It’s squeaky bum time for the English game as the Covid-19 crisis bites and the football pyramid creaks on the verge of collapse. You can almost hear the collective cry from park players to fans of Cambridge and Carlisle and all facets of the game in between.
This is football’s Eminem moment, one chance to capture the future of the game or let it slip.
At stake: the livelihoods of thousands of players and club staff, the sporting outlet of a huge number of supporters and volunteers with the associated toll in physical and mental health.
The cost: the financial and community toll of the sporting hearts of countless towns, cities and villages ripped out.
Over 150 years of football moments on the verge of being decimated because the game just couldn’t pull together when it mattered.
The results are too awful to think about. The people’s game without the people that built it.
This week, Gary Neville and former FA chief David Bernstein were among a group of signatories that launched the ‘Saving the Beautiful Game’ manifesto, the most comprehensive set of measures tabled in this period. The ‘Project Big Picture’ plans, said to be the work of Liverpool owner John W Henry and Man Utd’s Joel Glazer, was tantamount to trying to fix a leaking sink by pouring in more water and withholding the vital parts. But this gets to the crux of the matter with the wider level reform the game has needed for decades.
The main idea for an independent regulator for the sport isn’t a new one but its time has come. There is no greater evidence that football cannot govern itself than the events of the past few days: backroom dealings being uncovered by the press which bring the English game further and further into disrepute.
An earlier version of Project Big Picture, said to have been contributed to by FA chairman Greg Clarke, pointed to the ‘long and successful commercialisation of English football’. While the game’s unbridled corporatisation has undeniably been long its success is debatable with untold damage wrought on clubs such as Macclesfield Town, Bury, Wigan, Blackpool, Coventry City, Bolton Wanderers, Northampton Town and Hereford United to name but a few.
As per @SamWallaceTel @Tom_Morgs @ben_rumsby excl, here’s the Project Big Picture ‘discussion paper’ that EFL chief Rick Parry claims FA Chair Greg Clarke “produced” earlier this year, including the idea of Prem League 2, & B teams. Has told clubs that Clarke “initiated process” pic.twitter.com/LJ4Y1daH6H
— Dan Roan (@danroan) October 15, 2020
At the centre of English football there is an inherent contradiction between ambition in sporting and commercial terms and the dysfunction of how the game has been left to run. It’s not good for sport to have a grassroots funding crisis and clubs going to the wall, left right and centre. It’s not good for business to have clubs gambling on promotion to a league which corrals too much money and talent and to have supporters, one of the game’s most important stakeholders, largely voiceless.
The Germans are smart about this, utilising a licensing system for club governance and a 50+1 ownership model that puts club members in the driving seat. Neville and Bernstein’s plans borrow this smart, modern, German approach from a country that is an economic and sporting global powerhouse.
Of course, ‘Saving The Beautiful Game’ does not alter the need for a sensible bailout, one without the unacceptable caveats of control in the form of Premier League voting changes. What’s needed is less Premier League, not more and a gradual rebalancing of the game which sees top tier teams at the pinnacle of the pyramid because of their sporting and business best practice, not through an artificial position which harms the collective.
We need to get away from the collateral damage system whereby clubs are dispensable and start seeing each team, be it a Sunday League side or an EFL one, as the community assets that they are. Arsene Wenger was misguided in his opinion that there are too many clubs in the EFL; there has been too little governance and that is what Neville and Bernstein are finally addressing.
This game, this bloody English game which is the dewy-eyed envy of the world for its history and its fan culture is what’s at stake. The Neville/Bernstein plan is the last-minute chance to do the right thing and allow our beautiful, troubled sport to go to extra time.
Tom Reed is on Twitter