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Don’t be fooled – the Super League clubs gambled everything and they blew it
By Adam Crafton Apr 20, 2021 414
Now we know they were serious. This was not a poker game by the European elite. This was the ultimate roll of the dice; all-in on the Super League. Not a European Super League. But a global franchise, open to expanding beyond the continent.
Many suspected the big boys were posturing, seeking to railroad UEFA into future concessions. Speaking privately on Monday morning, one managing director of a major club outside of the proposed Super League admitted he never truly expected the paperwork to drop on Sunday evening. Even then, he felt the breakaway clubs — the Dirty Dozen — could be hauled back to the table, sweetened by incentives.
Perhaps UEFA would alter the entry format for the Champions League. Maybe the Premier League would receive an extra Champions League place or two, thereby enhancing the probability of the six qualifying for the competition on an even more regular basis. Others felt a greater proportion of television revenue could be diverted the way of Europe’s most famous clubs, keeping them on board for another few years before the next tantrum.
From Sunday night through to Tuesday evening, sources close to the project insisted the clubs remained deadly serious. They had an agreement for debt financing from the American investment bank JP Morgan. A plush public relations agency, InHouse Communications, had been working for several weeks on a website launch and brand. Katie Perrior, a spin doctor who previously worked for British prime ministers Theresa May and Boris Johnson, is chair of the communications agency. The legal drafts of the Super League were drawn up by the multinational law firm Clifford Chance. Documents were filed to courts around Europe and on Tuesday, a Spanish commercial court imposed interim measures that blocked UEFA and FIFA from taking action against clubs in Spain.
Some still envisaged, or hoped, that it may be a dramatic stunt. On Tuesday night, however, as the deck of cards tumbled, one after another, the fallout demonstrated the reality. Twelve of Europe’s most famous clubs had gambled everything — and they blew it.
Manchester United, the kingmakers of the project along with Real Madrid and Liverpool, are the perfect case study. Within an hour of Chelsea’s decision to pull out of the plans, Ed Woodward’s resignation from Manchester United had been confirmed. There were moves to protect Woodward’s reputation.
It emerged he will stay on in his role until the end of 2021. Some sources indicated he had previously been considering his position. Others even said he has personally been against the Super League plan and that he remained committed to the UEFA reforms of the Champions League.
Ed Woodward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer Manchester United transfer window
Woodward and Solskjaer in happier times (Photo: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images)
Many will find such a position difficult to accept, despite the best efforts of those advocating for the executive. Woodward is a former JP Morgan employee and he aided the highly leveraged takeover of Manchester United for the Glazer family while working for the American bank. Soon after the takeover was completed, he became the family’s chief of staff and eventually rose to the position of executive vice-chairman. He has been their greatest ally and his devotion has, eventually, brought him to his knees. Certainly, he would not have planned to announce his resignation shortly before 9.30pm on a Tuesday night in April.
Woodward is on his knees because United, and their conspirators, fundamentally misunderstood the challenge of breaking away. The strategy of the Super League, astonishingly amateur in its execution, contrived to alienate every possible stakeholder. They even lost the faith of sponsors, as Liverpool’s timing sponsor has now pulled out.
The club’s supporters, a long way down their list of the executive’s concerns, felt betrayed. On Monday, one supporter called up BBC Radio, broke down in tears and reminded the world that a Manchester United team, the team of Sir Matt Busby in 1958, died while attempting to play a game in European competition. The supporters were not consulted but, by now, United fans are used to that.
This became a stunning event because of the many layers of opposition. United’s hierarchy lost the support of the club’s most successful manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, who voiced his opposition to the heist on Sunday evening. Ferguson was understood to be unhappy by the way the club’s current manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, had been left to fend questions from broadcasters and journalists.
Solskjaer was only informed of the club’s intentions shortly before kick-off against Burnley last Sunday. Owing to their strong relationship, it is likely that Ferguson would have consulted the club’s manager before intervening publicly. And so it continued. The Glazer family lost former players, such as Gary Neville, who called for the owners to be “booted out” of English football in an extraordinary segment of television on Sky Sports.
Then came the protest from the players. Bruno Fernandes shared a post on Instagram. Marcus Rashford and Luke Shaw followed on Twitter. Sources indicate that several United players were aggrieved by the club’s failure to communicate the plan before the news broke on Sunday evening. United’s players, who like Solskjaer, felt their manager had been thrown under the bus.
The voices of opposition grew. United lost the trust and respect of their European counterparts. The UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin described how Woodward promised his support only on Thursday before acting like a “snake” over the weekend. Woodward had been a respected and influential member of the European Club Association but after resigning his position on the board and leading a breakaway, there would be no easy way back. He had lost his clout.
