The six would-be breakaway Premier League clubs attempted to “kill English football forever” and both punishments and new legislation must follow, Gary Neville told Sky Sports’ Football’s Civil War special show documenting a historic week for the game.
Speaking at the end of a tumultuous week for European football, Neville, who called the plans for a European Super League ‘disgusting’ when they first emerged, gave his thoughts on how close the English game came to an “attempted murder” from the six clubs who had planned to break away from the UEFA Champions League.
The planned pan-continental competition would have removed the possibility of Premier League sides being able to qualify for Europe’s top-tier tournament based on league position, with 15 of the 20 clubs planning to take part guaranteed their entry every season, something Neville said would have destroyed some of the continent’s biggest teams left out from the project.
Neville said: “We nearly lost it, we nearly lost football in this country, in the way in which we’ve always known it which is fair and competitive. And we nearly lost our top six clubs from it. How can we be in that position ever again?
“Most of us would go along with a theory of an apology is acceptable. An apology is not acceptable in this instance, with regards to the six clubs. It can never be accepted, because last Sunday what they announced was the attempted murder of English football.
“They attempted to kill English football forever, and they would have done it if they could. They attempted to take £300m extra every single year for the next 23 years as a guarantee for a different competition that other clubs couldn’t get into.
“They then wanted to come back into our league, the Premier League, with £300m extra and expect the league to be as competitive as it has been over the last 20, 30, 40 years. It would have destroyed the ethos of English football, it would have destroyed West Bromwich Albion, it would have destroyed Brighton and Hove Albion, it would have destroyed Everton. It would have destroyed Ajax and Bayern Munich in the German league.
“What these six clubs have tried to do is freeze time, freeze the fact they are the ‘big six’ forever. That means you take away the ambition of every other single football club in this country to try and get into that top six, and that is absolutely scandalous. Saying I am sorry is not enough. Enough is enough, we have to do something big.”
Legislation and punishment ‘critical’ to protect English football
Just how big does the reaction have to be to save the game? The Government has announced a fan-led review into the game, including changes to ownership models, while Sky Sports News understands the 14 clubs not involved in the ESL are keen to see the chairmen and chief executives of the six breakaway teams removed.
A change to the German style of ownership – where no private owner can hold more than a 49 per cent stake in any team – has been suggested as one way forward, which Neville thinks could be achievable through new legislation, alongside rules to make any repeat of a breakaway attempt more difficult.
He said: “Any punishments that can be handed to those six clubs in the short term should be given to them. Any punishments that can be given to them legally should be given, I’m absolutely certain of that.
“Do I want these six clubs in English football? Absolutely. We need them in English football. The Premier League is done without these six clubs, and they know that it’s done. We’d lose what would be a large part of the history of English football, but they have to be punished in whichever way they can.
“But the biggest punishment is that they cannot come back with any type of proposal which tries to swing the balance in their favour.
“The Glazer family will still be talking to FSG, Roman Abramovich will still be talking to these representatives in Abu Dhabi, they’ll still be talking to the other clubs in Europe. These talks will still be going on, not to bring them back to the table quickly, but they’ll be working out how they can actually manoeuvre into position to be able to extract wealth from the game, and put them in pole position. We need to stop that.
“I think most football fans would be in support of the German model, but we don’t have that in this country, and it’s how we reverse out of that – the only way is not going to be through individual declarations for each club, it’s going to come from government legislation.
“Tracey Crouch has been appointed the chair of the fan-led review, and it’s an incredibly important piece of work. It’s one that can protect and save English football forever. I’ve been part of a group for the last 12 months asking for an independent regulator for a change in regulations, structure and governance in English football because I’ve lost faith that the stakeholders of English football can run the game for all.
“And we’re in a moment now where it’s the perfect storm; what the six Premier League clubs have done this week has whipped people up into such a frenzy that something’s going to happen this time and they’re going to end up, in their eyes, worse off.
“But the rest of us, who believe in a fair game in the fair distribution of wealth across the game, including grassroots, communities, fans getting a more affordable and accessible deal, will be better off – and that’s the most important thing. Action actually needs to be taken now.”
‘Momentum is with the other 14 clubs’
Manchester United vice-chairman Ed Woodward has already announced his resignation from his role at Old Trafford in the wake of the ESL’s collapse, and Neville felt more could follow with the “momentum” on the side of the 14 Premier League clubs calling for their removal.
It had been initially understood he had stepped down in opposition to the owning Glazer family’s role within the league – with Joel Glazer quoted as part of the press release announcing the competition – but Neville agreed with one unnamed Premier League chief executive who claimed Woodward was involved “from day one”.
He said: “The trust must be absolutely shattered through Big Picture, six to seven months ago, and now through the European Super League. The 14 clubs have been lied to, information withheld from them probably for over a year now, and the trust element of building relationships, trying to work together to build a partnership to run football must be absolutely gone.
“Those people who’ve been sat around the table on behalf of the big six have got a lot to answer for, but we must remember that the chairman and CEO of those big six clubs will have been directed by the owners, and they’re the people who ultimately have caused the most damage.
“The idea of them just being able to kick out the owners of those six clubs is something that’s a difficult thing to imagine will happen quickly, so I think this would be a short-term action, one that’s maybe more achievable and one that I would wholly support. We need trust in football, we need transparency. And there’s no doubt that those six chairmen and CEOs who’ve been sat around the Premier League table in those meetings for last 12 months haven’t been transparent at all.
“It’s not going to be easy to shift FSG, the Glazer family, Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour to be able to shift their executives, who they trust. This is a very difficult ask for the other 14 clubs but I have to say this moment in time, the momentum is with them and people in the country, the football fans in the country, they have their support.
“I’m still struggling to understand the timing of the announcement of Woodward’s resignation. It was either an attempt to distance himself from the proposals, or it was the Glazer family throwing him under the bus, saying this is the guy that was at fault for it. The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
“The reports on Thursday that he wasn’t aware of the European Super League, that cannot be true, simply cannot be true, and it’s the same with regards to Project Big Picture. But on the other hand, I suspect that the Glazer family are driving the business, they’re the owners, so they need to take the ultimate responsibility.”