Equality an anathema to the 'big six'

Premiership clubs line up into two camps as proposals to change allocation of television revenue prove divisive
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The chairmen of Southampton and Coventry City were under pressure yesterday to postpone their divisive proposal for a more equal share of the Premier League's television money, in favour of working at today's meeting of Premiership chairmen towards a united response to the European Commission's "Doomsday" threat to football's transfer system.

The chairmen of Southampton and Coventry City were under pressure yesterday to postpone their divisive proposal for a more equal share of the Premier League's television money, in favour of working at today's meeting of Premiership chairmen towards a united response to the European Commission's "Doomsday" threat to football's transfer system.

The English football authorities are working feverishly with a new task force, headed by the world and European football governing bodies, Fifa and Uefa, on how to satisfy the EC's concerns, while ensuring that football clubs will still be substantially compensated when players move. This stance, which the Premiership says is motivated largely by concern for smaller clubs, was yesterday supported by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose spokesman said the EC's move poses "a major threat to half the football clubs in Britain".

With the transfer fee negotiations facing an EC deadline of 20 September, they looked certain yesterday to delay until next month an inevitable battle within the Premier League over the proposal, from Coventry's Bryan Richardson and Southampton's Rupert Lowe, for the forthcoming TV bonanza to be more evenly distributed.

The two have canvassed support throughout the summer, and say they are "confident" that they have the support of at least 14 clubs - enough to force a change in the rules, even if, as expected, the Premiership's six biggest clubs vote against. Even late yesterday, Lowe said they might still go ahead and force a vote: "It might go right to the wire."

Richardson said he and Lowe began working together on the plan immediately after the Premier League secured its new TV deal in June, which will bring the 20 clubs £1.6bn from packages bought by BSkyB, Ntl and ITV. The distribution of money from clubs showing their own matches, after a delay, on their own TV channels or the internet, is also yet to be agreed. Richardson said that most clubs are determined to secure a more equal share, in order to narrow the yawning wealth divide between the big and smaller clubs.

"The gap is widening between the top four clubs and the rest, and the Premier League is becoming less competitive. Eventually this imbalance will kill the game, and nobody wants that."

They propose a change to the current arrangements, which were established when the old First Division clubs broke away to form the Premier League in 1992, largely to escape sharing TV money with the smaller clubs in the Football League's other three divisions. Fifty per cent of TV revenue is shared equally among all clubs, 25 per cent paid in "facility fees" to clubs whose matches are televised, the other 25 per cent is paid in "merit fees" according to where a club finishes in the League. These arrangements clearly reward successful clubs, who are chosen more often to be shown on Sky, and who finish higher in the League. This, the Premiership's smaller clubs are now arguing, is making the League too unequal.

"If the current system continues," Richardson said, "the new deal would put the likes of Manchester United completely out of sight of the rest of us."

Aware that United, and the other big clubs, would fight any change to the status quo, the Richardson-Lowe proposals are themselves a compromise. The idea is that the current arrangements should remain in place up to the level of the present deal - about £210m a year. But they argue that the additional money, about £330m, due to come in for three years from next season, should be shared equally among all Premiership clubs.

"If we are to retain our position as the world's best league," Lowe said, "we need to ensure more equal distribution of money. A majority are behind this proposal."

Neither he nor Richardson would confirm exactly which clubs had pledged support, but Richardson said that some bigger clubs, including Everton and Spurs - two of the five original prime movers of the Premier League breakaway - and Aston Villa, are "wholly supportive". This means the six opponents, almost certainly, are Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds, Chelsea and Newcastle.

Lowe said that talks are continuing with the bigger clubs and he is hopeful that more than the minimum required 14 clubs will eventually vote for the proposal.

"There are five golden rules in business - 'what's in it for me'," he said. "We hope the big clubs will balance their vested self-interest with the long term interests of the league, which would be served by a more equal distribution."

The two dismiss suggestions that if the smaller clubs force the change through, it could hasten another breakaway by big clubs - this time to a European Super League. They believe big clubs' supporters want to remain in the Premier League, and point to Manchester United's constant insistence that it has no plans to break away. Rick Parry, Liverpool's chief executive, said this week that while he would oppose any change to the current money sharing arrangements, talk of a European breakaway is "premature".

Yet as the Premier League's smaller clubs, almost for the first time, overcome their timidity in the face of the wealth and power of the bigger clubs, there remains a central irony about their position. Both Richardson and Lowe accept that, however the money is eventually shared within the Premier League, the forthcoming TV deal will make the gap between the Premiership as a whole and the Nationwide League "unbridgeable". Neither agrees, however, that money should be shared more substantially with the Nationwide League, to ensure some evenness of competition throughout football.

Richardson believes that Premier League should combine with the Nationwide League First Division, but that the Second and Third should go part-time. "Their clubs aren't viable as full-time, professional businesses," he said.

Lowe's response to the English game's deep inequality was: "In a perfect world, we'd be concerned, but you can't legislate for everybody."

This view conflicts not only with the logic of their own demands, but also with the Premiership's stated determination, now attracting Prime Ministerial support, to look after smaller clubs by preserving redistribution via some form of transfer compensation system. Geoffrey Richmond, the chairman of Bradford City, argues that the Richardson-Lowe proposal should go further, and that at least 15 per cent of the TV money should be shared with the Nationwide League.

He said: "The money all goes out in players wages anyway. It would be better for the game to have a strong pyramid, and for the money to shared throughout all levels."

Richmond says, however, that, of the Premier League clubs, only the newcomers, Ipswich and Charlton, are likely to agree. More sharing is, he says, "not really on the agenda".

The Premier League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, formerly the chief executive at the Football League, is understood to be genuinely concerned at the threat to smaller clubs posed by any ending of the transfer fee system. But this conviction, and the battle to cut a deal with the EC, sits oddly with the Premiership's own breakaway history, and continued opposition to wider financial distribution, even as two of its own smaller clubs make the case so convincingly for more equal sharing of money.

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