Sunday, September 02, 2007

If You Know Your History...

The Grand Old Lady. Goodison Park. Everton's home since their departure from Anfield in 1892. The first purpose-built football stadium in the world.

And now, destined to be vacated in a few years' time in favour of a brand new stadium in Kirkby, outside the city boundaries. A move 'validated' by a positive vote from a selection of the Everton fanbase.

Hold on - bit cynical, those inverted commas around the word 'validated', Paul? Do we have a problem with this?

Well yes we do - a whole heap of problems, as it happens. And not just with the vote, with the whole concept.

Firstly, let's challenge the assumption that Everton need to move at all. Granted, it costs a fair sum of money each year to maintain the Old Lady, but that needs to be set against the financing costs that would be faced by a move, however much that move might be subsidised by a third party. But would a new ground generate higher revenues than Goodison? Yes, a new ground could be built to accommodate more fans - but realistically, how many more fans can Everton attract? Apart from probably four games a season, there are empty seats in Goodison. If we move to a larger stadium - especially one out of town - will we attract significantly more new fans to the ground (bearing in mind the need to replace a number of current fans who will not go to Kirkby). Is there an untapped population of football fans in south Lancashire who will replace the lost fans and fill the empty seats? Corporate facilities - Goodison is woefully underserved compared to comparable clubs and a new stadium could certainly be constructed to accommodate significantly more corporate customers than is currently the case. But - to paraphrase - if we build it, will they come? What is the market for corporate facilities on an out-of town retail park, competing with the likes of the New Anfield, Haydock Park, Aintree, The Reebok, Old Trafford and any number of purpose-built hotel and conference centres?

I think the case that a new stadium - especially one out of town - will generate significantly more revenues (and incur lower costs) is at best unproven, and at worst unlikely. But it is difficult from the information thus far provided by the club to make any educated assessment of the business case for (or against) the move - the financial projections just aren't there.

But for the sake of argument let's assume that the club has to move. But where? And why? What options are there?

Well the club would have you believe that the only option available is the Kirkby option - move or die - there is no Plan B. But perhaps there are other options that would merit consideration - Liverpool City Council would appear to have (finally) managed to identify one or two other options that the club could consider. The Loop, for example, in Everton, at the mouth of the Wallasey tunnel on Scotland Road. Maybe the finances don't stack up against Kirkby - maybe they do. We just don't know. What I would say is that there are other options out there that should be seriously considered before commitment to a single, out of town option.

Everything so far has been based upon financial considerations - but these cannot be the only factors to consider. What about the emotional issues here? We were the first club in Liverpool - the club that bears the city's name grew out of our club - ironically, as a result of an earlier ground move from Anfield to Goodison. We are 'The People's Club' in Liverpool. Do we really want to desert our city for the suburbs, leaving the city of our birth to the other lot? Gleefully, they have already started to exploit this - One name, one city, one club...distortion of the facts but an easy sell to young kids currently growing up in the city. Do we really want to hand over the natural support of future generations to that other lot, by simply upping sticks and moving out of town?

Let's also look at the practicalities of the situation here. We are looking at a move to Kirkby, a small sink estate on the edge of Merseyside. The population of Kirkby is less than the new stadium's proposed capacity. How will they cope with the influx? Public transport links can't currently cope with the projected inflow of supporters. 1,000 parking spaces will apparently be made available in the vicinity. 1,000, to support a 55,000 capacity stadium. It just doesn't stack up.

But never mind all that - the fans have voted for the move, so that's all right. And this is the most saddening aspect of the whole sorry affair. The club would have you believe that allowing 'the fans' to vote shows what a democratic, caring, listening club they are. But no. what they have done is abrogated themselves of responsibility - responsibility for the biggest, most far-reaching decision the club has had to take in the last hundred years. They have pushed that responsibility onto a small element of the total Everton fanbase. If it works - fine. If it doesn't - not our problem, the fans voted for it. And worst of all, they have made the fanbase take that decision with the flimsiest information imaginable - a few soundbites and some pretty designer mockups of a new stadium. Pictured at night, with no local context or any sort of business case whatsoever. In the real world, a decision like this would be made by hard-nosed businessmen in full posession of the facts and a robust, fully costed business case with all assumptions clearly articulated and justified. With alternative scenarios fully appraised and contrasted with the preferred option. In the Everton world, we've been given a few pretty pictures and no Plan B (or C, D, E, or F). We've also given the vote to seven year olds, by virtue of the season tickets their dads pay for. So if it all goes tits up - which it may well do - it'll all be our fault. For making a decision that was never ours to make, with no information to inform or challenge that decision, made by people who (with all due respect) were never qualified to make that decision.

I love my club. And wherever they play, be that Walton, Speke, Kirkby (God help us) or even bloody Timbuktu, I'll be there supporting them. But the club, not the Board, who are unworthy of this great club.

Nil Satis Nisi Optimum - Nothing is good enough except the best. The Kirkby option is not 'the best' by any stretch of the imagination.

So what next? The vote is lost, but dialogue must continue. Whilst never underestimating the ability of our Board to screw things up, we must assume that Kirkby is going to move forwards. We have two options, both of which must be pursued at all costs - firstly, to continue to push for the consideration and exploration of other options, with other partners - for a redeveloped Goodison, or for city centre sites that will keep our club in its true home - or, if it has to be Kirkby, to ensure that Kirkby delivers a stadium, and a home, that lives up to our motto, with the transport links it needs to support our existing fanbase and, yes, to extend that fanbase into the wider Merseyside/South Lancashire area.

Whatever happens, this is a black period for the club. The vote has only served to introduce divisions amongst the fanbase - divisions that will take a long time to heal. Ironically, on the pitch we are stronger than we have been for almost twenty years - off the pitch, we are tearing ourselves apart.

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