Bill Kenwright, Everton and the sadness of a love affair that turned sour

To the outside footballing world, he was Mr Everton — ‘Blue Bill’ — a figure synonymous with the club he supported all of his life and eventually owned during an era of huge change in the English game.

For Goodison Park supporters, Bill Kenwright – who has died at the age of 78 – was many things: a saviour and benefactor who was one of them, a Liverpool-born Evertonian desperate to bring success to the club he adored and guided through two turbulent decades.

But to others, Kenwright was also a divisive figure in later years, one whose Everton stewardship developed an air of Shakespearian sadness with failed gambles, bitter misfortune and increasing anger from some fans who felt he was partly to blame for their club’s woes.

Those who dealt with him from other clubs talk of a force of nature, an unflinching and expert negotiator, and a respected last flickering representative of the old guard — the local lad done good who rose to prominence on the back of modest wealth only to become an anachronism as foreign billions overwhelmed an increasingly hyper-commercialised Premier League.

Everton players and managers almost always spoke with huge affection and admiration for a chairman who genuinely cared about them as if they were his family. To Kenwright, they were.

Many could not understand why, more recently, he remained as chairman through often debilitating ill-health and turbulent times under his successor, Farhad Moshiri, whom he brought to the club. Was it misguided loyalty, ego or simply an inability to walk away from that which he loved? Whatever the reason, it was a decision that took its toll.

The reign of Farhad Moshiri (left) soured Kenwright’s legacy in some fans’ eyes (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

As the proposed takeover of U.S. company 777 Partners emerged last month, questions again turned to who might become the new chairman. Kenwright had remained in his role even after the departures of former chief executive Denise Barrett-Baxendale and directors Grant Ingles and Graeme Sharp in June.

The club’s board, including Kenwright, had not attended a game at Goodison since January, with officials citing apparent safety concerns as disgruntled fans protested about the running of the club, with several groups marching before games to demand change as Sean Dyche’s team battled relegation.

It was not the ending Kenwright would have envisaged for his Everton story.

It had not always been so fraught.

Kenwright, who was born in the Wavertree area of Liverpool, would often regale people with his tales of watching Everton from the boys’ pen area of Goodison, where he idolised centre-forward Dave Hickson and began a lifelong love affair with the club.

Before he became more widely known as Everton’s figurehead, though, he made his name in the world of stage and screen.

Aged 18, Kenwright won a part in Granada TV’s The Villains and claimed further acting roles in shows such as Z-Cars, the theme tune of which would later be adopted by Everton as the team ran out before home games.

He also appeared in several West End musicals before joining the cast of Coronation Street in 1968. After a year on the soap, Kenwright left to pursue a career in theatre, eventually leading to the creation of his successful production company, which still stages hundreds of shows across the world, including Willy Russell’s long-running hit Blood Brothers.

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Kenwright in his theatre producer role, alongside actor Virginia Stride, in 1971 (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Theatre was his vocation — he was also a director, and his productions were nominated for awards on both Broadway and in the West End — but Everton was his passion. As his personal renown grew, Kenwright became a regular guest in the boardroom at Goodison and, in 1989, he was invited to join the club’s board of directors.

In 1994, he joined a consortium that tried to take over the club from the long-standing ownership of the Moores family. That bid was rivalled by Wirral-based businessman Peter Johnson, who eventually won out and in 1995, the club won the FA Cup at Wembley. That remains Everton’s most recent major trophy.

Four years later, as Johnson’s reign plunged into disarray amid supporter anger following the sale of fan favourite Duncan Ferguson, Kenwright completed a takeover bid after paying £20million to buy a 68 per cent majority share of the club.

He replaced Sir Phillip Carter as chairman in the summer of 2004 and the following year, it seemed as if tangible success could be on the horizon. Kenwright had strongly backed the appointment in 2001 of the little-known Preston North End manager David Moyes, and the two forged a close bond, operating in tandem in the transfer market and building a rapport that helped Everton fight well above their financial weight.

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David Moyes had a close bond with Kenwright (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

In 2005, a season after avoiding relegation, Moyes guided Everton to fourth place in the Premier League and a spot in the Champions League qualification stage for the following season. It was to the chagrin of Kenwright and every other Evertonian when that dream faltered in Villarreal courtesy of controversial officiating and sheer bad luck.

Moyes would recover to lead Everton into an era of relative prosperity. The club became a top-seven regular and competed in the Europa League on three occasions. But when opportunity beckoned, like the 2009 FA Cup final, fortune did not shine. Chelsea proved too formidable opponents that year, and then in 2012, Liverpool inflicted the most painful of defeats in the semi-finals.

But there remained a sense of the club’s true potential being restrained by a financial glass ceiling. With newly mega-rich Chelsea, then Manchester City and more latterly Newcastle, beginning to flex their newfound might and other established top-four clubs spending ever more to catch up, the scrutiny fell on Everton’s inability to compete in the transfer market. Kenwright admitted he did not possess the fortune to do that.

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Everton fans protest about Kenwright and other members of Everton’s board (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

The club’s annual general meetings, which he would attend, started to become fractious with accusations from some that Kenwright was not trying hard enough to find the billionaire he repeatedly said the club needed. Fans harboured suspicions that he did not really want to lose control.

Kenwright insisted his search for the right man to take over was all-consuming. He described attempted hoax bids from time-wasters in their bedrooms, while incredulously denying that he turned away genuine contenders with heavy wallets.

