Liverpool and Manchester United were accused by the Government of “cooking up backroom deals” in an opportunistic attempt to grab power in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Football descended into civil war with the Premier League board understood to be furious that EFL chief executive Rick Parry publicly endorsed a plan which would see the formation of smaller 18-team top flight.
The secret plan which emerged on Sunday is called Project Big Picture and is understood to have been set up by Fenway Sports Group, who own Liverpool, with much of the work done by United owner Joel Glazer.
A £250million carrot to help them through the pandemic has been dangled in front of clubs lower down the league, with three divisions of 24 making up a reduced 90-team “professional” game.
Going forward, 25 per cent of media income would be fed down to the EFL to try to smooth the cliff-face that has developed between the two leagues.
However, the EFL Cup would be scrapped along with the Community Shield in a deal which could ultimately give total power to the Big Six sides in the Premier League.
“We are surprised and disappointed that at a time of crisis when we have urged the top tiers of professional football to come together and finalise a deal to help lower league clubs there appear to be backroom deals being cooked up that would create a closed shop at the very top of the game,” a spokesperson from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport said.
“Sustainability, integrity and fair competition are absolutely paramount and anything that may undermine them is deeply troubling.”
Presently, 14 of the 20 clubs must vote for any major changes – something the Premier League board have always fought hard to maintain.
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However, under the proposals the ‘Big Six’ plus Everton, West Ham and Southampton – the teams next most consistently in the Premier League – would be given special voting rights, with six out of nine votes needed for a change to be made.
Under the current rules, the FA also has a “special share” in the Premier League which gives them the power to veto any major structural change.
But if football continues this in-house fighting at a time when clubs are desperate for cashflow, it increases the threat of government intervention in a bid to get the sport’s house in order.
It is the ‘Big Picture’ that is too gruesome for any gallery wall. The portrait that needs to be hidden in the attic. Forget the glitzy headlines of £250m spending, a healthier fixture schedule and a bright landscape for football.
It is a portrait of greed and self-interested power and a vision of what football could become in the fullness of time that should terrify the beautiful game.
A game governed by the ‘Big Six’ would never allow Leicester City to be crowned Premier League champions. Relegation escape artists Aston Villa would never beat last year’s champions 7-2.
One-sided domestic weekends are merely the curtain-raisers to a dominant Champions League.
Meanwhile the clubs up and down the country fighting for existence in communities worried about losing their identities will be relying on whatever scraps the ambitious and glory-seeking elite consider they can spare.
Even Rick Parry, the man very much at the poisonous heart of this scheme, admitted football was getting no long-term guarantees with its handout.
“Listen, it’s impossible to set anything in stone forever,” he said. “But that is absolutely not a reason for, frankly, not doing the right thing now.
“The message from Liverpool and Manchester United and their ownership is that they actually do genuinely care about the pyramid.”
So that’s all right then. Parry, remember, was the man behind the original move to take the true power in English football and give it to its richest clubs as the inaugural chief executive of the Premier League.
Now he has stabbed the organisation he created in the back, with mutterings of “power-grab” whispered around their Paddington headquarters.
Certainly those sentiments lay behind the pointed formally-worded “disappointment” in the EFL chief executive that appeared in their official statement.
As the war of words built, there were even suggestions that the lesser teams in the Premier League could even be cast by the wayside with the top clubs and the EFL members planning to go it alone in a new organisation if they do not get their way.
Season 2022-23 has even been pencilled in for their changes to take effect, with the bottom four Premier League teams in 2022 relegated and replaced by the top two in the Championship, with the third, fourth and fifth clubs entering a play-off with the 16th-placed team in the top-flight.
But what happens after that?
Distribution of funds can be changed to suit the top clubs in the Premier League, widening the gap between top and bottom. Five substitutes would be shoo-in. The game would be changed to suit the clubs traditionally at the top.
No wonder supporters are concerned.
“Once again it appears that big decisions in football are apparently being stitched up behind our backs by billionaire club owners who continue to treat football as their personal fiefdom,” the Football Supporters’ Association said in a statement.
“Football is far more than a business to be carved up; it is part of our communities and our heritage, and football fans are its lifeblood.
“As football’s most important stakeholders, it is crucial that fans are consulted and involved in the game’s decision-making.”
Daily Express Chief Sports Writer Neil Squires’ comment
Project Big Picture is an invitation to sign up for a benevolent dictatorship. The problem with a benevolent dictatorship is that there is no such thing. In the end, however upstanding the original intentions, dictators look after themselves.
There are some excellent suggestions in the radical document not least the promise of the £250m baleout the EFL is crying out for and a fairer distribution of football’s finances but the price of abandoning democracy is too expensive to pay.
Once you hand power to the powerful it isn’t coming back.
The Premier League’s top clubs may insist they have no desire for a bigger slice of the pie at present but give them unchecked control and you can be guaranteed they will do one day.
Hamstrung by the current one club one vote system, the elite clubs have long since harboured a desire to expand their control. The timing of their attempt to seize it completely is cynical in the extreme.
Liverpool, Manchester United and the rest of the cabal knew the EFL would leap at the chance of a life-saving medicine whatever the side-effects. With the patient’s pulse fading, the rump of the Premier League clubs have been put under huge moral pressure to go along with the deal.
Project Big Picture has exposed the fault-line in the Premier League but what it has also done is expose the disingenuousness of the league’s bailout prevarication.
If the top clubs can afford £250m in exchange for EFL support of Project Big Picture, the Premier League as a whole can sure as hell afford it with no strings attached.
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