Back in February 1992, chairmen of the clubs in football’s top division sat around a table at the English Football Association’s headquarters at Lancaster Gate. What was to transpire within those gilded halls was to forever change football in England and beyond. There are very few events that have genuine history-dividing connotations, true before and after moments. The decision of the top tier clubs to break away from the Football League and form their own top flight is certainly one such moment.
The birth of the Premier League
Led by what was known as the Big Five (Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Everton and Spurs), the decision was made that the top clubs, who generated the most money for the Football League should, basically, get a bigger slice of the pie. In order to do this, they wanted to negotiate their own TV deals and sponsorships.
Under the pre-existing deal, any money from TV deals was filtered down through all four divisions of the Football League. The Big Five spoke with ITV’s Greg Sykes as early as the late ’80s to discuss a breakaway league and he stated he was prepared to pay each of them £1 million a season for the rights to their games. In 1988, the Football League stepped in and negotiated a much-improved deal of £44 million over the next four years, stabilising the situation and the sanctity of the established structure. But Pandora’s box had been opened.
By 1992, with more and more clubs feeling the financial strain of competing and adhering to the new stadia conditions laid out in the Taylor Report, the Big Five had the support of the rest of the top tier chairmen. Despite legal opposition from the Football League, the High Courts found that it was within the rights of the F.A. to sanction the split for ‘the good of the game’.
25 years on, whether the Premier League has been good for the game is a matter of some contention.
Before: Nostalgia and Neglect
In the season prior to the invention of the Premier League (1991/92), English football seemed to be on an upward trajectory. The 1990 World Cup in Italy had yielded the best major tournament performance since 1966. Qualification for the European Championships in Sweden was secured as group winners. Paul Gascoigne was a global superstar and a world class talent. English club sides were back competing in Europe with Manchester United winning the European Cup Winners Cup. Leeds United had risen from its slumber and reclaimed their place in the big time, bringing their fanatical die-hard fan base with them.
It is easy to look back on the pre-Premier League era with fondness. Saint and Greavsie where the footballing equivalent of Ant and Dec presenting an early incarnation of Soccer AM and we had Ceefax to keep us abreast of the scores and transfer news (think Sky Sports News but without people and all done at the speed of your nan trying to use Twitter). Live football matches were rare and constituted a ‘drop everything’ event. F.A. Cup final day was a national event.
The demographic was straight forward. It was a working class game, followed by working class men, played by working class men who could kick a ball well. It wasn’t unusual to see players in the pub or travelling by public transport.
Gordon Strachan (speaking on ITV in 2016) said: “We never thought we were miles ahead of the working man“. There is a wonderful clip of four Leeds United players (Chapman, Batty, Cantona and McAllister) sat in Lee Chapmans’ house watching Manchester United lose the league at Anfield handing Leeds the title. His house looks no different to many up and down the country despite his ‘six figure salary’.
It was a simpler time, and we like to be nostalgic about simpler times. But it wasn’t perfect by any stretch.
Hooliganism was very much a factor of football at the time. United’s Cup Winners Cup win was the first time English clubs had been allowed to compete in Europe for 6 years following the Heysel disaster. That event, coupled with the Bradford City fire and most notably the Hillsborough disaster had drawn attention to the dangers of terracing in football grounds. The general state of our stadia was one of dereliction and collapse across the divisions.
Many clubs were taking financial gambles in order to compete. Tottenham, for example, were on the brink of bankruptcy before Lord Sugar intervened. West Ham attempted to implement the notorious Bond Scheme to help raise funds for improvements to the Boleyn Ground.
On a monetary level, English football could not compete. In July 1991 Liverpool broke the domestic transfer record signing Dean Saunders from Derby for £2.9 million. By contrast, two stars of England’s 1990 World Cup would depart for Italy for a combined £12 million (Paul Gascoigne to Lazio for £5.5 million and David Platt to Bari for £6.5 million).
Serie A was the place to be, the fabled “Best League in the World“. Meanwhile, 3,231 fans watched Wimbledon’s home game against Luton Town – the lowest post war attendance for a top flight game.
Back to the Future
By contrast, the top tier of English football today is a very different beast.
For a start, money is no longer an issue. Eight of the Top 20 Richest Clubs in the World come from the Premier League according to Deloitte. The latest TV rights deal for the Premier League is the richest in the history of the game. The current deal which runs until 2019 is worth £5.1 billion and equates to approximately £10 million per televised game. The world record transfer fee (until Neymar’s move to PSG) paid by Manchester United for Paul Pogba shows it can compete with anyone.
We keep hold of our national heroes. The number of England internationals that have been tempted away from the Premier League for foreign fields can be counted on one hand since the early ’90s. Home grown talent stays at home, safe in the knowledge that they are already playing in the ‘best league in the world’. And that they are unlikely to be paid more elsewhere.
We now have around the clock football news and coverage. Sky Sports News has made celebrities of Jeff Stelling and Jim White. It is entirely feasible for there to be a televised match on every day of the week with the concoction of Friday Night Football. As well as matches we have live broadcasts as scores come in, highlight shows of the best or most controversial bits, “expert” analysis and TalkSport radio shows and fan led YouTube channels so we can all have our say on the action. We can get our football fix whenever and however we want it.
