Everton have long known the real biggest threat to English football - everyone else could be about to find out

Everton fans pictured protesting against the Premier League back in January
Everton fans pictured protesting against the Premier League back in January -Credit:James Baylis - AMA/Getty Images

“We must guard against unintended consequences that would put English football’s success at risk.”

That was the warning directed to those in power by the Premier League in an advert it placed earlier this month. It was the latest move by an organisation that is fighting a losing battle against what it views as outside interference that could undermine its immense success.

But who is reaping the benefit of that success? And at what cost? Whether the organisation is protecting the beautiful game or its own interests is a legitimate question in another troubling week for English football and during a chess game in which Everton have become a central piece.

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The advert referred to above was placed on the same day Everton’s second points deduction was delivered. That’s right - the second deduction, let us not forget, was handed down in the same season for offences that took place over different campaigns. Everton have breached the rules and deserve punishment. The club and its fans also deserve fairness and proportionality. Instead, Everton are breaking new ground as the club falls foul of profit and sustainability regulations that are trapping the club in its struggle and not paving the way for progress. The day after that advert appeared in Politico, and Everton were again made to feel like a club being made an example of, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters was writing in The Times about the same subject: the threat of independent regulation.

The punishment handed to Everton between those cries against outside interference may have been decided by an independent commission. But the process was very much a child of the Premier League. And the timing of its release had the appearance of being part of the same orchestrated campaign to push back against change.

That campaign is necessary because questions about the Premier League’s handling of the beautiful game are growing. And after the shameful news this week of the scrapping of FA Cup replays and relegation of the showpiece to an in-season event, the biggest query is again whether the organisation really is working to the wider benefit of the game or just its own interests - which often align closest with those of the clubs at the very top of the pyramid.

If the Premier League views the protection of the integrity of its competition so seriously, then it is a shame it did not pursue the six clubs that attempted to undermine the league by seeking to join the European Super League - a project that was exposed three years ago this week - with the same vigour it is currently chasing Everton. Their punishment amounted to a payment of several millions of pounds each for their role in a competition that would have been ruinous to the competitive spirit of English football - an impact far more severe than that caused by Everton’s misdemeanours.

The scrapping of FA Cup replays is the latest blow to the heritage and beauty of the game in this country. It may help those clubs in European competition avoid the threat of the extra game here and there - this January, the fixture schedule even for Everton, a team not enjoying illustrious midweek nights abroad, was unenviable. But those games are only replaced with more elsewhere for the clubs at the very top. The difference - those are more lucrative.

The chance to earn more money by those that already have the most comes at the expense of opportunity and excitement for those with the least. In the early rounds, FA Cup replays present plucky semi-professionals with the potential to hold on for a day out at a Football League club and an audience and stage far greater than they are used to. Come the third round onwards, replays have funded youth programmes, breakthrough signings, and stadium developments that lower league sides could otherwise only dream of. And for fans, they are as special. Most supporters of Football League sides know they will never see their team reach the top tier. But the prospect of watching their team hold out for a draw and an away day at Goodison Park or Anfield is the biggest prize of all. A season highlight, sometimes the highlight of a lifetime.

The reaction to a decision made without the input of Football League clubs was vociferous and justified. Who benefits from it? The Premier League and football’s elite. Decisions like this decrease competition. They increase the chasms and gulfs, and cliff edges within the top four divisions. The Premier League’s influence exacerbates this. Everton spent unwisely, but they spent to try and catch up with teams that, when Farhad Moshiri arrived, were just a handful of places above them. Even then, hundreds of millions of pounds was not enough - though that was partly because of how poorly it was spent.

Nottingham Forest, the other team deducted points with Everton this season, also spent unwisely. But the gap between the Premier League and Championship is so big that the club was always going to have to gamble if it was to have a chance of staying up. As the Premier League moves away from the Football League, the divide grows bigger and thus more expensive to bridge. Sides will either overspend or give up, aiding neither the sustainability of the pyramid nor the competitiveness of it. Meanwhile, the riches on offer as the Premier League makes more and more money will only entice and tempt those chasing that wealth to take risks to earn a slice, again undermining not encouraging financial responsibility.

Much has been made this month about the strength of the wider game across Europe, as apparently evidenced by Atalanta being able to win at Anfield, Bayer Leverkusen to break the Bundesliga dominance of Bayern Munich and Athletic to end decades without silverware by winning Spain’s Copa del Rey. These are not indicative of the success of the game. That they are even considered so unlikely just shows how a handful of clubs are dominating across Europe. The same is happening in England, where competition continues to be skewed in favour of those that already have a taste of winning. The increase in substitutions helps to bake in the advantage of those with the biggest squads. Want to play catch up? Financial parameters are necessary, but the current ones offer little opportunity for upward mobility.

Meanwhile, as competition suffers, so do the fans - and of all clubs, not just those enjoying happy times. This is a Premier League that has turned this season into a farce on the pitch. Off it, fans are now dealing with 8.15pm kick-offs, fixture changes far too late for sensible travel bookings to be rearranged, ticket hikes and even Christmas Eve football. Meanwhile, if you want to celebrate a goal in a stadium, then the best way to understand what is happening is to ask someone watching on TV, because following VAR in the stands is nigh-on impossible.

Maybe independent regulation would put the success of the English game at risk, as the Premier League claims. Maybe it is the Premier League that the English game needs some protection from.