Comment: Cash is there – but what really is the Big Picture?

It isn’t difficult to understand why Football League chairman Rick Parry and a considerable number of clubs might be enthusiastic about Project Big Picture.

EFL chairman Rick Parry.
EFL chairman Rick Parry.

After months of trying to stave off a financial crisis which still even now threatens to crush the league, this deal would alleviate the pressure in an instant.

A £250million bailout to cover lost revenues from which might well be a season spent behind closed doors, coupled with the promise of tightening the chasm between the Premier League and the rest which has opened up since 1992. It all looks so appealing.

The difficulty, as ever, lies in the detail and the question EFL clubs, particularly those in the lower divisions, need to ask themselves is what do the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United, who have drafted this plan under the guise of concern for football’s pyramid, want in return?

The long-term answer, we can only guess. They are certainly asking a heck of a lot for starters. The initial price for saving the EFL would be to drastically withdraw the lines of power in the English game, placing it firmly with the Premier League’s ‘Big Six’.

It is why, when assessed in full, Project Big Picture can be seen as nothing more than a cynical power grab dressed as charity and why, at least in its current guise, it already appears doomed to failure.

For the plan to stand any chance of success, it requires the support of 14 Premier League clubs and that simply isn’t going to be forthcoming – not with what the majority would be required to give up.

Under the plan, the nine longest-serving members – which helpfully includes the Big Six – would be granted special shareholder status, effectively giving them the run of the top flight.

Somewhat conveniently, the votes of only two-thirds of those special shareholders would be required to make changes, making the influence of West Ham, Southampton and Everton (the other three clubs as things stand) somewhat redundant. The Hammers have already expressed their opposition to the plan.

The special shareholders would negotiate the future broadcasting deals and also have the power to veto takeovers. A rather useful way, a cynic might suggest, of stopping billionaire owners taking over the likes Villa and Wolves again.

For that particular local duo, Project Big Picture is a direct threat to their aspirations of infiltrating the elite.

A key clause would see the Premier League adopt UEFA’s more stringent Financial Fair Play rules, which Wolves have already breached, almost unavoidably, due to the speed of their recent rise.

That would mean no more splashing the cash like Villa and Leeds after winning promotion. Instead clubs coming up from the Championship would be required to effectively put down a £25million deposit for each of their first two seasons back in the top flight, another barrier to anyone keen to launch an assault on the status quo. The impact of Project Big Picture would be to close the gap between the Premier League and the EFL, but drastically widen it in the top flight. Currently the team finishing top gets 1.7 times the amount of cash compared to the side finishing and bottom. Were these changes implemented, it would very quickly become four times the amount.

Other lowlights include the scrapping of the League Cup and Community Shield (a charity match, let’s not forget) under the guise of reducing the demands on players.

But then the Premier League call for ‘fewer matches’ has in reality meant ‘fewer matches from which we don’t make much money’. Those cup and league games (the top division would also be cut from 20 to 18 teams) would inevitably be replaced by more European fixtures and an expanded Champions League.

One might take a moment to ponder why the chairman of the EFL would back a plan which would end the league’s own competition?

The answer, if we are being kind to Parry, is perhaps desperation.

While it would be tempting – and fun – to continue picking apart Project Big Picture, the bottom line is something needs to happen, quite urgently, or we are only weeks away from seeing EFL clubs go out of business.

Arguably the most revealing aspect of the last few days is that, as many always suspected, the money to bail out the rest of the game appears to be there.

Granted, Liverpool and Manchester United did not consult most of their fellow clubs before placing it in their offer but from the EFL’s perspective the offer is there, tantalisingly close, albeit laced with conditions akin, as the Football Supporters Federation yesterday described it, to a ‘sugar-coated cyanide pill’.

If nothing else Project Big Picture may serve as a starting point for negotiations. It has certainly generated no shortage of debate.

The question for the days and weeks ahead is whether the Premier League can formulate a plan to save the EFL which does not ask for its soul in return?

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