The Changing Game Part 6 – 1994/95 at home

With so much to cover, it feels more appropriate to dissect 1994/95 in two parts. This article will cover the domestic side of the game, with Europe to follow.

In 1994/95, the most significant change domestically was that this would be the final season of a 22-team top division, which had been in place since football reconvened after the Great War, aside from four seasons between 1987 and 1991. It would be reduced to 20 teams in 1995 until the time of writing with no change in sight – factors behind this included the increasing number of international qualifiers (perhaps augmented by an increasing number of non-British players now in our game), the potential, if not inevitability of an expanding European season, and also the fact that reducing the number of teams was part of the initial blueprints for the breakaway league.

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In order to make room, only two teams would be promoted in 1995, while four teams would be relegated.

Prior to 1992, relegation from the top division would not have the same impact. The TV revenue (especially before 1988) and attendances would remain roughly the same, barring a couple of home gates against the very top clubs, but this could easily be reconciled with a good cup run, and any players with international ambitions would want to remain in the top league so would look to move on.

Now though, the money and prestige of being in the top division meant that relegation would change the entire structure of a club – the wage bill would have to be greatly reduced, as the lost TV revenue, prize money and gate receipts would take their toll. The domestic cups, the FA Cup in particular, still enjoyed much of the popularity in its early rounds but, even in the early days of this breakaway league, the revenue from a cup run wouldn’t come close to making up the shortfall from being out of the Premiership.

In short, relegation from the top flight now spelled disaster.

With four places to be avoided, the pressure to avoid the drop was even greater, and this was reflected in the number of managerial departures, especially in November 1994, when no fewer than six managerial changes taking place in a month.

The financial ramifications of being relegated from the Premier League meant that clubs could no longer afford to risk allowing a manager time to build and mould a team, and quick fixes were becoming the order of the day – if anything this trend has gotten worse over the years, culminating in the “fire-fighter” managers of today.

Crystal Palace were the unfortunate side to finish fourth from bottom. They also reached both domestic semi-finals that season, and maybe that took its toll – they played 57 matches that season without so much as a Wembley appearance to show for their efforts.

Also spare a thought for Reading, who finished runners-up to the ambitious Middlesbrough who boasted Bryan Robson as their player-manager. Any other season that would have been enough for automatic promotion, instead they had to settle for the playoffs, where, having reached the final, they lost a pulsating high-scoring game to Bolton.

Three years later, they were relegated to the third tier. However, they would eventually enjoy Premier League football in the decades that followed.

The 1994 calendar fell in such a way Boxing Day and December 27 were both public holidays, and some teams would still play on both these days. It would be the last time that teams would play two Premier League games in two days. Although matches in differing competitions have occasionally been played on successive days since, it’s been in very extenuating circumstances (such as the Arsenal – Manchester United League Cup match in 2001 having to be rearranged due to European fixtures being postponed following the 9/11 attacks, or, more recently, Liverpool’s League Cup Quarter Final at Aston Villa having to be squeezed in when they were playing in the World Club Cup in 2019), and with hardly any of the same players involved on both days.

Tottenham were among those playing on successive days – away to Norwich on 26th December, at home to Crystal Palace on 27th. It must have been a shock to the system for new high-profile signing Jurgen Klinsmann, who until this point wouldn’t even have had to play during the Christmas period, let alone be expected to play on successive days.

The German superstar proved to be an excellent signing for Tottenham. Despite the three foreigners rule still in force in European competition, clubs were increasingly looking beyond these shores for talent, with mixed results. It would seem unfair to list the foreign players of this era who didn’t meet expectations, so the article will move on!

Nottingham Forest, still with many of the players who’d done so well for them prior to their disastrous 1992/93 campaign, and now bolstered by the goals of Stan Collymore, would finish third upon their return to the top division. Newcastle had achieved the same feat the year before. It would be the last time a newly promoted side would finish so high, as the gulf between the Premier League and the Football League grew.

Both domestic cups would find their way to Merseyside, with Liverpool winning the League Cup (the last of their three trophies in the 1990s, a far cry from the avalanche of success they enjoyed in the previous two decades), while the FA Cup would be won by Everton, their last major trophy to date (marking the start of the longest trophy drought in their history).

The Blues beat Manchester United in the final, and the season would prove to be double disappointment for the Red Devils, as they were also pipped to the title by Blackburn Rovers, who took the crown in only their third season back in the top league.

Everybody’s 42nd and final match of the season was played simultaneously on Sunday, May 14, with both Blackburn’s trip to Anfield and Manchester United’s visit to Upton Park being shown live, thanks to Sky now having a second sports channel.

