The Birth of the Premier League - Did it make or break English Football?

I have been brought up with the Premier League, to me when I think about English football it's all I know. However it has not always been the case; for those younger fans who have not looked back at life before the Premier League, it seems a world away. At The Football History Boys we pride ourselves on covering a wide spread of the history of the beautiful game, but I realised that actually this period is blank in our writings. So let's do a bit of research and find out about a decision in 1992 that some say broke, others made, English football.

My University dissertation was 10,000 words about the era of football hooliganism that took hold of the English game in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975 FIFA described English football hooliganism as a "disease" [1] and then in 1980 The Times' sport editor, Nicholas Keith, wrote: “if we do not (do something) there is a real danger that football will die for lack of support, because only thugs will go to watch it… Football is sick, it may be terminal”. [2] 

Things were to get far, far worse though as in 1985 Liverpool fans clashed with Juventus supporters in the European Cup final at Heysel Stadium in Belgium. 39 fans were killed and English clubs were banned from European competition for 5 seasons. Then, on 16 April 1989, English football was sent into shock. 96 fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield during an FA Cup Semi-Final tie. The incident had nothing to do with hooliganism, rather the dilapidated state of the stadia and horrific tragedy. There was crisis across the game with politicians, social commentators and former loyal fans turning their back on the once iconic sport of football. 


Hillsborough sent shockwaves through British football

It is into that backdrop that we jump into 1990s; Margaret Thatcher, who was no fan of the sport, left number 10 Downing Street in November 1990. Football was attempting to shake off the image of “a slum sport, played in slum stadiums, increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up". [3] Two key finds in my dissertation as to the answer were The Taylor Report, which made a number of recommendations about the infrastructure of the game, and less obviously the introduction of CCTV cameras. With hearts broken over Hillsborough, all seater stadiums were implemented at the top level of football and CCTV cameras in grounds helped identify and root out the hooligan problem. 

The sort of television revenues seen today were quite literally unimaginable to football clubs in the early 1990s. Boards were struggling to make ends meet and something had to give; enter Rupert Murdoch and his company BSkyB television. First Division clubs were long unhappy that they had to share their television money with 92 other football league sides. In the late 1980s rumours had arisen of a spilt in the top flight, "going into its centenary season in 1988 the League was forced to stave off a threat by 10 of the leading teams to break away and form a Super League in the hunt for more television money." [4]

Rupert Murdoch's (right) BSkyB changed British football forever
With BSkyB announcing its intention to enter to live football market, challenging current joint-rights holders ITV and BBC, the Football League had a problem. In 1991 Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Spurs ('the big five') won a high court battle for the ability to negotiate their own TV rights. That year, the FA unveiled a 'Blueprint for Football' which suggested an 18 team Super League. The Football League despised the idea but by June 1991, 16 of 22 top flight sides had declared their intent to join a 'Premier League'. By September 1991, all 22 clubs were ready to leave and it was decided that the 'FA Premier League' would be established. [5]

This began the scramble for television rights to this exciting new set up. Sky led the way, pushing the price up for BBC and ITV, until BBC eventually backed down and threw their weight behind the Sky bid. BBC settled for evening highlights (as it remains today), leading to a £304m 5-year deal being struck. ITV, unhappy at missing out on the new venture, secured £24m rights to The Football League. [6] 




Leeds United, the last top flight winners before 'The Premier League'
So 1991/1992 was the last ever 'normal' First Division campaign. The 112th season of competitive English football saw a battle between old rivals Leeds United and Manchester United for the title. Leeds United, bolstered by the arrival of French maverick Eric Cantona also boasted the likes of Gordon Strachan, Gary Speed Gary McAllister and top goalscorer Lee Chapman. Across 42 matches Leeds would win 22, drawing 16 and remaining unbeaten at Elland Road all season. Howard Wilkinson's side took 13 points from the last 5 games of the season, whilst Sir Alex's Man United would only manage 4 points. The historic campaign would be the last time Leeds won the title (as well as the last English manager), their life in the new Premier League never being quite as sweet as 1991/92.

