Neil Adderley reports on a major Everton shareholder whose whereabouts are as puzzling as his involvement in the club to begin with.

Curiously, in 1958, London born crooner Monty Leigh, going by the stage name of Robert Earl, hit the charts with a stirring rendition of the ballad, ‘I May Never Pass This Way Again.’ Whether Monty was a conduit for premonitions and prophecy is unknown, at least to me. However, the title of the number 14 hit could well have been penned for his offspring’s current state of directorship at Everton Football Club. You see, 55 years later and Robert Leigh, now going by his father’s stage name, Robert Earl, may indeed ‘never pass this way again.’

The last sighting of Anglo-American Robert Earl Jr. at Goodison Park seems to have been more than two years ago, this despite his offshore investment vehicle BCR Sports, a ‘company’ registered in the tax exempt British Virgin Islands, owning 23% of Everton Football Club. Strangely, he does apparently make a habit of attending Everton’s yearly fixture at White Hart Lane, a pointed indication of the Florida based entrepreneurs Tottenham Hotspurs leanings. Earl’s peculiar involvement at Everton has its beginnings in a very public falling out between current Everton chairman, Mr. William Kenwright CBE and ex-director and former major shareholder Paul Gregg.

The long drawn out and very public spat, triggered by the fallout of the demised Kings Dock Arena project, finally came to a head in 2006 when Kenwright, desperate to remain in control at his beloved Everton, found a buyer for Greggs 23% stake in the club. Not for the first time, Kenwright turned to ‘my friend and yours,’ Sir Philip Green for help. It would be the billionaire retail mogul, who would line up fellow Spurs fan Robert Earl to acquire Paul Greggs 23% shareholding in Everton Football Club.

In his article, ‘Another Spin Of The Wheel,’ an expose of some of London’s most exclusive casino’s, Mark Hollingsworth gives an intriguing insight into Green’s role in brokering Earl’s involvement in Everton Football Club.

‘It is the early hours of the morning at Les Ambassadeurs Club, the Mayfair casino overlooking Hyde Park, and Sir Philip Green is on a roll. Surrounded by envious Arab and Chinese punters, the flamboyant retail billionaire is playing roulette and the winnings are piling up. Nervous managers look on as the wheel spins in his favour. Suddenly, Sir Philip reaches for his mobile and the fellow gamblers are surprised to hear him call his wife Tina. At that very moment she is also gambling at the Casino Monte Carlo near their main home. They discuss their evening’s exploits and chuckle at their good luck.

The billionaire is a prolific gambler and the club’s best customer, although he also frequents The Ritz casino. In one night he can win or lose up to an estimated £8 million. He has incurred losses but wins more than he loses. He also links his business deals to the gaming tables. When his friend Robert Earl paid £9 million for a stake in Everton FC last year with his backing, he half-jokingly described the amount as ‘no more than a bad night at Les A.’

Earl’s arrival at Everton was welcomed in a somewhat vague yet typically ebullient style by theatre impresario Bill Kenwright. No doubt buoyed by his recent boardroom victory, Kenwright claimed Paul Gregg had ‘made the correct decision’ in selling his shares to Robert Earl, although the Everton chairman was reticent or perhaps simply unable to explain exactly the role Earl would play at the club. His initial comments however, allow some comprehension of how Kenwright, notwithstanding a 23% stake in the club changing hands, perceived himself as the man who controls Everton.

“For everyone concerned, it was the right decision. Paul (Gregg) has wanted to get rid of his shares for some time now and I believe he has sold them to the right person. No decision has been made yet on whether he (Robert Earl) comes on the board. Basically, there will be no change whatsoever in the running of the club.”
In July 2007, nine months after purchasing his shareholding, Robert Earl was appointed as a member of the board of directors of Everton FC.

If Kenwright was initially doubtful whether Earl would become a member of the board, he was similarly ambiguous as to what exactly the founder of the Planet Hollywood group would bring to the club. Apart of course, from assisting Kenwright in tightening his grip on Everton FC.

“Robert will in that way be a passive investor, but I don’t have to spell out the man’s attributes. He is a visionary and his focus on branding and marketing is second to none. That is where he believes, and we hope, he will figure. It is far too early to speculate on what might happen, but the focus of the club is to help David Moyes and the players.

It is wrong for people to think of this as a takeover or a Roman Abramovich-style situation. Has anybody said to me here’s a cheque to invest in the team? No, that hasn’t happened. I cannot see any negatives in this, I can see only positives. He (Robert Earl) is a very clever man. He works on a world stage and I think he can help sell Everton’s brand.