The first time simultaneous live games were shown on the final day, and it didn’t disappoint, the last day drama of 1995 unrivalled until the unforgettable events of 2012.

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At the time of writing, the footballing hierarchies are busy discussing the calendar for the 2024/25 season, in which an expanded Champions League threatens the very existence of the League Cup. It’s therefore an interesting time to revisit the significant moment (though no-one could have known it then) in September 1994, when Port Vale hosted Manchester United in the second round, first leg of the League Cup.

While it had always been an opportunity for the bigger sides to give a couple of their fringe players a run-out, Alex Ferguson named almost an entire eleven of youngsters with little to no first team experience. They won on the night, 2-1, the manager saying afterwards that they needed to experience first team football and, as he described it, the “battle ground” of Vale Park would be a big test for them. Given that the 2nd round was a two-legged affair back then, there may also have been a feeling that, had they lost, there was enough opportunity for the more senior players, with home advantage, to rescue the tie in the second leg. Instead, they were able to make numerous changes to the line-up again and progress 4-1 on aggregate.

This continued in the next round at then league-leaders Newcastle, where, despite their best efforts, they conceded late on to exit the competition they’d been runners up in only a few months earlier. No regrets from the manager, though, who said that going with a senior side may have had a demoralising effect on the players who’d taken them through against Port Vale, that they’d feel that their manager didn’t have faith in them against higher calibre opposition.

Short-term defeat for the long-term benefit of the players coming through. This would prove to be a masterstroke. Within a couple of years, a number of these young players would be household names and form the nucleus of the national side, some going on to be part of the so-called “golden generation”. The significance of this night would also impact on the competition itself.

Two years after that fateful night a Vale Park, clubs involved in Europe were given a bye into the third round. Replays were abolished the following year. While this may have also been influenced by the ever expanding International calendar (including England playing qualifiers on a Saturday during the season), the fact that other top clubs were following Manchester United’s example and didn’t appear to take the second round seriously anymore may also have been a factor.

In the years that followed, the bigger teams would use not just the early rounds but the entire competition to blood their youngsters and give them game-time experience, culminating in the 2007 final, in which Arsene Wenger kept faith with his younger players for the showpiece match against Chelsea.

As the decades passed, all top flight squads would enjoy greater strength in depth, and, as discussed earlier, the importance of reaching or staying in the Premier League surpasses everything else. These two factors combine so that today, almost all Premier League teams, and numerous Championship teams too, will field a “weakened team” in the early rounds, to the point where last season, 14 of the 19 second tier sides to enter the competition in the 1st round were knocked out, allegedly prompting the league to write to all Championship clubs encouraging them play a full strength side in the competition going forward (curiously this demand did not extend to clubs in the Premiership).

Final thought on the events of 20 September 1994 – many Port Vale fans would have made their way to that match excited by the prospect of seeing Manchester United’s star-studded line-up in the flesh, and would therefore have been left disappointed as a team of relative unknowns came out. The short term disappointment, though, would be replaced by long-term satisfaction as they could say they were there when Paul Scholes scored his first senior goals, when so many future stars where in United’s line-up simultaneously for the first time, and when the so-called “Class of 92” came of age.

After Shearer’s record-breaking move from Southampton to Blackburn in 1992, transfer fees in English football still stayed below the £4 million mark for two years, despite the money flowing in.

To say that this would be rectified in 1994/95 would be an understatement. Blackburn Rovers spent £5 million on Norwich’s centre-back turned striker Chris Sutton in the summer of 1994. This record lasted barely six months as Andy Cole sensationally moved from Newcastle United to Manchester United in January 1995, the fee being £6 million plus Keith Gillespie (valued at £1 million). Again, it would be broken a few months later when Liverpool paid Nottingham Forest £8 million for Stan Collymore that summer, meaning that the English transfer record had more than doubled in the space of a year.

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If “cosmetic” was the word to describe 1993/94, “controversy” would best describe 1994/95.

Rule changes were brought in ahead of the 1994 World Cup, including tackling from behind being escalated to an offence worthy of instant dismissal. While any rules that make the game safer for the players are to be welcomed, this would cause an increase in sendings off across the country. A few more red cards than usual, though, would be the least of English football’s problems that season. Many times, our national sport made the front pages for the wrong reasons.

Bruce Grobbelaar, Hans Segars and John Fashanu all found themselves in court accused of taking bribes and match fixing – they were eventually cleared in 1997.

George Graham resigned as Arsenal manager after it emerged he’d received an illegal payment when signing John Jensen. In fact, the Highbury club were never far away from the controversy this season, with Paul Merson taking time out after admitting to addictions for gambling, alcohol and drugs, and David Hillier failing a drugs test, a fate that would also befall Crystal Palace’s Chris Armstrong, while Chelsea’s Dennis Wise was convicted of criminal damage and assault.

