The Real Toffee Lady
29 November 2004
All Evertonians know his name. Of course, most are aware that he established the Everton Former-Players' Foundation and Gwladys Street's Hall of Fame, authored nine books about Everton and assembled the most comprehensive collection of football memorabilia in the land… but very few know much more about David France.
I’ve had the genuine pleasure of meeting him on a handful of social occasions but in order to find out more about the man I telephoned his home on Vancouver Island in the beautiful Canadian province of British Columbia. His wife answered and I’ve attempted to recall the events of the next 24 hours...
'Michael! It's great to hear from you. Unfortunately, the royal blue patient is recuperating and is indisposed. Can I help you?' the Lancashire accent belonged to Elizabeth France, yet I was to discover that the words belonged to the Real Toffee Lady. I outlined the purpose of my call.
She continued: 'Michael, you know that he is a very private man. I'm not sure that he would reveal much to you. But I will. I'll be on San Juan Island tomorrow and will meet you off the Washington State ferry. I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Bring your tape-recorder. Up the Blues! Bye! Click!'
The following morning the ferry chugged across the pristine waters of Puget Sound into the splendour of Friday Harbor and I was greeted by the sunshine smile of the Real Toffee Lady. 'Howdy Michael, skinny latte? My treat!'
As we settled into the comfort of the over-stuffed leather chairs of the local coffee bar, she instructed me: 'OK Michael, fire away!' Reluctantly, I offered a rather bland opener:
‘How would you describe your husband and his obsession with Everton?’
She countered: “That’s a soft ball — your old boss David Pentz¹ claimed that David was the most focused person he had ever met. That’s a chilling thought given that Dr Pentz must have come across some pretty determined businessmen in his time. David is analytical, hard-working, loyal — Michael you’ve met him, you can add ‘generous’ to the list.
“He is very proud of his humble background — he’s kept his Widnes accent, even after 25 years in Texas — and his devotion to The Everton Family. Of course, you’ve got to appreciate where he is coming from. Everton was the only thing that he could rely on during his childhood.
“Did you know that David couldn’t read until he was 13? That he failed his eleven-plus? He worked as a gas-fitter, grasping the opportunity to study part-time, and within 10 years had earned a BSc, MSc, MBA and PhD. Some academic accomplishment?
“It’s the same with everything that he tackles, he does it to the best of his ability. He genuinely believes in the Everton motto — that only the best is good enough. I digress…
“Anyway, very few people know about the other David France collection of medals. He was awarded the prestigious Joule Medal for his work on the hydrogen economy — just think when your grandkids are driving around in hydrogen-fuelled vehicles they can thank a very modest Evertonian. Do you know about the ICI Centenary Award? He will not thank me for mentioning these — however, his friends say that he was only an average gas-fitter.”
My questions continued to be lame: ‘What was your first impression of him?’
The Toffee Lady giggled: “Oh, that’s easy — he was Everton crazy! He still is. When he walked me home after our first date, all he talked about was Alex Young, Alan Ball and Leonard Cohen. I was a naïve lass from Bolton and for a day or two I thought that Cohen must play on the wing for Everton. But after I’d heard his lyrics I realised that Leonard Cohen must be another Everton fan depressed by the tactics of Gordon Lee.
“Michael, you had better keep that gem to yourself! Our first weekend away was to London — to watch Everton in the FA Cup at Crystal Palace. And when we didn’t have two pennies to rub together, his idea of a night out was to wait in the freezing cold of Moss Side for the Maine Road gates to open so that we could catch the final 10 minutes!
“At least he didn’t expect me to hitch-hike to Wembley or cycle to Birmingham like he did as a schoolboy fan. But before we got married he decided that we needed a test of our compatibility — so we walked the Pennine Way! It was mile after mile of Bob Latchford this and Bob Latchford that. But through Everton, we’ve met some great people and, in my opinion, they’re all royal blue obsessives. I guess that’s what makes the Everton Family so very special.”
Now that we were talking ‘Everton’ I started to spar with the Toffee Lady. Of course, I had met her during the Tejas Cup in Houston back in August and recall that, during a post-match radio interview, US soccer guru Glenn Davis had asked David how many fans had crossed the Atlantic for the games. He had responded: ‘About 2,000 or even 3,000 — all well-behaved.’
Then the microphone was pointed at Mrs France. Davis asked: ‘Is it 2,000 or 3,000?' She snapped: ‘Oh, I don’t know but I do know that I bought a pint for every one of the buggers last night.’ Indeed she had put over $1,000 behind the bar at the Home Plate Grill in downtown Houston to make sure that no blueboys went thirsty during their brief stay in her adopted home-town.
I continued: ‘Thanks for hosting the Gwladys Street Tex-Mex Feast in Houston. Am I correct in saying that David has flown over 2 million miles following the Blues from Houston?’
