During the first three seasons that I’ve covered so far, there were a few developments that were bubbling under the surface, all to spill out in the summer of 1992.
The first, and I did touch on it when describing the TV deal in place as the decade began, was that, when negotiating their TV deal in 1988, the prospect of a breakaway league was seriously discussed between the then Big 5 Clubs (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur) and a senior boss of ITV. They even went as far as contacting a few other clubs to see if they would be interested in breaking away with them, initially hoping to get at least 10 clubs in to this new league.
While it’s unclear how far along these negotiations progressed, the prospect was shut down as it didn’t have the authority’s backing, and clubs were forbidden to discuss their own deals without that approval. Furthermore, because the finer points of the plans are unknown, it’s unclear how, or even if, promotion and relegation would be decided, if these breakaway teams would still be allowed to compete in the domestic cups, and also, given the state of the English game in 1988, it’s unlikely that this breakaway league would have taken off the way the Premier League did – more on that later.
By 1991, the authorities were now backing the prospect of a breakaway league, believing that it could benefit the English game if its top division, top cup competition and national team were all on the same page and working in tandem – as evident in the fact that, to this day, the Premier League has “The FA” at the beginning of its full official title, something The Football League has never had the privilege of.
Although the top division had been reduced to 20 clubs in the late 1980s, it returned to 22 in 1991 – the Football League would consist of 94 clubs until Aldershot and Maidstone met their demise, paving the way for the top league to eventually be reduced to 20 again. So the initial plans were to do this, and eventually get it down to 18 teams, making it more in line with the top European leagues of the time, and also allowing for more or for longer international breaks, and resulting in the players being more refreshed ahead of big tournaments due to playing fewer club matches. It could potentially allow the schedule to be further cleared for the latter rounds of FA Cup matches.
With the authorities now behind them, it was agreed that the top division would negotiate its own TV deal separately from the rest of the Football League, and in fact break away from the Football League entirely. As for the negotiation process itself, a bidding war ensued.
This leads nicely to the second thing that was happening in the background – the emergence and rise of satellite and cable television.
In 1990/91, some FA Cup matches were shown on BSkyB (the name after British Satellite Broadcasting and Sky Television merged). While the replays they showed (including the famous 4-4 draw between Everton and Liverpool) would naturally be played midweek anyway, it went largely unnoticed that they also broadcast some initial ties (traditionally played at the weekend) on a Monday night – namely Manchester United’s third round match against Queens Park Rangers and their fifth round defeat at Norwich City, and then the West Ham United and Everton game in the quarter final. It set a precedent that would quickly be followed
BSkyB won the bidding war against ITV for the rights to show live broadcasts of this new league, backed also by the BBC who wanted the highlights, marking the return of Match of the Day on Saturday night.
Now, with their dedicated Sky Sports channel, in addition to broadcasting a live game every Sunday afternoon (which was branded “Super Sunday” and became an afternoon long show, with analysis and discussion for an hour before and after the game), would come Monday Night Football.
Stepping away from objectively presenting the facts for a moment, and injecting my own personal opinion on to this, for me, the only time a match should be moved to Monday night would be if it was due to be played mid-week anyway. While it would present the issue of teams potentially playing just two days after their weekend match, playing twice in three days was pretty common back then and also didn’t stop Monday Night Football from happening – in fact, the first one featured Manchester City and QPR, who’d both played matches on the preceding Saturday.
Moving a scheduled weekend game to Monday night for the sole benefit of television could be interpreted as the moment that the TV audience were deemed more important to the game than match going fans. It meant visiting supporters would have to take at least an afternoon and possibly the following morning or day off work. It made it more difficult for home fans to take their children to the game if the Monday was during the school term.
While live games on a Friday night were occasionally broadcast during the 1980s, at least Friday night marked the end of the working week – just as Saturday afternoons did back when the league first started – and most supporters didn’t have to worry about getting up for work the next day.
It seemed like they were trying to emulate the NFL’s Monday Night Football, which had been a success in America for the best part of 20 years before this. The differences being that in the NFL, only one match per week is played, so there’s no issue of teams having to play Saturday-Monday, or Monday-Wednesday if during a week of League Cup games (which also happened), the travel involved in the NFL schedule meant it would be rare for supporters to attend every game, and those who did would be taking time off work to do so anyway, and thirdly, because it’s a much shorter season in the NFL, it meant all teams would likely only feature once, meaning both the positive and negative aspects of this – the inconvenience but also the money and exposure – would be evenly spread. A far cry from how live broadcasts pan out in the English game.
In his 1996/7 season diary, Neville Southall described Monday night football as “the tail wagging the dog”, so although it’s subjective, at least one person agrees with me.
Attendances, however, didn’t fall off and Monday Night football proved to be a success. That it still continues to this day would be testament to that. It would set the precedent in years to come for matches to be played Saturday lunchtime, Saturday teatime, Sunday early afternoon, occasionally Saturday and Sunday nights, and , eventually, coming full circle, Friday nights again.
