Premier League averts Big Picture coup but it was just the opening shot

Paul MacInnes on 18 October 2020

Think back, if you can, to how football looked a week ago. Try to remember that prelapsarian age, when the only concerns were a rampant pandemic, a financial calamity threatening the future of the game and a continuing reckoning with the stark absence of racial equality within the sport. Peaceful, wasn’t it?

Well, that was before the 17th (or was it 18th?) draft of Project Big Picture was made public. A plan advocating the complete restructuring of English football as we know it, it provoked between figures at the top of the sport the kind of heated exchanges that are usually reserved for pundits on phone-in shows.

Acrimony that had stayed out of sight throughout this most turbulent of years suddenly boiled over. However, issues that had been kicked into the long grass were suddenly up for grabs.

That is the paradox of Project Big Picture. On the one hand an obvious and clear power play by the Premier League’s grandest clubs, cooked up behind closed doors (appropriately enough, in these fan-excluding times). On the other, a considered and largely equitable plan for future-proofing the football pyramid. The best of worlds and the worst of them, all tied up in the same bow.

You would be forgiven for thinking, though, that the whole controversy was less about what was in the proposals than who had written them and why. Within hours of the leak on Sunday, the Premier League had fired out a statement. It criticised plans that “could have a damaging impact on the whole game”, but spent more words personally calling out the chair of the English Football League. “We are disappointed to see that Rick Parry has given his on-the-record support,” the statement read.

The league was not the only party to go in on Parry, the FA chair, Greg Clarke, reportedly doing the same during a Premier League meeting in which Project Big Picture was officially declared dead on arrival.

What had been a plan devised by senior executives at Liverpool and Manchester United (and shepherded, it turned out later, by stakeholders across the game, including Clarke) almost immediately became a fight between the two halves of the football pyramid, with Parry the Machiavel at the heart of it all.

All of which leads to one interesting takeaway. It made sense for the Premier League to channel its ire at the EFL chair (who was also the Premier League’s first ever chief executive) rather than chastise its two most garlanded clubs. But at the same time the antipathy was not contrived, it was real, and it made you wonder why the Premier League, the all-conquering broadcasting behemoth, was so worked up.

Perhaps it was because it knew this plan had legs. Ostensibly, Wednesday’s meeting acted as a ceremonial burial for Project Big Picture and a ritual humiliation for Liverpool and United who had to go along with it in exchange for a “strategic review”. If so, it was a remarkably bloodless way to head off a coup. Another interpretation, of course, was that the proponents of PBP would simply use the review to present the same ideas again, this time with the express consent of the league to explore them.

In truth, the Premier League, the English Football League, the FA, Aunt Jane and her pet duck all know that the real existential challenge posed by Project Big Picture is that of English football’s biggest clubs flexing their muscles. It has been a long time coming, argued to be one of the main reasons why Richard Scudamore ended his 20-year reign at the Premier League in 2018. But it is here now and promises real challenges for the game broadly and more specifically the most lucrative domestic football competition in the world.

The Premier League is often seen as an all-powerful behemoth, permanently at risk of crunching everything else in the game to smithereens. What Project Big Picture did, at least the version endorsed by Parry, was to make it less powerful. The big six and three associates would call the shots, with expanded voting rights. The other clubs’ status would be reduced to something more equivalent to teams in the Championship. The Premier League would be left to manage that rump, while an EFL which shared in the top flight’s TV revenues would be newly empowered.

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This was how it felt to be on the outside looking in, and the Premier League didn’t like it. It hit back hard and, in the short term, it won. The new chief executive, Richard Masters, has come through his initiation ceremony strengthened. His last gesture in the week was to present the EFL with a Covid bailout offer smaller than one that had already been rejected.

In the long term, however, things may well look different. Liverpool and Manchester United are quiet for now but they will not stay that way for ever. Parry has been publicly harried but retains the support of almost all his 72 clubs. Meanwhile there is now consensus across the game that things need to change. In that fight, the Premier League has more to lose than most.

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