Project Big Picture Becomes Project Long Grass

by | Oct 14, 2020

This particular house of cards only took the lightest of breezes to fall over sideways, then. Following a meeting of the Premier League this afternoon – at which fireworks, by all accounts, were expected, but never came – it was confirmed that Project Big Picture has been punted unceremoniously into touch.

It had been a busy enough few days, though. The civil war into which professional football in England looked as though it might be descending had been dispiriting for a number of different reasons, but at the top of that list was the slew of disinformation and half-truths that were, by yesterday, being slung around. If you ever wondered what your football club thinks of you, the supporter, you now have your answer. You’re an irrelevance, a non-person who may at best be considered a walking, talking wallet, to be hung upside-down and emptied at the turnstile every other week. Really, there was no other reasonable conclusion to draw from the way in which EFL clubs – with some honorable exceptions – reacted to Sunday’s detonation.

First of all, though, let’s rewind a little and consider where we were by the close of play on Sunday evening. The Project Big Picture proposals had been leaked and had been subject to pretty loud condemnation. However, what was already clear was that some strange bedfellows were already starting to form. In the Guardian on Sunday, David Conn wrote an article which seemed almost perversely out of kilter with his usual positions on such matters. We’ll come back to the Guardian’s apparent editorial position on this particular story later, but the equivocal tone of his article drew criticism from some quarters, including bemusement from some who have have known his writing for a long time.

By the end of Sunday evening, though, it was starting to look as though there was no way that this idea could ever get off the ground. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport took the time out from their Sunday to issue a statement condemning it – “Sustainability, integrity and fair competition are absolutely paramount and anything that may undermine them is deeply troubling”, while the Premier League itself went even further, stating that, “In the Premier League’s view, a number of the individual proposals in the plan published today could have a damaging impact on the whole game.”

Meanwhile, as the fine print of the proposal started to be unpicked, it became increasingly clear that the ‘generosity’ of the ‘Big Six’ clubs was, predictably enough, not all that the breathless headlines had indicated. The £250m that would be given to EFL clubs, for example, was really nothing like a “gift” as most of us would understand it. Instead, this amount of money was to be a ‘prepayment’ to clubs, to be offset against their future share of television rights. With clubs being freed up to sell some of their matches themselves by pay-per-view, there was no guarantee of how much might be left over afterwards, especially when considering that the proposals themselves would have given the ‘Big Six’ the right to unilaterally change the rules a little further down the line.

On top of this, there were also further issues with this “redistribution.’ Cutting the number of clubs in the Premier League from twenty to eighteen, when coupled with the idea of abandoning parachute payments for relegated clubs, meant that it probably wouldn’t cost the biggest clubs very much money at all, whilst limiting future television revenues for EFL clubs to domestic rights only, meaning that international television rights would be excluded, alongside pay-per-view revenues. Anybody hoping for this particular proposal to have any affect whatsoever on the gap between the richest and the rest would be best advised to look elsewhere for comfort.

As the hours passed, however, it started to feel as though the desperation for money, money, money had become so great amongst the owners of EFL clubs that they would trash the game in order to get hold of this loot. A return on their ‘investments’? Good faith desperation at an impending calamity? Possibly neither, possibly both, but it was becoming impossible to tell. Improbable stories started to emerge into the media, of Manchester United and Liverpool threatening to leave the Premier League, and of the FA lumbering to life, blowing of some its cobwebs whilst glowering at the interlopers.

By yesterday, though, the proposal’s proponents were spinning so hard that telling the truth was starting to become obvious. Jez Moxey, the CEO of Burton Albion, is a man who’s made a habit of falling upwards throughout his career. While at Wolverhampton Wanderers, he was the subject of a 13,000 signature position over his decision to agree a shirt sponsorship deal with payday loan company the Money Shop. The club ditched the sponsors upon promotion into the Premier League in 2018. He took the CEO position at Norwich City in July 2016, but quit his position six months later following a breakdown in relations with Delia Smith. The club was subsequently criticised for paying Moxey £712,000 as severance pay, despite him only having been at Carrow Road for six months. Five months later in July 2017, though, Moxey was announced as the new Chief Executive Officer of Burton Albion. Burton were relegated from the EFL Championship at the end of the 2017/18 season.

