Project Big Picture wasn’t just a proposal to simply tweak a few existing rules here and tighten and few loopholes there. This was the biggest proposed fundamental change to English football since the arrival of the Premier League in 1992 and risked putting a chasm between the big clubs and the little ones.
The plans, drawn up by Liverpool principal owner John W Henry and Manchester United owners the Glazer family, promised to save football in response to the crippling effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the game, with many lower league clubs on their knees. A £250m prepayment to EFL for lost revenue and £100m to the FA (£25m of which is for the National League and £10m each for grassroots and women’s professional game) is life-saving for many. Clubs on the brink receive a healthy cash injection and there’s no need for the government to intervene and support clubs as has been the case with the National League.
A proposed shake-up of the league structure from 2022/23 would see an 18 team Premier League with 24 clubs each in the Championship and League’s One and Two. Only two teams would go down automatically from the Premier League whilst the 16th placed team would be put in a play-off with teams placed between third and fifth in the Championship to make up the final spot. A thrilling spectacle for fans and a big boost for broadcasters, but a blow to clubs who face being part of ‘the cull’ and those fighting for promotion with one less promotion place up for grabs.
The plans for a later Premier League start date and a less congested fixture schedule sound good, but the primary motivation isn’t for player welfare as you’d hope. Instead, it enables the big clubs to go on longer, more lucrative pre-season tours to Asia and other growth markets and allow them more time to prepare for and play in extended European competitions from 2024/25 onwards.
A loan market extension and financial grants to improve facilities across the EFL are much needed for many – perhaps Gillingham will finally cover their away end? Despite doing away with the Community Shield, the cash promised to support the grassroots game is far from insignificant to support the backbone of English football, and in the Premier League, £20 tickets for away fans and the possible re-introduction of safe-standing are very welcome.
It may lack some love but plans to scrap the League Cup would be devastating to clubs and communities. Picture the buzz around Bradford when the fourth-tier side reached the 2012/13 final, or the atmosphere around Chester in 1974/75 when the minnows upset league champions Leeds United 3–0 en-route to the semi-finals. These games don’t just make for a great splash on the back pages; the gate receipts and television rights money are crucial and don’t come around too often.
Although EFL clubs would receive a greater proportion of TV rights money and the income would be split equally in the Premier League, dividing the rest based on performance and a ‘three-year aggregate position’ will only widen the wealth gap. It reduces the chance of a plucky outsider like Leicester making an unlikely dash up the table. It would be almost impossible for teams at the wrong end of the table and those who get promoted.
The proposed special voting powers for the top nine clubs risks giving them a frightening amount of control over the future of the game. Fans should’ve been sick to their stomach at the levels of greed on show in the long-term power grab and greatly relieved the plans were unanimously voted down.
EFL clubs who would benefit from the funds would be forever at the Premier League’s mercy for saving their bacon. But it is the piggish attitude displayed by those at the top which make the real headlines in this project of closed-shop protectionism.