Over at UEFA, the uncertainty of the Super League announcement had led Flick Sports, an Australian streaming service, to pull a $60m bid for Champions League rights in the region on Tuesday afternoon. Imagine walking back into UEFA HQ and explaining that one away.
The torrent became front-page news. Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to drop a “legislative bomb” on the proposals. Opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer led talks with supporters on Tuesday afternoon, also opposed to the Super League.
So, in the space of 48 pitiful hours, Woodward and the Glazer family had lost them all: the fans, the legendary manager, the ex-players, the Premier League, the government, the opposition. Heck, even the Royal Family condemned the breakaway.
And still, none of this mattered. Not until Chelsea walked away, blowing the plan up in flames before Manchester City swiftly followed. It is not only Manchester United, of course, who are sifting through the wreckage on Tuesday evening. Liverpool have an incandescent manager on their hands after Jurgen Klopp was sent out at Leeds on Monday night, forced to answer multiple questions about the actions and ambitions of the club’s owners. He remained furious on Tuesday and his captain Jordan Henderson was rallying Premier League captains to oppose the plans. The players issued joint social media statements opposing the club’s behaviour.
This was a level of discontent that this ham-fisted project never foresaw. Players and coaches so often ignore their club’s defects, accepting the pound signs and lowering their moral compass. But along came a plan that struck at the heart of their childhood love of football: the right to dream, the right to aspire, the right to compete. As much as their owners may have resented it, players at clubs such as Manchester United and Chelsea speak privately of their admiration of Leicester City’s 2016 title victory. These players are football fans, like the rest of us, and they are invigorated even by the ever-decreasing number of upsets.
There were major and glaring flaws from the start. The grand plan had three major shortcomings. The first was the failure to recruit Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. The 12 clubs had worked around the clock on PSG during the weekend, warning the club’s Qatari president Nasser Al-Khelaifi that the Parisians would be left behind, embarrassed, in the wing mirrors of their illustrious European counterparts.
On Monday night, the Real Madrid president Florentino Perez claimed PSG were not invited. The Athletic has seen documental evidence to prove PSG were in the mix but ultimately, the French club rejected the plan. Without PSG or Bayern, last season’s Champions League finalists, this always appeared a limited ambition. The calculation had been the pair would fall into line, fearful of missing out, but they saw the reaction on Monday and ran a mile. Both clubs had private concerns. When they called their peers, they sensed mistrust between the breakaway clubs. They felt the egos stirring and, as one well-placed source familiar with both clubs said, “They simply could not imagine a world where these 12 clubs happily co-existed.”
Other shortcomings emerged. The Super League claimed that the JP Morgan billions would be set against future broadcast revenue but there was no announcement over a broadcast partner. This does not mean discussions did not take place but no organisation was prepared to put their name to the plan when the clubs needed the credibility most.
In the coming days, the Premier League’s self-styled big six will seek to paint the politicking of this week on their own terms. Do not fall for it. They held the power and influence at UEFA and the ECA previously. Now they return, heads bowed, shamed, scrambling for a seat at the top table. Amid the frenzy, desperate to push PSG and Bayern over the line, the Super League club executives resigned from their positions at major governing bodies. And still the French and the Germans did not flinch.
Perhaps the ultimate failure lay in just how ordinary this extraordinary moment became. The Super League announcement on Sunday night was light in detail. The clubs told the world there would be 15 founding members, yet only 12 had signed up. They told us there would be five places available for mortal clubs but gave no information on how these clubs may qualify for the tournament. They inserted one paltry line on plans for a women’s equivalent tournament but few details on how it would aid the women’s game, and it did not include Lyon, the winner of the past five Champions League titles. We expected elucidation in the following days. We waited. And we waited. And we waited.
And, soon enough, it became clear there was no strategy. Could billionaires really be this average? The owners of the “big six” clubs and their respective CEOs lost their tongues. They did not articulate their vision to the world. They did not even attempt to win hearts and minds. They spent time squabbling among themselves, trying to decide who would be best placed to make the pitch, before realising all six clubs lacked a figure with the combination of charisma and clout to command the nation’s attention.
Real Madrid president Perez made little sense in his interview (Photo: Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
In their absence, a vacuum developed for those who could rip apart, morsel by morsel, the greed and selfishness that underpinned the plans. In Europe, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez took to the airwaves in Spain and it was an utter calamity.
As one rival club said: “He mouthed off on his soapbox like he runs the world. He really thought he could change the format of football from a 90-minute game just because 12 rich, old men decided it should be that way.”
Perhaps most ironically, the Dirty Dozen had already achieved UEFA reforms that shifted the status quo inexorably towards the elite. They have the best managers, they sign the most expensive players, and they secure the highest proportion of television and commercial revenue. And yet, these executives wanted more. They always want more. Maybe there should be a broadcast partner after all. How about Amazon Prime? All or Nothing. Where, for once, the richest clubs end up with very little at all.