The son of a Birkenhead butcher, Peter Johnson (b.1940) was one of Merseyside’s wealthiest businessmen, in the 1990s holding an estimated fortune of £150million. In the late 1960s he had expanded the family business into Christmas hampers, for which people would save through the year. It reaped vast profits and at its peak his business Park Foods packed one million hampers per year. Johnson later diversified into such interests as freight haulage and consumer credit.
His entry into football came with Tranmere Rovers in 1987. He saved them from the financial abyss and relegation from the Football League. Later his investment on such players as Gary Stevens, Pat Nevin and Kevin Sheedy brought Tranmere to the verge of top-flight promotion. But Johnson recognised Tranmere’s limitations and when Everton came on the market following John Moores’ death in September 1993, he made his move, buying the club for £10million several months later.
As a former Liverpool season-ticket holder and shareholder, Johnson was always going to find it hard to win over Evertonians, but after years of underinvestment and off the field mismanagement he started well. After Everton avoided relegation in 1994, Johnson injected around £10million into the club via a rights issue. Mike Walker was given a pot of money to spend, but despite Everton being linked to some of the biggest names in European football, including the Germany striker Jurgen Klinnsman, they opened the 1994/95 season with only Vinny Samways added to the threadbare squad.
Johnson soon proved to be a hands-on chairman. In October 1994, while on a visit to Glasgow to see how Rangers had redeveloped Ibrox Stadium, Johnson agreed the loan signings of Iain Durrant and Duncan Ferguson – who was to arguably prove the club’s most significant player over the next decade. Quite what say Walker had in this deal is not known.
Johnson also showed the sort of decisive flourish that would have brought a wry smile from his predecessor Moores, sacking Walker, who was just ten months into the job, and replacing him with Joe Royle in November 1994. Little over six months later, Royle had saved Everton from the threat of relegation and won the FA Cup.
JOHNSON set about reinvigorating Everton’s commercial strategy, which even by the standards of the time was second rate. The megastore was constructed and various new initiatives, such as the relaunch of the Evertonian newspaper and the creation of Radio Everton. He also showed some understanding of the club’s history and paid for much-needed conservation work on St Rupert’s Tower, which appears on the Everton crest. Later he won a mandate to move Everton to a new 65,000-seater stadium, although practical matters – such as location and funding – were skirted over.
Yet many of Johnson’s efforts, notably the stadium move, were ultimately botched or deemed insensitive to the club’s traditions. One of the first acts of the new regime was to ditch the iconic Z-Cars theme tune, a nonsensical decision which was soon reversed after causing outrage. Distribution of FA Cup Final tickets descended into farce when thousands of Evertonians sat through the night to get their hands on one, but were left disappointed and angry after poor stewarding saw scenes of chaos. Ultimately the problem lay with the way in which the ticket eligibility had been laid out by senior officials. Johnson also set about hiring a chief executive, but the position went unfilled for years before Michael Dunford, the club secretary, was appointed to the position and was an inauspicious custodian of the role.
Johnson’s boost to the club’s income streams did, however, see the Everton transfer record broken three times in his first year, with the addition of Nick Barmby in November 1996 seeing it broken for a fourth time. Other targets came and went. Claims that Everton were in the market for Alan Shearer and Roberto Baggio as they were about to sign for other clubs were met with derision. Sometimes his leadership was farcical. In July 1996, Johnson’s fellow director, Clifford Finch, was left to conclude the transfer of Nigel Martyn from Crystal Palace, but allowed him to leave without
signing so that he could talk to Leeds. Martyn, of course, moved to Elland Road.
EVERTON by-and-large continued to underperform, despite finishing sixth in 1995/96. How much of this was down to the chairman and how much was down to Royle is a matter of debate. What is certain is that in March 1997, after a disastrous three months on the pitch, Johnson vetoed Royle’s transfer deadline day attempts to sign Tore Andre Flo, Claus Eftevaag and Barry Horne. When Royle met with Johnson at Park Foods headquarters – where, to great bemusement, much of Everton’s business seemed to be conducted during this time – the Everton manager parted company with the club. (Later Royle claimed that he never resigned and Johnson never sacked him; that it was all some strange misunderstanding.)
There followed a highly public and humiliating three-month search for a manager, which was finally concluded when Howard Kendall returned for a third spell as Everton boss. What followed during the 1997/98 season, where Everton escaped relegation by nothing other than luck, was one of the most disgraceful episodes in the club’s history. Everton were a shambles on the pitch, but off it chaos seemed to reign, with Kendall not given funds to sign players of any great calibre, and high-profile sales of such as Andy Hinchcliffe and Gary Speed seemingly rushed through to balance the books.
AT THE club’s annual general meeting in January 1998, Johnson pointed to net spending of £26million since he took over the club less than four years previous. But this ignored his disastrous management. As a shareholders’ representative pointed out: ‘If your businesses had been run like this club, they would have been bankrupt years ago.' Several protests were staged against Johnson, notably on the last day of the seasonnwhen relegation was miraculously averted against Coventry, and thousands of fans streamed onto the pitch calling for his head and pelting the directors' box with sods of turf.
Johnson later berated Kendall, saying Evertonians would have been ‘appalled’ by his signings if he had been allowed to make them. Worse still was his treatment of the manager. At the end of the season the board agreed to sack Kendall and the story leaked to the press. But Johnson flew out on holiday leaving Everton’s greatest-ever manager to answer questions on his future as the sword hovered over his head for several weeks before finally swinging.
With the appointment of Walter Smith as manager, Johnson made one last attempt to make things work. Over the summer of 1998 he sanctioned one final, massive spending spree. But it was funded by short-term lending and when, that November, Everton’s overdraft needed to be plugged, Johnson sold Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle behind an incandescent Smith’s back.
There followed 48 hours of intense backroom activity, but instead – as predicted – of the furious Smith walking away from Everton, it was Johnson who resigned. It took a further 13 months for him to sell his shares to a consortium led by Bill Kenwright and end all ties with Everton.
There was one final footnote to this sorry story in 1999, when Everton and Tranmere were threatened with suspension from the FA Cup when it emerged that Johnson still held a controlling interest in his former club – as well as Everton. Shares that he was meant to have passed on to former Tranmere chief executive Frank Corfe had somehow been retained. It was a messy saga and added to the sulphurous stench.
Johnson has been castigated for his time as Everton chairman, but many of his ideas were forward-thinking and necessary to revitalise the club’s torpid commercial set-up. He also took decisive action to remedy the disastrous managerial reign of Mike Walker, and the appointment of Joe Royle in his place proved – in the short term, at least – a master stroke.
THE PROBLEM he continually came up against was that he lacked the personnel or personal wherewithal to implement these strategies. Not until the following decade, when Keith Wyness and subsequently Robert Elstone became Everton CEOs, did Everton’s commercial set-up begin to meet the expectations of the club’s fans.
After finally selling Everton to Bill Kenwright’s consortium, shortly before Christmas 1999, Johnson formally returned to Tranmere where he became club president. Subsequent attempts to sell the club from 2002 onwards failed.
In 2009 he returned as Tranmere chairman, but his habit of attracting controversy followed too. A group of American businessmen instructed to sell the club listed it on ebay.com, while his appointment of John Barnes as manager was disastrous. ‘His investment and management of the club saved Tranmere Rovers from slipping out of the Football League in the 1980s, and he financed the heady years when the club was near the top of what is now the Championship,’ Lorraine Rogers, Tranmere’s outgoing chairman, said in 2009. ‘Few people have been involved in football for as long as him or are as experienced. I can’t think of anyone else who has been chairman of a football club in all four divisions.’