle of overseeing his eagerly awaited stage production of Hamlet, starring Sir Ian McKellen, and he is also preparing for the opening of Love Letters at the Theatre Royal Haymarket next month when audiences are allowed back into theatres at last, but the most heartfelt love letter in this office is to Everton Football Club.
Kenwright looks over at the wall to his left that is the centrepiece of the room and talks me through the pictures that festoon it as if he is a museum curator. Dave Hickson, Everton’s centre forward in the Forties and Fifties, has pride of place on it. ‘He is the reason I fell in love with football,’ says Kenwright.
Kenwright (right) is a rare personality in football as he is a fan of the club he currently leads
One photograph shows Hickson flying through the air to score a diving header and Kenwright has written a tribute on it. ‘I have had many idols in my life but only one true hero,’ it says. And underneath, in capital letters, is Hickson’s nickname, ‘The Cannonball Kid’.
When Kenwright led the team that bought Everton, he brought Hickson back to the club and made him an ambassador and further along the wall, there is one more picture of the Toffees legend in old age, sitting alone in the stand, gazing out on to the pitch he graced when he was a young man.
Kenwright stares at it for a second. ‘That was taken not long before he died,’ he says.
There are pictures, too, of the Everton team that came from 2-0 down to win the 1966 FA Cup final against Sheffield Wednesday and of Kenwright’s mate, Eddie Kavanagh, sprinting across the Wembley turf during the game, tie flapping in the wind, trousers held up by braces, pursued by the ‘London police’. Next to it, there’s a poster of James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Kenwright followed Everton when the club won the 1966 FA Cup against Sheffield Wednesday
And maybe, as Kenwright ponders what the Big Six were prepared to do in their years of surreptitious planning for the European Super League, their years of duplicity and dissembling, that is the thing that bewilders him most: his view of life in a position of responsibility at an English football club is that it is a wonderful privilege that brings with it the power to do good and hopefully spread happiness and revel in being part of the wider football community.
It was a privilege the billionaires of the Big Six did not understand. It was a privilege they abused.
‘Once I moved to London,’ says Kenwright, ‘I went up to Everton home games every other Saturday morning for 40 years. I’d get the 9.07am from Euston and it would be packed with football fans and they’d talk about how their season was going and about their hopes and dreams. Some more got on at Crewe. Some got off and went different ways.
‘They would be supporting Everton, Carlisle, Bury, Gillingham, Rochdale, Chelsea and travelling all over the country. But there was no difference. They were one voice. They were all talking the same language and it was of their devotion to their club. They’d be talking through the plans for the next week’s match before this week’s had even kicked off. It was one continuous football family.
Kenwright attended Everton home games even while living in London working in theatre
‘I love the fact that earlier this week, I’m invested in so many of the games. I’m thinking “Come on Southampton” when they’re beating Spurs. I’m looking at Wayne [Rooney] at Derby County. I love Blackpool as a place, so I’m looking at them.
‘I have always had a love affair with Norwich, so I’m thrilled they’ve come up. I love the fact that Phil Brown went back to Southend, so I’m looking at them. That’s what’s magnificent about football. I’m addicted to it but Everton is my biggest lifelong love affair.’
Kenwright is not the vengeful, vindictive type but he does believe the Big Six should be punished. He does not know how yet but, like many others in the game, he feels that this is an opportunity that English football has to seize while the billionaires who thought they could drive the rest of the clubs into oblivion are chastened and weakened.
‘They united football in a way that has never happened before,’ says Kenwright. ‘I do think they should be punished. I don’t know how. It can’t be knee-jerk. I do believe in building bridges and mending but it’s got to start with getting rid of their obvious feeling that because of what they believe they represent to football, they are not getting the respect and the rewards they deserve. Wow. That’s arrogance.
‘There was a time before I was so fortunately introduced to the man who is now our owner, Farhad Moshiri, by my friend David Dein that I was desperate to attract outside financial investment to Everton. I had a lot of Americans come in to see me.
Kenwright says Everton owner Farhad Moshiri (right) would never join a Super League
‘When I showed them details of the club and financial projections for various eventualities, every single one of them went “What does this R stand for?” I said “Relegation”. And they said “You’ve got to get rid of that if you want me to put money in”.’
When Kenwright thinks about whether he was angry with the Big Six when their plans emerged, he responds by saying only that he was never truly worried by them because he felt that the proposal was ‘daft’, that it was a ‘presentational disaster’ and that, when the ‘Fair 14’ met, he predicted that the ESL venture would be dead in 24 hours.
‘We got first notification last Sunday,’ says Kenwright, ‘and I promise you, I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April 1. I thought “This is potty, it can’t work”. I then heard more about it, particularly the rule that the founder members couldn’t be relegated but those who came in could. Is that fair? What’s the point in going in for a competition where there is no real competition?
‘I thought it was silly. There was a definite feeling that the six clubs had plotted this legally so deftly and to plan for all eventualities that it would not be an easy fix. But I wasn’t one of those people and I said so. You can’t fool people in football and you particularly can’t fool the fans. I knew it was mad, taking on football supporters. They were taking on the wrong sport.
The Everton chairman insists the Big Six owners ‘can’t fool people in football’ or the fans
‘The good thing is, it has brought us all together. I remember the absolute pride I felt when Gary Neville immediately spoke out against it last Sunday. I’m not particularly a Gary Neville fan. I am a Phil Neville fan. And I’m a Neville family fan. But I clapped. Good on you. There was no messing. It was up front. Bang. I thought Gary deserved something for his honesty and his bravery.
‘I’ve heard some people saying that Everton would have signed up for it, if we had been asked. No! I have a great relationship with Farhad and I admire what he is doing for our club and I know he would not have signed up for it.
‘He loves football. He wouldn’t have done it. He understands Everton. Everton, particularly under our magnificent chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale, is the most caring club on the planet.’
Kenwright looks up at the wall again and the pictures of Hickson. He mentions a letter he wrote to him when he was a young boy and Hickson was being transferred to Liverpool towards the end of his career.
Kenwright has been on the Everton board since 1989 and has overseen big changes at the club
Along with thousands of other Evertonians, Kenwright made the trip across Stanley Park to Anfield to support his idol on his Liverpool debut. Hickson scored two goals and was clapped off the pitch by his fellow players. When Kenwright was the subject of This is Your Life decades later, Hickson came on to the set and read the letter out.
And so the chairman of the People’s Club starts singing an old football chant to the tune of Davy Crockett:
‘Born one morning in Ellesmere Port/Football was his favourite sport/Signed on for Everton for half a crown/Then he went to Villa and Huddersfield Town/Davie, Davie Hickson, coming back to Everton’
His leadership from the top has cemented Everton’s status as ‘The People’s Club’
These are our love letters to English football and Kenwright sends me another one later in the day from JB Priestley’s The Good Companions that writes of pushing your way through a turnstile ‘into another and altogether more splendid kind of life, hurtling with Conflict and yet passionate and beautiful in its Art’.
He is mourning his beloved older brother, Tom, who died last Saturday after a long and brave battle with cancer. The last time they spoke, Kenwright asked him what he thought of Everton’s performance in the previous night’s televised goalless draw at Brighton. ‘He said he had slept through a bit of it…just like some of the players,’ says Kenwright. Like his brother, Tom was a true Blue.
Kenwright knows football is not more important than life and death. But there is a great kinship in our game that we must never let others divide and there is comfort in the knowledge that we have men like Kenwright as its guardians.