Player, pundit, club owner, manager, captain, board member — Gary Neville has worn a lot of different hats throughout his time in football. Now, alongside former English Football Association chairman David Bernstein, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham and Conservative lawmaker Helen Grant and others, Neville may have a new moniker: game-changer.
They’ve recently released a “Manifesto for Change” calling for a financial overhaul of the FA, which is titled ‘Saving the Beautiful Game.’
Their aim is to “create a new regulatory body for football that is independent of the current structure of the game” and bring greater oversight into how money is distributed among Premier League, EFL (English Football League) and non-league clubs.
“English football does need reshaping” the former Manchester United skipper told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
“It’s not good enough that the 20th club in the Premier League gets £100 million ($130 million) and the 21st club in English football gets £7 million ($9.1 million). A £93 million ($121 million) difference for one place is far too big a gap.”
Covid-19 puts clubs’ futures in doubt
With the Coronavirus pandemic ensuring English professional games are played behind closed doors, it’s the lower league and non-league clubs that are suffering the most, according to Neville.
And he should know: Neville is a co-owner of League Two side Salford City, along with some of his former United teammates, including brother Phil, and the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, and Paul Scholes (who is also the interim manager).
“I think a number of EFL teams will go out of business in the next six to eight months if there aren’t rescue packages put in place, through no fault of their own,” Neville noted.
“We’ve just seen the Premier League club spend £1.24 billion ($1.6 billion) on transfers during the pandemic. A Premier League that has tried to cut players wages by 30% and try to charge £14.95 for pay-per-view [games].
“And yet we can’t look after grassroots football, the National League teams, non-league football and the EFL clubs who are struggling to pay wages, who are struggling to get by day-by-day. And it’s just not acceptable.”
‘Project Big Picture’
According to Deloitte, Premier League clubs alone face a £1 billion ($1.3 billion) reduction in their revenues in 2019-20 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was against the background of the pandemic and a power vacuum that saw the Premier League, the EFL and the Football Association, which regulates English football, unable to come up with a comprehensive solution to help clubs weather the financial storm that ‘Project Big Picture’ came into vision.
Reportedly backed by Liverpool and Manchester United — two clubs that have American owners — and EFL chairman Rick Parry, Project Big Picture‘ would have seen the top division of English football cut from 20 to 18 teams and the abolition of the League Cup and Community Shield.
Manchester United, the club Neville represented with distinction for almost 20 years, winning multiple trophies including the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, is one of those clubs directly in his crosshairs.
The club is owned by the American-based Glazer family. Forbes estimates that the family’s worth is just outside the list of the world’s 20 richest sports team owners — the 20th is Terrence Pegula, whose net worth is $5 billion.
“Manchester United haven’t won a title in eight, nine years and spent a £1 billion ($1.3 billion) on football players,” reflected Neville.
“We’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds in the last two or three years on agents alone. Just that money going into the other parts of the game would be a significant differentiator. But we seem to be able to find money for things that don’t matter, but not find money for things that do.”
Ultimately Project Big Picture was rejected by the Premier League clubs after being seen to give too much power to the most influential teams in England’s top-flight.
Neville is hoping his manifesto will lead to real and meaningful change, especially from clubs like his former side.
“They should be pioneers in making sure that English football is absolutely at the forefront of the society in this country. I believe Manchester United will always be the biggest club in this country with the most reach.”
“So, I’d hope that the Glazer family looking at this and that’s maybe why it wants to get involved with ‘Project Big Picture,’ I hope it’s not just because they wanted more control for the club,” said Neville.
“I was hoping it was also because they wanted to spread some of the wealth out in this country and reshape English football.”
On Wednesday, United announced an annual net loss of £23.2 million ($30.3 million) in the year ended June 30.
“We are committed to playing a constructive role in helping the wider football pyramid through this period of adversity, while exploring options for making the English game stronger and more sustainable in the long-term,” said executive vice chairman Ed Woodward.
“This requires strategic vision and leadership from all stakeholders, and we look forward to helping drive forward that process in a timely manner.”
Getting a fair deal
The two-time Champions League winner also called on Liverpool’s American owners to play their part.
“I want players to get a good deal. I want the FA to get a good deal. I want the Premier League to be the best. I want the EFL clubs to get a fair distribution of the wealth, fans to get a great deal so it’s affordable and I want non-league football in this country to be supported.”
“And that’s why I would hope that the Glazer family … and along with John Henry of Liverpool, they’ve got the two biggest punches in English football. Use those punches to good effect to make sure we get this through.”