The 1992/93 season would be the first of the new 'FA Premier League', initially comprising of 22 clubs. The plan would be to reduce this number to 20 by the end of the 1994/95 season. Manchester United would become the early dominators of the top tier, "The birth of English football's brave new world - aka the FA Premier League - coincided with a resurgent Manchester United. Having come so close in 1991/92 they were in no mood to fluff their lines again". [7]

Manchester United had been waiting 26 years for success in the top flight, the quarter of a century's barren spell was due to come to an end in a big way in the new league. Scotsman Alex Ferguson had been waiting 7 years for his first title at the Red Devils and was assembling himself a squad worthy of a title challenge. Eric Cantona was purchased from Leeds United for £1.2m joining a side containing goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, defender Steve Bruce, Denis Irwin, Brian McClair and Mark Hughes. The PFA Young Player of the Season would be won by a fresh faced Welshman, Ryan Giggs. 


Manchester United won the first FA Premier League title
Aston Villa would lead the way for much of that first campaign, push Man United to the final few weeks of the season. However their challenge could not last and Alex Ferguson's side notched 84 points, some 10 clear of runners-up Aston Villa. Mark Hughes led the way with 15 league strikes and the beginning of a new era of dominance for the Red Devils had begun. At the other end of the league, Middlesborough, Nottingham Forest and Crystal Palace would suffer relegation to the First Division (now second tier).

The next campaign saw an equally impressive Manchester United retain their title in the newly sponsored, 'Carling Premiership'. They recorded 92 points over the 42 league matches with most players contributing to the 80 goals scored. Eric Cantona led the way for United with 18 strikes but this was to be a notable time for Blackburn Rovers who finished 2nd in the league, Alan Shearer netting on 31 occasions, 3 behind Newcastle's Andy Cole who had 34. 

With the Carling Premiership growing in fame and renown season on season, 1994/95 would be the last with 22 teams. In May 1995, 3 teams would go down whilst only 1 would be promoted to squeeze the league to the current size of 20 sides. Blackburn Rovers fans will talk about this as their greatest campaign in recent memory, Rovers winning their only Premier League title. Alan Shearer partnered Chris Sutton up top, who joined Rovers for an English transfer record fee of £5m (the pair scoring 49 goals between them). Kenny Dalglish was the man at the helm who brought the two together. Blackburn had been waiting 86 years to be 'Champions of England'. This was only their 4th season back in the top flight, previous to that 1966 had been their last appearances.


Blackburn were champions in 1994/95
Rovers started the season strongly and between 29th October - 22nd January, the side won 11 of 12 matches, remaining unbeaten in all. The losses that book-ended that run was a 4-2 home loss to Man United, followed by a 1-0 away defeat. Those victories and good Red Devils form meant that going into the last game of the season a Manchester United win would secure a third successive title. United were away to West Ham whilst Blackburn travelled to Kenny Dalglish's former stomping ground, Anfield. 

Liverpool were some 20 points off the pace but obviously didn't want to see their side lose the match purposely. It seemed as though victory would secure fierce rivals Man United the title and when John Barnes and Jaime Redknapp helped a 2-1 win, it may have been chance over for Blackburn. However, United could only draw 1-1 at Upton Park and as Match of the Day - 50 Years records "all sides of Anfield echoed to the guttural chant of 'Dalglish', 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and 'Always Look On the Bright Side of Life'." [8] King Kenny had won another league title at Anfield, albeit in charge of Blackburn Rovers.

So there's a look at the early years of the Premier League we all know and love. The questions remains though, 'did it make or break English football?'. One of the first factors the FA sort to fix by allowing the break away to a Premier League was the England national team. They wished to allow England to develop and flourish in the new system as this stat shows: "At the inception of the Premier League in 1992/93, just 11 players named in the starting line-ups for the first round of matches were 'foreign' (players hailing from outside of the United Kingdom or Republic of Ireland)." [9] 


Sergio Aguero - One of 62 Argentine footballers in Premier League history. [10]

