Change in football can be a laboriously slow process. Rancour and suspicion tend to rise whenever it is suggested, and greed is the often-mooted root to all manoeuvrings. Liverpool and Manchester United stand accused of footballing heresy in conjuring up ‘Project Big Picture’, in association with Rick Parry, the chairman of the EFL. In response, torches have been flaming and pitchforks have been sharpened.
Parry, of course, was once the chief executive of Liverpool, and before that he held the same position at the Premier League, overseeing the birth of an entity that took the top flight of English football away from the possession of the Football League, after what had been 104 years of an indelible history.
In taking on the top job at the EFL, Parry travelled full circle. Now, in conjunction with the big six, history has repeated itself to a degree. The top table of English football is agitated, its biggest and brightest stars feeling like they are not being given their financial due.
Within a global pandemic, these are notions that have swiftly become more magnified. An opportunity has arisen, and the EFL has become a receptive audience. While Liverpool and Manchester United can’t convince the majority of Premier League clubs of the values of their vision, the 72 clubs of the EFL have sat up and taken notice; a collective of clubs that reports suggest could be at least ten members lighter by the end of the season if help and change is not forthcoming.
Emergency meetings have taken place and angry Premier League employees of high office have stormed out in protest at what has been billed as barely concealed threats by the main protagonists to head off into the distance to set up their own breakaway league, 28 years on from the Premier League itself being launched from an identical standoff.
Three and a half decades ago, the rumblings of discontent from what were branded the “big five” – Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United – eventually led to a succession of tense showdowns between the Football League and its clubs. One particular coming together, in a hotel near Gatwick Airport, set in motion a turn of events that threw the big five into discussions with ITV over the potential launch of a Super League, one in which they would be given greater power and other participants would be there via invitation. It would have been a very different beast to the Premier League.
The current situation bears uncanny similarities to those which unfolded in the mid-to-late 1980s. An uneasy agreement was eventually arrived at between the clubs, the Football League and ITV in the summer of 1988, just when a deal seemed set to be signed with the still-to-be-launched satellite TV service, BSB, with its long-since-obsolete Squarials.
It was only to be a brief reprieve for the Football League. An uneasy alliance limped on and four years later Sky assisted in precipitating a whole new ball game – yet it wasn’t one that loaded the dice for the big five. It was all about the collective. Superiority complexes soothed for a generation, but for the biggest clubs, a new ticking timebomb was placed into a slow countdown. The problem wasn’t solved – it was simply kicked far down the road.
So here we are again. The clubs who are English football’s biggest selling point once again feel like they should be given a larger piece of the pie. It is out in the open now and it is an itch that can’t go ignored. Suddenly, the Premier League is in a vulnerable place it never imagined possible. After years of suspiciously eyeballing the spectre of a European Super League as the great threat, the betrayal might well arise from within its own ranks instead.
A list of proposals were issued by those behind Project Big Picture, and while it is hard to view clubs that were intent on furloughing non-playing staff and happy to make matchday mascots redundant as now being the benevolent saviours of lower league clubs up and down the country, there is some merit to many of the proposals that were made. And while the plan has been rejected by the majority of the Premier League clubs, hands have been raised and a commitment has been made that significant change has to happen.
Of the suggested changes, the Premier League being cut from 20 to 18 clubs isn’t an overly outlandish one, nor is the prospect of the League Cup and Community Shield being abolished. While a European Super League might be beyond the appetite of even the most upwardly mobile of clubs, quotas of European football are only going to rise from this point. In this respect, domestic football will need to shirk at the top level.
Scrapping the League Cup completely would be drastic, but perhaps making it a tournament only for EFL clubs would be a more sensible move, even allowing the winners to take a qualification berth for the soon-to-be-launched Europa Conference League. Of course, the loss of big paydays against Premier League clubs would be damaging for EFL clubs.
To compensate for this, I’d happily advocate Premier League clubs entering the FA Cup from the first round, automatically being the away team in any fixture that isn’t an all-Premier League tie. Reducing top-level English involvement to one domestic cup, rather than two, could even breath renewed life into the FA Cup.
Essentially, this is the prospect of English football mirroring the German domestic game: an 18-team top division and one domestic cup competition. This is something that could afford the Premier League a meaningful winter break and perhaps even aid the fortunes of the national team.
What would need rethinking is the relegation format. Two relegated automatically, plus the team in 16th being drawn into the playoffs might mimic the Bundesliga, but any condensed Premier League shouldn’t become less reachable than the 20-team version. For me, the greatest era of European club football was Serie A of the 1980s and 90s – an 18-team event from which four clubs were ruthlessly relegated. A replica of this for the new Premier League would be a bold move.
Outside the top-flight, the suggestion of the Championship remaining a 24-team division jars. I would even look towards the prospect of the second tier of English football falling under the umbrella of the Premier League, a division that would be able to command its own bespoke television deals.
The complexity of the English league pyramid currently means that teams in the fifth tier receive greater television exposure than those in the third and fourth. While it is great that the fifth tier enjoys the coverage it does, it is an oddity that the two divisions above have very little coverage in comparison. If the top two divisions were to be overseen by the Premier League then the EFL could focus on steps three to five, maybe even combining steps four and five and regionalising them.
What English football is in desperate need of is the correct levels of input, support and coverage for each individual layer of the pyramid.
While commitments to £250m of rescue funds and promises of 25 percent cuts in all future TV deals are all very noble, and much more generous than what is on the table from any deal a collective Premier League will offer, this was offset by the prospect of parachute payments being scrapped.
This is an alarming clause. While the 25 percent pay-out was designed to replace the parachute payments, the spirit of its removal is one of the biggest indicators of the sleight of hand at play. In terms of a lottery win for the EFL, it was more like five correct numbers plus the bonus ball, as opposed to their clubs hitting the jackpot.
Regardless of Project Big Picture being given a red light, the wheels have been set in motion for change. Cliques have now made themselves visible and given that nine clubs would have been given “special voting rights” on certain issues when it came to the revolution, based on their longevity in the Premier League, with extended thinking time, Liverpool and Manchester United might yet gain more allies in their bid for greater power.
If the “big six” were to become a “big ten” then a civil war could easily break out and the projected Super League breakaway of the 1980s could yet become the reality of the 2020s. If that were to happen, the voting down of Project Big Picture might well prove to be the point where English football chose not to save itself.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74