Manchester United’s and Liverpool’s “Project Big Picture” is already under intense pressure after audacious plans for the reform of English football failed to gain support from their Premier League peers.
An extraordinary shareholders meeting this week is likely to be consumed by debate over leaked plans that would reduce the size of the Premier League, give more money to the English Football League and entrench the power of the nine longest‑serving top‑flight clubs.
No Premier League club have come out publicly in favour of the scheme, with most at best lukewarm on the idea. Some, however, were heavily critical of the manner in which the plans have been put together and West Ham, one of the clubs set to benefit from the changes, are understood to be appalled by the proposals.
In developments that further heightened the pressure, the government lambasted Project Big Picture and called on football to concentrate on bailing out clubs struggling during the Covid crisis. Meanwhile the chief executive of the EFL, David Baldwin, resigned only four months into the job while his chair, Rick Parry, remained the only figure to publicly endorse the plans.
The EFL said Baldwin’s departure was “not linked to Project Big Picture” and his decision was “taken prior to details of the proposals being made public over the weekend”.
When the 20 Premier League shareholders meet virtually they will be clear of one thing, the league itself is staunchly against Project Big Picture. Incandescent at Parry’s involvement, they see the scheme as being a power grab. Not just by the clubs – the big six, plus Everton, Southampton and West Ham – who would earn new “long‑term shareholder” voting rights, but by the EFL too. On Sunday Parry would not deny claims he had offered breakaway clubs a place in the Championship should the planned changes fail.
Premier League officials believe Project Big Picture, by unpicking the “one member, one vote” policy that has been a guiding principle since the division’s inception in 1992, will undermine its competitiveness. They also question the sums involved in the plans and whether the pooling of TV rights between the EFL and Premier League would generate a sufficient increase in revenue to help fund the pyramid.
Other voices in the game, however, believe the EFL is an undervalued competition, with an opportunity to grow its global audience even after Covid.
The Premier League is continuing to work on its own plans for a “strategic review” of the English game, although details are not forthcoming, and an absence of such proposals from the top flight is believed to have frustrated the EFL during negotiations with government over the past few months.
The government has come out strongly against the plans. The prime minister’s spokesman responded directly to questions on the topic saying: “It’s clear this proposal does not command support throughout the Premier League and it is exactly this type of backroom dealing that undermines trust in football’s governance.”
The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, said he feared the plans were a “power grab” and he was “sceptical” of the idea. “There is the money in the sport, they should be getting together to sort it out,” he told Sky News. “If we keep having these deals we will have to look at the underlying governance of football. We promised a fan-led review in our manifesto and I must say events of the past few weeks have made this look urgent.”
When approached, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would not expand on Dowden’s claims. In its last remarks on the review, in July, the DCMS said: “We will shortly be deciding on the scope and structure of the review and will announce further details in due course.”
With increasing uncertainty surrounding the future of clubs denied essential matchday revenue by the Covid pandemic, there were calls for the immediate crisis to be separated from longer-term reforms.
Darren Bailey, a former director of football governance and regulation at the FA, said any restructuring of the game would be undermined if a bailout was not agreed first.
“I don’t think the timelines work if you do it through a Covid football bailout,” Bailey said. “I think if you can accept that there is a package that rescues the league in the short term, then you can focus minds on discussing the bigger issues. There needs to be sufficient time to really test proposals.”