The only feature that did prove to be short lived were the cheerleaders, fireworks and Bart Simpson mascot that accompanied the Sky cameras on Mondays.
Perhaps the biggest motivator for clubs agreeing to their games being rescheduled for television was the need for funding to enhance their stadiums and facilities in line with The Taylor Report. Another development (quite literally a development, in this case) that had been going on for a while, and would be impossible not to notice as the 1992/93 season started. Some clubs were able to simply put seats on the old terracing, for example Everton made their Gladys Street end all-seater in the summer of 1991 without losing any match day footfall.
Later on in the decade, other clubs would move to a new purpose built ground altogether (in the Football League, Millwall were one of the clubs setting the trend for this, with The New Den being built to open in 1993). Other clubs were knocking down their old stands and rebuilding them from scratch. As the season opened, Arsenal creatively put a mural of spectators on their workwall that covered the building going on.
No such covering up at Old Trafford, as their famous Stretford End was slowing rising as the season progressed, almost like a metaphor for the team that played there. And in the latter stages of the season, the away end of Ewood Park would also be dismantled. Which leads nicely to the fourth and final development – Jack Walker’s takeover and subsequent spending at Blackburn Rovers.
He officially took ownership of the club during the 1990/91 season (although there is speculation as to his involvement prior to this). Upon promotion to the Premier League in 1992, they purchased the man considered the hottest property in English football, Alan Shearer, from Southampton. It was a statement of intent, it put the club and the team firmly on the map and for the all but a few of the next 20 years, Blackburn Rovers would be a regular feature in the top half of the Premier League.
Reaching beyond the impact the spending had on one club, though, and it can be argued that this spending had a trickle down effect in terms of the money now floating around, and maybe even caused player prices to be inflated beyond where they would naturally have been. That said, there’s no denying that as more money poured in to the top division, from TV subscriptions, increased pricing for all seater tickets, merchandising, bigger sponsorship deals as a result of greater exposure – against all that, private benefactors were just a small part of it all.
There’s also no denying the out of proportion inflation of transfer fees as the decade went on. Shearer’s value of £3.3 million plus David Speedie would be dwarfed in years to come – in fact, just four years later the same player would join Newcastle United for £15 million.
Finally, onto the action of the season itself.
On the continent, English clubs fared even worse than they had in the previous season. This time, no English team would reach the quarter finals. This would prove to be as bad as it got (it wouldn’t happen again until 2015) and it’s also worth bearing in mind that, at this time, the English league was having to build its co-efficient again so only had four teams competing.
Even so, after dominating Europe, and in particular its top competition, for the best part of a decade before the ban, it was clear that many European sides and continental leagues had overtaken the English in their absence.
Which brings me perfectly to Serie A. Paul Gascoigne, now recovered from his injury, started playing for Lazio, and Channel 4 starting covering this league, which by now also featured David Platt and Des Walker. In addition to showing highlights and goals round-ups, they would also show live games on Sunday afternoons. The rights to Serie A had been held for the previous couple of years by BSkyB. Now that they had turned their attention to the Premier League, Channel 4 performed quite the coup by taking Italian Football off their hands.
While ITV still showed matches from the Football League (which now comprised of the second to the fourth tier), most of those who didn’t have Sky and wanted their live footballing fix on a Sunday would flock to the Italian football. In fact, with their magazine show on a Saturday morning (“Gazetta Football Italia”) featuring the wry humour of James Richardson and the larger than life character of Gazza, it had become the heir apparent to ITV’s recently defunct Saint and Greavsie show. Channel 4’s coverage of Italy’s top league effectively replaced ITV’s coverage of England’s top league for terrestrial viewers.
While not played with the pace or aggression of the English top league, the quality on display seemed of a different planet to anything we were witnessing at home. Few would have believed that, by the end of the decade, many of these top names would be gracing our game, and that our league would be well on its way to surpassing theirs, both in terms of UEFA’s co-efficient rating, and in attracting and showcasing the brightest talents.
Back in 1993, though, we had to content ourselves with Wembley hosting the Cup Winners Cup Final, in which a disappointing crowd of just 37,393 saw Parma’s 3-1 victory against Royal Antwerp. Less than half the stadium’s capacity – perhaps, like the European Champions Cup as couple of years earlier, this competition was in need of a revamp, or maybe the whole structure of European competition needed a re-think.
On to domestic matters, and defending champions Leeds would endure a dismal season, finishing 17th, just three places above the relegation zone, and not managing an away win all season. A more lacklustre title defence would not be witnessed again until Chelsea in 2015/16, which would be surpassed the following year by Leicester City.
Another club who had shockingly fallen away were Nottingham Forest. After being arguably the best cup side in the country just a few years earlier, in fact just one year after finishing 9th, winning the last Full Members Cup and reaching the League Cup Final, they were to finish bottom of the table.
Ironically, they’d been one of the 10 clubs mooted for the breakaway league in 1988.
