It is not hard to see why the Observer newspaper described Goodison Park recently as a "beautiful time warp". If the maze of terraced housing that frames Everton FC's famous old ground were not enough of a throwback, then the sight of supporters sipping tea in St Luke's church on the corner of Goodison Road prior to kick-off stands out like a relic of yesteryear amid the shiny stadiums and expensive corporate hospitality now so prevalent in the Premier League.
"Makes you all warm inside," added the Observer of a ground that once hosted a FIFA World Cup semi-final, yet the romantic-minded Evertonian might have been forgiven a chill last week when the Liverpool club took a step closer to leaving their home of 115 years. That step came with the result of a fans' ballot over a projected move to a new arena in Kirkby, an overspill town four miles from Goodison Park - and, controversially, outside the city boundary. Ballot papers went out to over 36,000 Everton season-ticket holders, shareholders and club members and of the 25,761 votes returned, 59.27 per cent were in favour and 40.73 per cent opposed.
Everton chief executive Keith Wyness described the Kirkby proposal - part of a €590m regeneration project in partnership with British supermarket giant Tesco and the local Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council - as "the deal of the century". Although Everton qualified for the UEFA Cup last term under the astute management of David Moyes, club owner Bill Kenwright lacks the resources to fund a move himself making the support of Tesco, which is planning a huge store on the 80-acre site, invaluable. According to some estimates Everton may need to raise only €52m towards the total cost of €221m for the 50,000-capacity stadium. In a statement confirming the ballot result, Everton underlined the hope that a move would mean "a thriving, ambitious and prosperous club".
Prosperous is the key word here: a new ground would yield an extra €15m annually according to Wyness. Goodison holds 40,000 but has only eleven executive boxes compared with, for instance, the 110 at Arsenal FC's new stadium. Hence the club's net spend of just €7.5m this summer until Robert Earl, the recently installed American board member, produced additional funds for a club-record purchase of Nigeria striker Yakubu Ayegbeni. Reflecting on Everton's predicament, Professor Tom Cannon, a club shareholder and football finance expert, said: "The pressure on Everton has grown. With every passing year the stadium looks older and developments at Anfield, the City of Manchester Stadium, the [Arsenal Stadium] and St. James' Park, all of them stretch the gap between Everton and the others." For this reason Everton have been seeking a new home for some time -supporters voted yes to a planned arena on the Liverpool waterfront only for the project to founder because of insufficient funding. Kirkby has met with greater opposition, however, for the principal reason it lies beyond the city limits.
According to Dave Kelly, a spokesman for the Keep Everton In Our City campaign, moving there would mean "waving the white flag over the city of Liverpool". Everton were the city's first team and played their matches at Anfield until a dispute with landlord John Houlding prompted their 1892 journey across Stanley Park to Goodison - and Houlding's subsequent founding of Liverpool FC. "We have 130 years of history and tradition in that ground and I don't believe we should walk away if there are viable alternatives in the city," added Kelly. Liverpool City Council, whose leader Warren Bradley is an Everton season-ticket holder, has sought to present an alternative, drawing up proposals for a site near the city centre together with retailer Bestway. There is also opposition from some Kirkby residents concerned about the impact of a 50,000-capacity stadium on their small town of 40,000, as well as the fact the proposed site lies on green open space in the middle of town.
Yet Everton's course appears set with Ian Ross, the club's head of PR and external affairs, saying there is "a very realistic chance of being in there by 2010". That is the same year Liverpool plan to move into their new €442m, 60,000-seat home on Stanley Park. This vogue for new stadiums - there are eight and counting among the 20 Premier League clubs - may soon spell the end of the tradition of 'crossing the Park' for derby matches yet, Ross insisted, Everton would remain a Liverpool club. Kirkby has Liverpool post and telephone codes and, Ross added, "if we do move to Kirkby the fantastic community work we undertake will continue on both sides of the boundary line". Their billing as the 'People's Club' would remain intact too. "We are the only club in Europe as far as I know that has put it to their fans [to move]," said Ross. "Bill Kenwright always made it clear that the final word would go to the supporters."
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