Wednesday, 14 October 2020

Football and the Super League

As news of Project Big Picture broke recently, EFL chairman Rick Parry tried to calm down the understandable fears that the so-called Big Six - don't get me started on that - are basically trying to increase their power in the game. "They care about the pyramid. This will come out, the truth will come out, their passion for the pyramid will come out." Stop laughing at the back.

Timing is everything. At a time when a lot of EFL clubs are desperately trying to make ends meet, the promise of money from this proposal will undoubtedly be backed by many. It's almost as if those behind the scheme are taking advantage of a global pandemic to try and place their greedy hands on the steering wheel of the sport.

History does have a habit of repeating itself. In the autumn of 1985, similar moves were being made by those at the top of the food chain to revolutionise football in England and Wales. But it is interesting to note that with football on its knees back in the 1980s, those who demanded change did little to hide their lust for power and money.

Just as news emerged of secret meetings between John W Henry and Joel Glazer regarding Project Big Picture, reports of talks involving the top clubs in 1985 indicated that the idea of a Super League was a real possibility, due to the dissatisfaction of the Division One big-hitters.

A meeting in September 1985 between the Big Five - Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester United - along with Manchester City, Newcastle and Southampton, came to a startling conclusion. Unless certain demands were met, the top clubs expressed a desire to form a breakaway league under the Football Association, ending the control of the Football League. 

There were many reasons cited for this outcome. But the bottom line was that the chairman of the top clubs wanted a bigger share of television and sponsorship money, plus greater voting rights, in echoes of the current situation. Yet the alternative plans laid out by the chairman of the eight clubs in 1985 - they were later joined by Aston Villa, West Ham, Watford and Sheffield Wednesday - were radical.

Proposing a top division of 20 clubs (reduced from 22) and an extra two clubs in Division Two (taking the total to 24), the plan went further in that it suggested the bottom two divisions should be regionalised, administered separately to the top two divisions, and have closer links to the Gola League. 

Alex Fynn, a representative of the Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency representing the league explained the reasoning: "It would be more of an event for say Tranmere to meet Bolton or Preston in a North West division than to travel down to Torquay." But the move would also force many clubs to go part-time, and access to the top two divisions would be limited.

Reports in the Express suggested that promotion out of the bottom "feeder leagues" would be restricted to "clubs of stature", and that the top two divisions would work on a two-up two-down system to reduce the fear factor. Other proposals included switching the FA Cup to midweek, a British Cup to replace the Milk Cup, and clearing more weekends so that national teams would benefit from extra preparation time.

"I am sad that these reports are leaking out, but given the pressures that clubs are facing it is not entirely unexpected," League secretary Graham Kelly revealed, as the murmurings began. With the European club ban, falling attendances, a ban on alcohol in grounds, safety improvements, and no television coverage of football at the start of the 1985/86 season, clubs were feeling the financial strain.

An unnamed source at one of the clubs involved indicated the potential of the plans: "The mind boggles at the marketing possibilities of a small group. We have no option but to do it, and there is no better time. It is not a question of greed. Unless we do it we may all go down." The talk of a revolution increased in volume as the winter progressed.

In essence, the Division One clubs wanted 50% of all sponsorship and television money, two votes per Division One club in Football League ballots, and a reduction in the voting majority needed from the 75% to 60%. Power and money; that's just the way it is, some things will never change. Ultimately, the Super League concept was used as a bargaining chip to ensure that the bigger clubs got what they wanted.

"We cannot allow ourselves to sink for the benefit of all," Everton chairman Philip Carter explained. "If our plan does not go through, the First Division will have to look at the future again." Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards backed up this view. "Make no mistake, the big bang will happen unless the rest of the League give us their backing."

An EGM was called in April 1986, with the big clubs reiterating that they wanted a reduction of teams in Division One, along with their money and voting requests met. To get this through, 75% of the 53 votes would need to go the way of those making the demands. As a precaution, a feasibility study for the Super League was drawn up by a select committee, led by Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. The seeds for the Premier League had already been planted. 

The EGM in London went relatively smoothly. All but one of the points was passed - instead of two votes for each Division One club, in future these members would receive 1½ votes - with PFA secretary Gordon Taylor adamant that the outcome was "a victory for common sense". And the danger of a Super League had been averted.

The main reforms were:

  • Division One to be reduced to 20 teams by the start of the 1988/89 season. This would be achieved by introducing a play-off system in all divisions for two seasons. Whether this would remain in place after 1988 was unknown.
  • Automatic promotion from the Gola League.
  • Division One clubs to receive 50% of television and sponsorship money, Division Two 25%, with the remaining 25% divided between the bottom two divisions. 
  • League management committee to consist of four Division One members, three from Division Two, and one from Division Three/Four.
  • The voting majority needed to pass decisions was reduced from 75% to 66.6%.
  • Football League gate levy reduced from 4% to 3%.

The proposals went through 43-10. "This is a momentous day for football," Carter said. "We are seeing the desire on the part of many clubs to take a leap forward." Carter himself would be a beneficiary of the rumblings in 1985/86, replacing Jack Dunnett as League President later in the year. 

A few years down the line, Carter, like Edwards and Dein, would be fully involved in the establishment of the Premier League. Perhaps it was inevitable that an idea born during the "greed is good" decade of the 1980s would eventually come to fruition.

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