Great football shake-up triggers furious row
Should we put our trust in elites? Two Premier League teams have put forward a plan to reshape the running of English football. But critics say it is purely linked to their own ambitions.
The Manchester United fan rubbed his hands with glee. He had not always been keen on his team’s owners, the Glazer family, whose reign had seen the Red Devils sunk deep in debt and eclipsed by their arch rivals, Manchester City. But now, together with Liverpool’s owners, they had come up with a plan that seemed to secure both clubs’ futures at the top. Called Project Big Picture, it would transform English football.
But not everyone was so enthusiastic. The scheme, which would give control of the English game to just a handful of clubs, has been dismissed by many as a power grab. “This is, in essence, every rotten, contemptuous, self-serving, destructive idea the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool have come up with across the last two decades, repurposed as a rescue package,” fulminated Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail.
The English Football League (EFL) is the oldest in the world, dating back to 1888. But in 1992, the most successful of its 92 teams decided to break away and form a league of their own. The Premier League – now consisting of 20 clubs – was born.
From the start, there were complaints that a cabal had been created that would make the top teams very rich but leave the rest struggling. Those in the Premier League received huge sums for televising their games, and could afford enormously expensive transfer fees. If teams below wanted to compete, they had to invest money they could not really afford in new players.
Often, if they did achieve promotion to the Premier League, after one or two seasons they found themselves relegated again, but now with crushing debts making them even worse off than before. Parachute payments did little to solve the problem.
With the loss of ticket sales because of the pandemic, the situation of the smaller clubs has also worsened. The creators of Project Bigger Picture argue that the included cash for them will provide a lifeline – but no one doubts that it comes at a price.
Under the new proposals, the Premier League would be reduced to 18 clubs, and the EFL from 72 to 70. Two historic competitions that the top teams now consider unimportant would be abolished: the League Cup, dating back to 1961, and the 122-year-old Community Shield.
Most significantly, the 20 members of the Premier League would no longer all have equal votes on how it was run. Instead, it would be overseen by the nine clubs that have been in it the longest.
These are the so-called “Big Six” – Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea – plus Everton, Southampton and West Ham. But as a two-thirds majority would be enough to make sweeping changes, the Big Six could in effect decide everything. They could even veto the sale of a rival club to a new owner.
The chairman of the EFL, Rick Parry, supports the scheme. He is pleased that it would give his organisation 25% of the money from future TV deals, plus £250 million to help smaller clubs through the present crisis.
Should we put our trust in elites?
Tackling the problem
Some say, yes. The reason why the Big Six have done so consistently well is that they are extremely well-run organisations. With football in crisis, and the government failing to address the problem, it is quite right that they should be put in charge. To give lesser clubs with poor management and no involvement in international competitions an equal say would be ridiculous.
Others point out that football is the world’s most important sport, and what happens at the top affects everyone lower down. Sadly, the owners of the biggest clubs are only interested in their profits and prestige, so of course they want to keep smaller ones in their place. But real competition is essential if the game and the communities built around it are to thrive.
- Should a top limit be placed on players’ transfer fees?
- Should supporters have the same say as the owners in the running of their club?
- Football clubs make a lot of money by selling replicas of their team kit. Design a new shirt for one of your school teams and paint a picture of a player wearing it.
- Write a story about an ordinary fan who unexpectedly inherits a Premier League club.
Some People Say...
“Somebody said that football's a matter of life and death […] It's more important than that!”Bill Shankly (1913–1981), Scottish football manager
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- It is generally agreed that games between teams from different countries have become far more important than domestic competitions like the League Cup. Part of the thinking behind Project Bigger Picture is that the top English clubs want more opportunities to play against opponents like Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Champions League games, and friendlies staged in countries like China,which have lots of fans but no first-rate clubs, are where the real money lies.
- What do we not know?
- One main area of debate is around whether footballers are overpaid. Cristiano Ronaldo is reported to earn £80 million a year at Juventus, and Lionel Messi £54 million at Barcelona – both dwarfing the $400,000 Donald Trump earns as president of the US and the £150,000 Boris Johnson earns as prime minister of the UK. Clearly the footballers have far less responsibility, but some argue that as stars of a multi-billion pound industry it is only fair that they should receive a pro rata cut.
- The Glazer family
- Owners of Manchester United since 2005, they borrowed heavily to take it over, and then transferred the debt to the club. As a result it went from being in profit to owing £540 million.
- Red Devils
- Manchester United shares its nickname, taken from the colour of its team shirts, with at least 13 other clubs, ranging from Deportivo Toluca in Mexico to Urawa Red Diamonds in Japan.
- Criticised strongly. It can also mean to explode. It derives from a Latin word meaning to strike with lightning.
- A small group of plotters. The word is formed from the initials of five ministers who governed England under Charles II: Clifford, Ashley, Buckingham, Arlington and Lauderdale.
- Transfer fees
- The current record is €222 million, paid to Barcelona by Paris St Germain for the Brazilian striker Neymar.
- Parachute payments
- A share of the Premier League’s TV income paid to clubs for two to three years after relegation.
- Community Shield
- Traditionally the first game of the English season, played between the Premier League champions and the holders of the FA Cup. The current holders are Arsenal.