Things changed, though, in 2016. The arrival of Moshiri was heralded by Kenwright as a game-changer. “We have found the perfect partner to take the club forward,” he said in a statement in February that year. “I have got to know Farhad well over the last 18 months and his football knowledge, financial wherewithal and true Blue spirit have convinced me that he is the right man to support Everton.”

The Iranian initially acquired 49.9 per cent of the club’s shares, enough to make him majority owner, and it quickly became apparent he would allow Kenwright’s influence and role to continue undiminished.

On the surface, the pair were united but behind the scenes, Kenwright no longer had everything his own way. The decision to sack Roberto Martinez three months after Moshiri’s arrival was pushed by the new owner on the back of fan frustration. Everton reached the semi-finals of both cup competitions but also finished 11th in the league and Moshiri lost patience, acting despite Kenwright’s preference for Martinez to stay.

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Roberto Martinez enjoyed early success after being appointed by Kenwright (Paul Thomas/Getty Images)

It was only the start of a period that represented unprecedented upheaval at the club. Managers came and went, executive decision-making became alarmingly erratic and Kenwright was viewed by some fans as being complicit in the chaos.

When the club appointed former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez in 2021, Kenwright was fiercely against the move but instead of resigning in protest, he bit his lip. Was it because of the remuneration of his latest role, or because he feared walking away would leave his beloved club completely unmoored and beyond salvation? It was never entirely clear but those who knew him best would say care for the club was always his chief motivation.

Kenwright never stopped believing he could be the background hero to revive the Merseysiders’ fortunes, even after it became apparent the Moshiri era was a disaster. And to some, he remained an avuncular figure of deep generosity. He would personally, often in sworn secrecy, intervene to help fellow supporters who had fallen on hard times.

In April, he paid for former Everton player Mick Lyons, who is living with dementia, and his daughter to fly from their home in Australia to watch his former club. “As I look through the annals of Everton history, at the top of the tree are those lads who were ‘Blue through and through’ and at the top of that particular tree there has always been Mike Lyons,” he said.

But as Everton fought successive relegation battles, first under Frank Lampard, then Dyche, tensions rose further between the board and some fans.

On a cold Tuesday night in January, Everton lost 4-1 to Brighton at Goodison Park and the atmosphere turned truly toxic. Kenwright would not take his seat in the directors’ box at the club’s ground for a game again.

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Kenwright, pictured with England manager Gareth Southgate, remained a fixture in the Everton directors’ box until January (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Along with the other directors, he stayed away from the following home game against Southampton, amid reported safety fears and advice from the club’s security advisors. He never returned and those closest to him told how deeply that absence hurt Kenwright, as he underwent treatment for cancer earlier in the year.

He continued working as chairman despite surgery to remove tumours and in an age of generic statements from clubs becoming corporate brands, his words on official Everton announcements were always self-penned. His ode to Seamus Coleman on the announcement in June that he had signed a new contract was typical of his heart-on-sleeve approach.

“The number that always follows every conversation about Seamus is 60,000,” he wrote. “But his influence on our football club has been truly immeasurable since we completed the bargain of all bargain-buys way back in 2009. Seamus is an Evertonian, a leader — but even more importantly, he is a sincere and genuine man.”

Kenwright often had the right words in difficult circumstances. In 2013, he gave a moving and poignant tribute to victims of the Hillsborough tragedy at a remembrance service at Anfield.

“We’ve all got mums. And you mums here today, I appreciate the pain you would have felt on that day,” he said addressing the families, particularly mothers of the victims who fought a long campaign for justice. “The 96 are here with you today as much as they’ve always been. They took on the wrong city — and they took on the wrong mums.”

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Kenwright spoke movingly at this memorial to Hillsborough’s victims in 2013 (Liverpool FC via Getty Images)

His emotionally charged words provided some balm on other tragic occasions, after the murder of schoolboy Evertonian Rhys Jones in 2007 and following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year when his selected track, the Hollies’ He Ain’t Heavy He’s My Brother, rang out before a game at Goodison to show solidarity with innocent Ukrainians caught up in the war.

There was a sense last season that Kenwright was struggling to accept the anger at him from some supporters. It perhaps led to some controversial statements — notably a public rebuttal of criticisms from the All Together Now campaign, which wants change at the top of Everton — but his disappointment at, in his view, being pressured to discuss his private health struggles was clear.

“This is, pretty inevitably, only the start of a journey where the issues usually increase,” he wrote. “And they have. What you may also know is that most people find a spirit that will not give in and hopefully not be beaten. Sometimes it’s not easy but there are many worse off than me.”

For Kenwright it was, perhaps, that most painful of rows: a family fall-out.

His legacy, unfinished in so many ways, could fill several books.

The architect of the club’s new stadium on the banks of the River Mersey credits him with being the main driver of the iconic location as its next home. He knew too well the disappointment of previous stalled moves — chiefly the ambitious plan, scrapped in 2005, to build at the Kings Dock further along Liverpool’s waterfront. Kenwright will now not see the final curtain call at Goodison his fellow Evertonians dread.

Despite the complexities, the rancour from some and recriminations from others, he would have felt the same emotions when that day finally comes.

Perhaps there would have been reconciliation in the end: a Goodison return, or maybe Kenwright would have fought to remain part of 777 Partners’ plans, desperate to keep some semblance of ‘Blue blood’ in another new era. A life presidency, perhaps?

Instead, he leaves the stage with some question marks over the future. As to his overall intentions and love for the club that defined his life, there can be no doubt.

(Top photo: Joe Giddens – PA Images via Getty Images)

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