OLIVER HOLT: Project Big Stitch-Up told us it's time for a fresh start

OLIVER HOLT: Project Big Stitch-Up and the pygmy leaders who are incapable of working for common good… this failed power grab woke us up to the threat in our midst and told us that it is time for a fresh start

  • It’s time to take the control out of the hands of those who currently run our sport
  • English football deserves people who love the game, not worship money  
  • Premier League went back to saying they only have £50m to help bail-out EFL
  • Every time they play hardball, they bring independent regulation closer

It has been, all in all, rather a sobering few days for English football. Look at what the past week has revealed of the landscape of our national sport and all you see is betrayal and deception and men who are sorry excuses for leaders and dark valleys where only greed grows and a vast plain where self-interest hunts down anything that moves.

Rick Parry, chairman of the English Football League, and Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, fighting, biting and squealing like ferrets in a sack, squabbling over who betrayed who and when. Manchester United and Liverpool, the main protagonists in the doomed Project Big Picture, staring at their feet and wondering, if they keep quiet for long enough, whether we’ll forget any of this ever happened. But we won’t.

We won’t forget because English football deserves better than this. The supporters of the big clubs and the little clubs, they all deserve better than this. They deserve people who love the game, not people who only love money and worship it and crave it and serve it to the exclusion of all else.

No one will forget Manchester United and Liverpool’s doomed Project Big Picture

EFL chief Rick Parry supported the plans that would have afforded more power to the Big Six

‘I don’t believe football can reform itself,’ says Gary Neville and, sadly, it is hard to disagree. It has got to the point now where it is time to take some of the control of the game out of the hands of those who currently run it and help them realise that what we have got in this country, in the Premier League as well as the lower leagues, is worth fighting for as it stands.

We won’t forget that one Premier League chairman, Steve Parish, of Crystal Palace, gazed down on the death throes of the little clubs and said it was not the place of a supermarket to save a corner shop. We won’t forget that the Premier League cooked up a new £14.95 pay-per-view charge as a nice surprise for a nation of viewers struggling in the middle of a national crisis.

We won’t forget that the acquisitiveness at the heart of Project Big Stitch-Up was cloaked in the guise of altruism towards the EFL. The assassins came in saviours’ clothing. There are few less appealing things than a power grab masquerading as a mercy dash but that is exactly what this was. Even the £250million bail-out was on the never-never.

Project Big Stitch-Up would have destroyed the competitiveness of the Premier League. The promise of 25 per cent of its future television earnings to the EFL ignored the fact that those earnings would be considerably reduced when the big clubs sold off their eight biggest matches on their own channels.

Gary Neville was right when he said that football is not capable of reforming itself

The backdoor route to B-teams would have undermined the EFL further. It wasn’t a rescue package. It was a death warrant. No wonder that when people tried to convey the anger they felt about the way those at the top of English football had sought to betray those in the middle and the bottom, they dredged up a series of vivid metaphors from the depths of their disillusion.

The Football Supporters’ Association saw right through Project Big Stitch-Up immediately and called it a ‘sugar-coated cyanide pill’. Others described it as a Trojan Horse, conjuring images of the foot-soldiers of the Big Six leaping from the pages of this grasping, misshapen vision and running amok in the English Football League, slaughtering the weakened and wounded until none remained. 

Others wanted to convey their disgust at the opportunism of the whole thing, the way the proposals had been leaked in the middle of a pandemic, with infections rising, the country reeling and a swathe of our community football clubs on their knees and desperate — absolutely desperate — for a last chance to survive. ‘They will grab it like a drowning man,’ Tory MP Damian Collins said.

The drowning man allusion only tells half the story. The other half is more sinister. Because the truth is the lower leagues have been flailing in the water for some time, in obvious and increasing distress. And all that time, the Premier League has stood on the riverbank with a designer life jacket in its hand, watching and waiting, refusing to help, hoping the crisis will deepen.

