Behind the scenes

Did government originally endorse the Super League?

Report claims No. 10’s chief of staff appeared to ‘offer support’ for heavily criticised European league

Downing Street has denied that a senior government official gave the controversial European Super League (ESL) the “green light” at a meeting with a top football club executive just days before Boris Johnson publicly opposed the scheme.

Dan Rosenfield, Johnson’s chief of staff at No. 10, appeared to “offer support” for the creation of the heavily criticised ESL in a meeting with Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward ten days ago, according to The Sunday Times.

The conversation is said to have “emboldened” English clubs to “back the scheme”, which heralded the “biggest crisis in the games for decades”, said the paper. 

Rosenfield is alleged to have told Woodward that Downing Street would “not stand in the way” of the plans, with Woodward, who has since resigned and will leave United at the end of this football season, leaving the meeting believing the scheme had been given the “green light” from the government. 

“Positive noises from Downing Street were understood to have been communicated to those behind the ESL on the Saturday, and was apparently important in the final decision to launch,” wrote Caroline Wheeler, co-author of the Sunday Times article, in a string of tweets last night. 

The government appeared to unequivocally oppose the creation of the ESL after the proposals were announced last Sunday. Johnson likened the scheme to a “cartel” and promised to drop a “legislative bomb” to stop English clubs breaking away to join the new league at a meeting with Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and officials from the Football Association and Premier League, reports The Guardian

Dowden also strongly condemned the move in a statement to parliament, where he called the scheme “tone-deaf” and a “move that goes against the very spirit of the game”.

But Rosenfield is said to have “intervened” in an attempt to get the culture secretary to “tone down” his response to the plans, reports Politico’s Alex Wickham.

The “extraordinary claims” published in The Sunday Times would “drive a coach and horses” through Downing Street’s “apparently successful efforts to work on the side of fans to save football as we know it”, writes Wickham. 

“Imagine if it turns out that Downing Street originally privately gave the green light for the Super League plan, only to U-turn following public outcry.”

The Labour Party is trying to capitalise on the new claims, with Johnson’s government already embroiled in briefing battles over Tory “sleaze” on several fronts. Labour sources told Wickham that it was this story they felt could prove the most “damaging” for Johnson. 

Shadow culture secretary Jo Stevens has written to Simon Case, the cabinet secretary, to ask that any minutes and correspondence concerning the meeting between Woodward and Rosenfield be made public.

Stevens has asked for details of when the meeting was arranged and why, who else was present, and whether Johnson or other government figures have recently met representatives of the other five clubs who were set to join the ESL, before plans were shelved following a public backlash.

The Guardian also reports that Johnson “briefly” met Woodward and signalled his support for the scheme, although he was not present at the Rosenfield meeting in question. Downing Street claims this was “a short, chance encounter as they bumped into each other in a corridor in No 10”. 

“Yet again, Johnson’s integrity and honesty are in question,” said Stevens, adding, “The public has a right to know what exactly was promised to Manchester United by both officials and the prime minister.

“If Johnson gave the European Super League his backing and then publicly turned on the plan then the British people deserve a full, clear and immediate explanation and apology.”

The government denies there was any discussion of the ESL at the meeting between Rosenfield and Woodward, and the meeting was convened to discuss the safe return of fans and Covid passports for football matches.

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