By Orlando Bell
After yet another turbulent week in English football, debate still lingers on as to how to deal with the financial implications of the coronavirus crisis and close the ever-widening gap between the Premier League and the rest of the football pyramid.
Despite the existence of the FA, the EFL, and Premier League organisations who have long been needing to address these problems, perhaps the most sensible answer to this question has come from Gary Neville.
The former Manchester United defender, as well as seven other notable figures from football and politics, has come forward with a manifesto titled ‘Save Our Beautiful Game.’ In light of the repeated ineptitude of the Premier League during this crisis, and the frankly shameful power-grab inherent in ‘Project Big Picture’, Neville’s call for sweeping changes in the regulation of the English game seems increasingly sensible.
The coronavirus pandemic has seen empty football stadiums across the country since the 2019/20 seaon’s halt in March.
Consequently there are multi-million pound holes in club finances across the EFL. Despite repeated calls for payouts, designed to secure the immediate financial future of a number of clubs, the football world has seen month after month of dallying and indecision from governing bodies.
Clubs in the Championship, League One, and League Two combined make £250 million in match day revenue, revenue that has not been coming in since March, revenue that will not be coming back any time soon.
Despite this knowledge it has taken until 15 October for the Premier League to offer any formal rescue package. The delay in help, the exclusion of Championship clubs, and the paltry £50 million loan falls well short of what is required.
It is perhaps unsurprising then that outside proposals are coming to the fore. Last Sunday The Telegraph revealed Fenway Sports Group, Liverpool’s owners, had been working alongside Manchester United on what became known as ‘Project Big Picture’.
The project was fantastically wide ranging and financially progressive. Through a £250 million immediate bailout, a commitment to investing in grassroots and infrastructure across the country, and a commitment to spread 25% of Premier League TV revenue across the football pyramid, the project would provide genuine financial security to the entire EFL system for the foreseeable future — it is no surprise the EFL hierarchy supported it.
However, the project was unequivocally rejected by the Premier League on Wednesday — and rightly so. The financial restructuring came hand-in-hand with an attempted democratic coup.
Alongside these financial proposals, Liverpool and the project’s supporters wished to remove the one-club-one-vote democracy the Premier League currently operates under and concentrate authoritarian levels of power in the hands of the nine most established clubs. Such power would extend to the right to veto financial takeovers at other Premier League clubs. It was a price too high to pay.
Clearly then, the current solutions are untenable. Those who should be in control, such as the Premier League, have shown themselves to be inept, and those who shouldn’t, the ‘Big Six’, are trying to exploit a crisis to push their way in.
All this then lends enormous credibility to Neville’s claim that “football has shown itself incapable of self-reform”, and that the FA “has proved to be largely ineffective as a governing body.” The premise is clear, there is unquestionably enough money in the English game to support the entire football pyramid, it is simply a question of proper distribution.
Despite the Premier League spending £1.2bn in transfer fees this summer, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, was naive to suggest Premier League clubs should simply “step up to the plate” and altruistically support the EFL.
After all, as much as we hate to admit it, the beautiful game is in fact a business at all levels of its modern-day operation. This does not preclude the possibility of the more equitable sharing of the Premier League’s vast resources but, as project backer David Bernstein put it, the league may have to be dragged into it “kicking and screaming”.
Neville’s manifesto makes by far the most sense out of anything put forward this year. The financial chasm between the EFL and the Premier League is widening year on year, and the fractious relationship between the two’s governing bodies is hardly helping the problem.
A new independent regulatory body has the potential to enforce the proper reallocation of Premier League riches without requiring a problematic concentration of power among the biggest clubs.
Save Our Beautiful Game has made an encouraging entrance onto the scene, it’s principles are clearly in the right place. Whether it manifests into the genuine change required is still yet to be seen.
Image: University of Salford Press Office via Flickr