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OPINION: Bolton see Project Big Picture from other side of the fence

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Football scoffed 12 years ago when late Bolton Wanderers chairman Phil Gartside suggested radical change was necessary at the top level of the English game to prevent clubs going out of business.

Accused of trying to create a ‘closed shop’ – one which admittedly at the time included his own club – the Premier League Two plan never went much further than the coffee table discussion document it was designed to be.

The more audacious aspects of Gartside’s idea were splattered across the national press a few days after they had appeared in this very paper. At the top of the list was the potential of Scottish giants Celtic and Rangers joining a new two-tier structure, followed by the controversial view that relegation could be scrapped altogether with clubs like Wanderers safeguarded at the expense of Southampton, Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Sheffield Wednesday, Brighton, Burnley, Bournemouth and Co, who were all the other side of the dividing line at that stage in history.

If that was not enough to get people frothing at the mouth, Gartside also said he had changed his views on salary capping, proposing that wage restrictions were vital if the economy of the game was going to be kept in check.

Looking back now, Gartside’s paper was a foreshadowing of the carnage to come, both for Wanderers and the game in general.

Bolton dropped out of the Premier League in 2012 and gambled on an immediate return by keeping a huge wage budget fuelled by parachute payments but failed to re-join the elite just as the broadcasting rights were increasing at unimaginable rates.

Gartside sadly passed away in early 2016, shortly before the club dropped into the third tier for the first time since the early seventies, and folk in these parts need no reminder that rock bottom still was some way from being discovered.

According to the EFL: “The gap between the Premier League and the English Football League has become a chasm which has become unbridgeable for clubs transitioning between the EFL and Premier League. In 2018/19, Championship clubs received £146m in EFL distributions and Premier League solidarity payments. This compares with £1.58 billion received by the bottom 14 Premier League clubs - 11 times as much.

“At the same time, parachute payments received by the eight recently relegated clubs totalled £246m. This represents one-third of the total Championship turnover and creates a major distortion that impacts the League annually.

“In an effort to achieve promotion from very small media monies in the Championship to extraordinary sums at the bottom of the Premier League, Championship clubs spent 107 per cent of their income on wages last season, a figure that is unsustainable by any analysis but by no means a new phenomenon. The figure has been 99 per cent or above in each of the last four seasons. Consequently, our clubs incurred operating losses of £382m last season.”

The gap Gartside had warned about, however self-servingly, manifested itself over the next decade to create an unworkable economy – and one which has been laid even more vulnerable by the global pandemic.

On Sunday, an exclusive in the Telegraph outlined Project Big Picture, the details of which made some Gartside’s suggestions look positively altruistic.

Whereas the former Bolton chairman’s paper had been compiled as a means to promote discussion among top-flight owners, and did not have the backing to instigate meaningful change, this collaboration between EFL chairman Rick Parry and the traditional powerhouses of Manchester United and Liverpool has been presented in the form of a rescue package designed to save the football pyramid from the financial ravages of coronavirus and stadia without fans.

The plan pledged a much-needed £250 million bail-out for EFL clubs, without which it is almost certain that some will go bust. There is also an agreement to provide 25 per cent of future Premier League earnings in a more evenly distributed fashion, which as things stand, would mean around £2.2m a year for a League Two club like Wanderers.

Grassroots football will also be boosted to the tune of £100m via a “gift” to the Football Association, who have themselves reported heavy losses during 2020.

But all this comes at a cost. A considerable one, in fact.

It has been proposed that the Premier League is cut to 18 teams and that parachute payments are scrapped, along with competitions deemed unnecessary by the elite clubs like the League Cup and the Community Shield.

A re-jigged promotion play-off will potentially involve the third-bottom Premier League club and third, fourth and fifth in the Championship.

Seasons are to start later to enable top clubs to have longer pre-seasons and more lucrative foreign friendlies and – take note – eight games a season are to be shown directly via a top-flight club’s website, and not through the traditional broadcasting partners.

