By Simon Evans
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Premier League clubs on Wednesday rejected plans put forward by Liverpool and Manchester United for radical changes to the league's structures and finances and said they would conduct their own review of the game.
The "Project Big Picture" proposals would have seen an increase in funds for the 72 clubs in the Football League (EFL) but also include special voting rights for the biggest clubs in the Premier League and a reduction of teams in the top flight from 20 to 18.
The plan has been fronted by EFL chairman Rick Parry and would have included a 250 million-pound bail-out for his clubs, who face acute financial issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But at a meeting on Wednesday of all 20 Premier League clubs, the plans were rejected with a separate, broader-based review by the entire league initiated and a more limited bail-out for lower division clubs.
"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.
"Further, Premier League Shareholders agreed to work together as a 20-club collective on a strategic plan for the future structures and financing of English football, consulting with all stakeholders to ensure a vibrant, competitive and sustainable football pyramid."
The process will include the FA, the UK government and the EFL, added the statement.
The Premier League also said it had agreed to offer a rescue package to League One and League Two (third and fourth tier) clubs.
"This offer will consist of grants and interest-free loans totalling a further 50 million pounds on top of the £27.2m solidarity payments already advanced to League One and League Two this year, making a total of 77.2 million pounds," the statement said.
"Discussions will also continue with the EFL regarding Championship clubs' financial needs. This addresses Government concerns about lower league clubs' financial fragility."
The UK government's Culture Minister Oliver Dowden, who is responsible for sport, has been urging the wealthier clubs to help out the lower league teams and said the offer was a "good start".
"I urge them to work together and stay focused on helping clubs through the crisis," he said.
Despite the huge attention focused on the proposals, which were leaked on Sunday, neither of the two American owners, Liverpool's John W Henry or Manchester United's Joel Glazer, took part in the online meeting, leaving their executives to represent them.
Premier League CEO Richard Masters said the meeting had been "candid, constructive, positive in the end".
Although FA chairman Greg Clarke said on Tuesday that the Project instigators had talked about a possible breakaway from the Premier League, Masters said he had heard no such threats.
"I don't think anybody has been talking about breaking away. So I want to make that clear," he said.
Feelings have been running high among owners and officials from the Premier League's smaller clubs, some of whom believe the top teams tried to railroad them.
"Whilst there has been a lot of things said and done, a lot of speculation over the last four days, I don't think it's irreparably damaged the Premier League," Masters said.
The EFL, whose clubs had been largely in support of Project Big Picture given the promise of increased funds including a 250 million-pound rescue fund said it would meet with all its 72 clubs on Thursday to discuss the new bail-out offer.
"As we have maintained across the past 72 hours, there is a significant issue facing the English footballing Pyramid and therefore it is encouraging that there is an acknowledgment that a review of the current status quo is required," 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."
(Reporting by Simon Evans, Editing by Ed Osmond)