On Sunday, it was reported in The Daily Telegraph that two of England’s biggest clubs - Liverpool and Manchester United - were pushing for a radical overhaul of this country’s professional game. Dubbed ‘Project Big Picture’, the proposals would mean not only the most drastic changes to the organisation of the Premier League since its formation in 1992, but also a huge impact for the English Football League - particularly the Championship.
Under these plans, the Premier League would become a more exclusive group, with power increasingly concentrated at the very top of the footballing pyramid. The top tier would be reduced in size from 20 teams to 18, its principle of ‘one club, one vote’ would be replaced with a greater decision-making status for the division’s long-term members, and the 16th-placed side would be given a second chance of survival by competing in the play-offs.
That last point in particular would be a huge blow. The play-offs are the Championship’s showpiece event, a knock-out competition with huge stakes in terms of both finance and prestige, that ends with the richest game in global club football. Swapping a second-tier side scrapping to get into the top flight in favour of an under-performing Premier League team would fundamentally ruin the play-offs. The play-offs are about showcasing the best of the Football League, not the worst of the Premier League.
The lower leagues are being asked to make sacrifices too. Two fewer places in the Premier League would ultimately mean two clubs in League Two being shunted into non-league when the divisions are rebalanced, while the League Cup would likely be gone too. That would mean less opportunity for lower-league teams and fans to get an exciting cup draw each season, and no chance of prestige by getting far into the competition.
There are some appealing aspects of the proposals for Football League clubs though. The EFL would immediately get a £250m cash boost and 25% of the revenue collectively earned by the Premier League and EFL would go to Football League clubs. That’s not to be taken lightly at any time, not least when finances in the lower divisions are under huge strain due to the Covid-induced lack of matchday revenue.
EFL chairman Rick Parry, former chief executive of the Premier League and Liverpool at different stages in his career, is a keen advocate. He outlined the reasons for his support extensively in an interview with The Daily Telegraph, but for me, this extract sums up his pitch to Football League clubs and supporters:
“Yes, there are bits that people won’t like. All your points about the 14 [other clubs] and about competitive balance are absolutely valid. What do we do? Leave it exactly as it is and allow the smaller clubs to wither? Recognise we have an enormous gap, recognise we have a structure that depends [in the EFL] on owner funding?
“Or do we do something about it? And you can’t do something about it without something changing. And the view of our clubs is if the [big] six get some benefits but the 72 also do, then we are up for it.”
In other words, to paraphrase The Day Today, you don’t like it, but you’ll have to go along with it. It’s a depressingly regressive argument from a person whose job it is to stand up for the interests of the Football League, fight the 72 clubs’ corner and win them as many concessions in such a proposal as possible. Then again, perhaps not a surprise given his prior work experience.
In fact, those comments reminded me of how Robert Maxwell tried to sell the idea of Thames Valley Royals in a statement from April 16 1983:
“I am proposing to merge [Oxford United] with Reading. If we in Thames Valley are to retain a league club we’ve got to unite Reading and Oxford. Everything in the world that cannot pay its way must go the way of merger to combine into stronger units.”
Although we’re talking about plans of very different scales and of very different times in English football, they’re ultimately the same offer. The bigger entity is determined to get its way, puts its own interests over the integrity and heritage of the game, and thinks the smaller party should be content merely with survival.
EFL clubs deserve so much more than that. Being offered the chance to exist is no act of generosity, no sign of genuine goodwill towards the teams that make up the bulk of the professional game and have contributed so much to its history. It’s little more than waving cash in front of the needy to distract from a fundamentally bad deal that will change English football for the worse. Permanently.
The Premier League helping out lower-league teams during their hour of need should go without saying and not be contingent on reforms that benefit the top six.
Manchester United, Liverpool and other sides are already aided by having a pyramid below them of prestigious, competitive leagues where they can send their young players to develop on loan. Plus, having such a good pyramid improves the prestige of the competitions in which they take part. The Premier League’s appeal is boosted by it sitting above three other professional divisions, all stronger than their counterparts overseas, and the FA Cup is all the more desirable for the sheer number of quality participants.
England’s footballing elite often act as if they’re shackled by their links to the Football League. Knock-out competitions involving both are often the target of the top six’s ire: replays in the later rounds of the FA Cup have already been scrapped, and the League Cup will go the same way if ‘Project Big Picture’ is put into practice.
In reality however, the pyramid is what lifts them up. As such, the Football League deserves a lot more respect than it gets from the ‘Project Big Picture’ proposals. It also deserves a better chairman.