“Change in football is welcome, but it should not be a flagrant power grab by the already rich and powerful”
Matty Hayward – @mattyhayward96
About a week ago, it was reported that the owners of Manchester United and Liverpool had concocted a plan to save the English football pyramid from both immediate-term-covid-induced financial pressure and long-term financial disrepair. Finally, they had awoken from their slumber. After watching Bury and Macclesfield go to the wall just down the road from them without a flicker of acknowledgement, these two giants of English football (one considerably more sleepy than the other) were to ensure that no other club would face such a fate.
Of course, this was nonsense. As is often the case in a power dynamic where one side is penniless and desperate while the other is opulent and uncaring, this offer of support (which equated to the cost of five Man City full backs, incidentally) came with some pretty sizeable, many would say unconscionable, strings attached.
The League Cup was to be scrapped (try telling Swansea or Middlesborough or Birmingham fans that isn’t important); the top flight slashed to 18 teams (and one further relegation spot removed); the Football League cut to 90 clubs as a result; and – by far the worst of all – voting rights in the Premier League were to be weighted in favour of the “big six”, plus West Ham, Southampton and Everton. Any major vote in the PL currently requires 14 of the 20 clubs to agree. This reshaping would just require the votes of the six most powerful clubs to pass a policy – essentially, in practice, giving Liverpool, United, City, Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea a veto on new rich owners taking over a smaller club.
The part that rankles most about this is the suggestion that the “big six” have a god given right to be the “big six” forever, that they are and always have been the biggest six, that they deserve to be the country’s most powerful, richest and most successful clubs in perpetuity. It completely contradicts the meritocracy and democracy that football is supposed to be based on, that any team – in theory – can become the best.
It also ignores the fact that the concept of the “big six” has always been a moveable feast. In the last fifty years, Aston Villa, Derby County, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, even Ipswich Town have been in England’s – arguably Europe’s – absolute elite. Why should the clubs who are currently the richest and most successful get to stay there?
What’s especially and uniquely rank about Project Big Picture, though, is the timing and framing. The classlessness of exploiting extreme financial hardship brought on by a global pandemic to further the wealth of a set of owners already worth billions of pounds and spending one billion pounds on transfers this summer is one thing, the gall to portray that exploitation as life-support for football clubs (and people!) about whom they have never given a hoot is something altogether more uncomfortable.
And the Premier League agreed. Days after the proposal was reported, it was unanimously rejected. Rejoice, then? That’s that squashed! The big boys are back off to their little box, ambitions of world domination forever vanquished. Thanks for coming lads, back to the prawn sarnies.
Project Big Picture was only a moment in the long-term trajectory of English – and world – football. The fact remains that Football League clubs (and, by extension, the entire pyramid) need money. The Premier League is in a position to give them that money, but will only ever do so under conditions that suit them. That’s how power works.
It was reported again this week that United and Liverpool were “threatening” to join a “breakaway European Super League”. This, again, is nothing new. Plans for something like this, or a much-extended Club World Cup/mini-league have been circulating for years in the dark corridors of football administration. The particular proposal this time around is for a league with eighteen European clubs: no promotion or relegation, just an incestuous football-orgy where massive team plays massive team every week, selling massive TV deals to massive international audiences making themselves even more massively rich.
(Of course, this pretty much already exists. I invite any fan to predict the last 16 of next season’s Champions League and I’d be amazed if they didn’t get within one or two of being spot on. European football’s elite already has its own competition to which their entry is almost always guaranteed.)
The immediate response from many, myself included, was “go on then, bye!”. This new league being framed as a threat shows quite how out-of-touch the elite clubs are. Them buggering off wouldn’t lead to the crumbling of the pyramid, it’d mean a more competitive, hopefully more fair (although you’d expect a new version of the “big six” to emerge from the clubs currently bemoaning the sort of corporate greed they privately wish they could afford) domestic league.
It’ll inevitably fall by the wayside again for the time being, but the relentless pursuit of profit by football clubs who are already insanely rich will not. The failure of Project Big Picture is not the big picture here at all. It’s a footnote in a long history of the biggest football clubs asserting their dominance, decadently feasting on luxuriant fine banquets, while the pyramid that props them up – without which they would have had nobody to compete against for the last century – are thrown scraps to feed on in the name of “redistribution”.
Of course, change in football’s structure and administration should not be resisted. In many senses it is welcome. But that change should aim to beneft as many clubs and fans as possible. It should be well-considered, professional, and support the long-term survival of the English football pyramid. Liverpool FC should be roughly as happy with it as Everton FC, who should be roughly as happy as Tranmere Rovers, who should be roughly as happy as AFC Fylde who should be roughly as happy as AFC Liverpool.
It should not be a flagrant power grab from the already rich and powerful.
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