She replied: “Shame on you! The real thanks should go to the fans who travelled from Merseyside to Texas. They were terrific! And yes, some anorak calculated that David had made the equivalent of four round-trips to the moon. Which is rather sad!”
After another latte, I had consumed enough caffeine to confidently ask the million dollar question: 'What do you think will happen to his incredible collection of memorabilia?’
Her smile evaporated: “David can be a royal blue martyr at times — he should be here enjoying life. I fear that certain people are playing games with his devotion to Everton. Do you know that the City of Liverpool had demanded that he travel to the UK last week to aid their Lottery application. Obviously his trip didn’t go to plan. (The City pulled out at the final hour and no explanation was given to Keith Wyness or David France.) I fear that they are stringing him along. But tell me, why are they are messing with the life of a sick man who is down to 9 stone 11 pounds?
“Michael, I think that you should have a word in his ear. As you know he has kept his medical problems to himself. He withdrew from all of his Everton initiatives in order to put his affairs in order. We bought the townhouse on Vancouver Island and liquidated some assets. He bade his farewells to The Everton Family at Gwladys Street's Last Supper² and even gave EFC shares to the guys who had helped run the Hall of Fame Galas, regular guys who may not have owned them otherwise.
“It was at that time that Everton approached him about his collection of memorabilia. Yes — Everton approached him! He even spurned offers from Lord Grantchester, who is an honourable man, in order to satisfy the requirements of the Club. And it was at their request that he had the collection valued by Christies before offering it to them at only 75% of that valuation.
“Knowing that the Club were short of cash, he volunteered that they pay in installments — with no interest charges. That was a big mistake. Because, since then, they have dithered and responded with a series of empty promises.
“At the outset, our UK attorney recommended that we let Christies dispose of the collection at auction or via sealed bids. He felt that if the Club really wanted it they would be prepared to pay top dollar for it. But David ignored that advice because he really wants it to go to the so-called The Everton Family.
“I don’t think these ditherers understand just how close they are to losing my support — and I do have some say in the outcome. Or perhaps they do know exactly what they are doing and in some sinister way will brand David as the ‘bad guy’. They seem to make a habit of branding people that way...
“Of course, David has bent over backwards to help Everton. Do they think that I will donate the collection to the Club after he’s gone? Perhaps I will — but only after I’ve mixed David’s ashes with those of the entire collection so that they can be scattered on the penalty spot at the Gwladys Street End! We'll call it The David France Mound!”
Her comments were sobering and coincided with a dark cloud drifting over calm blue waters of Friday Harbor. I attempted to change track: ‘How do you feel about him spending so much money on Everton?’ It was like pouring petrol on the flames…
“You do realise that he has spent a small fortune on Everton. He thinks nothing of spending twenty-, even thirty-grand at an auction. I know that he has written cheques for seventy-eight grand and thirty-six grand — and I bet that there are others that I don’t know about!
“David claims that the Club’s history is priceless and that anybody would do the same! But it’s not the money; it’s the time he has invested in Everton. For such an evolved person, it is surprising that he is so stubborn. Indeed he continues to embrace his rigid principles — to never borrow money; rarely accept gifts; turn the other cheek; rarely suffer fools — never tolerate liars. I guess he makes an exception for those of a royal blue hue...
“Of course, his principles have kept him in good stead. He isn’t the type to drive red Jags or wear flash watches and he is one of the only people who has never taken a dime from Everton. Whereas everybody seems to be on the payroll in one way or another. On the contrary, he put his hand is his pocket to bank-roll the Blueblood charity against the advice of the experts who declared it couldn’t be registered. And all the monies from the Hall of Fame Galas and his books have gone to good causes.
“I remember David Prentice’s tongue-in-cheek comment about the Blue Cards³, which he published to celebrate Everton's 100 seasons at the top — ‘Every penny will be donated to David France’s three favourite charities: the Everton Former-Players’ Foundation, Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, and Everton Football Club!’
“Also he has worked tirelessly with other charities to help the disadvantaged — particularly those troubled by drug abuse. But that is another story. David loves to give people an opportunity to excel, he refers to it as his way of giving back — he calls it a hand-up rather than a hand-out.”
Next I took a deep breath and asked: ‘How confident is he that the collection will end up at Goodison Park?’
The Real Toffee Lady smiled: “Well David has indefatigable stamina! He completed 97 marathons before suffering a heart attack and I’m sure he would love to write 97 books on Everton. He has six in the pipeline, working with co-authors to make sure that they get published, and has enough material for 82 more — and no doubt another heart attack! The tales he has heard would curl your toes but he would never do anything to embarrass the club...
