Premier League clubs were set to debate radical plans to restructure English football at a shareholders’ meeting on Wednesday as Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden acknowledged the proposals as “Project Power Grab”.
The “Project Big Picture” plan, backed by Liverpool and Manchester United, has been criticised by the government, Football Association, Premier League and fan groups.
Under the proposals, the number of teams in the English top flight would be cut from 20 to 18 and the League Cup would be scrapped. There would be controversial changes to voting rights and a substantial financial settlement for the struggling English Football League (EFL).
Representatives of the Premier League clubs will have the chance to debate the issue in the open for the first time during a virtual get-together on Wednesday.
Speaking to Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, Dowden said the proposals “tended towards a closed shop” in favour of the so-called “Big Six” clubs—Liverpool, United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham.
He said the plan, championed by EFL chairman Rick Parry, was “a distraction at best”, adding: “I hope the EFL will stop being distracted by this latest wheeze.”
Asked for his view on Parry specifically, Dowden said: “I would have preferred that at the end of this that, rather than reading about this Project Power Grab as you rightly put it, instead I was reading how they had come to a deal to secure the future of football. I think that would be a much better use of people’s time.”
Speaking about the idea of a Premier League bailout for EFL clubs, who are facing financial catastrophe due to the coronavirus crisis, Dowden referred to the fact that top-flight clubs had spent more than £1 billion ($1.3 billion) in the summer transfer window.
“The money is there. The question I have to ask myself is: ‘Given there is that much money in football, could we seriously turn around to a pensioner… and say to her that some of her taxes would have to go to support this?’”
Dowden’s comments come after Football Association chairman Greg Clarke said a breakaway from the top flight was wielded “as a threat” during talks over the divisive plans.
In a letter to the FA council, which convenes on Thursday, he said he had taken part in initial discussions before walking away when he felt the aim had become “the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few clubs, with a breakaway league mooted as a threat”.
Clarke warned the FA could use its so-called “golden share” as a trump card if it felt the wider interests of the game were being compromised and suggested any breakaway competition would not receive the necessary sanctions from the governing body.
“We, the FA board and council, have to ensure that any changes would be to the long-term benefit of the whole of football and we have substantial controls to help ensure that the best interests of the game are served by any new proposals,” he said.
Support among the 72 EFL clubs appeared to be soaring after separate divisional meetings led by Parry on Tuesday, although the plans have reportedly been less well received by most Premier League clubs outside the elite names.
Christian Purslow, chief executive of Premier League club Aston Villa, indicated his opposition to Project Big Picture before the shareholders’ meeting.
“I don’t think we should give too much credence to this particular plan,” he told the BBC. “I think a much broader, long-term plan for football is what I would expect to come from the Premier League.”
The Football Supporters’ Association has described the proposals as a “sugar-coated cyanide pill offered up by billionaire owners who do not understand or care about our football culture”.