The Changing Game 3 – Season 1991/92

1991/92. The last season of the old Football League. For a number of reasons, I’m not going to dwell on the story behind the so called breakaway league. For one thing, it’s already been covered extensively by better informed and more talented writers.

The recent ITV documentary – When Football Changed Forever – covers the season and the story far better than I ever could, and I believe it can still be viewed online.

For another thing, the focus is on 1991/92, the breakaway only became active the following season.
And finally, did anything really change? That’s maybe something I’ll look at next time, when the “inaugural” Premier League season will be my focus.

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As for 1991/92, I’m only going to provide the broad strokes of the major domestic honours, the main reason being that so many stories relating to this season are taken out of context to the point where they almost become myths – some of these were dispelled in the aforementioned ITV documentary, others were only reaffirmed – it would possibly take an entire article to go in to all these details, something I may return to at a later date.

The Championship was won by Leeds United in only their second season back in the top division, something we thought could never happen again until Leicester City came along.

The FA Cup was won by Liverpool, now under Graham Souness’ management, consolation for their worst league season for a long time as they only finished sixth.

Manchester United won the League Cup for the first time, beating Nottingham Forest in the final. It wouldn’t be their only silverware of the season though – more about that later!

In the changing game, let’s look at a few more happenings that would be the last time. While the FA Cup had already changed its format so that endless replays were abolished, the League Cup wouldn’t do so for another year. Therefore the last ever second replay took place between Southampton and Crystal Palace in December 1991.

The final of that competition would be Nottingham Forest’s last appearance in a major final to date, but it wasn’t their only Wembley appearance that season – which leads nicely to one of my two main focus’ for this season. 1991/92 would also be the last season of the short-lived Full Members Cup.

When English clubs were withdrawn from Europe until further notice, a consolation competition was introduced for the six teams who would have qualified in 1985. It was called the Screen Sport Super Cup. It was not a success, and was junked after just one season. Well, technically, the two-legged final of the 1985/86 Super Cup was only contested in September 1986, which sums it up! For the other teams in the top two divisions, though, a separate competition was introduced, called the Full Members Cup. So it was a consolation competition for clubs who didn’t qualify for the consolation competition.

Participation was on a voluntary basis – Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Manchester United didn’t compete in any season of this competition. In its inaugural campaign, only 21 teams did, and it first incarnation involved a group stage (its Associate Members equivalent, the Football League Trophy, used this format until 1996). After that, the number of participants increased significantly and the competition became all knock-out, with ties decided on the night, by penalties if need be. The League Cup would finally adapt this style in 1997, so one can argue that the Full Members Cup was ahead of its time in that sense.

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And, while the early rounds were far from glamorous, it did produce some thrilling finals – Chelsea beat Manchester City 5-4 in the first one, Forest beat Everton 4-3 after extra time in 1989, and they would win yet another high scoring game in 1992, beating Southampton 3-2.

With English sides now back in Europe, and with the changes in organisation at the top of the English game making the name “Full Members” somewhat obsolete, the competition would end this year.

Now from the ridiculous to the sublime. From the lowest competition a top division side could participate in, to the highest.

The European Champions Cup would also undergo a change in format this season, with a group stage introduced.

The first two rounds would be knockout as usual. Then, the eight remaining teams would be split into two groups of four, playing in a double round robin format, with the two group winners competing in the final.

This seemed a logical enough step. For decades, there’d been a Cup Winners Cup. It stood to reason that there should also be a “League Winners League”.

With over 30 league champions competing, though, a league format all the way through would not realistically be workable.

By saving the league format until this latter stage, it meant the weaker teams and potential mis-matches they’d bring would be eliminated, it also meant fewer dead-rubber games between sides with nothing to play for (and even these games would be between two of Europe’s best, with a much more significant amount of prize money at stake), they would still have a showpiece final, and it would require only an additional two match days.

These extra two match days would run alongside the last-16 of the UEFA Cup in late November and early December respectively, so from UEFA’s viewpoint, they wouldn’t need to tamper with their schedule or create any extra match-weeks.

The only problem was that this was usually when both legs of the European Super Cup would be played, so for the next few years, the two clubs involved in this would arrange a suitable date among themselves, usually in the January or February of the following year, which somewhat diminished the contest as the showpiece end to the calendar year.

In 1991, though, given the situation in Yugoslavia at the time, it was deemed that the Super Cup between Red Star Belgrade and Manchester United would take place as a one-off game at Old Trafford. Both teams had a free week in November in which to play it, and a disappointingly low crowd saw United triumph.

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The goings on in both Yugoslavia and Russia in 1991 would have further repercussions for the European game, as both nations would be broken up into several smaller countries, and rules about freedom of movement for players in the old Eastern bloc would be relaxed. Against the backdrop of the horrors of war and revolution, though, it’s a trivial matter.

As for English clubs in Europe, none would experience the group stage of the European Cup/Champions League in this format. On the return of English clubs in this competition, Arsenal would lose in the second knockout round. The same fate would fall on Leeds and Manchester United in 1992 and 1993 respectively. The format then changed again in 1994, which will be covered in time.

The other English clubs didn’t fare much better in 1991/92, with Liverpool being the last English club standing on their return to Europe, being the only ones to reach the quarter final stage (where they were knocked out of the UEFA Cup by Genoa). Disappointing for all not to build on Manchester United spectacularly announcing their return the year before.

On the international stage, just as in 1989, England only narrowly qualified for a major tournament, again, with a result in Poland (Gary Lineker, who was playing his last season in the English game and would retire from international football in 1992, scoring a late equaliser there in the final group game). Unlike in 1990, though, the tournament would be a dismal one for England, bowing out in the group stage.

The tournament was won by Denmark, who were only in the competition by default, finishing runner-up in their group with Yugoslavia. I mentioned in my 1989/90 review how narrowly the Danes missed out on qualifying for Italia ’90. This more than made up for it.

From a footballing point of view, one has to feel for Yugoslavia. Finishing above the eventual Euro 92 winners in their group and their league hosting the European Champions before the country was torn apart. As stated earlier, though, given everything else that goes on when a country is torn apart, sometimes even football pales into insignificance.

For England, such a poor tournament was hardly the ideal precursor to the whole new ball game that was to commence just 7 weeks after the Euro ’92 final. By then though, the popularity of the game had a momentum all of its own. The title was yet again decided on live TV, as ITV showed yet another double-header on the penultimate weekend of the season. The live cameras showed Leeds’ win at Bramall Lane, which meant Manchester United had to get a result in the 2nd televised match that afternoon at Anfield. They didn’t.

But just having them involved in the race, with their global reach and the story of their quest to land the first title since 1967, was gold to any TV company, and Sky were about to gain the rights to watch this story conclude.

1991/92 saw seismic change, but while most of the attention is on the top division changing its name and broadcast rights, I prefer to think of the old European Champions Cup beginning to undergo the transition that would see it become the Champions League that we know today.

The Author

David Hardman

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