Manchester United and Liverpool forced into Project Big Picture climbdown

David Hytner and Paul MacInnes
·5-min read

Liverpool and Manchester United have been forced into an embarrassing climbdown over their push to reform English football after a tense meeting of the Premier League’s 20 clubs on Wednesday.

Project Big Picture was left dead in the water, with clubs agreeing unanimously to engage in a new “strategic plan” for the future of English football. Proponents of the proposal were still claiming something like victory, however, insisting their ideas for reform remained on the table.

Liverpool and United, together with the Football League chairman, Rick Parry, have pushed Project Big Picture – which proposed a £250m bailout for the EFL and a more equitable share of the game’s broadcast money in exchange for the Premier League’s big six clubs being granted overwhelming voting control on a number of important points.

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The idea has divided the top division, with the 14 other clubs believed to be strongly against the change in governance – with the league and the Football Association sharing their view. At Wednesday’s virtual conference call, the Premier League chairman, Gary Hoffman, called for unity after an unedifying week and the Everton chief executive, Denise Barrett-Baxendale, demanded an apology from Liverpool and United, who were represented by Tom Werner and Ed Woodward, club chairman and executive vice-chairman, respectively.

Werner and Woodward refused, feeling they had nothing to apologise for. They claimed to have merely been discussing a list of ideas, which would eventually have been put forward for debate. This led to incredulity in some quarters.

The FA chairman, Greg Clarke, also spoke out strongly at the meeting, this time against Parry. Significantly, the other members of the big six – Tottenham, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal – are understood to have stayed silent, which was surprising to some clubs on the call.

The major conclusion of the get-together, which had been convened at short notice, was that the 20 clubs agreed to work on a reform programme and, significantly, not to endorse Project Big Picture. In other words, Liverpool and United had to give their blessing to work as a part of the existing collective and to say that PBP was not something that could be construed as coming from the league or its clubs.

The review, however, will focus on “competition structure, calendar, governance and financial sustainability”, three central components of the PBP plan. The process will also consult all major stakeholders in the game, including the EFL. According to the Premier League chief executive, Richard Masters, the aim is to complete the “main components” of the review by the end of 2020.

“All 20 Premier League clubs today unanimously agreed that Project Big Picture will not be endorsed or pursued by the Premier League, or the FA,” the league said in a statement.

The clubs agreed to offer the EFL a bailout too, but on far less generous terms than the £250m that has long been requested. A combined £50m, including £20m in grants, will be offered to League One and Two clubs, with almost two-thirds of that for teams in League One in line with solidarity payment distribution. Championship clubs will be offered access to loans on a means-tested basis.

“This offer will consist of grants and interest-free loans totalling a further £50m on top of the £27.2m solidarity payments already advanced to League One and League Two this year, making a total of £77.2m. Discussions will also continue with the EFL regarding Championship clubs’ financial needs. This addresses government concerns about lower league clubs’ financial fragility.”

Top-flight teams do not believe the vast majority of those in the Championship are in immediate danger of going to the wall. They have discussed how some Championship clubs have wealthy owners while others have collected huge transfer fees this summer or rejected large offers for players. As such, the Premier League’s members do not want to advance significant money, partly because they know these are rivals who aim to replace them in the top division.

The £50m offer has been arrived at on the basis that League One and Two clubs receive 13% and 7% respectively of the solidarity payments. The Premier League is aware the EFL has demanded £250m and its offer constitutes 20% of that.

The bailout proposal was made on the same day as the Culture Secretary called on the EFL and Premier League to agree a deal that “is there to be done”. Parry will present this proposal to the EFL’s clubs on Thursday, but Masters would not comment on whether this was the league’s final offer. “We’ve obviously got the mandate to put it to them”, he said, “and we’ll keep those conversations going.”

The EFL said in a statement: “The EFL welcomes the opportunity to contribute to any wider debate with colleagues across the game as we seek to finally address impossible economic pressures and deliver on the objective of having a sustainable EFL in the long-term.”

Despite the humbling nature of the meeting, the architects of Project Big Picture remain confident that events are now moving in the way they want. Sources close to John W Henry said that none of the ideas contained with PBP have been dismissed. “We put forward proposals and they’re now being considered,” they said.

Masters said the meeting had been “candid, constructive” and “positive” in its outcome. “There’s been a lot of speculation over the last four days”, he said, “but I don’t think it’s irreparably damaged the Premier League.

As for the league’s relationship with the EFL and Parry, Masters said: “Clearly there’s some frustration … but we don’t have a beef with the EFL, certainly not with its clubs. We want to have a good relationship with them.”