James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The moment Bramall Lane's hierarchy were probably overcome with rage
One can imagine, after making the slowest of slow starts to the new Premier League season, the expressions on the faces of Sheffield United’s coaching staff, players and directors, when news of ‘Project Big Picture’ - or an attempted coup as it has been labelled in some quarters - first broke over the weekend.
Entering Sunday’s game against fellow strugglers Fulham still searching for their first points of the campaign, and hopefully aware of the fact it takes a good four or five years to truly become established at the highest level, owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and manager Chris Wilder are unlikely to have been engulfed by a overwhelming sense of joy when they discovered Manchester United, Liverpool and Rick Parry, one time chief executive at Anfield and now chairman of the English Football League, had proposed a series of reforms to the game’s structure which included a reduction in the number of top-flight clubs. Even if that would only happen sometime in the future.
I use the word ‘unlikely’ because, at the time of writing, United have remained silent on the issue. Well, publicly at least. If the rumour mill is correct, no other PL member simply nonchalantly shrugged their shoulders when the trio’s big blue sky idea was first made public. “The big six are using Covid for a power grab,” an unnamed source at West Ham complained to the BBC. “If this goes through, over time they will just use more and more for themselves.” They were talking, as football battles its way through the chaos caused by the country’s response to the pandemic, about political muscle and money.
As is often the case in situations such as this, things aren’t black and white. There are shades of grey. Who, for example, could oppose the notion that lower league teams, many of whom are teetering on the verge of extinction as theft are forced to compete behind closed doors, are in need of greater financial assistance? Or the desire to hand them a quarter of future television rights deals? Even scrapping parachute payments, not that either The Glazer family or John W Henry probably think their respective assets will ever be in receipt of one, has its merits.
What doesn’t, however, is the manner in which Project Big Picture was conceived - being cooked-up in private, which not only shows a complete lack of respect to their fellow owners and administrators but also effectively concedes they plan to railroad it through. And, if you analyse some of the small print, the bits of the paperwork which didn’t generate many headlines, how those aspects its architects knew would curry favour with everyone who loves the sport are being used to disguise a much more nefarious plot - the notion that nine clubs should be given “special” voting rights because of their status within the PL. To put it in simpler language, the big guns eventually want to do as they please and sod the rest. This isn’t a dilution of power. It is a mechanism to eventually concentrate it in fewer hands, wrapped up in a cloak of charity and generosity. Those on the breadline, quite understandably, can’t afford to be too picky about details which might not affect them until 10 years or so down the track. By which time, if the current situation continues, they might cease to exist anyway. It would be a bit like the ruler of a war torn nation plotting how to best build new houses while the bombs are still falling on its towns, villages and cities.
One also suspects a government which has, to all intents and purposes, tightened the noose around the industry’s neck with its increasingly ridiculous and slavish devotion to those who argue fans can’t be safely accommodated inside open air stadia, will be delighted with the actions of Liverpool, Manchester United and Parry. Oh, and the way in which they have been received by teams in League One and League Two. Why, because it effectively lets them off the hook. It shifts the focus from the fact they have refused, unlike with other blue chip businesses, to offer football any sort of meaningful financial support. Well, its leading four divisions at least. Those in the upper echelons are rightly criticised at times, particularly when it comes to helping out those less fortunate than themselves. But Sir Phillip Green, the chairman of Arcadia Group, was allowed to take advantage of the furlough scheme and, let’s be right, he hasn’t exactly been a paragon of moral virtue in recent years. Football though, as Health Secretary Matt Hancock demonstrated at the beginning of lockdown, is always viewed as a convenient whipping boy by those who parade along the corridors of power. England’s leading clubs have basically been told to fend for themselves, with seemingly no recognition that they employ thousands of people in often low paid jobs. By not being offered a state rescue package, they are basically being told they don’t count.
There does need to be a full and frank discussion about how money is shared throughout the game. But not in this bullying manner or insidious parameters set out by those behind Project Big Picture, which thankfully appears to have been shelved. Or should that have been Project Let Football’s Establishment Eventually Do As It Damn Well Pleases? As is often the case with schemes such as this, it’s not why they begin, it’s where they can lead.