In modern game populated by nation states and billionaires, there should always be a place for people like Blue Bill
THERE are football club owners and then there are people like Bill Kenwright. Football deserves what it gets at times but I’m not sure it deserves people of the decency, integrity and commitment of William Kenwright CBE. He embodied the expression ‘winners are dreamers who never give up’.
There is a school of thought that the strange, curious world of football has moved on and there is no place in a modern game populated by nation states and billionaires for people like Bill.
But how can there not be? If we’re lucky, there will be another like him. A Bill Kenwright with a slightly harder heart and a few more noughts on his bank balance would perhaps be the ideal owner, and if you end up with someone like that you may just be the luckiest club in the world.
His aim was always the same: to achieve things for Everton. I’m not sure that’s the case with many current owners who seem more concerned with achieving things for themselves through the club they own rather than for the club and supporters.
I read Oliver Holt’s wonderfully written eulogy in these pages this week and it took me back to my first trip to Goodison Park with Crystal Palace. I was 32, a young owner and those more established in the game viewed me with disdain or as an object of curiosity. I got the high-hat from lots of them. Some of that treatment was of my own making, I admit, but the attitude was very much, ‘You don’t know anything, you’re just a kid with a few quid and a lot to say for yourself’.
But Bill was different. He made time for me and always made me feel welcome. He offered valuable advice about patience, making decisions for the right reasons and ensuring the fans and the club were always central to my thinking. Now some of it, I admit, I thought ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’ but I always remembered his kindness and generosity and we developed a relationship from it.
There was a warmth about Bill, an inclusivity. He wasn’t challenged by sharing information or giving advice even though we were all in the battle of trying to win things for our clubs. That trip to Goodison ended in a Palace win on penalties and he was the first to say, ‘Well done, son’. Most chairmen would have been far less gracious.
He used to laugh at me because I was very forthright. I was dynamic and aggressive — or assertive, as I prefer to say — and he always had a wry smile on his face when we came across one another. A look as if to say, ‘What mischief have you been getting into now?’
At Premier League meetings, he was always a sensible, balanced voice. David Dein, Freddy Shepherd, David Gill and a variety of others were at my first one and were talking about a bonus for Richard Scudamore.
Gill announced they had approved a £1million bonus and I said: ‘How f*****g much? What is he getting a bonus for, doing his job?’ Dein looked at me in surprise, Shepherd kicked me under the table but Bill took a different approach, leaned over and said, ‘Hey son, he’s just got us a billion pounds, I think we can pay him a £1m bonus’.
I didn’t go to many Premier League meetings — Palace’s relegation made sure of that — but from my experience, Bill was always grown up and constructive. He was never front and centre, wasn’t a tub-thumper or someone who needed to be heard. More often than not, he brought people together rather than divided them.
During negotiations to take Andy Johnson from Palace to Everton, I made a comment in the press about their £7m bid a year earlier and asking if they
were trying to buy his trainers. Just a bit of fun but when it came to selling Johnson, I pushed Bill because I had higher bids from Bolton and Wigan.
In the end we did a deal for about £9m despite those bigger offers. That was because of Bill. The smoothness, goodwill, integrity and decency of the transaction — and twisting his arm to pay it upfront and give us a pre-season friendly — meant I was comfortable with foregoing that money because I knew Johnson was going to a good club, manager and chairman.
Bill wasn’t perfect and, like everybody, he made mistakes. There will be the view that he was the one that sold the vision and value of Everton to Farhad Moshiri.
When I asked Bill about the doomed flight of ludicrous fancy to employ Rafa Benitez and why he didn’t stop it, he responded, ‘You try telling a billionaire what to do’. Like his fabulous theatre production Blood Brothers there is an element of pathos, tragedy and choices made from circumstances that haunted his last years at Everton.
Yet, as the wheels came off, his only thoughts were for the fans. In a text conversation during the height of supporter outrage, when Bill and other board members were advised not to attend games, I told him it was time to go but he replied: ‘All that matters is the club, which means the supporters, and I have to sort it out for that reason.’
He remained committed with the best of intentions. Everton always came first. Bill was vilified and brick-batted by supporters for his association with Moshiri but despite that, he considered them in everything he did.
The globalisation of sport and the increasingly impossible task of keeping up with the top clubs led him to try to find the best opportunity for Everton.
It is preposterous to accuse him of being responsible for the circumstances they find themselves in, with Moshiri clearly having crashed and burned and the club facing the uncertainty of new owners in 777 Capital.
The blame lies fairly and squarely with Moshiri’s decisionmaking, and Bill’s legacy should not be poisoned by association.
Everton are undoubtedly much poorer without him. What football — and Everton — deserve is a few more Blue Bills, as he always signed off his texts to me, and perhaps fewer Moshiris and 777 Capitals. Or maybe that’s me just being a dreamer.
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