He knows where you can take a brand globally and that can have spin offs for the club.”

It appeared Earl himself had a similarly enigmatic view of his future role as a major shareholder of a Premier League football club. Albeit, he was clear enough on his intention to introduce some razzmatazz to his latest ‘investment.’

“My involvement with Everton is to support. It’s an endorsement of Bill Kenwright, an endorsement of David Moyes – it is not a takeover. I believe in the club and I believe in its potential. I definitely will be bringing some of the biggest movie stars in the world to Everton. Sylvester Stallone absolutely loves soccer and I spoke to him about the deal last night. He said he wants to come.”

This was one promise Robert Earl delivered on. Sylvester Stallone, draped over the wall of the directors box, gagging on a plastic cup of coffee whilst Everton struggled to snatch a late equaliser in a dull home draw vs. Reading, is an image that will certainly endure.

Still, the question remains, why would a successful businessman such as Robert Earl, with an estimated fortune of £270 million and whose past reveals little interest in football and absolutely none in Everton FC, acquire almost a quarter share of the Club? The following quotes, taken from the Liverpool Echo, may lift the lid on that particular intrigue. If Earl was not encouraged to ‘invest’ in Everton on the promise of returns linked to the doomed to fail Everton/Tesco/Knowsley deal to relocate the club to Kirkby, then the timing of Earl’s acquisition of shares in the club is a coincidence of startling proportions. Earl’s vision for Everton FC in Kirkby, also blatantly exposed his conspicuous lack of local knowledge, demographics and geography. The town of Kirkby maybe many things, but a new ‘Vegas of the North’ it certainly is not.

“Anything that helps the economic model, and in turn gives David (Moyes) a better pool of talent, is something we want to do. The more financial stability we can give the club, the better.

If there’s to be a new stadium, and if that stadium merits having great restaurants and a casino, let’s go for it.”
Conspicuous by his continued absence at Goodison Park, it was Robert Earl’s involvement in the Kirkby debacle that may well prove to be his most active role in his tenure as a director of Everton. Throughout the club’s long history, few, if any issues have served to be so divisive as the board of directors attempt to relocate Everton from the City of Liverpool, to the town of Kirkby. One of Earl’s first visits to Goodison Park just happened to coincide with the December 2007 AGM. A tumultuous meeting dominated by the Kirkby issue, when Kenwright’s plans to leave Goodison Park remained in full swing.

Introduced by the local press as a ‘mogul who makes things happen,’ and boasting of his ability ‘to do billion dollar deals,’ Robert Earl was adamant on the only way forward for Everton FC, it was essential the club moved away from Goodison Park.

“I understand all the emotions. I really do. I don’t have to be an Evertonian to understand the emotions. The AGM didn’t surprise me at all. If anything, it was probably less venomous than I thought it would be. Some very good points were made but unfortunately a lot were based on limited amounts of information that people react on. If I saw an article from a Liverpool city Councillor that said a site was available in the city of Liverpool, I would react the same way. Unfortunately, in the time we had at the AGM, we could not explain that every possibility has been explored thoroughly.

I feel comfortable that Bill exploited every possible avenue to stay in this city. I have personally had a lot of meetings and made a lot of calls.

I have met with the development teams; I have looked at sites and examined all the practicalities. And I concluded that there was nowhere. There was nothing available for us to move to. Yes there is land but that land has to go through a million stages and have funding grants attached to it, else it was impractical, and those boxes could not be ticked.

Unfortunately, the fans are not getting that information flow and I feel sorry for them. I understand totally. But I have been out to the new site in Kirkby. It is only about eight minutes in a car from Goodison.

I have studied the plans, I have been to the training ground and I have spoken at great length to Knowsley Council. As far as I can see, it is a win, win, win situation for everyone. Yes it’s a win for Tesco but they are doing fabulous things for Everton. I don’t think the fans appreciate that yet. The cloud of moving away from the city and the stigma that it has occurred can’t be seen past at the minute. But that area is absolutely swamped with Evertonians.”

