Blog: Save the body. Sell the soul. How 'Project Big Picture' will affect the North East's Football Clubs

By Simon O'Rourke, Sport Correspondent

Always remember one universal truth: there's no such thing as a free lunch. The Big 6 are not benevolent folk who just want to help the little people. "Project Big Picture" is not philanthropy and it's not charity. It's a simple transaction: We give you money, you give us power.Any take on this is personal: a blog is inherently one's own personal views, but on an issue as emotive as this I think it's important to point out this is just my view. It's not necessarily the view of my employer and almost certainly not the view of any of the football clubs I cover. So...What England's elite clubs are proposing would change our football landscape forever. There would be no walking this back, it would be a fait accompli.It would affect everyone. It would affect all our clubs in different ways. Most obviously, it would affect Newcastle United and its never-ending takeover story, more of which in a moment. But first, consider the biggest question of all. What if this is the only way? What if the Government won't step in to save English Football? What if the only way to save the majority of the EFL is to get behind this plan? What if they've got the game over a barrel?That's the question that'll keep you up at night. 

The first thing that strikes you about the proposals of "Project Big Picture" is that a lot of it actually makes a lot of sense. One of the headline grabbers is, in the long term, to share 25% of Premier League Revenue with the EFL. A more even distribution of football's finances is a great idea - and fundamentally, any attempt to mend something that's clearly broken has to have some merit. In the short term, there is the offer of 350 million pounds to help the EFL, it's clubs and the FA cope with the cost of COVID. For various reasons, none of that money would need to be repaid. Great, right? But always remember: there's no such thing as a free lunch.  In return for all this largesse, the top flight’s “long-term shareholders” – currently Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal, Everton, Southampton and West Ham – would be afforded voting rights which would enable any six of them to pass and veto certain new rules. Any "six" of them. With respect to Everton, Southampton and West Ham, it's not difficult to work out which six clubs we're talking about here. This is a Big 6 power grab. Newcastle United's two relegations on Mike Ashley's watch mean they would not be one of the "long-term shareholders". They would be a Premier League Club with no ability to influence the governance of the Premier League. But in the here and now, there's also what might as well be called "the Magpie Clause": the power to veto potential new takeovers and potential new owners. 

Mike Ashley

Only six of the "long term shareholders" would be needed to block any potential bid. Only six. The Big 6. It was widely reported during the many, many weeks of takeover speculation at St James Park, that several Big 6 clubs had made it clear they didn't want to see the proposed Saudi Arabia-backed deal go through. Again, as in all of this, it's not difficult to work out why. It's self-interest and protectionism. The proposed Newcastle deal could have catapulted the Magpies into the financial elite. But why would the Big 6 want another club to have a seat at the big table? Far better for the ruling classes to quell the uprising at its source. 

Also, part of this plan would involve reducing the number of teams in the Premier League from 20 to 18. That would presumably lead to one or two seasons in which more than three teams were relegated from the top flight. The current version of Newcastle United is a club that faces an annual fight against dropping out of the premier league. So from the Magpies point of view, this starts edging close to "Turkeys voting for Christmas" territory.This gets to the heart of the matter really. "Project Big Picture" would be pulling up the drawbridge and enshrining the status quo of English Football. The Big 6 now become the Big 6 forever. It's saying "we will give you money, but it's us that bring in the majority of the money, so we want to be able to make up the rules".Is that a price worth paying? Is it a price that English Football might have to pay because of the COVID crisis?Which leads us to the question of what Middlesbrough and Sunderland (and even newly-promoted Harrogate Town) might feel about this. In the short term, it all seems pretty reasonable for clubs in the Championship and Leagues 1 and 2. It'd alter the way business was done, but it perhaps wouldn't feel like a fundamental life change and it would address urgent short term problems. But it's not really the short term that's the problem in any of this. It's the long term. It's the end of democracy in English Football. The end of one club, one vote. For Boro and the Black Cats, two clubs big enough to have legitimate ambitions to return to the Premier League in the future, this is a permanent glass ceiling. This is saying "yes, you can get into the premier league, but you can't ever hope to upset the status quo". Now let's be honest, this is actually how it is now and how it's been for years. The rich teams usually win, the less rich teams rarely win. The Big 6 have been the Big 6 for ages, so do any of these proposed changes actually matter? I think it does matter because this would give the Big 6 the power to move the goalposts at will and shape the rules in their favour. The deck is stacked against most teams now, this would formalise it.There's also a problem with the plan to scrap the League Cup. I understand it's not the competition it used to be, but it's a chance to win and a chance to dream. I was there in Cardiff when Boro won it in 2004. I was there at Wembley in 2014 when Sunderland dared to dream of winning it. I saw what those days meant to the supporters and the communities on Teesside and Wearside. I don't want that to disappear just because it's an inconvenience for the handful of teams playing in Europe in any given season. So there we are: I don't like "Project Big Picture". I think it stinks. I think it's a gateway to a Big 6 world that the majority do not wish to live in. I'm not alone. The Premier League itself has slammed the plans. The Government, in the shape of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says elements of "Project Big Picture" are ‘deeply troubling’.

We are surprised and disappointed that at a time of crisis when we have urged the top tiers of professional football to come together and finalise a deal to help lower league clubs, there appear to be backroom deals being cooked up that would create a closed shop at the very top of the game.

DCMS Spokesperson

But the EFL is walking towards this with open arms. There have been official emails outlining the plans. The EFL Chairman Rick Parry, a former Liverpool Chief Executive, insists this is the best way forward, He said: "This is two of our great clubs showing leadership and exercising responsibility. The message from Liverpool and Manchester United is that they do genuinely care about the pyramid.

"The Premier League could have come up with a plan like this at any time. How long has it taken to get a rescue package? Months. It was May when the government was saying we need the Premier League to step up to the plate. What's wrong with us talking about a plan that is demonstrably in the best interest of the pyramid and our clubs? We genuinely think that this is in the best interests of the game as a whole."I'll concede that point. There is nothing wrong with talking about a plan that's in the best interests of English Football. That's what we should be doing. I'll also concede something HAS to be done before it's too late. But let's not let anyone try and take advantage of circumstances and rush their plan in through the back door. The COVID pandemic has affected us all, and it's affected our football at all levels. We must understand the problems football faces, but we must be very sure we understand the consequences that come with any solution. English Football must decide whether the cost of saving its body is selling its soul.