All of these incidents, though, were overshadowed by Eric Cantona assaulting a supporter during a match at Selhurst Park. He was given a community service and immediately banned for the remainder of the season by his own club, the footballing authorities extending that ban until October 1995.

Perhaps most concerning of all was the international friendly in February between Republic of Ireland and England having to be abandoned due to crowd trouble, especially since England would be hosting the European Championships the following summer.

Less than two months later, violence also marred the FA Cup semi-finals. Losing 4-1 to Everton at Elland Road, a handful of Tottenham supporters ran on to the pitch during stoppage time, suspected to be in a feeble attempt to get the game abandoned. At the final whistle, as scores of Everton fans invaded the pitch to celebrate, this time significantly more than a handful of Tottenham fans encroached the field and clashes broke out. Luckily for the terrestrial TV cameras, this was quickly and efficiently dealt with and the crowds were dispersed almost immediately.

Far worse was to come in the day’s later game between Manchester United and Crystal Palace at Villa park, when, perhaps ignited by the Cantona incident earlier in the season, trouble before the match led to the tragic death of Crystal Palace fan Paul Nixon, who was run over by a bus as he tried to escape the Manchester United supporters attacking his group.

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Given the technology of the time compared with the modern day, it’s understandable that this incident wasn’t widely known as the match commenced, and ended in a 2-2 draw after extra time.

However, the replay was held just three days later at the same ground, and, at the encouragement of Colin Noades, club director and brother of then chairman Ron, the majority of Crystal Palace fans boycotted the game, resulting in a crowd of less than 18,000. The statement “We sincerely believe the match should not be played so soon after the dreadful events of last Sunday and we are anxious to avoid any further serious incidents.”

An already hotly charged game was made worse when, early in the second half, Roy Keane stamped on Gareth Southgate following an admittedly dangerous tackle by Palace’s future England manager. Keane was given his marching orders, along with Palace’s Darren Patterson for his part in the furore among the players that followed. Commentator Barry Davies said, “this is exactly what the game did not need, particularly in these circumstances”.

It was exactly what English football did not need, its reputation taking so much damage at the worst possible time with the Euro ’96 on the horizon.

Having cleaned up its image, on and off the pitch, in recent years, and having won so many admirers and new fans in the process, one could be forgiven for thinking that, after so many unsavoury stories and incidents throughout 1994/95, all the goodwill that had been built up had been lost and that football would once again be looked down on by the elites and the establishment.

On the contrary, if anything the notoriety seemed to make it even more popular.

As we reached the mid-point of the decade, Britpop was reaching its peak, and so called “lad culture” had emerged, dominating the airwaves, especially in late night programming.

Football was to play a huge part in both of these cultures. Oasis’ Gallagher brothers famously ardent Manchester City supporters, while Blur’s Damon Albarn, who had seemingly shown no interest in football when the group first broke in 1990, had nailed his colours firmly to the Chelsea mast.

It’s worth bearing in mind that Chelsea, who only returned to the top division in 1989, were still very much a mid-table side at this time. However, with their plush West London location, they’d always attracted their share of famous supporters, from Richard Attenborough to then Prime Minister John Major. The lavish location and celebrity endorsement, combined with an affluent fanbase and English football’s increasing popularity and global appeal, meant it was only a matter of time before they became a glamorous side on the pitch too.

Their journey to this was actually set in motion in the summer of 1995 by the arrival of Ruud Gullit. That’s a story to be told in full in later editions.

The increasing money, popularity, fashionability, and, seemingly corruption, of the modern game, the changes in just a few years, were lampooned in the comedy drama 11 Men Against 11. Originally aired in the summer of 1995, and, at the time of writing, still available to watch on Channel 4’s streaming service, it poked fun at many of the gimmicks and controversies of football in the mid-1990s.

The crux of the programme came when the fictional Premier League club’s old-school coach, played by James Bolam, gives the following missive from his sofa while watching TV, on which someone can be heard asking Dani Behr for her opinion on changes to the offside rule

What is happening to football, eh? It used to be the people’s game. Now you can’t move for trendys. Middle class w***ers who write novels on the emotional aspect of supporting Arsenal…money’s poisoned it as well, of course. And all that comes with it. Marketing. Gimmicks. Flash away kits with sick making patterns that look like pimps pyjamas. Green referees. Those pitch-side hoardings that keep revolving. Full backs with number 38 on their backs, shirts with names on them…and the wages the players are on…

Oh, what he’d make of football in 2023.

The Author

David Hardman

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