Perhaps one of the biggest criticisms of the Premier League is its failure of that. Now being a Welsh fan, the state of the England national team doesn't necessarily bother me but there is no doubt it has clearly not benefited from the diverse league. As of November 2015, there had been 1,717 foreign born footballers plying their trade in the Premier League. 99 countries has been represented across 47 different clubs. Chelsea have had the most different foreign players (131), surprisingly West Ham were next with (117). France has had the most players feature, 187 in all, followed by the Netherlands with 117 and Spain with 102. [11]

Is that the issue though? Are the amount of foreign born players a help or a hinderance or is it something else? The way I see it, the Premier League is significantly enhanced by the influence of those foreign nationals in our country. This includes the style of play, the draw of the individual and even new football training drills. Whilst the national side may find it more difficult to break players into regular Premier League teams, the quality and excitement of division is far better with our visitors. I perhaps offer another reason for any effect on the national team, patience with managers.

When looking at Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes as examples, they are/were men who have/had been given time to develop their ideologies. With clubs sacking managers with alarming regularity, it is no wonder youth players do not have the chance to develop and play week-in, week-out in the first team. With wins top of the order it means risks cannot be taken, unless you are proven, like Arsene Wenger is at Arsenal. Should Eddie Howe be sacked at Bournemouth, should Liverpool lose patience with Jurgen Klopp in a few months, it will be a travesty for the ability for those club to build a squad. Clubs must have the belief in their academies and the ability of local lads to fit into their long-term plans. 


Fans protesting against rising ticket prices
Another issue (and by no means the only other) to look at in terms of 1992, the money. The establishment of the Premier League was totally to do with money. Television revenues were at record breaking levels in 1992 but as of 2016/17 English football will be at mind-boggling levels. Sky and BT combined spent a staggering £5.14bn on a new 3-year TV deal for rights to show live football. That's a 71% rise from the last agreement and means each game show live will be worth £10.19m! [12] This will give clubs an unprecedented amount of spending power on transfer fees and wages, perhaps allowing the best players in the world to join British clubs. However, the extra cash does not seem to mean reduction in costs for fans. 

The 2015 Price of Football study found that the cheapest season ticket at the Emirates to see Arsenal was £1014, whilst their most expensive was £2013. At Chelsea the costs read: £750 cheapest, £1,250 most expensive, whilst newly promoted Bournemouth charged £550 at best, £760 at worst. The cheapest in the league was Stoke's offering at £294, followed surprisingly by Manchester City at £299. [13] These costs prohibit fans, especially at clubs where season tickets or walk up tickets do not sell out each week. With the new television revenue it is hoped by all that boards will follow the German model of fan treatment and pass on their finances in the form reductions to make football more accessible for fans. 

Now I adore Sky Sports, I sometimes watch up to 5/6 games a week on their channels so their extra subscription of £20ish a month for sport, for me, is worth it. I would hate it if they were to ever lose the Premier League. However, it is certainly an argument worth having, is the extra billions being plowed into our much loved Premier League ruining the game? If so it is the fault's of the subscription broadcasters or is it the club's faults for not allowing fans to see the benefit of the cash? Let us know what you think, what do you love/wish to change about British football?


Foreign ownership is of course another issue with the English game.


By Gareth Thomas - TFHB (Follow on Twitter: @GJ_Thomas & @TFHBs or 'like' our Facebook)


Footnotes
[1] The Times, Saturday 28th June 1975, issue 59434, p. 23.
[2] The Times, Friday 19th September 1980, issue 60728, p. 11.
[3] Sunday Times, 19 May 1985.
[4] The History of the Football League, accessed via: https://web.archive.org/web/20080411034859/http://www.football-league.premiumtv.co.uk/page/History/0,,10794,00.html.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Match of the Day - 50 Years, Nick Constable, (BBC Books: 2014), pp. 144-148. 
[8] Ibid, p. 156.
[9) http://www.supersport.com/.
[10] Accessed via: http://www.myfootballfacts.com/PremierLeagueForeignPlayersbyClubandCountry.html.
[11] Ibid. 
[12] BBC News, 10 February 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-31379128.
[13] The Price of Football Study 2015, BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-34507719.

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