With all the talk of ‘parking the bus’, ‘grinding out results’ and ‘negative football’, Tom O Connor takes a look back at a few reasons why the Premier League was more fun in the 1990s than today.
There were more teams competing for the league every season
From the 1992/3 season until the turn of the twentieth century the Premier League was won by 3 teams- namely Manchester United, Arsenal and Blackburn. Since the 1999/2000 season add Chelsea and Manchester City to the list. However, next season it can be pretty much guaranteed that the title fight will be between the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea and Arsenal.
Liverpool and Spurs will valiantly battle throughout the season but they won’t really be in contention. Twenty years ago things were different- the only club accused of having a ‘rich owner’ were Blackburn Rovers yet Jack Walker’s money paled into insignificance compared to today’s billionaire owners. They only won the league once yet challenged for the title for a few seasons, similar to Newcastle (1995/96), Leeds United (1999/00) and Nottingham Forest (3rd in 1994/5).
Add in Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool and that’s seven different teams who challenged for the Premier League in 8 years. In the past 15 seasons only the aforementioned ‘Big Five’ have really been in contention.
There were more characters in the game
Today the few true flair players in the Premier League play for the top teams- Hazard, Coutinho, Di Maria, Silva and Ozil are playing at title challenging teams where they are expected to make the difference with their trickery. While other teams have flair players such as Burnley’s George Boyd and Crystal Palace’s Yannick Bolasie, the emphasis is on their ability to work for the team.
Not so in the 90s- talent was more evenly spread around the league and teams looked to their magicians for spells not work rate. Players like Georgi Kinkladze (Man City/Southampton), Paolo Wanchope (Derby/West Ham/Man City), Gianfranco Zola (Chelsea), Tony Yeboah (Leeds), Tino Asprilla (Newcastle) and Matt Le Tissier (Southampton) made a difference to their clubs and got supporters excited by enjoying their football.
Dribbling the length of the field, showboating and hammering in long distance crossbar exploding goals. People got excited when the ball was at their feet, kids wanted their own ball to dribble down the street and launch volleys. Now it’s about ‘the system’ and how much a player brings to the team.
Lack of cynicism and proper tackles
Players like Julian Dicks, Stuart Pearce, Vinnie Jones, Neil Ruddock, Paul Ince and David Batty were known for their full blooded challenges but they wouldn’t last 90 minutes in a Premier League game this season. Their modus operandi was to take the ball and if the man was there then so be it. Mistime a tackle and accept a yellow card. Now if a player looks like they may tackle another player, people are defending the diving on the ground to escape the tackle, even Roy Hodgson backed Wayne Rooney’s ‘avoidance of the tackle’ in winning a penalty against Preston in the FA Cup this season.
I’m not advocating the return of ‘leg breaking’ tackles, I’m just saying tackling was more of a spectacle in the 1990s and people found a way to avoid it without auditioning for ‘Swan Lake’. Cynical tackling is one issue that has always been around- cynically winning free kicks and penalties is new and no fun.
Supporters could afford to go to games and create an atmosphere
Soccer in England is essentially a working class sport, a sport that people can access and enjoy at the weekend or midweek to take their mind off work. It should be a sport where men and women can bring their kids to watch a game as a family and for the attendees of the 1990s this was the reality.
These people had grown up on the terraces in the 1970s and brought their offspring up in the same manner- football clubs were for the family and affordable. Today, while there are still family areas in stadia, it’s too expensive for an average worker to bring their kids to a Premier League game- to be fair to West Ham they had a ‘Kid for a Quid’ campaign for 6 Premier League games this year but with the cheapest season tickets ranging from £299 (Man City) to over £1000 (Arsenal) it’s not a sport for families to attend on a regular basis anymore.
Roy Keane famously criticised the ‘Prawn Sandwich Brigade’ and the Emirates is notorious for its lack of atmosphere- I don’t recall these discussions taking place when modest, homely stadia such as The Dell and Elland Road were packed with screaming kids and adults enjoying a fun day out. The average price for a ticket in the top division in 1992 was £7.56- I’ve paid £32 to see Leeds United play in the Championship. Prices and profits have replaced family fun with regards to the match day experience.
Premier League soccer today is played by richer players in newer stadia in front of increased worldwide audiences but I, for one, would like to see a return to soccer as the sport it was invented as- to be enjoyed by the masses and accessible to all.