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Everton ground inquiry 'critical'

Everton ground proposal
Everton had feared a delay could kill off the stadium scheme

Everton chiefs say a six-week public inquiry into their proposed new stadium at Kirkby marks a "critical period" in the club's history.

The inquiry into the 400m development starts on Tuesday, with the club's sale likely to depend on the outcome.

"The next six or seven weeks will go a long way to deciding where Everton is in five, 10, 20 years' time," said acting chief executive Robert Elstone.

"A new stadium would definitely help us attract a new buyer," he told the BBC.

The 50,000-seat stadium proposals - in partnership with retailer Tesco and Knowsley Council - are part of the wider regeneration of Kirkby town centre, which is in Liverpool's neighbouring borough of Knowsley.

Everton is one of a very small, elite family of big, substantial, sought-after Premier League clubs

Robert Elstone
Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Elstone said the result of the inquiry, and not the credit crunch, would determine Everton's future financial status.

"The business model is in place. What's happened economically in the last few months has made funding even more challenging, but we have every confidence in our ability to fund this," he said.

"We have to raise probably around 80m through a combination of the sale proceeds of Goodison Park [Everton's current stadium] and our old training ground.

"We have a stadium naming deal to do and we're well advanced with work on that, and there are other funding options available to us.

"The funding challenge is a little bit harder than we thought but we will deliver it."

Last week Keith Harris, chairman of investment bank Seymour Pierce and the man charged with finding a buyer for Everton, said there had been "no progress at all" in the search.

606: DEBATE
Offside29
But Elstone rejected those concerns, telling the BBC he was "flabbergasted" by Harris' remarks.

"Everton is one of a very small, elite family of big, substantial, sought-after Premier League clubs," said Elstone.

"We have a great heritage but we also have a very big, loyal fanbase. Most of the value any investor will seek is within that fanbase, and Everton is right up there among some of the biggest clubs in the Premier League.

"We're confident we will get the green light on the stadium and that will clearly help in terms of our marketability to an investor," he added.

In the inquiry, Everton have to convince a government inspector - who will report directly to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Hazel Blears - to dismiss opposition to the scheme.

Though it is supported by Knowsley Council, the club face formidable objections from Liverpool City Council, Sefton Council, the Kirkby Action group of local residents opposed to the scheme, as well as the Keep Everton In Our City group of Goodison fans.

INQUIRY TIMELINE
Hazel Blears will make the final decision
August 2008: Inquiry announced, to Everton's dismay
18 November 2008: Inquiry begins, having been fast-tracked
Mid-January 2009: Inquiry draws to a close after "approximately six weeks"
Spring 2009: Hazel Blears (above), as secretary of state, receives report from inspector and makes final decision (expected within 12 weeks of inquiry closing date)
Summer 2009: If plans are approved, development work begins "soon after" decision, according to council
Elstone stressed that the club's ability to compete financially with Premier League opponents rested on the plans being passed.

"We have performed exceptionally well in the last two or three years at Goodison, we've got a solid football club here, but we do see the Premier League in some quarters zooming away from us, with either billionaire-led clubs or facility-led and fanbase-led clubs.

"We have a fanbase but we don't have a facility, nor, as we stand here today, do we have a billionaire."

The alternative to the Kirkby project would be for Everton and Liverpool to embark on a joint development and subsequently share the new stadium.

But Elstone said any ground-sharing scheme would be less financially viable than Kirkby.

Rogan Taylor, from Liverpool fans' group Share Liverpool FC, told BBC Sport ground-sharing as a scheme was now dead in the water.

"It's always going to be something that is very difficult to bring about. Apart from the obvious emotive issues - which could be overcome by good stadium designers - there is the problem of the whole idea of the brand."

We believe with Kirkby we've got something fantastically achievable, deliverable, at our fingertips, on our own

Robert Elstone
Taylor said the two sets of fans would be unable to co-exist inside one venue.

"Back in 1990 this was on the agenda, and it was probably closer then than it is now," he said.

"It was not long after Hillsborough and there was more of a common unity within the city - the first scarf on the Shankly Gates after the disaster was a blue one.

"It might have been doable then, but the relationship between the two sets of fans has deteriorated since then."

The Kirkby inquiry is due to last until mid-January.

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see also
Crisis threat for Merseyside duo
11 Nov 08 |  Everton
Harris hopeful over Everton sale
14 Oct 08 |  Everton
Everton 'need billionaire owner'
03 Sep 08 |  Everton
New Everton stadium faces inquiry
06 Aug 08 |  Merseyside
Kenwright open to 'right' offers
06 Aug 08 |  Everton


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