Former England defender Gary Neville, retired Olympian Denise Lewis and ex-Football Association chairman David Bernstein have combined to call for independent regulation of English football to solve its “crisis”.
The trio are part of a group who have issued a manifesto for change called ‘Saving Our Beautiful Game’.
It is the latest development of a fractious week in which controversial plans to restructure English football – led by Liverpool and Manchester United – emerged on Sunday, only to be condemned by the Premier League itself and then quickly rejected at meeting of all 20 top flight clubs on Wednesday.
And the group calling for independent regulation came forward on the same day EFL chairman Rick Parry claimed his FA counterpart Greg Clarke had “initiated” talks over the radical restructure plans that raised the possibility of a second Premier League division, and B teams in the Football League.
Premier League clubs “unanimously agreed” at their meeting this week that ‘Project Big Picture’ would not be “endorsed or pursued”. Instead, they agreed to “work together” on a new “strategic plan” for the “financing of English football”.
However, the EFL said – also on Thursday – that it had rejected the Premier League’s proposed £50m rescue package for League One and Two clubs, saying it “falls some way short” of the required amount.
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Divisions in English football come to the fore
EFL chief Parry wrote to his clubs on Thursday, attaching a document that he said Clarke “produced” in February, and which has been seen by the BBC.
Included as “an example” in the discussion paper for Project Big Picture were a number of proposals, including the abandonment of the League Cup and FA Cup replays.
The reconfiguring of Leagues 1 and 2 together with the National League was also part of the list of potential measures.
In a statement, Clarke said the document “captures a summary of what areas and issues were discussed at an early meeting”.
However, the document was described as “shameful” by Accrington Stanley owner Andy Holt.
“I’m sick to my stomach that the FA are working against our clubs”, he tweeted.
“Those who are supposed to support us are working against us.”
Earlier this week Clarke said he was involved in initial discussions with the backers of Project Big Picture, but withdrew when a breakaway league was suggested “as a threat”.
Twenty four hours later Parry wrote to EFL clubs to explain that following Clarke’s comments, “I think it is necessary to clarify a few points… it was Greg who initiated this process”.
Parry told the clubs he was invited by the FA chairman to a meeting with representatives of Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea.
Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was also invited but declined.
Parry went on to say: “For the avoidance of any doubt this is not to say that Greg was personally in favour of these ideas, but that they warranted discussion.
“I made it clear from the outset that some of these were absolute non-starters from an EFL point of view and it is clear that they did not find their way into the Project Big Picture proposal.
“They were firmly rejected by Liverpool and Manchester United, which does confirm their understanding of the importance of the pyramid.”
In a statement, Clarke said: “It is an important part of my job to work together with key stakeholders across the game to discuss and evaluate potential improvements to the structure of English football that would have a positive long-term effect at every level of the game.
“The paper captures a summary of what areas and issues were discussed at an early meeting.
“As the discussions progressed I and others were unhappy with the direction of travel in terms of major redistribution of money and power to bigger clubs and the mooting of a breakaway.”
What is the ‘Save our Beautiful Game’ manifesto proposing?
The manifesto put forward on Thursday by Neville, Bernstein and other key figures says “football has shown itself incapable of self-reform” and that they want an independent regulator to take charge.
It outlined that “core issues” that need to be dealt with include:
- Financial disparity and unsustainability
- A power structure that is fundamentally out of balance
- The shortage of BAME coaches and managers at the top level, a general lack of diversity and the “exploitation” of clubs and fans
“If the EPL [English Premier League] is to perform its role as the pinnacle of the domestic game, its responsibilities and financial contribution to the wider game need to be more carefully defined,” said the manifesto.
“It also needs to be complemented by an effective and independent body to oversee the financial regulation of the game.
“The FA lacks credibility and has proved to be largely ineffective as a governing body. It has not modernised and is not sufficiently independent.”
‘Big Picture’ to big row – a week in football governance
‘Project Big Picture’ was put forward amid clubs trying to deal with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Its suggestions included reducing the Premier League from 20 to 18 clubs and scrapping the EFL Cup and Community Shield.
In addition, the English Football League would have received 25% of all future TV deals, which would have been negotiated jointly, plus a £250m bailout and the end to controversial parachute payments.
However, it would also have seen more power transferred to the so-called ‘big six’ Premier League clubs – Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham.
And, while these proposals were rejected, the Premier League did agree to provide £50m for League One and Two clubs.
There was no decision over financial support for the Championship and, consequently on Thursday evening, the EFL turned down the rescue package, which it said “must meet the requirements of all 72 clubs before it can be considered in full”.
‘Football may come kicking and screaming’
Bernstein led the FA for three years from January 2011 and was also previously chairman of Manchester City.
“It’s all very well suddenly talking about strategic plans a day after something else has fallen through,” Bernstein said about the Premier League’s response to Project Big Picture.
He told BBC Sport’s Laura Scott: “It doesn’t ring really true to me. I don’t believe that football across the board is going to be able to come together sufficiently to do this.
“Football may come kicking and screaming into this, it may well have to be forced on football.”
Neville, who is a part-owner of League Two side Salford City, told Sky Sports: “The principle is that we don’t trust that football can govern itself and create the fairest deal for all, whether that’s the Premier League, EFL clubs, non-League clubs or the fans.
“It has been proven over this past six months that football has struggled to bring everyone together, and proven to be incapable over a 25-30 year period of transforming the money in the game into something that works for everybody.
“I want the best Premier League in the world, but I want sustainable football clubs.”
“Many professional clubs are close to liquidation,” said the manifesto. “This is the only realistic way to bring real change, stability and long-term health to professional and grassroots football in this country.”
Who is part of the group putting the manifesto forward?
- David Bernstein – former FA and Manchester City chairman
- Gary Neville – former England and Manchester United defender
- Denise Lewis – British former Olympic heptathlon gold medal winner
- Andy Burnham – Mayor of Greater Manchester
- David Davies – Former FA executive director
- Helen Grant – Conservative MP
- Lord Mervyn King – former Bank of England governor and ex-Aston Villa director
- Greg Scott – Lawyer
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