A couple of weeks ago the Premier League launched its Fan Engagement Standard, an initiative designed to reinforce clubs’ relationships with their supporters, unanimously approved by all 20 top-flight clubs in November 2022. As a result the club (Everton) took the opportunity to remind everyone that engagement between fans and the club was second to none with “structured engagement” at every level.
Really? Well, I am reminded of the following quote:
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” GEORGE BERNARD SHAW
This club is not talking or listening. It’s not alone in that respect obviously, but that’s not the issue. Everton are our club; they, the board and executive, are custodians charged with the care and development of our beloved institution. Given the cultural, historical and fundamental role a football club plays in its local environment, especially a club so venerable and embedded in its community as Everton (aside from our global status in the development of football) this is not a duty that can be taken lightly. Aside from ensuring the smooth running of the company, the provision of resources and appropriate budgeting, there can be nothing from a non footballing perspective that can be as important as genuine communication with its fanbase.
There’s always a need for communication, but at critical times the need becomes even greater. Times could hardly be more critical than the current situation. On the field we face our second successive fight against relegation with perhaps the poorest squad at Everton since we were last relegated more than 70 years ago, a squad asset stripped for several years to stave off even greater financial difficulties than what faces us today.
The threat of relegation brings its own uncertainties, and as both the directors’ report and the audit report point out in the 2021/22 accounts “a material uncertainty exists that may cast significant doubt over the Group’s ability to continue as a going concern”. In the event of relegation “it will require additional financial support from the major shareholder”. Whilst Moshiri is supportive of the group his commitment is neither legally or contractually binding.
We are within 8 games of facing such dire consequences, yet our CEO Denise Barret Baxendale in her comments preceding the accounts claims the club is “in a secure financial position” and that our financial position “was also brighter”.
Aside from the delay in publishing the accounts at the last minute of the last business hour of the last day within statutory limits, what is staggering is that there is no supportive narrative from the board other than the written words preceding and within the accounts themselves. There is no detailed explanation as to how we are in this position and most importantly how do we recover. There’s no explanation why we continue to use the (more expensive) financial facilities provided by Rights and Media funding rather than an established financial institution. There’s no explanation as to what the strategy would be in the absence of Moshiri’s continued funding. There’s no explanation as to the funding of the stadium, no setting out of the options, no report on the progress (or otherwise) of Elevate – remember them? the US consultancy charged with finding naming rights partners at our new stadium. There’s no explanation as to the strategy, even with survival at the end of the season, regarding the playing squad – how do we reconcile the obvious need for player replacements with our financial position and of course, our profitability and sustainability position.
In the absence of general meetings for shareholders, these are the questions that require answers in person, be it an open meeting (as if!) or at the very least. through suitably qualified financial and business journalists. Please remember the club promised greater engagement with shareholders and fans when announcing the cessation of the annual general meeting fifteen months ago.
In no other business would minority shareholders and major stakeholders accept the lack of communication and accountability let alone, the absence of a plan other than to visit the bank of Moshiri once more when we run out of cash.
Then we have the referral to an independent commission regarding an alleged breach of the Premier League’s profitability and sustainability rules. The shortest possible statement by the club in which the club will “robustly defend”, and “strongly contests the allegation of non-compliance”. Completed by “The club will not be making any further comment at this time.”
Well why? Why, if we are so confident in our compliance status are we not putting it out there? If, as the club has spoken about we have “over several years, provided information to the Premier League in an open and transparent manner” there can be no surprises in our defence strategy . The data and supportive evidence must already be in the hands of the Premier League. Why not quell the uncertainty, and push back against the Premier League?
Why critically, would you not provide the fans with the evidence to support the club’s position? We, the fans, would be the club’s strongest advocates – arm us with the information so we can help our club. Provide the local media and independent fan channels the briefings to assist the cause?
In the absence of either the information or a defined media relations strategy, we leave the floor open to our detractors, our competitors and the media generally. Admonishing individual fans and journalists privately for having the temerity to question the club’s compliance or otherwise and publishing such, is not a media strategy.
The absence of the board.
Both the incidents leading up to the instruction for the board not to attend January’s fixture versus Southampton and the subsequent pre-match allegations of a physical assault on the CEO at a previous match have done much to damage the reputation of the club, the reputation of the fan base and created a chasm between fans and the board that is irreparable in my opinion. It’s been discussed on this website before, the timing and manner of the allegations and the security instructions was an appalling episode of media management and public relations. The refusal, having created the incident, to discuss “historic events” further compounded the errors of the day. There was a window immediately after where perhaps relationships could have been partially restored at least. Efforts were made by several, but nothing constructive came back from the club. The resulting silence and the willingness of the club to damage the reputation of the fans, Everton’s greatest assets, advocates and by our very name, supporters stings to this day.
The silence was then compounded by the comments of the Chairman in the annual report and accounts. Contrition? an olive branch? No – just the observation (reflected through the lens of the survival experience of the Palace game last season) that them not attending Goodison Park is “all the more painful” and “hurts deeply”
The observation that we can all play a part in securing our Premier League status must surely be self reflective? reflecting on the Chair and the board. The behaviour of fans, the dedication to the club, the support home and away is exemplary – it should be placed first and foremost in the minds of everyone discussing our football club. Yet, the Chairman questions the fans role in a unified, stronger football club?
The unenviable position fans find ourselves in
So here we are. At a time when ideally the sole focus would be on Premier League survival, the behaviours and lack of communication from the majority shareholder and his appointed board leave fans with the unenviable and admittedly uncomfortable (for some) position of protesting against both the owner and directors. Thankfully, and again to the enormous credit of supporters, Evertonians have proved it possible to protest peacefully whilst providing the fullest of support to the players and football management in the fight for survival.
It shouldn’t be this way though. The contemptuous attitude towards supporters has been further demonstrated by non attendance of directors at the latest Fan Advisory Board meeting and the absence of meetings with the executive committee of the Shareholders’ Association.
The momentum of fan disquiet and protest against the owner, board and executive is not going to dissipate, even if better news of stadium funding and (one desperately hopes) survival becomes a reality in the forthcoming weeks.
Communication is only one of the ills and deficiencies of our great club under its current leadership, but it’s perhaps the one area that can create the biggest impact in our immediate future for as Aristotle once said
“Communication must lead to change.”