A series of football managers have raised fresh questions over the ownership of Everton FC after claiming they were interviewed for the top job in the presence of the now-sanctioned oligarch Alisher Usmanov.
The multibillionaire is understood to have attended a sequence of meetings dating from current owner Farhad Moshiri’s initial acquisition of an Everton stake in 2016, until before Usmanov was sanctioned last year, when assets of “Putin associates” were frozen after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The discussions with the tycoon left the managers with the impression that Usmanov owned Everton, the sources claimed.
The allegations raise fresh questions over Usmanov’s role at the club, Premier League governance, and who may benefit from any future Everton fundraising, which Moshiri is reportedly attempting to secure.
The claims also come as Everton has slumped to joint bottom of the Premier League following a 2-1 home defeat to Southampton on Saturday, when furious supporters protested at the club’s management.
Moshiri and Usmanov have consistently stated that Moshiri is Everton’s owner. Usmanov, who was labelled a “pro-Kremlin oligarch” when he was sanctioned last year, formerly managed the investment holdings arm of Russia’s state-owned gas company Gazprom and built stakes in a range of metals, mining, telecom and media firms.
When asked about his presence at Everton manager interviews, Usmanov’s spokesperson did not deny that he attended and said: “Mr Moshiri did at times turn to Mr Usmanov for advice given the latter’s significant experience in football, but he [Moshiri] made all the decisions.”
Moshiri’s spokesperson said: “Mr Usmanov has never interviewed or been present during an interview.”
The Guardian has spoken to a series of sources who said they were left with the impression Usmanov owned Everton. They all spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A close associate of one football manager said his interview for the Everton role was conducted in the presence of Usmanov, during which he claimed the oligarch stated that he owned the club.
A second football manager claimed how he was also interviewed for the Everton job with Usmanov present, leaving him with the impression that the club belonged to the tycoon.
The manager said: “My feeling was that maybe [Usmanov] was helping out with the money and maybe didn’t want to be named as an owner.”
When a third manager was interviewed for the Everton job, the oligarch offered his own money to seal the deal, according to the manager’s associate. “The first talk was with Moshiri and then Usmanov came and said, ‘I want you to do this’,” the spokesperson added.
The Guardian is aware of a fourth manager who attended an interview for the Everton role with Usmanov and Moshiri, while sources have added that a fifth football manager visited Usmanov in Germany, on a trip specifically concerning Everton.
The fifth manager declined to discuss his own involvement in the meeting, citing a “confidentiality agreement”.
In addition to the managers contacted by the Guardian, current Everton boss Frank Lampard has stated that “Mr Usmanov was on a Zoom call with Mr Moshiri” when he attended his interview in January last year – although the former England midfielder insisted Usmanov was not “part of the interview”.
While it is unclear what role Usmanov played, the allegations about his attendance at interviews will reignite the mystery around the oligarch’s influence at Goodison Park – and specifically why a sponsor appears to have been frequently involved in such a crucial hiring decision.
Usmanov and Moshiri previously owned a joint shareholding in Arsenal, with Moshiri selling his stake to Usmanov in 2016 to buy an initial holding of almost 50% in Everton.
However, records in the Paradise Papers leak suggest Moshiri’s original Arsenal shareholding was funded by a “gift” from Usmanov, which questions whether the 69-year-old Russian oligarch’s funds first bought Everton shares. Moshiri, 67, who is a British national, has always insisted the leaked information is wrong and it was his money that made the investment.
Usmanov – whose wealth is estimated at about $15bn (£12bn) – has since sold his Arsenal stake and injected large sums into Everton, with his companies signing several sponsorship deals with the Merseyside club.
They included naming rights deals for the club’s training ground in January 2017 plus its planned new stadium in January 2020. The agreements were cancelled after the oligarch was sanctioned, with the EU describing Usmanov as a “pro-Kremlin oligarch with particularly close ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin”. At the time, Usmanov described the sanctions citation as “false and defamatory allegations damaging my honour, dignity and business reputation”, and vowed to fight them.
Meanwhile, other links between the oligarch and Everton have intrigued fans.
Usmanov’s nephew, Sarvar Ismailov, was appointed to the Everton board in July 2021, at the age of just 26. Ismailov, who is also now sanctioned, stepped down from the board four months later.
A spokesperson for Usmanov said the oligarch had not communicated with Moshiri since March 2022 and added: “Mr Usmanov has always carefully complied with and continues to comply with all of the Premier League’s legal requirements and regulations. In this regard, we can confirm that Mr Usmanov has never ‘secretly controlled’ Everton FC. Mr Usmanov has never owned any shares in and did not exercise any control, either directly or indirectly, over the football club.”
A joint statement from Moshiri and Everton read: “Mr Moshiri has steadily increased his shareholding in Everton FC since his original purchase of a significant minority stake in 2016. This is and has always been his investment alone, and any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect, irresponsible and not supported by any evidence.”