In 1992/93, both the League Cup and FA Cup finals were contested by Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday, with Arsenal emerging as victor on both occasions. Well, two of the three occasions – in keeping with the end of an era, this would be the last time an FA Cup Final Replay would be held. In fairness, a final wouldn’t be level after extra-time again until 2005, by which time semi-final replays would have also been abolished.
Amazingly, both FA Cup semi-finals were derby matches, Arsenal playing Tottenham as Wednesday faced Sheffield United, and, in a precursor to the modern game, both FA Cup semi-finals were staged at Wembley. Convenient enough for supporters of the London teams, not so much for the Sheffield ones. Like the concept of Monday night football, one has to wonder how much the match-going supporters were taken into account.
The fixture congestion caused by reaching both finals meant that both teams could only complete their league campaign after the last weekend of the season (Arsenal would play in another North London derby while Wednesday travelled to QPR, both games taking place the Wednesday after the league season was due to end). It would be the last time this would happen (apart from Manchester United-Bournemouth in 2016, in very extenuating circumstances).
One of the reasons for this fixture congestion was due to there being 4 international breaks during a 42-game league season, and shows why they wanted to reduce the number of clubs in the top flight. In a way it’s a good thing that everyone was out of Europe so early because 2 league games were scheduled to take place mid-week in March. With only the third and fourth rounds of the FA Cup blocked out of the schedule, it left very little room for league dates to be rearranged. A similarly chaotic schedule would also take place in 1995, which would appropriately the last 42 game league season.
Unfortunately, England didn’t take much advantage of having this extra time to prepare for their World Cup Qualifiers, but this is better saved for the review of the following season when their failure to reach the USA tournament was confirmed.
It’s also worth noting though that, although there were four international breaks, there were actually five qualifying matches – a full round of Premier League fixtures or FA Cup fifth round matches, were played on 13 and 14 February 1993, before England’s home match against San Marino on Wednesday 17. It would be the last time that the top division sides would play on the Saturday before an England mid-week qualifier.
This would also be the last season in which Premier League shirts would be nameless and simply numbered 1 to 11 (12 to 13 or 14 for subs). It was also the last season in which all goalkeepers would wear the same colour shorts and socks as the outfield players. Even referees were given a makeover, the traditional black being replaced by green.
On the pitch, the backpass rule came in. Until the 1980s, playing the ball back to the goalkeeper to pick up tended to only be done as a last resort or to take pressure off the defence. In more recent years, though, some teams were accused of taking advantage by repeatedly alternating the ball between player and goalkeeper as a time-wasting tactic.
While the rule change would eliminate this, until goalkeepers improved their footballing skills significantly (culminating in today’s “sweeper keepers”), it made the game more chaotic rather than more aesthetic. It also required higher fitness levels of outfield players, as chasing goalkeeper’s clearances would be happening more regularly throughout matches.
Back to the action, and while already I’ve mentioned that this would be the last time that the league season would conclude after the final scheduled weekend, it would still be a couple of years until everybody would play at the same time for the final game. In 1993, while everyone else wrapped up their season on the Saturday, May 8, Aston Villa and Manchester United played, at QPR and Wimbledon respectively, on Sunday 9th. This had been designed in case the race to the title went to the final day.
It didn’t. United’s 26-year wait ended when Oldham Athletic won at Villa park the previous Sunday, in front of the Sky cameras, naturally, who were also at Old Trafford the next night to record their title celebrations, making the final Monday Night Football of its inaugural season a memorable one.
While Eric Cantona is rightly regarded as the final piece of the jigsaw, and his flair, persona and talent would only add to the glamour of the Premier League, a quick analysis of United’s results would show that they were already on an upward surge by the time he started playing for them.
The same can be said of English Football as the breakaway league happened. In his book, Richer Than God, David Conn brilliantly described the convergence of circumstances in this time period, all of which culminated in the rise of the English game.
Italia ’90, in both increasing the popularity of the sport back home and helping restore the reputation of English football abroad, the book Fever Pitch further boosting the standing of the game among the middle classes, The Taylor Report and subsequent all-seater stadia, the more comfortable match-day experience attracting new fans and the costlier tickets and seemingly more sterile atmosphere putting off many less affluent old-school supporters, all the while not being an issue for the newer, more well heeled fans.
Throw in the increasing presence and pull of satellite television companies pouring their millions into the game and it was just asking to take off. None of this was around in 1988. Had the mythical breakaway league been formed then, it’s difficult to see it having the same success prior to all these outside factors coming in.
Timing is everything.
While the breakaway league and Sky seem to be given full credit for the success of the game since, all of the factors described above played their part. Football didn’t become popular because the Premier League was formed or because Sky were showing it.
The top clubs wanted to break away because they wanted a larger share of the ever increasing TV revenue, even in the 1980s when English football was in the doldrums.
The Premier League was formed, and Sky paid a lot of money to win the bidding war for the rights to this, because football was already so popular.