In completing a deal to purchase Everton FC in December 1999, the former Coronation Street actor turned theatre impresario Bill Kenwright (b. 4 September 1945) achieved a lifelong ambition. A boyhood Evertonian who had been taken to the Goodison Boys Pen atop the handlebars of his Uncle Cyril’s bicycle, there were few more enthusiastic or better-known supporters of the club.
Kenwright had started his career as an actor in the 1960s, notably playing Betty Turpin’s son, Gordon Clegg, in Coronation Street in the late 1960s (and subsequently reappearing in cameos since then). He turned to theatre production and found great success with such works as Blood Brothers and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.
He joined the Everton board in 1989 and following the death of John Moores in 1993 and the subsequent availability of the club led a consortium that attempted to buy it. He lost out to Peter Johnson but retained his place on the board. Following Johnson’s decision to sell the club in 1998, Kenwright emerged – for many Evertonians – as their proverbial knight in shining armour. The deal to buy Johnson’s 68 per cent stake in the club for £20million was announced at Christmas 1999 and a holding company called True Blue (Holdings) Ltd was formed in January 2000. The board included Paul Gregg, the millionaire owner of Apollo Leisure Group, Britain’s largest theatre owner. Kenwright was vice chairman and Sir Philip Carter chairman.
‘I cried when I was told we had succeeded,’ said Kenwright at the time. ‘It has been a very difficult year because there was no guarantee that I would manage it. My mum thinks I’m mad but I am a very happy man. We have no magic wand, but there is hope for us now.’
There were, nevertheless, hurdles along the way to making Everton a successful force again. One of his first priorities was to find a media company that would invest in the club, a tactic that at the time was becoming prevalent. A subsidiary of NTL was understood to be close to confirming a deal in the summer of 2000 but it fell through at the last moment. However, several high-profile signings had been made in the expectation of the deal’s completion, forcing Everton to sell Francis Jeffers, Michael Ball and Richard Dunne to appease the banks.
A second priority was the future of the club’s home, either entailing the redevelopment of Goodison or a move away. One of Kenwright’s first acts in charge of the club was to commission a feasibility study, which concluded that the limitations of an inner-city site were such that the club should seek pastures new. The suggested location for Everton’s new home was the Kings Dock area, just south of Liverpool city centre, and the proposals for the waterside stadium outlined one of the most advanced and magnificent stadiums of its kind in the world. It was to be built in conjunction with public finance and private partners, which would provide Everton with a 49 per cent share of the project. However, the proposals fell down when Everton were unable to come up with their share of the cash in 2003.
The disarray over Kings Dock led to a spectacular falling-out with Paul Gregg in summer 2004, which culminated in Gregg telling TV crews outside Goodison Park that Kenwright should step down in order to attract new investment. In the midst of this crisis, CEO Trevor Birch resigned just six weeks into the job.
Kenwright would hold on to the club, replacing Sir Philip Carter with himself as chairman of a revised board and the London-born American- based millionaire Robert Earl buying Gregg’s stake in Everton. But a tortuous summer, culminating in the sale of Wayne Rooney to Manchester United, made many fans permanently suspicious of the chairman, despite his obvious infatuation with the club.
There was, nevertheless, something of a revival under way on the pitch after years of torpor and instability. In March 2002, Kenwright had sacked Walter Smith as manager and replaced him with David Moyes. The pair forged a uniquely close relationship and under Moyes Everton qualified for the Champions League in 2005, the UEFA Cup in 2007 and 2008 and the Europa League the following year. The club’s transfer record was broken repeatedly for the signings of James Beattie, Andy Johnson, Yakubu and Marouane Fellaini. There was also an FA Cup Final in 2009.
Yet the influx of oligarch sugar daddies had altered the complexion of the Premier League and Everton were now expected to compete with clubs who were run at a huge loss but had their overdraft covered by a billionaire owner. The club – and chairman – were now playing a sport in which no natural justice applied.
The pressure was on Bill Kenwright to provide money for Moyes to bring Everton up to the ‘next level’, but facing him was a huge dilemma. Sell the soul of a club to an outsider – as had happened in the 1990s – and chance success. Or keep the blue blood running through Goodison’s heart and hope for the best. Everton has been nominally up for sale since 2007, but no new investor has been found. Other schemes to raise the non- matchday income of Everton, such as an attempt to relocate the club to Kirkby, have failed. This has caused frustrations among the supporters to bubble over, and protests were carried out by a vociferous minority of fans during the 2011/12 season. It seemed a harsh outcome for a passionate and decent man. One wonders if given his time again he would have taken the plunge in 1999.
‘Sometimes I think the problem is that I am a fan,’ Kenwright told the Daily Mail in 2011. ‘Philip Green [the retail magnate] calls me the Romantic Evertonian, and that’s me. I am what Iam. I jump up when we score, I jump up when we don’t score, I jump up for corners sometimes. I’m the most nervous chairman in history. I can’t even eat lunch before a game and I haven’t enjoyed watching us in 10 years.
‘I wish I could be like some of the other guys and take it in my stride, but my days are governed by Everton. It is there all the time. I call it The Pain, and it is permanent. But so is the pride.’