Big Picture thinking: From the land of closed leagues and franchises?
Posted on October 13, 2020
WHOEVER advised Liverpool and Manchester United to propose a reset of the Premier League/EFL couldn’t possible have known too much about the culture of football in Britain, indeed Europe. Why on earth did these clubs, supposedly two of the most emotionally-driven football institutions in the world, think they would get away with launching a power grab in the middle of a global crisis?
It’s a shame, because there are some positives in Project Big Picture, but the outrage, the audacity and the self-interest wrapped in the cloak of the philanthropist will overshadow any good samaritanism it might do.
We all knew football had problems before covid-19 descended upon us, huge financial imbalances, the culture of greed, the scent of Wall Street and those ludicrously-paid players at the very top level. Football has never been more detached from its audience in terms of affinity, common agendas and appreciation of its audience. Oh yes, “hearts and prayers”, letters to fans from departing players, emojees and physical gesturing all imply a caring, sharing game, but the law of the jungle prevails.
The Premier claimed its top clubs were going to make huge losses through the crisis, but the transfer market blazed away during the window and now an idea, almost certainly constructed in Boston and Florida, which tables a third of a billion coming from the Premier to the cash-strapped EFL, confirms what we already knew –there is no need to worry about the bank balances of the top clubs. It’s nonsense to weep over clubs having to cut their cloth accordingly.
The project may act as a bail-out to the EFL clubs, but it comes at a sizeable price – the “club” at the top of the game with its six heavyweights and invited guests, will have more of a say in how football is run. That includes preventing any “undesirable” new owners and any change in TV deals. When clubs other than the establishment started to get rich, the biggest complainers were Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. Basically, their position as the game’s hierarchy was under threat. Having adjusted to the new world, which weakened all three clubs, with only Liverpool coming back strong, this latest attempt at moulding the game would possibly stop any further erosion of the power base. Interestingly, there was talk that the failed attempt by Saudi Arabian investors taking over Newcastle United was partly due to certain clubs sticking their boots in with the Football Association.
The Premier League’s influence trickles down the pyramid, going as far as non-league football. The Championship, the biggest basket case we have, is a game of dancing on a volcano, where wages outstrip income as clubs crave the financial rewards of the Premier. League One clubs hanker for the Championship and League Two wants to stay away from the drop zone into non-league football. The non-league game, awash with former Football League clubs or clubs with FL heritage, lives beyond its means with some clubs full-time and most part-time. Lower down, clubs that play in front of 350 people have wage bills of two, three or four thousand pounds a week. It’s a crazy world where the heart rules the head.
The virus, we were told, was an ideal time to recalibrate many aspects of modern life. We needed to slow down, appreciate what we have around us and smell the flowers. But we also needed to smell the coffee – too much of football depends on everything going as planned, no hiccups, now scope for error. In other words, when things are ok, most clubs get by. When the world is turned upside down and enters a sci-fi environment, everyone is running for the exit and seeking bail-outs, fan assistance and local authority understanding.
The LivMan idea of £ 350 million heading the way of the EFL is to be applauded, but this is also a form of acknowledgment that “actually, things have been wrong all along”. Henry Winter in the Times noted the “big six” are basically offering what they paid to intermediaries and player agents in 2019. Interestingly, the idea leaked just after Liverpool were humiliated 7-2 by Villa and United were thrashed at home by Spurs. A case of “look, we have a competitive product that can only get better”. If ever there was a time to claim all things can happen in our league, it was these bizarre results!
Nobody is going to admit to being paid too much, hence it will not be given by kindly benefactors wishing to help their poorer neighbours, a form of sporting paternalism. This is where it all goes wrong, for creating a structure that effectively has the rich running the game rather than a governing body, is another example of tails wagging dogs. Big, monied dogs, admittedly.
It all adds up to a very poor week for the Premier League members. First we had the pay-per-view idea of existing subscribers paying £ 15 for certain games on TV. This came as Premier clubs spent another vast sum of money in the transfer window when other leagues were tightening their belts. We also saw a huge green dinosaur, the lovable Gunnersaurus being made redundant by Arsenal when the club had just shelled out a big fee for a player. Alright, the last example was relatively unimportant (although not to the man who had lost his job), but it showed that somehow, football has lost its heart and soul.
Although many fans would disagree, the pandemic should provide an opportunity to rationalise top level football. Reducing the Premier to 18 teams is a logical move, but let’s look at the agenda that is underpinning it. At some stage, the subject of a European Super League will emerge once more, with the continent’s top clubs holding UEFA/FIFA to ransom. The proposals, such as a smaller league and the abolishment of the EFL Cup, will allow for more lucrative European football.
Outside the elite bracket, English football needs to consolidate and reduce its 92-club structure where too many clubs have lived hand to mouth. Part-time football needs to be introduced at a higher stage and the non-league world has to revert to amateurism below a certain level. The chances are, the LivMan proposal will spur the FA into action and come up with a plan, which may be the Big Picture’s intention all along.
EFL clubs will, naturally, be seduced by the idea of £ 350 million solving all their problems in one hit, but the longer-term result would change the face of British football and create a competition that really isn’t competitive. The Premier and EFL would, in theory, be closer than at any point in the last 28 years, but read the small print (and it is not that small) and the reality will be an industry run for the big clubs by the big clubs. No longer a game of the people, but a game for the shareholders. The hypocrisy will kill us.