The Changing Game – English football season 1989/90

The first of 11 of these – I’ll cover the period all the way to 1999/00. During this time, seismic changes in every aspect of the game – stadiums, atmosphere, finances, competition structure, fixture organisation, plus the fitness, lifestyle, even freedom of movement of the players themselves (both contractually and bureaucratically!) meant that professional football in England in 2000 was so unrecognisable to the one in 1989 that it was like a different sport altogether.

So, rather than summarise the goings on of each season, I’m going to look at the changes that took place in the game during these 11 years, and point out anything that represented the end of an old era or the start of a new one.

And the summer of 1989 represented everything bad about the old era. The European ban was about to enter its fifth season with no end in sight. There were even fears that the ban could extend to the national team following unrest at the previous year’s European championships, so any thoughts of it being lifted at club level any time soon were considered fanciful.

The footballing nation was still reeling from the Hillsborough disaster, which was undoubtedly the English game hitting rock bottom.

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While the goings on off the pitch during the previous year had fluctuated between the disappointing and the disastrous, the game itself had been as exciting as ever. In addition to the thrilling and emotionally charged all-Merseyside FA cup final of 1989, the league title had been decided with virtually the last kick of the season, with Michael Thomas’ last minute goal at Anfield famously stealing the title from Liverpool’s grasp and into Arsenal’s hands.

Most significantly of all, this moment was captured on live TV.

The 1988/89 season had been was the first in which a TV deal had been struck which saw clubs in the top flight awarded a bigger share of the revenue from this (it had previously been divided equally among the four divisions). This was done to appease the clubs who, even in 1988, were threatening to form a breakaway league.

This deal also meant more live matches, which meant a game like that that title decider and a moment like Michael Thomas’ goal could be experienced live and would strengthen the bond between football and television. The words “it’s up for grabs now” are as evocative to football fans as “they think it’s all over” 23 years earlier. So, while the sport was still in the doldrums, the potential was already evident that capturing such dramatic moments, experienced from the comfort of home, could perhaps attract a new audience to the sport.
It’s against this backdrop that we come in.

Arsenal had just announced their re-emergence – the aforementioned league title being their first for 18 years. It would pave the way for more success in the coming decade.

Another team about to enjoy huge success in the 1990s was, of course, Manchester United. They’d get the ball rolling this season by winning the FA Cup, Alex Ferguson’s first major trophy in the English game.

As Arsenal and Manchester United were about to embark on periods of unprecedented success, a club who had enjoyed such glory since the mid-1970s were unknowingly reaching the end of theirs. The 1989/90 season would see Liverpool win their last title for 30 years.

Another bastion of the English game during the late 70s and 1980s, Nottingham Forest, would win their last major trophy to date, beating Oldham to lift the 1990 League Cup.

After the season came Italia ’90, and, to wrap up the end-of-an-era theme, this would be the last time that West Germany and Yugoslavia would compete in a major international tournament – in the coming months and years, Germany would unite while Yugoslavia would be torn apart by war.

Back to football and back to England, and the game was already in a period of transition. A couple of years earlier, the top flight had been reduced to 20 teams (having been 22 since the end of The Great War). The decision was made partly due to the assertion from abroad that English clubs played too many games (something that foreign managers in England still attest to this day!), and also in the hope that it would be of benefit to the national team. In addition to England international players being fresher from playing fewer games, the reduced fixture calendar also meant that, from October 1988, international breaks could be introduced, allowing the England manager a clear week in which to work with his players ahead of a big game (the preparation time was previously three days).

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During one such break, in October 1989, England drew nil-nil in Poland in their final World Cup qualifying game, with the width of the post coming to England’s rescue. Had they lost that game, even by one goal, they would have been eliminated. Instead, they qualified as the group runner up with the second worst record, pipping the unfortunate Denmark (the Danes, however, would be back in style in 1992 but that’s another story).

Nowadays, there’d be playoffs between all the group runners up and maybe even some third placed teams to decide qualification, and it seems unfair that there wasn’t at least a playoff between the two runners up with the lowest points totals, as Denmark could argue with some justification that they were dealt a harder group.

But these were the rules and England qualified by the skin of their teeth.

I’m going in to such detail with this because of the significance that England’s participation at Italia 90 had to the future of their game.
Going in to the tournament, the UEFA club ban was still in full effect, with then UEFA President Ennart Johansson describing the chances of English clubs being allowed to compete in Europe again the following season as “only 10%”.

The sentiment wasn’t much better back home. While it wasn’t quite a minority sport, football’s reputation in its own country was still in the mud, with relatively few outside the usual club football audience showing any interest in the upcoming tournament.

And even this audience were struggling to get excited, given England’s poor performances both at the 1988 Euros and in the aforementioned qualifying stages. The three group games did little to turn public opinion, with a one-nil win against Egypt seeing them again unconvincingly progress to the next stage.

Then, in the knockout stages, it happened. In the last minute of extra time, David Platt scored a brilliant volley against Belgium to take England through to the quarter finals. This moment was a momentum shifter, for the team’s confidence and spirit, for the traditional fans, and, most significantly, it drew in the TV audience.

Nessum Dorma. Roger Milla. The Italian summer. The similar time zone and evening games making it such convenient prime time viewing. The much feared trouble and hooliganism from England fans failed to materialise, everyone buying into the uniting and carnival atmosphere.

The drama of the Belgium game was followed by more in the quarter final against Roger Miller’s Cameroon, with England equalising from the penalty spot with seven minutes remaining before going on to secure another extra time win with another penalty. This convergence of circumstances really built momentum and captured the nation’s imagination, and even for those who’d never expressed much interest in the sport before, England’s first semi-final appearance since 1966 – and against the old enemy West Germany – meant that TV viewing figures were now stratospheric.

After the Michael Thomas drama of the year before, the same feelings of suspense, elation, excitement, whatever the emotion, the whole experience was now being felt by the entire nation in their living rooms.

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And then came the semi-final. Gazza’s tears making the action itself pale into insignificance to the new-found fanbase. And what action it was. Lineker’s equaliser. The near misses. The penalty shoot-out heartbreak.

In moments of candour England fans would have to acknowledge that the team rode their luck – in qualifying, in the games against Belgium and Cameroon.

The luck certainly turned in the semi-final game – the heavily deflected goal to put West Germany ahead, Waddle hitting the inside of the post, and then the perceived lottery of the penalty shoot-out.

By then though, England didn’t need any luck on the pitch anymore. They’d already won. They’d achieved something that was harder than winning any football match or tournament.

Public opinion had turned in their favour. Football was acceptable again. It was popular again. It was our national sport again. Dare I say, it was even fashionable.

It wasn’t just the English public who had been won over. Just a couple of days after the World Cup final, UEFA made an announcement that had seemed unthinkable even a few weeks earlier – English clubs could compete in Europe again. And the British Government were so swayed by the good will generated by England’s exploits at Italia ’90 that they made no objections to their re-admittance.

Then Sport Minister, Colin Moynihan, said “We see today’s decision as the dawning of a new era for English football”. He wasn’t kidding.

The Author

David Hardman

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