Lower league clubs have struggled for ages and the Premier League has done nothing to help

Finally, last week, they threw the rope. But before they pulled the man ashore, they said there would be conditions. The EFL accepted the conditions. No blame should be attached to them for that.  

By then, they understood they really had no choice. They also understood next time the man is in the water — because there’s bound to be a next time — there’s no life jacket and no rope. 

The next day, the whole thing collapsed. As it was always bound to. Parish and the rest of the rump of the Premier League didn’t take too kindly to finding out that the Big Six viewed them with the same disdain they themselves reserved for the corner shop clubs. So, while they still had the power to do so, they closed the whole thing down. Not even United or Liverpool tried to save their monster.

In this farrago, the one thing that puzzles me more than any other is the way that some have sought to lionise Parry. I don’t get it. He worked on something for three years with Liverpool and United, didn’t inform the EFL clubs he is supposed to represent and then stood by his plan when it was leaked at the very moment they had no choice but to accept it.

If the plan had succeeded, it would have enriched the Big Six, destroyed the Premier League and, in time, fatally undermined the EFL. So don’t tell me he’s the hero of the hour. He isn’t. If he really thinks Project Big Stitch-Up would have worked for the good of the English game as a whole, then he’s not part of the solution. He’s part of the problem.

There is a light amid this gloom, though. If the cynicism of Project Big Stitch-Up told us anything, it was that it is time for a fresh start. English football isn’t working. Its leadership is not fit for purpose. It is run by a pygmy army of I’m All Right Jacks who have proven themselves time and again incapable of working for the common good. It is moribund. It is bankrupt.

Accrington owner Andy Holt has long called for an independent regulator to govern football

On Thursday, some of those who advocate change found a new voice speaking for them. Andy Holt, the owner of League One Accrington Stanley, has long advocated the creation of an independent regulator to govern football and that idea formed the core of a manifesto for change called ‘Saving Our Beautiful Game’, put forward by a group of influential, articulate voices headed by Neville and including former FA chairman, David Bernstein, Olympian Denise Lewis, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham and former FA executive director David Davies.

The launch of the movement could scarcely have come at a better time. Several EFL clubs are teetering on the brink and the Premier League, which spent £1.2bn on transfers during the summer window, has gone back to maintaining it only has £50m to help with a bail-out. Every time they play hardball, they bring independent regulation closer.

Many EFL clubs feel especially disillusioned with Clarke and his apparent readiness to sanction B-teams and the creation of a Premier League 2. ‘If anything describes English football, it is League One and League Two,’ Leeds manager Marcelo Bielsa said. ‘It is the nucleus, the heart, the essence of football in this country.’

‘In another industry,’ Andy Holt said, ‘the Premier League would be reported to a competition commission but football doesn’t work like that. It’s another reason we need an independent regulator. 

This last week, everybody has seen the way they operate in English football and it wasn’t very nice. But we have to have hope for what the future holds. They say the hour is darkest before the dawn, don’t they?’

So maybe Project Big Stitch-Up was indeed a seminal moment for the English game, not because it destroyed our football, as it might have done, but because it finally woke us up to the threat in our midst.

Premier League has gone back to maintaining it only has £50m to help EFL with a bail-out

Euros must be held in one country

The last vestige of Michel Platini’s tainted legacy as UEFA president may be about to disappear. His plan to spread the finals of Euro 2020 around Europe felt like a half-baked logistical nightmare at the time. 

In the era of Covid-19, to try to see it through would be utter madness. There are suggestions the tournament may be allocated to one country, which is the way it always should have been.

Mount criticism is senseless

I admire Jack Grealish and I think he makes a creative difference to England but I fail to see why that means Mason Mount should be deluged with criticism. 

I’ve seen plenty of Mount and he is a bright, intelligent player who can change a game with a piece of skill — and he’s in form. You can be an advocate for Grealish without making Mount collateral damage.

Jack Grealish is a wonderful player but why does that mean Mason Mount should be criticised?

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