We are blessed with all-seater stadiums with clubs such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and West Ham expanding their capacities and others like Spurs and Chelsea looking to follow suit. These stadia can be attended without much fear of any hooligan element ruining the game or, more importantly, putting our lives at risk.
The Premier League has certainly changed the face of football – but has it been a good thing?
On the surface, you would have to say yes. But dig a little deeper and the waters get muddied.
Whilst pre-Premier League we craved more televised football, now we drown in matches and our desire to watch them is sinking fast. Derbies, title deciders and relegation 6 pointers – yes. Hull vs. West Brom on a Monday Night as prime time viewing – maybe not. And recent viewing figures back up the idea that, where once we ‘dropped everything’ we’re now more likely to switch over.
Safer stadiums is obviously a good thing, and the Premier League money has undoubtedly helped clubs afford the cost of these transformations. The truth is that the aforementioned Taylor Report meant that this would have happened anyway, but it may have caused casualties if it hadn’t been for Rupert Murdoch‘s dollars.
However, there has been a fall out anyway. Speaking at a Guardian Live event in London back in 2015, three panellists (Pat Nevin, Damien Collins and Duncan Drasdo) all claimed that the atmosphere at games in the top flight had worsened due to the changing demographic of supporters. Nevin said the costs of match day tickets would have priced him out of the game. It is a familiar message heard up and down the country – think Roy Keane and the Prawn Sandwich brigade. Clubs could choose to subsidise ticket prices by using the TV rights money to keep the game more affordable – but they don’t.
They also haven’t used the money to make it more accessible for disabled supporters to watch games, despite having the means to do so. A report in April showed that, in spite of agreeing in September 2015 to improve their disabled access provisions, that Premier League clubs have made limited progress on this front.
And the main reason for this is that, as Drasdo explained: “the growth in revenue has attracted the wrong kind of owner, particularly those looking to use clubs as cash cows”. Step forward Mike Ashley, Randy Lerner et al. Owners who see some of our greatest clubs and supporters as businesses and customers. And one can assume it is only going to get worse as the TV deal money goes up and up.
The money has also caused a disconnect between the fans and the players. The once working class players are now our equivalent of Hollywood stars. As the breakaway to the Premier League was being negotiated, the PFA negotiated for 10% of any new deal. Today the wages on offer are simply incomparable.
And the act of player power we saw when the PFA threaten strike action to get their 10% back in 1992, has given birth to a behemoth of image rights and brand recognition that players like Micky Quinn and Colin Hendry would barely recognise as relating to football. Nevin even went as far as suggesting that the love for the game comes second to the fame and fortune, stating; “they play for the money”.
Then there is the elephant in the room. Back in the Premier League’s inaugural season, there were 69 Englishmen plying their trade in the top flight. Last season there were as few as 31 – and many of these are bit part players/substitutes in squads seeking to adhere to the ‘home grown’ regulations such as Fabian Delph.
Foreign players have been a source of great entertainment and some of the Premier Leagues greatest moments and sides since its inception back in 1992. Henry, Bergkamp, Zola, Di Canio the list could, and does, go on. But for every truly world class, league enhancing overseas import, there is a Bebe or Christopher Wreh who surely there is an English counterpart of with a similar skill set.
The knock on effect is that the pool with which Gareth Southgate (and his predecessors) has to pick a national team from is getting smaller and smaller. And whilst the argument that ‘if they’re good enough they’ll break through’ is sound logic, the reality is quite different. David Gold, West Ham’s co-chairman, tweeted in May “I think we all have to accept that it is extremely unlikely that a teenager will break into a Premier League team full of seasoned internationals.” highlighting the difficulties English youngsters have of reaching the first team.
And whilst it is laughable to suggest that this is the route cause of Englands failures at international tournaments (our one victory in 1966 aside, the Italia ‘90 semi-final is still our best performance ever), it is a hammer used by many to bash the Premier League. They hark back to the ‘good old days’ when England top flight was contested by English players. The victory of the U20s at the World Cup and the U17s at the Toulon Tournament will add weight to the argument. That our talented youngsters have their route into the top tier blocked by ‘Johnny foreigner’ coming here for the money on offer.
The long and the short of it is that the Premier League has improved many aspects of our game. The money it has brought with it has helped create better and safer infrastructure for the fans. The wages players get has forced them to be more professional in how they take care of themselves in order to earn their pay. And this has surely increased the quality on display.
But what makes us stronger can also kill us. Many older fans have lost their love for the game at its highest level – the players no longer represent them but a lifestyle they don’t relate too. The cost of games and the subsequent change in demographic has left others reeling at the loss of atmosphere and feeling it is all a business now with no soul. Many are seeking their football fix in lower leagues where the game is still ‘real’.
Maybe it is simply a case of perspectives and how you like your football. Whichever way you look at it, the Big Five and those who followed their lead back in 1992 changed the game in this country forever.