Downing Street has denied that Boris Johnson had advance warning of controversial plans for a European Super League, despite meeting one of the central figures in the breakaway football tournament four days before its announcement on Sunday.
Speculation about the prime minister’s knowledge of the scheme - which collapsed within days amid fury from fans, football authorities and politicians - was sparked by The Independent’s revelation that Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward visited No 10 days before the announcement.
Mr Johnson spoke with Woodward when the two crossed in a corridor during the visit, though sources insist it was no more than a brief introduction and the subject of the Super League was not discussed.
A Downing Street spokesman today told reporters that the subject of the Man Utd boss’s meeting with No 10 chief of staff Dan Rosenfield was the return of fans to stadiums as Covid restrictions are lifted.
Claims that Mr Woodward himself was only informed of ESL plans shortly before the launch, and resigned because United’s owners had gone over his head, were greeted with some scepticism in the football world today.
Downing Street rejected Labour demands for the release of the minutes of the soccer boss’s meeting with Mr Rosenfield.
Shadow sports secretary Jo Stevens said: “The prime minister and his ministers made very public and vocal condemnation of the European Super League. The public would therefore expect the same message to have been delivered in any private meetings.
“Downing Street should release the minutes in order to clear up any confusion and avoid accusations of hypocrisy.”
But the No 10 spokesperson said details of the conversation with officials would not be released.
“The Super League was not discussed and the PM was not in the meeting,” said the spokesperson.
“They discussed pilots that are ongoing with regard to the safe return of fans. As you know we are taking forward that work at the moment with a view to try to facilitate large sporting events and events with large audiences in the future.”
Asked when Mr Johnson first learnt of the plans for the breakaway league, the spokesperson replied: “On Sunday, as everybody else did.”
Mr Woodward’s visit to No 10 came on Wednesday last week. Four days later, on 18 April, United shocked the world of football with the late-night announcement that, along with Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, they planned to join a new tournament reserved for the elite of European football.
In a direct challenge to Uefa’s Champions League, the ESL would see the six English clubs and three each from Spain and Italy compete in a lucrative format from which founder members could not be relegated.
As fans, football authorities and ex-players erupted in anger over the proposal, Mr Johnson was quick to denounce the ESL in a tweet as “very damaging for football”, saying it would “strike at the heart of the domestic game”.
He later blasted the club executives and financiers behind the scheme as a “cartel”, promising a “legislative bomb” to ensure that the plans did not go ahead.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden brought forward a planned fan-driven review of football’s governance, which will look at proposals for German-style reforms to give supporters more say over their club’s future.