Revealed: Greg Clarke’s real role in controversial Project Big Picture talks

Revealed: Greg Clarke’s real role in controversial Project Big Picture talks

The Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke, is under increasing pressure to explain the accounts he has given about his role in the Project Big Picture proposals to reshape football, because of apparent inconsistencies with his actual degree of involvement.

Clarke set out his first, highly critical account in a public letter to the FA council on Tuesday 13 October, responding to the leak and publication of the plans in the Telegraph two days earlier. The proposals, to reserve key Premier League decisions to only nine “long term shareholder” clubs with six carrying a majority, reducing the Premier League to 18 clubs, more money for grassroots, and providing the EFL with 25% of joint Premier League and EFL net TV revenues, had been met with widespread denunciation. Clarke wrote that he had “participated in the early stages of discussions” then “discontinued his involvement” in late spring “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”.

The FA told the Guardian this week that Clarke “terminated his Big Picture involvement in early May” and “the next event Greg Clarke was aware of with respect to Big Picture was when it was leaked to the Telegraph on Sunday 11 October, five months after he terminated their [sic] involvement”.

Clarke did not make clear in his letter that he had in fact initiated the whole process in January, meeting first with Bruce Buck, the Chelsea chairman. Buck then invited Ed Woodward, the Manchester United executive vice-chairman, then Tom Werner of Liverpool, who was soon replaced by the club’s majority owner, John Henry. Clarke invited Rick Parry, the EFL chairman, and Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, who declined to join the talks.

The FA chairman is understood to have attended all the meetings held by the group from February up to and including the final one, which was on 19 May, not early May. Clarke himself, the Guardian can reveal, raised talk of global or European club breakaways in a document he produced in March, saying that this threat, as well as the coronavirus crisis, “offers an opportunity to reshape English football”. In that document, Clarke was suggesting a compromise, which involved a Premier League of 20 clubs, and redistribution of more TV revenues to the big six.

By the end of April, the proposals are understood to have taken a shape very similar to the ones leaked, including the most incendiary plan, to cement voting power with the “big six” clubs.

Far from discontinuing his involvement then, on 16 May in advance of the final meeting, the Guardian understands that Clarke sent a message to the group, saying: “Could we discussion [sic] an execution plan to land Project Big Picture and gain traction and support amongst key stakeholders.”

At the 19 May meeting, there is understood to have been a debate about how to take the plans forward, with Clarke initially keen to brief Masters, and the Premier League chairman, Gary Hoffman. Sources close to the discussions say that Clarke said they needed to get critics onside, because Project Big Picture was “a long-term solution”.

Tottenham’s chairman Daniel Levy (left) and Liverpool’s majority owner John W Henry.

When discussing how the plans could be presented to the other 14 clubs, it is understood the idea was floated of the big six threatening to join the EFL – a proposal, sources say, that had first been made in early March. It is said that nobody involved intended that an EFL breakaway should happen, but had discussed whether it could be used as a negotiating tactic. They reached no conclusion, and as the Covid-19 crisis took over, the group did not meet again.

Although the FA said Clarke was unaware of another “event” relating to Project Big Picture until 11 October, in fact it is understood that the plans came to prominence again because Henry contacted Clarke, on 25 September. Henry said he wanted to talk about resurrecting the plans, now to include a coronavirus rescue fund for the EFL, which Parry had been asking for but the Premier League had not agreed.

Clarke is said to have replied that he was happy to talk, adding that in his view it was crucial, for securing change, to win over the Premier League executive and board. He and Henry are understood to have then had a video call, and following that, the group began to try and gather wider support. The clubs arranged a first meeting of all the big six, with Parry, held on 7 October. The three clubs that had not previously been involved were introduced to the proposals, and they agreed to meet again. The plans were then leaked before they could.

Responding to the Telegraph publication, the Premier League said in its statement: “We have seen media reports today regarding a plan to restructure football in this country.”

That created a widespread impression that the Premier League was saying it found out about the plans through the leak. The league says it was not trying to create that impression. Its uncompromisingly critical statement said discussions about football’s future should go through “the proper channels” and that “a number of the individual proposals … could have a damaging impact on the whole game”.

Chelsea’s chairman Bruce Buck gave the Premier League chairman, Gary Hoffman, a copy of Project Big Picture the weekend before the leak.

The Premier League did not make clear that Clarke had initiated the process, that people had attended by invitation, or that Masters had been invited but declined. Chelsea have confirmed that Buck kept Masters updated that discussions were continuing, although Chelsea and the Premier League say those updates were not formal and that Buck did not tell Masters the substance of the plans.

The Premier League also did not make clear that Buck had given Hoffman a copy of Project Big Picture the weekend before the leak, asking him to become involved in the discussions. On Thursday 8 October, in an email the Guardian has seen, Hoffman wrote to senior representatives of all big six clubs, and Clarke, talking about Project Big Picture in positive terms and saying he would be willing to become involved, as it was “appropriate and necessary for me to do so”.

Hoffman said he wanted to set up a meeting to discuss how best to shape the game’s future, which would involve building support for change and “ensuring all Premier League clubs are heard”. He said he and the executive team – led by Masters – were committed to change, and had their own developed ideas and plans, “many of which already align with ‘Big Picture’”.

The Premier League says of Hoffman’s email that when he did meet with the big six he was going to tell them that the process was wrong, could not continue as it was, and they would have to discuss all proposals as a league. The league said indeed some proposals relating to issues such as fixture congestion did align with Premier League thinking, but that others were regarded as damaging, so there was no inconsistency between their highly critical public statement and Hoffman’s positive approach to the big six.

The FA maintained its version of events, that Clarke had explained in late April that the proposals were unacceptable, that the concept of a breakaway threat was articulated and he terminated his involvement in early May, and was unaware of any other “event” until 11 October. An FA spokesperson declined to respond specifically to the revelations that in May Clarke wanted to discuss “execution” of Project Big Picture, then resumed discussions in September, after Henry contacted him, or that Clarke himself had cited a breakaway threat.

Representatives of Liverpool and United, and Parry, declined to comment. It is said, however, that none were ever under the impression that Clarke had terminated his involvement.