“Now to answer your question, of course he will continue to cooperate with Everton — but I not sure that his wife will! I think they believe that they are dealing with a naïve gas-fitter from smelly old Widnes. Did you know that his green card was sponsored by non-other than Senator Teddy Kennedy? And that he advised nuclear experts at Oak Ridge National Lab and rocket scientists at NASA before abandoning his scientific pedigree to embark on a career in the US oil industry?
“He enjoyed 10 years on the executive committee of an international energy corporation responsible for strategic planning and profit improvement worldwide. Afterwards, he developed his own management consulting business to advise investment banks on mergers and acquisitions. Isn’t that weird? How Everton could have benefited from his expertise!
“Now I’ve just seen on ToffeeWeb that they are soliciting the fans’ input to help them decide on buying the collection. Surely a CEO should be able to make this kind of decision for himself? Perhaps they’ll ask the fans who David Moyes should sign during the transfer window or which company cars should be leased for the new Commercial king-pin.
“Believe it or not, it’s only six weeks since the Club chairman told David that he wanted to buy the collection and that he should simply sort out the details with the new CEO. Now the club is consulting 40,000 people! It smacks of more delaying tactics.
“Given that the collection also boasts the rarest items in Liverpool FC’s history — after all, the Reds do share a common parentage — it’s ironic that it will only take Red David a nanosecond to seize the collection for the benefit of the new Stanley Park museum. But for Blue David, the decision is not about money — it is about The Everton Family, not just Everton Football Club Company Limited.
“David understands their fiscal limitations and has volunteered ways to raise the funds. These included fund-raising mechanisms where no money would be diverted from David Moyes’s war-chest. I’m sure that 26,000 season ticket holders wouldn’t object to a ten pound surcharge to secure the history of their club and the club matching those contributions... would they?
“That said, the lottery application with the City of Liverpool was not one of them. Last week he appealed to Everton to secure it, to protect it, to build it, to display it both on Merseyside and via a web-site. He asked for a simple ‘Letter of Intent’ which would allow him to get on with his life and tackle more pressing priorities. He even offered another 18-month window for the club to sort out the financing. He also asked Lord Grantchester to set aside his differences and to talk with Everton again.
“David will hate me for stating the obvious but the clock is ticking for Everton. This is a business decision — not a subject for debate amongst the fans. The club should have snapped his hand off 18 months ago and thanked him for spending 25 years doing the job that they should have been doing themselves — protecting the club’s heritage for the benefit of future generations of Evertonians!
“Sadly, David returned empty-handed last week — except for substantial cash offers from two non-Everton investors. However the exercise was worthwhile: he can look every fellow Evertonian in the eye because he knows that the Club were given every chance to grasp this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
I was on a roll: ‘So, Liz, what are your honest thoughts on the way Everton have handled this matter?’
The Real Toffee Lady hesitated: “Oh you are being mischievous! I know that there are no bigger Evertonians than Bill Kenwright and Philip Carter and that they would like the collection. But when you think about the money consumed by professional fees for the Kings Dock project and the pay-offs to under-achieving players and others, it appears to me that maybe the Club’s heritage isn’t too high a priority.
“Securing the collection should have been a no-lose decision. In reality, a football club is a small provincial business which just happens to get lots of column inches and air-time. Running a football club is hardly rocket science but it’s a business that requires strong fiscal management, customer satisfaction, and innovation and leadership from the top. Now I’m beginning to sound like a management consultant!
“Everton appear to have taken a step in the right direction by recruiting a new CEO but they also need an injection of youthful ideas. I digress again — did you know that the legendary Will Cuff was only 23 when he joined the Everton Board of Directors? I do know that, if a humble gas fitter from Widnes had been running the Club for the past 15 years, then there wouldn’t be one single Kopite on the payroll nor one drop of red ink on the books. And he wouldn't have accepted a red cent in compensation or expenses!
“Everyone hopes that Everton get their act together off the pitch — the loyal fans deserve it. Kids under 21 have never seen a good Everton side nor known an organisation to be proud of. Nothing can take away the Club’s unparalleled history — not even the embarrassing infighting of the summer of 2004 — unless it’s a Kopite with a big cheque - I’m just kidding! Oops, I’ve got to dash. Up the Blues! Take care!”
And with that, she was gone. Our candid interactions lasted one hour. But I learned an awful lot about David France and his determination to secure our history. While I detected that the Real Toffee Lady has a hard centre, I felt that she loves The Everton Family just as much as her spouse.
However, I also felt a chill down my spine as I boarded the ferry. I realised that the interview may have been the closest I’ll ever come to seeing, touching, feeling or enjoying the David France Collection.
The harsh reality is that it took 25 years of single-minded dedication to assemble it; another 18 months of reckless indecision to marginalize it, and perhaps a mere nanosecond for an alien intruder to snap it up.
For me, it was a lonely journey back to Seattle. For Everton Football Club it will be an even lonelier journey without a history — without a soul.