“The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” When the owners of Manchester United and Liverpool – two clubs implacably opposed to each other – dreamed up the title of their new vision for the Premier League “Project Big Picture,” Gordon Gecko’s words must have been echoing in their heads. Like Gecko, the Glazers and the Fenway Sports Group are both American as well as being firm believers in the merits of capitalism in its rawest, most unforgiving form.
The singular achievement of this ill-conceived proposal was uniting the other 18 Premier League clubs in their opposition to it. The idea was killed off a few days after it popped its ugly head over the ramparts. It is rare to inspire such unanimity in football, with the notable exception of the similarly rapacious idea of charging fans the princely sum of £14.99 to watch their teams on television. That brainstorm was voted in by a 19-1 majority, with Leicester City as the honourable exception. Greed seems to be catching on, threatening the very ethos of English football.
The notion of the big getting bigger while the weak are getting weaker to the point of extinction is just a fact of life according to their philosophy. That sticks in the craw and would have upset the founder of the Football League, William McGregor. McGregor believed in the fundamental importance of togetherness. In 1905, when reflecting on the establishment of the Football League seven years earlier, he wrote – “I have heard people say they hated, detested, and loathed the word ‘league’. I have usually put these people down – I was going to say as brainless asses but perhaps that would be too strong a term, say as foolish people.”
Advocates of “Project Big Picture”would undoubtedly point to the fact that this grand design would still be called the Premier League. But what was being proposed is a massive step away from the central idea of a league being of mutual benefit to all those participating in it, or aspiring to participate in it. Look no further than the big four American sports, who operate a closed league system where the only route of gaining entry into the NFL, NHL, NBA or the MLB is money. The concept of promotion/relegation is anathema to those sports as it might mean all that investment going down the Swanee or heaven forbid a small club getting a seat at the top table.
The MLS, the US’s top ‘soccer’ division, is similarly structured so David Beckham had to bankroll Inter Miami in order to gain admission. The original plans included a new stadium that would cost in the region of a cool £800 million. That sort of money proved irresistibly seductive to the MLS and six years after Beckham’s initial interest was declared, they kicked off in March. The reality of ‘Franchise Football’ is that there is no sporting merit, it is all about the money.
The worry is that there are now eight clubs in the Premier League that are owned or part-owned by Americans and while you cannot expect them to fully understand the traditions of the English game, any adoption of the principles of professional sport in the States is undermining the very essence of the sport in this country. Liverpool’s owners, The Fenway Sports Group also run the Boston Red Sox and the Glazers’ sports portfolio includes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was rumoured that David Blitzer and Josh Harris, who own the Philadelphia 76-ers and the New Jersey Devils and who invested in Palace back in 2015 were horrified to learn that the club could be relegated.
Further defence on behalf of “Project Big Picture” highlighted the £250m rescue package for the EFL clubs as part of their manifesto. The very idea that the architects behind this were doing so out of altruism for those struggling further down the pecking order is to put it bluntly, bullshit. This is a power grab on behalf of the two biggest, and most successful, clubs in English football. The £250m was a sop and a thinly disguised one at that. This had been three years in the making, so a long time before the damaging impact of the coronavirus pandemic threatened to send clubs to the wall.
The role of Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, in this tawdry affair is worth consideration. Parry was instrumental in setting up the Premier League as it broke the shackles of the rump that was the Football League and the FA and in so doing created the gap between the haves and have-nots, which has grown exponentially ever since. Parry was a consultant at Ernst and Young before he was drafted in as the first CEO of the Premier League and masterminded the breakaway in 1992. In 1998 he became CEO of Liverpool, a position he held until new owners came to town. Those new owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, just happened to be American. The irony cannot have escaped Parry.
Parry took up his post as EFL chairman a year ago in the full knowledge of what was being cooked up by Liverpool and Manchester United. Unsurprisingly the EFL approved of “Project Big Picture” and surely this smacks of, at the very least, a conflict of interests. Parry was quoted at the time of the announcement as declaring it “a great idea”. No shit, Sherlock.
Without missing a beat Parry continued “Project Big Picture provides a new beginning which will revitalise the football pyramid at all levels,” he said. “This new beginning will reinvigorate clubs in the lower leagues and the communities in which they are based. This is about building on what is good and making the most of what works well in order to benefit the game as a whole, while simultaneously tackling those issues which trouble all of us. This is a blueprint for the future of English football and for everyone who cherishes it.”
One man who certainly does cherish English football is current Grimsby Town manager, Ian Holloway. Holloway has been involved at every level of the game as both player and manager for over forty years so, in stark contrast to John W. Henry and the Glazers, he knows his way around the pyramid and understands the importance of having solid foundations. While some of his more outlandish comments should be taken with a pinch of salt, his response to this proposal was spot on: “Greed is disgusting, and that’s what I’m seeing everywhere. It’s absolutely vile.” Holloway might have come up with a different title for this dastardly scheme: “Operation Billy Big Bollocks.”