Clearly, Robert Earl had been convinced the proposed deal with Tesco to relocate the club to Kirkby was a lucrative business opportunity. His over-enthusiasm for the doomed scheme was capped with his describing of the now infamous suggestion that Tesco Stores LTD were about to hand Everton Football Club a £52 million non-reimbursable cheque, as “manna from heaven.” Whilst this would be his first and final public utterance on the scheme, privately, as revealed in an email exchange obtained through a Freedom of Information request by concerned Evertonians, Earl was involved in the scheme at the highest level. In the May 2008 email, with the relocation proposal under imminent threat of being called-in for a public planning inquiry, Knowsley Borough Council’s CEO, Sheena Ramsey sought assurances from Robert Earl concerning Chairman Bill Kenwright’s continuing support of the scheme.

The email, one which the Council sought to suppress on the grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’ surrounding a ‘potential third party investor,’ exposed Earl’s high level private involvement, revealed the nervousness around the proposals and gave an insight into the somewhat affectionate relationship between the flamboyant, multi-millionaire Everton director and the Chief Executive Officer of Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council.

From: Ramsey, Sheena CEO
Sent: 23 May 2008 13:08
Subject: Kirkby Development

Dear Robert, thank you for ringing yesterday, I really appreciate the reassurance as this feels like a very tense time at the moment. The issue we are faced with at the moment, as I said yesterday is doing everything we can to ensure the project can go ahead with the minimum of risk to any of the partners and in particular the people of Kirkby. We are however, being advised by our planning QC that there is still a high chance, despite everyone’s best efforts that the application will get called in. If this is the case we need to be absolutely certain that Everton will be standing with us at that enquiry hence my concern about having a note to confirm commitment. I have been advised here that it must come from the Chairman, of the club and I have a call into Bill’s office and a draft to send him I should know in the next hour or so how that has gone and will hopefully be able to send you a copy of what I am requesting. The key issue for us at the moment is ensuring we have everything in place to enable the Planning Committee to fully assess the application on Monday 9th June so time is of the essence as the report will have to go to our Members Thursday of next week.

I hope you are well and enjoying glorious sunshine and blue skies, it is not entirely like that here but I have your island on my ‘favourites’ on the Internet so can look at that to capture that feeling back here in Knowsley!

Best regards

It would be many long drawn out months before the final nail in the Destination Kirkby project was delivered by Communities minister, John Denham. Since then, you would be hard pushed to find any public involvement in the dealings of Everton Football Club by Robert Earl. Throughout the divisive Destination Kirkby years, the Everton chairman and board of directors were accused by small shareholders and supporters alike of ‘misleading’ the fans on Kirkby. The accusations, based on information given to supporters within the ballot brochure and through the local press, were primarily focused on the broken promises of a ‘world class stadium,’ ‘the best transport links in the UK,’ and a ‘£52 million gift’ from Tesco. Given Robert Earl’s continued absence from Goodison and his lack of activity in the boardroom since the scheme collapsed, it seems Earl shares a certain empathy with those ‘misled’ supporters.

Through his spokesman, Robert Earl made clear his past and future intentions for Everton in a January 2009 article, written for The Guardian by respected football journalist, David Conn.

“A spokesman for Earl said he had contributed financially by providing personal guarantees so that Everton could extend their bank borrowings and sign new players. He does not, the spokesman said, intend to put further money in until Everton are in a new stadium, when the club could be in a position to attract further investment.”

More than four years on from Conn’s article, and without a penny invested in the club, Robert Earl has been as good as his word. Yet, with the current Everton incumbents search for a stadium solution seemingly as far away as it has ever been, the obvious question is why Robert Earl, apparently no more than a shadow director, would simply sit on his £9 million stake in Everton FC? Perhaps the recent revelation on TalkSport of the club being valued at £120 million, may in this case, have done more than a little to persuade Earl that doing nothing is sometimes the best business plan of all. However, as with the stadium issue, and despite Bill Kenwright’s insistence of the club being for sale ‘since the day I took over,’ a buyer for Everton FC is similarly nowhere to be found.

The apparent lack of serious interest in Everton FC is an on-going conundrum that continues to baffle all connected to the club. Maybe the answer to selling Everton lies with deals made around the high stakes gaming tables of London and Monte Carlo. After all, when in real danger of losing control and desperate enough to find a buyer for 23% of the club, it was on those tables where Chairman Bill Kenwright, thanks to ‘friend of the club’ Sir Philip Green, curiously found his perfect fit in Robert Earl.

Everton FC – Major Shareholders

W Kenwright CBE (chairman)

Shares owned: 9,044 – 25.84%

R Earl (director)
Shares owned: 8,146 – 23.27%

J Woods (director)
Shares owned: 6,622 – 18.92%

Other shareholders: 11,188 – 31.97%
Total shares: 35,000 – 100%