The birth of the Premier League back in 1992 heralded a new era for football in England. Conor Heffernan looks back at this pivotal period of transition.
When English football entered the 1990s, the game was in crisis. The golden days of the 1950s and 1960s had become a hazy memory, replaced by the three H’s: Heysel, Hillsborough and Hooliganism. Attendances were in decline and England’s best talent was moving abroad in search of better football and better pay. Something needed to be done, and fast.
Post-Hillsborogh, the Taylor Report had recommended several things to improve matters off the field. All-seater stadiums, better crowd control measures and much more were suggested to English football clubs. All of this would require time, patience and a lot of funding. The problem was England’s football teams were struggling to make ends meat. It was clear that only investment could cue England’s woes.
Enter BSkyB Television. Between 1990 and 1992, Rupert Murdoch’s company set their sights on moving into the English television market. Their first goal was to get the exclusive rights to show live football. Prior to 1990, stations such as ITV Sport and BBC Sport paid a relatively small fee to show footage across England’s four professional leagues. Not only that, but the money paid by ITV and BBC was spread across all of England’s 92 football league clubs. The top flight clubs were making a pittance from TV revenues.
BSkyB would change everything. Knowing that money was desperately needed by all 22 top flight clubs, BSkyB threw down the gauntlet to ITV and BBC. They were willing to pay heavily to gain exclusive access to broadcast live football. The top 22 clubs were intrigued and rumblings began to be heard about a breakaway league being formed.
The logic was simple. If the top flight clubs could form a breakaway league, then they would no longer have to share their television revenues with the other 70 professional clubs in England. Yes it would deprive the lower leagues of much needed funding but the top flight would flourish.
It took nearly two years from BSkyB’s initial declaration of interest for the clubs in the top division to act. Once the decision was made however, matters began to snowball. 1991 saw a High Court Judge rule in favour of England’s top five clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur) that they were entitled to negotiate their own TV revenues.
The decision laid the foundation for a breakaway league to be formed. In 1992, England’s FA met with the heads of the Top 22 clubs in possibly the most important football meeting in English history. It was decided that the top flight clubs would be allowed to form a breakaway league, a new tier of football called the Premier League. The lower league clubs were furious. They would now have to fend for themselves in terms of financing.
Why did the FA allow such a move to happen? Perhaps ironically, given all the talk nowadays about how foreigners in the Premier League have weakened the national squad, the FA claimed to have acted in the interests of the English international squad.
The Premier League would see a reduction in the number of teams in the top flight to twenty, and it was hoped that less league fixtures would mean players would be less exhausted and hence England would do better in tournament football. Coupled with this the Premier League would bring in more financing, which it was hoped would also improve the standard on the field.
As the new season was scheduled to kick-off in August 1992, television companies had to act quickly. ITV, BBC and Sky all wanted to access to the new Premier League. Recognising that they couldn’t compete with BSkyB, the BBC put their weight behind Rupert Murdoch’s company in return for highlights to all Premier League games.
The Beeb would content itself with showing highlights of the games on its flagship Match of the Day Programme. This left ITV and BSkyB fighting for the exclusive rights. Just as it appeared that ITV may gain a slice of the action, Murdoch’s company offered a staggering £304 million five year deal. The new Premier League clubs signed the contract with no hesitation and ITV found itself out in the cold. They would no longer have access to top flight football.
BSkyB soon set about a nationwide advertising campaign promoting the new Premier League. Now the biggest matches of the season would only be available through paid subscription. A large chunk of England’s football watching public would have to pay or face missing out on the best matches.
Unconcerned by such matters, the Premier League teams soon set about spending their new earned money. For the first time in decades, English clubs had more money than they knew what to do with.
Blackburn bought Alan Shearer for £3.3 million from Southampton, then a British transfer record. David Rocastle left Arsenal for Leeds, Dean Saunders left Liverpool for Aston Villa and Teddy Sheringham moved to Tottenham. It proved to be a smart buy from Spurs, as Sheringham finished as the League’s topscorer that year.
When the season kicked off, fans of the game were anxious to see how the new Premier League experiment would pan out. They would not be disappointed. The first Premier League season saw Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United win a league title for the first time in over 20 years.
It was to set in motion an era of dominance for Fergie’s men. Matters were not so joyous elsewhere. Sadly for football fans everywhere, the first Premier League season also saw the retirement of Brian Clough after 18 years in charge of Nottingham Forest. Forest joined Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace as the first three teams relegated from the Premier League.
We may take the Premier League for granted nowadays but back in 1992, the new breakaway league was viewed as something magical, something revolutionary and something that would change the English game. In many ways such views were right.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.