When Europe’s superpower clubs unveiled their latest plans for a European Super League, former England and Manchester United defender Gary Neville tweeted a simple, three-word response: ‘Independent Regulator Anyone?’
The urgent need for a regulator is a cause Neville is promoting with former FA chairman David Bernstein and ex-FA executive director David Davies.
Footballer-turned-pundit Neville believes it would protect the English game from power grabs and carve-ups at a European and national level.
Gary Neville is leading a ‘Manifesto for Change’ which seeks to restructure English football
The trio launched their ‘Saving the Beautiful Game – Manifesto for Change’ last week, calling for an independent body to oversee the sport because, ‘we don’t trust football can govern itself’.
It came after the Premier League’s Big Six clubs, led by Manchester United and Liverpool, tried unsuccessfully to hustle the whole of the English game into redistributing wealth and power in their direction through Project Big Picture.
One of the changes the elite were pushing was a reduction in the size of Premier League from 20 to 18 clubs and the abolition of the Carabao Cup.
Those moves would, at a stroke, clear the midweek schedules of Premier League clubs, finally making the long-discussed European league a real possibility.
European Super League would enrich top clubs, reducing competition in the Premier League
And here the real motivation of the Premier League big boys becomes clear.
Surely, it’s no coincidence that eight days later, Europe’s powerhouses, led by Real Madrid, put forward a detailed proposal for such a £4.6billion European league, comprising 18 teams from the continent’s largest divisions.
The European league would be based on invitation and without relegation so that it could guarantee members’ increasing wealth beyond anything they could imagine in the domestic game.
The winners would pocket almost £1billion, around 10 times what a club earns for winning the Champions League.
Ex-FA chairman David Bernstein (right) is part of the group calling for independent regulation
It may look attractive to those who are in it, and those fans willing to fork out for the cost of pay per view, but critics warn it will ruin English football.
The gap between the elite and everyone else would become an unbridgeable chasm, it is claimed, and any semblance of fair competition would be lost.
So, what is an independent football regulator and why does Neville think it will help?
Sportsmail considers the options.
‘Saving the Beautiful Game – Manifesto for Change’ key recommendations
- Create a new regulatory body for football that is independent of the current structure of the game
- Decide on new ways of distributing funds to the wider game based on a funding formula and a fair levy payable by the Premier League
- Set up a new and comprehensive licensing system for the professional game
- Review causes of financial stress in the English Football League, including parachute payments and salary caps
- Implement governance reforms at the FA which are essential to ensure it is truly independent, diverse and representative of English football today
- Liaise with supporters’ organisations
- Learn lessons from abroad and champion supporter involvement in the running of clubs
Who wants a regulator in football?
Neville and Co made a splash when they jumped into the debate about football regulation last week.
Disgruntled football fans, such as the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, have in the past called for better regulation of the national game, whenever a careless owner has ruined a club.
Often, the demand has been for better financial controls, such as ensuring that the owner of a club is a fit and proper person.
Neville is demanding change in how English football is run, including how money is shared
But now the debate has broadened and extends to the governance of the game itself.
’It has become increasingly clear to growing numbers of people in the game that football cannot be left to regulate itself,’ Kevin Miles, chief executive of the Football Supporters’ Association told MailOnline.
‘Project Big Picture is a power grab by the Big Six and their billionaire owners, which would perpetuate and strengthen their dominance over the whole of the game.
‘The latest incarnation of the European Super League shows that this is an ambition of the big clubs, which will not go away, and it is to accrue for themselves an ever-increasing share of the wealth of the game.’
Kevin Miles of the Football Supporters’ Association wants an regulator for the game
And it’s not just fans who are concerned. Even insiders at the Premier League have been heard to say the Big Six are ‘out of control’.
The FSA prepared a document three years ago setting out how regulation could work.
It was well received, except by the clubs, who want to maintain their autonomy.
However, the interest of the Conservative government and Boris Johnson was piqued and it led to a Tory manifesto commitment at the last election for a ‘fan-led review’ of football.
The proposed review now has cross-party support.
Neville, Bernstein and Davies may be late to the party, but they are in discussion with the FSA and it is likely everyone will join forces. If nothing else, the trio’s intervention brings a wealth of knowledge, contacts and profile.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson supports the idea of a ‘fan-led review’ of football in England
But, what will a regulator actually do?
That is the question.
The only way an independent regulator will come about, given that a lot of football clubs would not welcome the move and therefore would not vote for it, is for the Government to impose it.
The first step in that process is the government’s fan-led review.
The outcome of the review would then form recommendations, which go before Parliament and ultimately the regulator would be created in legislation, in the same way Ofcom or Ofwat were established.
Clubs in England’s lower leagues have struggled financially, especially during the pandemic
However, the government is yet to say what the timescale or the scope will be, so we don’t know if it will be limited to how clubs are run, or if it will extend to the big questions about how the game itself is administered.
