The FA was ready to listen. It was in competition with the Football League for primacy in the English game and had a blueprint for a new competition that might benefit English football as a whole. Cut the number of teams in the top flight to 18, create a regional league structure underneath and make the whole package fit for TV. Fewer dead rubbers, more local derbies, it would be an irresistible proposition. And the FA would take 40% of any TV deal to share among the game.
This plan never became reality. The commercial interests of the clubs hoping to join the new league were an obstacle that the FA, mysteriously even to those involved at the time, was never willing to confront. The Premier League was born shortly afterwards and kept its revenues to itself. Having been given the endorsement of the governing body, its “founders agreement” pretty much cut the FA out of things too. Nice doing business with you.
Thirty years laterand the question of what obligations the elite of English football owe to the rest of the game are once again front and centre. But despite the depth and gravity of the crisis, with even the Premier League calculating the game as a whole is losing £100m a month because of Covid-19, there is no guarantee that a solution will be forthcoming.
At base, the current debate is – naturally – about money. The English Football League is asking for £250m to save its three divisions from collapse. The government has made clear that, in one way or another, it expects the Premier League to foot the bill. The top flight, in turn, is unconvinced that a cash transfer is the answer and, indeed, whether saving the game is its responsibility at all.
The EFL’s approach is being led by its chairman, Rick Parry, who was also the first chief executive of the Premier League. He is to the fore in making the case for his competition and also ahead of the curve; he has been repeating his £250m figure (his calculation of how much clubs would lose if fans do not return to stadiums this season) for some months. He has used the media and appearances in front of parliamentary committees to good effect. He has signalled a willingness to compromise, with restructuring a condition of any bailout. He also has almost no power to effect change.