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Sport

After Premier League ceasefire - wooing or war?

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Seventy-two hours after their radical plans for major changes in English football became public, the American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United were given a blunt reminder on Wednesday of the simple reality of the very power structure they have sought to overturn.

FILE PHOTO: Soccer Football - Premier League - Liverpool v Chelsea - Anfield, Liverpool, Britain - July 22, 2020 Liverpool's Jordan Henderson with teammates celebrates with the trophy after winning the Premier League Pool via REUTERS/Phil Noble

“Project Big Picture” called for the biggest six clubs in the Premier League, along with three other long-term members, to be given “special voting rights” that would effectively put them in command of the world’s most commercially successful league -- and leave the rest as second-class passengers.

But the obvious problem was that in order to bring that power shift about, 14 votes out of 20 clubs were needed and unsurprisingly the Turkeys didn’t vote for Christmas.

Given such a clear and obvious obstacle, the plans to reduce the size of the league from 20 to 18 and hand a bigger share of revenue and power to the biggest clubs, were destined to fail, and the question is why were obviously intelligent businessmen engaged in such a Kamikaze mission?

The plan’s backers appear to have badly miscalculated how public opinion and the government would react to their proposals but even as they lick their wounds, the indications are that they are ready to fight on.

Sources close to the project argue that the Premier League’s announcement of a new strategic review of the game’s structures and finances would not have happened without their efforts and they believe that process will allow them to push forward with their proposals.

Indeed, far from being a definitive end to talk of power-shifts and even breakaways, Wednesday’s rejection of the project, is likely just a ceasefire ahead of future battles.

But if the big clubs are to get their way on their main issues of priority -- a smaller league with less games and more power and money for the “star attractions” - they will now realise they face a formidable opposition.

It was clear from the involvement of Football League chairman Rick Parry that the sales pitch would focus on the proposals as a way to deal with the financial troubles facing the 72 clubs in the three divisions below the Premier League.

In terms of Parry’s constituency, the EFL clubs, the promise of a 250 million-pound “rescue fund” and a six-fold increase in their share of revenues were unsurprisingly music to their ears.

“Project Big Picture provides a new beginning which will revitalise the football pyramid at all levels. This new beginning will reinvigorate clubs in the lower leagues and the communities in which they are based,” Parry enthused on Sunday after the details were leaked.

STRUGGLING TEAMS

Given public opinion tends to be sympathetic to small clubs and the government had previously urged the Premier League to help out the struggling teams in the COVID crisis, Parry and the project’s instigators were banking on a groundswell of support for their plans.

But while the Premier League’s condemnation of the plan was predictable, Parry appeared surprised that the government immediately denounced the proposal as a “backroom deal”.

The media chose to focus on the “power grab” aspect of the proposals while the main fans’ group, the FSA, portrayed the help for the lower-leagues as a “sugar-coated cyanide pill offered up by billionaire owners who do not understand or care about our football culture”.

On Tuesday, the EFL put supportive club chairmen in front of the media and they expressed their enthusiasm for the plans, praised Parry’s leadership and urged the Premier League’s smaller clubs to think of the good of the game as a whole.

The EFL clubs have no say in the Premier League’s running, however, and had no vote in Wednesday’s meeting.

It was a situation which recalled Joseph Stalin’s response, near the close of World War Two, to being asked to take the Vatican’s views on board. The Soviet leader replied; “How many divisions does the Pope have?”

Those who do wield the power to make change, the majority of small-to-medium clubs in the top flight, were precisely those who stood to lose the most.

It would be no surprise if John W Henry and Joel Glazer, the American owners of Liverpool and Manchester United, now set out to woo the ambitious middle-layers of the Premier League who fancy they might one day be among the elite.

The only alternative, other than giving in, is the “nuclear option”, which Parry so noticeably refused to comment on -- the threat of a breakaway and the destruction of the league itself.

Reporting by Simon Evans, editing by Ed Osmond

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