‘The review needs to be wide-ranging in its terms of reference,’ said Miles.
‘Regulations and governance of the game must be independently overseen to prevent football eating itself.
‘Project Big Picture and the European Super League has underlined the urgency for a fan-led review. If we are not careful, the rabbit will be out of the hat and things might be changed beyond all recognition. The Super League would destroy the competitive basis of the Premier League.’
Football fans could have a say in how the sport is governed under a government review
MP Ian Mearns, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Football Supporters agrees.
‘It’s getting out of control,’ he said. ‘The US owners of Manchester United and Liverpool seem to be trying to take control of the game from regulatory bodies like the FA and Premier League.
‘The big clubs involved now might be different to those around 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, but if they get their way, they will be dominant in perpetuity.’
Following the power grabs of the last few weeks a wide-ranging approach seems more likely.
The top six in the Premier League 20 years ago included Ipswich Town, now in League One
In this case a regulator could fix the rules of engagement, for example protect one-club one-vote voting arrangements and play the role of an overarching body aligning governance of the Premier League and EFL.
It may dictate how income is distributed throughout the game, including to the lower leagues, and through parachute payments, reducing the opportunity for rich clubs to leverage small ones by offering them a few quid.
And it could strengthen rules around who is allowed to acquire and run clubs and on what terms.
A European Super League could generate 10 times the earnings of the Champions League
Could it stop an initiatives like Project Big Picture and the European Super League?
The Premier League put an end to Project Big Picture this time around because the big clubs would have been out-voted by the rest, although in the end they saw the writing on the wall and sided with the majority to save face.
But next time around the situation might be different. More clubs may be in a poor financial position and the offer of a bung will be too good to turn down.
The current system is vulnerable in that the clubs are essentially regulating themselves and massively driven by their need for money.
‘Left to their own devices clubs will operate in their own self-interest,’ declared Kieran Maguire, a lecturer in football finance at the University of Liverpool. ‘Therefore, what we need is some form of independent regulator. Self-regulation has failed.
In a European Super League 18 of the continent’s top clubs would regularly play each other
‘Crisis creates opportunity and Project Big Picture and the European Super League is accelerating the process through which big clubs are going to drive through this idea under the premise of helping smaller clubs in lower leagues.’
The crucial difference with a regulator is that the decisions it takes would be independent of the clubs and made with a wider regard for the game and its role in local communities.
The European Super League is a similar proposition.
It requires structural change, but with the right money on the table, or at least an offer that looks good, those changes could go through, which, it is feared, would hugely distort the competition in the top tier, forever devaluing the domestic game.
Maguire suggests that clubs in European competition would have so much more money that the rest simply could not hope to compete.
However, even if a regulator prevented clubs joining the European Super League, they may still say ‘we’re off’, resign and go to play with their friends in Paris, Munich, Madrid, Turin and Barcelona.
Nothing could prevent that, although it may not suit the clubs themselves.
‘They do not particularly want that,’ added Maguire, confidently. ‘Because they want their cake and to eat it.’
Five English clubs would be in, pitched against Barcelona (above), Real Madrid and Juventus
Would a European League ruin our game?
It has been suggested that the creation of the European League would reduce many Premier League games to the status of a Carabao Cup match.
While the elite would field their best XIs against each other, the big clubs would probably play squad players against the rest.
‘There is a competitive balance at present,’ said Maguire. ‘There is just enough to allow Aston Villa to thrash Liverpool, for example, or Crystal Palace to grab a win at Manchester United.
The winners of a European Super League could expect to earn £1 billion for their efforts – much more than Liverpool scooped for winning the Champions League in 2019 (above)
‘But the big clubs do not want that. They want rollover games and if you extend the difference in income, you get more certainty.’
And it is not just the prize money on offer in a European Super League, which extends the income gap.
The intentions of the big clubs expressed in Project Big Picture and Super League would almost certainly reduce the television income for smaller clubs, while swelling it for bigger ones.
The European league would generate huge TV money, while domestic matches would be less attractive and the £3bn of Premier League television contacts would be diminished.
As big clubs become richer shock results like Burnley’s win at Old Trafford are more unlikely
In addition, there is a big push from the rich clubs to gain control over their own TV rights and sell them themselves.
So, Burnley, for example, would play 10 per cent fewer matches since the league would be down to 18 teams, reducing income on all fronts. In addition, they would not benefit from a share of the collective television deal, which is valuable because it includes Liverpool and Manchester United, and they would have to sell their own fixtures to television, which would not generate huge sums.
If you enjoy competition in football this is not good.
Last season, Burnley won at Old Trafford and drew at Anfield. Surely, that is why the vast majority of us love football and turn up every week, simply to dream of such unlikely and wonderful outcomes, or to hope to avoid them.