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21 October 2020updated 29 Jul 2021 8:38am

English football is at war with itself: its foundations are unstable and its future is uncertain

Covid-19 has accelerated football’s problems, but the widening financial inequalities and the absence of accountability or transparency pre-dated the pandemic.

By Jonathan Liew

Project Big Picture, the audacious attempt to seize English football’s levers of power on behalf of its biggest clubs, took three years to birth and just three days to kill. On 11 October, the Daily Telegraph reported that Liverpool and Manchester United had been drawing up a secret blueprint for the future of the game. Under their plans, the Premier League would share 25 per cent of its broadcast revenues with the smaller clubs in the English Football League (EFL), many of whom are fighting for survival amid the Covid-19 crisis.

It was a particularly devious form of catastrophe capitalism: ruthless self-interest dressed up as vital alms. For in return, the country’s six biggest clubs – Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur – would enjoy “special voting rights”: effectively, the ability to run English football and its revenue streams in perpetuity. Crucially, the plan had the support of the EFL chairman (and former Liverpool chief executive) Rick Parry. Nevertheless, by 14 October Project Big Picture was dead: torpedoed by the smaller Premier League clubs and overwhelming public scorn. The Football Supporters’ Association described it as a “sugar-coated cyanide pill”.

In its stead, chaos reigns. The divisions between the “big six” and the rest of the Premier League have been laid bare; the Premier League and the EFL are at loggerheads; so, too, are Parry and Greg Clarke, his counterpart at the FA. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for potentially dozens of EFL clubs with wages to pay, no income for the foreseeable future and – at the time of writing – no agreement on even the most temporary bailout package. Welcome to English football in 2020, a place of rancour and discord, of grand designs and nefarious schemes, of broken promises and empty threats: a game at war with itself.

Covid-19 has been the accelerator rather than the cause. The widening financial inequalities in the English game, the absence of accountability or transparency in its power structures and the increasing sense of alienation between the game and its public all comfortably pre-dated the pandemic. Yet the removal of crowds and the consequent blaze engulfing the entire sport has added a note of shrill existential urgency to these already pressing questions. Lasting and meaningful change has never felt more conceivable, more likely, more straightforwardly necessary. The question, as ever, is what form this change will take – and who will benefit.

Ideas that would never have been considered before the pandemic are now on the table. Project Big Picture may have been driven by largely malign intentions, but many of its proposals were sound: a genuinely progressive redistribution of wealth, the abolition of the unloved and redundant League Cup, and salary caps for the free-spending Championship, where wages alone now constitute more than 100 per cent of total revenue. At the more rapacious end of the scale there was talk of breakaways and secessions, of the big clubs throwing their lot in with a European super-league and leaving everyone else to sort out their own problems.

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Who can put English football back together again? A more competent and foresighted government might have peered into this swirling power vacuum and spotted an opportunity to bang some heads together, and perhaps even win a few votes in the process. Instead it has dragged its feet over a bailout, arguing vociferously that the Premier League must “play its part”, as if three decades of entrenched avarice could be undone with a strongly worded press release. The feeling within the game is that the government sees this as essentially a PR issue, a game of headline management rather than one of policy and legislation.

Much of the government’s response has been delegated to the cheery but essentially invertebrate Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, a man who looks like his nose is secretly eating the rest of his face. A cricket fan with little personal affinity with football, Dowden’s watery grasp of detail was never more evident than in a recent conference call with major sporting bodies to discuss the return of fans to stadiums, in which he was informed by Parry that two-thirds of EFL fans travel to games by car. “That’s really surprising,” he mused.

Meanwhile, the notion that audiences will simply persist with this fractured, flawed product is about to be severely tested. Television ratings for live sport in the United States have plummeted across the board. Sky Sports’s average Premier League audience is slightly down this season, even if the demand for big games is still high. For decades football’s financial model has been built on new frontiers, new audiences, perpetual growth. What if these orthodoxies no longer apply?

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It’s anyone’s guess. The foundations of English football have never felt more fragile, its structures never more dysfunctional, its future never more contested. What’s at stake here is the very idea of a national game – an ecosystem, a pyramid, a collective pursuit – as opposed to an accretion of disparate sectional interests. Fans of big clubs seem increasingly indifferent to the fate of smaller ones. Fans of smaller clubs seem increasingly disdainful of the clout and greed of the Premier League. Nobody seems very bothered at all about the England team.

Is this still an organic whole, in any meaningful sense? Even if the apocalypse of mass bankruptcies and mass insurrection fails to materialise, the game that emerges from this crisis will be a more atomised, more divided, more bewildering place. Football will obviously survive. But its capacity to unite us, to act as a shared space, a shared story – a big picture, if you like – may not. 

This article appears in the 21 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic