Gary Neville was busy holding court on television when the call came. Not literally, you understand. He was, at least, off air when former FA chairman David Bernstein called seven months ago.
Though, at times during the long days of lockdown over Easter, it might have felt to some that there was a non-stop feed of consciousness from the former Manchester United captain, as Sky Sports battled to fill schedules with no actual sport to talk about.
Most mornings Neville would hold forth on Sky, aghast as football in general and the Premier League in particular lurched from crisis to crisis. From the initial talk of the absolutely urgent need for player salary cuts — before they discovered the £1.24billion behind the sofa to pay for new players this summer — to the furore over Tottenham, Liverpool and others furloughing staff before being forced to back down, collectivism and leadership went missing in action.
Gary Neville talked exclusively to Sportsmail about the current state of English football
Then Neville’s afternoons would often be spent on Zoom calls with League Two owners, who were desperately wondering what happens to a football club with no fans, no cash flow yet significant financial outgoings.
That was when the call from Bernstein came, so you might say he caught Neville at the right moment. Bernstein looked on as Premier League clubs demonstrated more clearly than ever before that, rather than being effective leaders of the national game, they were in fact 20 cats fighting in a sack. And he wondered, as we all have, whether there might not be a better way to administer English football. So, he gathered notable figures such as Neville, the former FA executive David Davies, the Mayor of Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Conservative MP, Helen Grant and former Sports Minister Helen Grant.
Crises have a habit of fomenting radical change so you wait 28 years for a plan to restructure football and then two come along in a week. First there was Project Big Picture, championed by English Football League (EFL) chairman Rick Parry in collusion with Manchester United and Liverpool to give lower league clubs a bigger slice of TV money on condition that six clubs — let’s say, for example, Manchester United, Liverpool and four others — would be allowed to control everything and to strip out a huge chunk of the overseas TV deal.
On Friday came something more palatable, which was Bernstein’s report, ‘Saving the Beautiful Game.’ Six months in the writing, it is essentially a call to Parliament to save the game from itself.
And in the week in which professional football’s most notable highlights have been the Premier League arguing among themselves yet still pushing blindly on with a £14.95 pay-per-view TV offering, the respective leaders of the EFL and FA accusing each other of betraying trust of clubs and an undignified scramble over the bail-out for lower league clubs, which has been rejected, it is hard to deny they may have a point.
Neville is aghast at lack of leadership and self-interest that has been demonstrated by football
It is not the first call for an independent regulator of football, essentially an arbiter to referee the competing interests and save the Premier League clubs from their tone-deaf worst excesses. So why would a Government, struggling to find a way through the coronavirus and economic crisis while negotiating Brexit, be interested in taking up this cause any time soon?
‘No one is underestimating the challenge but the lack of leadership and self-interest that has been demonstrated by football, Government and society over eight months during this pandemic, means that is the perfect storm for people to recognise enough is enough,’ says Neville.
‘If we don’t get it through now, we’re never going to get it through. It seems the most-opportune moment, where there is significant vulnerability in the game but no real leadership to adopt a social approach and bring the game together. Either we shout and scream, go for it, campaign and try to do something and fail. Or we sit there and do nothing and watch people ripping each other to shreds and watch it idly passing by without doing anything. I prefer the pro-active approach rather than the passive approach. Football will not reform itself. We need an independent regulator to be able to balance and shift the power. Not to the point whereby it damages the Premier League, which I love…. so don’t think this is a criticism of the Premier League. [But] they have to ask themselves what’s right for football, what’s right for themselves and can we create a compromise?’
No one would argue that Neville is not qualified to comment, with 602 appearances for Manchester United, a stack of trophies and 85 England caps. He is now a co-owner, with his former team-mates and Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim, of Salford City in League Two, having bought them when they were in Northern Premier League Division One North. He was coach to the England team under Roy Hodgson, briefly head coach at Valencia, chairs a committee reforming the Professional Footballers’ Association and is a broadcaster with the game’s principal paymaster, Sky Sports.
Premier League clubs spent £1.2billion on transfers this summer but are yet to bail-out the EFL
If the prospective outcome of the group is ambitious, the vision is undoubtedly welcome. ‘An independent regulator would ask: “What do we want to achieve?”,’ says Neville, before suggesting how they might wish to answer that question.
‘An amazing Premier League, which is the best in the world and renowned; an FA which is invested in and supporting grass roots; an EFL which has cost control and core funding so that clubs can become sustainable and not kill themselves; a non-League and National League, which have funding and cost control and help people thrive; a system whereby EFL and Premier League can be incentivised to produce young players of high quality through an academy; a fans’ deal which means the game is affordable, accessible and safe.
‘If we look at a vision of what football would look like in this country, it isn’t rocket science. An independent regulator would then have to look at it and say if any decision is being made by these stakeholders which takes us away from our mission and vision. So, £14.95 [for a PPV game]: “I’m sorry that’s ridiculous. It’s not going to happen. Thank you very much but it doesn’t fit with the vision we’ve agreed to”.
‘Kick-off times at 8 o’clock at night, when broadcasters want it, but for those games it would be maybe £10 cheaper, so there’s a trade-off. We have to remember what funds the game. You have to give the broadcasters some leeway, as they need to be able to get the viewers to pay for the games. Is there a compromise whereby tickets and travel can be put on at affordable prices? That’s where an independent regulator would be able to find balance.
Neville is backing the ‘Save the Beautiful Game’ report led by Ex-FA chief David Bernstein (R)
‘The biggest chance we have of getting it through is that fans have had enough. The £14.95 [price for PPV], the stretch on their finances to watch football over many years, which has been going up and up, [means that] we’re now at a point where fans of lower league clubs see their clubs struggling, community clubs going bust, struggling to pay their bills…
‘I’ve been on every League Two [conference] call, barring one or two, for the last six or seven months … hearing the desperation at great community clubs of owners talking about the predicament they’re in, through no fault of their own. And we have a Premier League that has spent £1.24bn on transfers in the past two months and they won’t give an unconditional rescue package to allow clubs to survive.
‘To me, it’s an absolute scandal. How they sleep at night, the Premier League executive and Premier League owners, without actually solving the issue for the EFL, the National League and non-League is beyond me. I’m embarrassed.’
On Friday night the Premier League reiterated their rescue offer for League One and Two, which they say is worth £50m in interest-free loans and grants and insist it is free of conditions. They have also promised to talk to any Championships club with financial issues and help out, though there the issues are perhaps less clear cut. Frequently cited is the £323m annual pay of Denise Coates, chief executive of bet365, which is co-run with her brother and Stoke City owner, John. Neville remains unimpressed with the Premier League equivocations, while accepting that clubs like his, with a billionaire backer, would also benefit from a bailout.
He also described the £14.95 pay-per-view price to watch top-flight games as ‘ridiculous’
‘I absolutely reject the Premier League offer that has been put forward and I rejected it the other day, I wasn’t on the call but I put my motion forward to reject it, just like every other club did. What they’ve done with the EFL clubs is essentially tried to wedge them into a corner. It’s not fair and it’s not right. This crisis will define what people think about you and they’ve not adopted a social approach.
‘The conditions attached to it means part of it puts more debt on clubs. They’ve excluded the Championship, which is part of our membership, which is ridiculous. We’re a membership of 72 clubs. We stick together. When you’re sat there as a Premier League owner or executive saying: “We can’t be giving money to Stoke because their owner’s very rich”. They have to look at it socially. They might be giving money to Salford City in League Two who have a bit of money, but what about Grimsby, what about Barrow, what about Harrogate? What about all the other clubs that need the money? You can’t just say we’re excluding two or three because they’ve got rich owners.’
The start of the week was dominated by Parry’s own vision of change, Project Big Picture, and Neville insists Parry was right at least to provoke a reaction.
‘I welcome the fact that Manchester United, Liverpool and Rick Parry have brought a proposal forward and put it on the desk. Do I like every aspect of it? No. Does anybody like every aspect of it? No. However, it’s a document that shouldn’t be kicked off the desk, as there are some good parts of it and some bad parts of it.
‘I don’t think they’ve said: “Take it or leave it”. We weren’t debating restructuring English football 15 days ago. We were basically eating each other inside out. Now we’re debating. The Premier League statement this week, as I saw it, was: “Let’s demonstrate unity”. But it then said we’re now going to look at a strategic review of football. That is a big difference and shift from two weeks ago. We weren’t hearing that two weeks ago.
Neville didn’t like every part of Project Big Picture but says it shouldn’t be ‘kicked off the table’
‘I’ll go through what I don’t like about Big Picture. I don’t like the idea of a £250m short-term rescue package being dependent on agreeing to Big Picture. It should be separate. I don’t like the idea of losing the Community Shield, because it raises money for charity. I don’t like the idea of losing the League Cup but there could be innovation around the concept.
‘The big one is that I don’t like the idea of the top six, or the families and individuals who run the top six, controlling football in its entirety. The fabric and intent of the game, as it was meant 150 years ago, should remain.
‘So, for me, promotion, relegation, distribution of wealth [down to the EFL and non-League], the domestic calendar, things like that are non-negotiable. And [I don’t want] the removal of two clubs from the League. [The proposals called for an 18-team Premier League and 90 professional clubs]. One of the owners of a League Two clubs said last week: “Why don’t we just make it a 26-club League Two?” No problem. It will make up for the games we may lose through a revamped League Cup. That’s a compromise.
‘And they need to give money to the National League [the two tiers immediately below the EFL] and non-League as well. And the big point that is missing is fans. There needs to be an affordable deal and a commitment to fans. But I can live with an 18-team Premier League, I can live with the promotion and relegation that has been suggested, I can live with the redistribution of wealth. In fact, that’s fantastic.
He says Premier League is wrong to exclude certain clubs because they’ve got rich owners
‘Actually, what came on the table last week through Big Picture [is that] they’re proven they can distribute a lot more money down the pyramid. Now put it down without the same levels of conditions.’
Essentially his argument is that the crisis is so severe, personal agendas have to be set aside. ‘I’m asking other clubs at the top of the Premier League to stand clear of their own self-interest, look at the wider game and say: “This is the right thing to do”.
‘What about that kid who grew up as a football fan, that loved football and went on to become a Premier League owner? Go back to being that kid again and remember having facilities and pitches, footballs and football boots. Give money to people who need it most. There’s enough money for the Premier League to be the best league in the world and for us to fund grass roots.’
Therein lies the problem. Many of today’s owners never grew up as football fans. English football is an investment vehicle for a multiplicity of individuals each with their own motive. ‘You’ve answered the questions as to why we need an independent regulator,’ says Neville. He may be right but now comes the hard yards of actually achieving a change.