The Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke, raised the threat of a European breakaway by top clubs at the very start of his development of Project Big Picture with the chairmen of Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, the Guardian can reveal.
Clarke has claimed he walked away when the project became focused on “the concentration of power and wealth” in the big clubs with a mooted breakaway threat, but in the first document he produced, in February, he wrote that the breakaway threat created the opportunity for change.
Clarke wrote that English football was hugely successful but beset by problems of self-interest and “looming threats”, and there was a need for radical change.
His suggestions included forming a Premier League 1 and 2, of 18 clubs each, and establishing the FA board as “the forum where the English game is governed”.
Clarke stated: “The pre-eminence of a number of large English clubs, who could choose to prioritise non-English opportunities, provides the platform to create and execute a transformation strategy.”
Clarke headed his document “Project Big Picture”, and wrote that if the restructuring plans were to have “moral authority” to succeed, they would have to ensure the strategy “demonstrably serves the interests of all of English football”.
A subsequent document that Clarke wrote, on 8 March, casts doubt on his recent claim that the first paper was just a summary of ideas the group had discussed, rather than his own opinion. In the second paper, Clarke wrote to the Chelsea, Liverpool and United chairmen that he understood the “desire to solve all the problems the Big 6 face in the PL”, and said he did not “discount a confrontational approach” with the other 14 clubs, although he would “prefer some carrot as well as an implied stick”.
Writing that Project Big Picture was “making good progress”, Clarke said: “I worry that it is too easy for the other 14 PL clubs to characterise Project Big Picture as a power grab by the Big 6 and a redistribution of revenue with a few collateral benefits to other areas of English football. This is a simplistic narrative but large sections of the media may find it convenient.”
Clarke again cited the breakaway threat as an opportunity, writing: “Timing is good for change. 2020 will be pivotal in framing the new Champions League format and the new international calendar. This will inevitably feed talk of Global or European superleagues. Coronavirus will also shake our industry and provide opportunities as well as threats. This offers a window of opportunity to reshape English football.”
After the developed Project Big Picture was leaked, then published by the Telegraph on 11 October, Clarke wrote to the FA council, distancing himself and criticising the plans as a power grab by the “big six” clubs. He wrote that he had “participated in early discussions” then “discontinued” his involvement in late spring “when the principal aim of these discussions became the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few clubs with a breakaway league mooted as a threat”.
In fact, as the Guardian has revealed, Clarke initiated the whole process in January with the Chelsea chairman, Bruce Buck, and was involved in all the meetings and the development of the plans, which came to include a concentration of Premier League voting power in the hands of the “big six”, and 25% redistribution of net TV money to the EFL. Clarke has said he was unaware of any “Big Picture event” after early May until the Telegraph published, but in fact he was personally involved in resurrecting the process in September, which then progressed with Buck giving the Premier League chairman, Gary Hoffman, a copy to consider on the weekend of 3 and 4 October.
Of Clarke’s first document, in which he cited the prospect of clubs pursuing “non-English opportunities” as a “platform” for transformation, the FA said it did not represent Clarke’s own views but a summary of the ideas discussed at the group’s first full meeting. That was not the case, however, because Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, was not invited until 13 February, after Clarke produced the paper. Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, was also invited to attend the talks from an early stage, but he declined.
The FA then clarified, saying Clarke produced the document after an initial meeting, with Buck and Ed Woodward, the Manchester United executive vice-chairman, whom Buck had invited. Buck invited Liverpool after that initial meeting, on Woodward’s suggestion.
However Clarke’s second, 8 March document casts doubt on the claim that the first was a summary of discussions. Clarke wrote it after the plans had been developed further by the full group: Clarke himself, Buck, Woodward, the Liverpool majority owner John Henry, and Parry. They had immediately rejected the idea of a Premier League 1 and 2, which would have involved relegating eight Championship clubs and greatly reducing the status of League One and League Two. The group had argued for keeping the EFL intact and redistributing more Premier League money to it. Liverpool and United, frustrated by the big six being outvoted by the Premier League’s other 14, are understood to have begun to argue for internal voting changes.
Clarke’s 8 March paper was entitled “Project Big Picture Compromise”. He referred to his first document, writing: “I opined in my original paper that for Project Big Picture to succeed, we had to propose a vision of how the project improved English football.”
The Guardian suggested to the FA that as Clarke had written “I opined”, it clearly indicated that first paper was his opinion, not a summary of discussions. The FA did not respond to that specifically, but continues to maintain that it was a summary of views, not Clarke’s own opinion.
In the 8 March paper, Clarke suggested they should look for ways to make Project Big Picture “more attractive to the other 14 before deciding on either confrontation or abandoning our efforts”.
For example, he wrote, they could “lose the League Cup” and stay with 20 clubs in the Premier League, and “win the merit argument on redistribution”. That envisaged more Premier League TV money going to the big six, although Clarke argued that the idea of clubs selling eight matches per season individually “may be problematic for our moral authority pitch”.