Greg Clarke has surrendered the FA's moral authority to lead football

David Conn
·5-min read

When the Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke, manoeuvred into the space left by Richard Scudamore’s departure from the Premier League and started Project Big Picture, he told his small group of invited participants they needed the “moral authority” to secure changes to the game. Sadly the plans Clarke developed – and the misleading accounts he has given after they were leaked and exposed to the light – have stripped any moral authority he and the FA had to reshape football in these critical times. Clarke was trying, when he initiated the talks in January, to restore the FA as football’s governing body after its hammerings in the Scudamore years, but he has become a walking advert for the FA’s replacement by an independent regulator.

He had shown vision and astuteness in starting the process, foreseeing the inevitable Premier League internal battle with the big six clubs over globally expanding commercial opportunities, so he invited them first to his talks: Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman, Manchester United’s and Liverpool’s US owners, then from the leagues Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, and Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive. Masters, Scudamore’s belated replacement after two appointments fell through and many candidates were reportedly put off by the prospect of marshalling the politics, declined to take part and Buck thereafter kept him informed that the talks were continuing.

Related: Premier League kept Project Big Picture plans secret from clubs outside big six

The plans the group produced by the final meeting on 19 May, which John Henry, Liverpool’s majority owner, resurrected by contacting Clarke again in late September, were principally to reduce the Premier League to 18 clubs, solidify voting control with the big six clubs, and share 25% net TV money with the EFL.

The simplest-to-grasp theme in the furore when the plans leaked and were published was to depict Henry and Joel Glazer of Manchester United as one-dimensional, greedy, vote-grabbing US billionaires, and contrast them with the rounded English football men such as Clarke who, warts and all, try to do right by the game. That narrative glosses over the disasters, division, greed and governance failures delivered by English football men over the decades along with the game’s glories, and the fact that many made personal fortunes selling their clubs to Americans.

The game has seen how the football men such as Clarke, Masters and the Premier League chairman, Gary Hoffman, played it when Project Big Picture was leaked. The Premier League made a statement saying it had “seen media reports” about the plans, which it heavily criticised, suggesting they were the result of bad-faith discussions. The talks were reported as a plot between Henry, Glazer and Parry, with personal attacks relished on all three. The FA and Premier League allowed that narrative to run for days, without clarifying that Clarke had initiated the process and invited Buck, Henry, Glazer, Parry and Masters, who had therefore known about the talks for eight months, or that Hoffman had been given a copy a week earlier and written to the big six in positive terms about the proposals.

Manchester United’s Joel Glazer with his brother Avram and Ole Gunnar Solskjær
Manchester United’s Joel Glazer (centre), pictured here with his brother Avram and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, was criticised for his part in the talks. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Clarke finally entered the arena after two days of this media coverage. He gave his project and invitees a comprehensive dumping in a letter to the FA council, published on the FA’s website. It positioned him as the good English football man, the FA chairman looking for consensus against the threat of the money men. He had “participated in the early stages of discussions”, he wrote, but had “discontinued” his involvement “when the principal aim of these discussions became the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a few clubs with a breakaway league mooted as a threat”.

It is only subsequently that the information has been prised out, that Clarke initiated the talks, raised the European or global breakaway threat himself as an opportunity for change, is understood to have gone to every meeting, and to have called on 16 May for “execution” of the plans. After they were put on hold because of the coronavirus crisis, Clarke was involved in resurrecting them in late September, contacted by Henry, who throughout appears to have appreciated that changes had to involve the FA.

Parry injected some factual counterbalance after four days, writing to the EFL’s board, informing them Clarke had initiated the talks and had invited him and Masters, attaching a paper Clarke had written at the start. That suggested a Premier League 1 and 2 of 18 clubs each, and exhumed the FA’s old idea of Premier League B teams in a reduced-status EFL.

Clarke responded by producing a new narrative, now sent out by the FA but without the public trumpeting of his council letter. It confirms he did initiate the talks, still claims he walked away in “early May” and says he was then unaware of any other Big Picture “event” until the leak and publication. He also claims that his document suggesting Premier League 1 and 2 did not reflect his own ideas, but was a summary of ideas the group had discussed. As the Guardian has revealed, Clarke produced a later note, in March, in which he wrote of that first document: “I opined in my original paper.” We suggested to the FA that this clearly indicates that the first one did indeed reflect his own opinions, but the game’s governing body has still not clarified that little detail.

It was such a clear story, the big bad US billionaires backroom plotting with Parry, the original Premier League breakaway architect, to carve up English football to their own advantage, the redistribution to the EFL mostly viewed with total cynicism. The reality turned out to be that the FA chairman initiated and worked on the plans throughout, then sprinted away when they leaked, leaving his invitees to be attacked. That was where our most senior English football man ended up, with his “Big Picture” bid to reclaim the game and the “moral authority” of its historic governing body.