Moxey claimed, falsely, that there was “unanimous” support from League One clubs for the proposals, only for the Lincoln City chairman Clive Nates to speak up and state that Moxey’s claim of unanimity was a “blatant lie” from Jez Moxey” and asking the (not unreasonable, considering the false claims being made on his behalf) question, “Was he asleep when I expressed my grave concerns at the meeting over this diabolical power grab?” Accrington Stanley’s Andy Holt had also already expressed his deep unease with it all.
Equally troublingly, this fake unanimity was faithfully reproduced in the media, including in the Guardian (again) and The Times. The urgency of a bailout notwithstanding, it is curious that neither of these two outlets did anything but faithfully reproduce Moxey’s lies rather than ask, “Okay, but why does it feel as though some club chairmen are trying to rush this through without a great deal of scrutiny?”, or even checking with other clubs in the division to establish whether this was the case.

The FA (albeit after some wheezing) sounding something like a regulator was just the trailer, though. Main billing went to The Return of the Zombie Chairman. You could have been forgiven for believing that Peter Ridsdale, chastened by his experience at Leeds United, had slunk away to retirement, but nothing could really be further from the truth. Ridsdale became the Preston North End chairman in December 2011, but in October of the following year he was disqualified from acting as a company director until April 2020 after an inquiry by the Insolvency Service found that Ridsdale had diverted payments by football clubs totalling £347,000, due to his sports consultancy firm WH Sports Group Limited, into his personal bank account.

Astonishingly, Ridsdale just carried on in his role at Preston as though nothing had happened following this with the strange claim that ‘I am chairman of football at Preston North End but am not a director, nor at any time have I sought to be one’ , and this seems to have been sufficient to satisfy the EFL. Eight years on, and despite never having really gone away, he was back, slowly emerging from the relative shadows to act as some sort of Unifying Voice of the Championship Overlords.

A couple of other clubs did issue comments stating that they did not wish to be involved in this – Tranmere Rovers were particularly vocal on social media – but what seemed to become forgotten in the middle of this meleé was the fact that, in the overall scheme of things, what the EFL club wanted was of little to no consequence because, put curtly, they are not where the power lays in English football. The raising of the dead of the FA as a governing body was one thing, but the reaction of the Premier League clubs would be all-important.

And they were never going to pass it. Amid the increasingly wild rumours that had been circulating, the most absurd of all was the idea that somehow the other fourteen Premier League clubs had been brought onside over this, but lo and behold, this afternoon, the proposals were kicked into touch. Indeed, everything about the proposal, the way in which it was leaked, the arguments that were made in its favour and the fall guys was such an odd combination that one could be persuaded that all here has not quite been as it seems.

Everybody knew that while the issue of reforming the game in this country is important, it didn’t need to be decided within 72 hours of the leak. So why the hurry? £50m in grants and interest-free loans to League One and League Two has been granted on top of the £27.2m that the Premier League has advanced the two EFL divisions from future solidarity payments. One could almost be forgiven beginning to wonder whether this was all no more than a crowbar being used to force a door open and gauge what both clubs and the broader public will or won’t tolerate. What the Premier League collectively could push harder on, and what they should prune back.

With a growing number of voices now calling for an independent regulator for the game in this country, it’s unlikely that either the Premier League or the EFL will be particularly slowing the pace on their discussions. It may even be the only chance they get to stop that from happening. Former FA chairman Lord Bernstein’s grouping of Gary Neville, Andy Burnham, former sports minister Helen Grant, Olympic athlete Denise Lewis, sports lawyer Greg Scott and Mervyn Day, the former governor of the Bank of England, is just as eclectic as any other group involved in this entire saga, but they’ve been working on their plan for the last six months, and it will certainly be worth listening to what they’ve got to say.

Whether the last 72 hours have been part of some attempt at a Machiavellian plot or merely 92 chickens with their heads cut off, though, there remain loose ends to tie up, here. If everyone knew that this wouldn’t get through the Premier League (as they surely must have done), why was it pushed forward? Panic? Could it even have been set up to fail? Because when you look back upon the last 72 hours, that starts to look as plausible as anything else. If nothing else, at least they’ve demonstrated the value of a single regulator for the game in this country. At this moment, though, we shouldn’t forget that the avarice that underpinned the very notion that Project Big Picture is just prevalent within football in this country this evening as it was this morning, or on Sunday morning. Whatever proposals come next may be better, or they may even find a way to be even worse. They should be closely scrutinised, regardless.