It is also proposed that the voting structure is changed in the Premier League to move away from the 14-club majority and give special status to the ‘Big Six’ – Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Spurs – plus long-serving Everton, West Ham and Southampton.

Initial response to the plan has been fierce. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport denigrated Parry, Manchester United and Liverpool for organising a deal behind people’s back, and various fans groups have accused them of a ‘power grab’ and of taking unfair advantage of football’s precarious finances.

But for all the bluff and bluster, nobody yet knows exactly how key aspects of this radical plan will work. That its broad details were leaked out in a national newspaper does not reflect well – especially on Parry - and has added to the general air of mistrust, yet many sensible people at this level of the game are treating it with cautious optimism.

Wanderers have yet to comment officially on the plan but it is understood they are generally in favour with the new financial redistribution being suggested by Parry, which will inevitably come with some concessions to the top flight clubs.

Clubs in the EFL are not in a good bargaining position but many see this as the best opportunity since the dawn of the Premier League for a more level playing field to be created.

Wanderers have been on the richer side of the fence, and Gartside’s plan had selfish elements that would have made it more difficult for them to be nudged from the top table. From their current position in League Two, however, their target is sustainability and having already expressed support for salary capping in the summer it would be a surprise to see the club’s current ownership rail against Parry’s plan.

Sustainable is subjective word where life outside the Premier League is concerned and in order for any plan to be successful it must also address the overspending which has become commonplace, particularly in the Championship.

The need for change is obvious, particularly given the uncertainty on when fans will be allowed back into stadia. And thus Parry and the EFL have accelerated a plan which was probably at the same theoretical stage as Gartside’s just eight months ago.

This would be the most radical shake-up in English football since 1992, when Parry was the chief executive of the new Premier League. His claim that the transition “didn’t work out too badly” was in poor taste considering the ridiculous financial issues which have been allowed to develop ever since – but there can be little doubt the repackage has created the most commercially successful competition in history, albeit one which has not benefited the pyramid as a whole.

Wanderers have dreams of returning there again someday. And it may be argued that their chances of doing so are increased if the financial landscape is levelled.

It is hard to dispute, however, that areas of Project Big Picture that warrant serious examination.

Should the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool be allowed to cherry-pick TV games to screen on their own platforms, it would surely harm future broadcasting deals. And wouldn’t that then whittle down benefits further down the pyramid?

Clubs outside the Big Six or nine will have the biggest gripe, losing two places in the Premier League plus the revenue two home games would bring. While Manchester United can boost the coffers with a lucrative Far East tour in their extended summer, could the same be said for Brighton or Burnley?

Traditionalist will hate losing the League Cup, and rightly so. Fewer tears will be shed for the Community Shield.

But the biggest question mark is one of longevity. How long does this agreement stand for and what are the prospects that the footballing superpowers could further exploit their new powers down the line?

Project Big Picture is a power move, of course it is. Yet with no viable alternative it may be a case of thrashing out the best deal possible.

It is for the EFL clubs now to look at the fine print and assess whether it serves in their best interest.

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Ten Bobsworth

El Hadji Diouf
El Hadji Diouf

I don't always agree with Damian Collins but I do on this.

Its a power grab of English football by foreign owners.

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

Need to see what's actually on the table, but clubs like ours need a deal which will not only ensure economic survival but guarantees no further barriers to achievement are put in place. Small clubs have to believe they have the opportunity to get to the top and there has to be a clear progression path.


Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse

So the PL doesn't want to save football. Simple message a la Gartside.....we're currently on top and we're going to stay here.
Well that didn't work out too well for us did it Phil?
So what next for the EFL?
I hope that given the "new world" they should consider a "real football" campaign, build a following, hike the TV rights and redistribute the wealth.
It's about perception - small local teams dominate the UK geographically - maybe 100 times the PL - so there's mileage in getting folk to support their village/town team on many levels.

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