The fragile foundations on which the English football pyramid has stood for 150 years or more have been rocked by COVID-19 – yet it is the base of the structure looking more insecure than its pinnacle.
The national game, beyond the riches of the Premier League, finds itself in a rather precarious situation.
The first to offer a quote on shoring up and making good was EFL Chair and scouse bodge builder Rick Parry, backed by Liverpool and Manchester United – both famed for constructing impressive teams in their time, but spending up to 30 years doing so.
The solution: Project Big Picture.
Hastily written down on the back of a fag packet, the plans advocated sharing up to a quarter of the Premier League’s TV wealth in order to underpin League One and Two. However, reducing the Premier League to 18 clubs and including the 16th place team in the Championship play-offs meant the revamp would make it incredibly difficult for anyone wishing to ascend the stairs into the penthouse.
Those steps would be guarded by the North West’s Reds along with seven other specially selected pals in a clique that would retain the rights to decide if those steps are accessible – or even if they are there at all.
Described as “a sugar-coated cyanide pill” by the Football Supporters’ Association and “Project Power Grab” by the Government, it was no surprise Parry’s planning application for the revised pyramid was duly turned down by the Premier League.
Yet it’s unlikely this will be the end of the matter.
Such is the ludicrous and outlandish nature of Parry’s suggestions, and the lack of any top division backing for it beyond two, albeit huge, clubs, it’s not beyond the realms of probability this was designed with the express purpose of taking the temperature of the footballing community. To flush out the supporters and dissenters. To find out who has the stomach for change or not. To identify those who want something different. More profitable.
The bang and the clatter of this extraordinary plan hitting the floor is the sound of inevitability. While Big Picture is now broken into small pieces, it has led to the Premier League’s clubs today agreeing to work on a strategic plan to look again at “competition structure, calendar, governance and financial sustainability”.
For those of us the old enough to remember the footballing landscape of the mid to late 1980s, there will be some familiarity. During a period of unrelenting football hooliganism and a European ban, proposals and ideas for Super Leagues and breakaways swirled like smoke in the air for many years. It was obvious there would be change, that a turning point had been reached. By 1992 the conditions were right, and the support was there, to see the creation of the Premier League – with Norwich City a founder member.
Fast forward almost 30 years and here we are again. The unique situation in which we find ourselves is the opportunity for the biggest clubs in the land to push for a landmark moment similar to what was seen in the early 1990s. The smoke is in the air again, though it appears to be acrid.
With League One’s and Two’s clubs currently in such desperate situations, it was hardly surprising they were the leading cheerleaders for Parry’s proposals. Their immediate need, plus the promise of a £250m bailout and 25% of future TV revenue, appeared to blind them to the fact Project Big Picture was no masterpiece, but an ugly scribble.
My guess is that many saw the implications clearly, but knowing they are never realistically likely to reach the top division made it easier for them to swallow the unpalatable pill on offer if it meant they could survive – albeit forever confined to the bottom divisions. Or, in the case of two of their comrades, pushed into non-league.
The surprise was the support seen in the Championship – though getting the backing of Preston’s financially illiterate Peter Ridsdale, the man famed for almost drowning Leeds in hundreds of millions of debts, is hardly a ringing endorsement.
Norwich City, has, so far, kept its counsel on the whole affair. While not expecting a furious reaction from Delia Smith, it came as a surprise the club didn’t seek to reassure supporters that they would be seeking to fight the introduction of any such plans. As one of English football’s leading yo-yo clubs, Project Big Picture threatened to cut the club’s string as they descended.
According to BBC Sport’s Simon Stone, the 72 lower-division teams are firmly behind Parry. This could suggest that the club’s silence is because it backs many of the principals of Project Big Picture and is avoiding uncomfortable conversations with fans who, on social media at least, have shown themselves to be far from happy with what has been mooted.
Obviously this is just conjecture. Whatever the viewpoints held by our majority shareholder, and the board of directors, the Canaries’ leaders can’t ignore what is going to happen.
While Parry remains behind the wheel of the EFL and Liverpool owner John Henry and the United’s Joel Glazer have a say in Premier League matters, we are moving towards a ‘Whole New Ball Game’ yet again.
City needs to ensure any solution given to English football’s current plight doesn’t just benefit those at the very top of the Premier League, or those struggling to retain their status in the bottom division, but all clubs – especially those who have no desire to have their upward mobility curtailed and access to the top-flight restricted.
The revision of English football could be a truly collaborative process, but we all know the Premier League’s current 20 clubs will always be the beneficiaries of change. Currently on the outside looking in, Norwich City needs to work hard to get its voice heard in order to have any say on what comes next.
A watching brief appears to be the preferred option at Carrow Road, but perhaps now is the time for the club to look around at its Championship compatriots and find strength in numbers.
Those outside of the nation’s elite who do not seek to find those with whom they can share a vision and use these partnerships to build influence will find it difficult to have a voice in any further discussions.
It’s a fluid situation, and much will change over the coming weeks and months, but Delia Smith and Stuart Webber will be minded to remember that whatever occurs off the pitch to secure City’s future, the key to being at the pinnacle of a stable pyramid is to quickly rebuild fortunes on it.