The Changing Game – Season 1990/91

I’m calling this series The Changing Game. The truth is the game’s been changing for a very long time. As far back as the 1950s, new competitions have been formed both at home and in Europe, and every couple of years, it seems, either the format of one of these competitions is tweaked, or the rules to the game of football itself are amended.

That’s just at club level – there’s also been the ever expanding World Cup and new and or expanding continental competitions in the international game.

It’s therefore difficult to pinpoint the end of an era. The end of the old ways, as it were.

For me, though, because of the sheer volume of changes that were about to take place, 1990-91 represented the last season before the new era was ushered in.

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At home, the end of the era began on day one – 25 August 1990. It was the last time that the league season itself would commence in its traditional slot of the fourth weekend in August, a start date that stretches back to when football reconvened after The Great War. Although there had been several exceptions to this since the late 1960s, the season would still regularly commence at this time of year, but 1990/91 would be the last time it would do so.

1990/91 was the last season in which FA Cup ties would be decided by unlimited replays. It would also be the last time that initial replays would be scheduled to take place a few days after the original game – usually on the Tuesday following the Saturday match. This would have changed the dynamic of the competition and the teams’ preparations. Instead of the replay being the next game, there was now a week and a half to wait, so there would now be at least one other game scheduled that each team would have to focus on before the replay. This affected the continuity and momentum of the competition.

One of the factors behind the decision was the Taylor Report’s suggestion that the police be given at least a week in which to get organised for a match. However, on three separate occasions in the years after this, Manchester United would contest a semi-final replay just three days after the initial semi-final took place. If ticketing, transport and segregation could be organised for a semi-final at a neutral ground at three day’s notice, why not replays in the earlier rounds?

Incidentally, the last of the three occasions mentioned was that unforgettable contest between Arsenal and Manchester United in 1999, featuring one of the competition’s most iconic goals. Semi-final replays were scrapped the following season. Likewise, in 2018, Rochdale earned a trip to Wembley in the fifth round when they drew 2-2 at home to Tottenham (who were playing their home games at Wembley while their new stadium was being built). Fifth round replays were discontinued the following year.

And in 1991, Everton and Liverpool played out a pulsating 4-4 under the Goodison floodlights, also in a fifth round replay. Neither side deserved to be knocked out that night, no-one wanted the action to end, and so another game was welcomed. Yet, if this had occurred a year later, that 4-4 draw would have been decided by a penalty shoot-out, which would have take the shine off the occasion, regardless of who would have won.

After 1990/91, the FA Cup wouldn’t be the same again, and this may well have been the start of the decline in its status.

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The aforementioned Taylor Report also saw stadiums beginning to undergo re-construction in order to become all seater. While it took a few years for every stand at every ground to comply, 1990-91 would be the last time that all top flight grounds would have the terracing that they’d been playing to for years and decades.

1990/91 would be the last time that there would be a full round of league fixtures scheduled before an England qualifier – in this case, the matches against the Republic of Ireland in November and March respectively. International breaks at this point were still at the league’s discretion.

1990/91 would be the last time that a club outside the top flight would win one of the two big domestic cups, with then Second Division Sheffield Wednesday beating Manchester United in the League Cup Final.

On to individual clubs and personnel, and 1990/91 would also be the last time that Tottenham would win the FA Cup, the trophy they were arguably most associated with and at the time had won on a record number of occasions. In fact, it was also the last time they would win a trophy when the year ended in ‘1’, an achievement that had also become something of a trademark for them. For all their recent adventures in the Champions League, the only additions to their trophy cabinet since 1991 have been two League Cups, the last of these coming in 2008.

In keeping with the feeling of the end of an era, Kenny Dalglish stepped down as Liverpool manager following that 4-4 cup tie with Everton, while his opposite number, Howard Kendall (who’d only returned to the club a few months earlier) would lead his Everton team out at Wembley for the last time, in the Full Members Cup final against Crystal Palace. The South London club won 4-1 to have something tangible to show for their impressive progress since returning to the top flight (they’d taken the FA Cup final to a reply the previous season and would finish third in the league this year).

On the continent, big changes were also on the horizon. 1990/91 would be the last time that the European Cup would be played in the strictly knockout format that had been used since its inception. The following season, a group stage would be introduced for the latter stages, as the competition began to evolve in to the Champions League that we know today.

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It was therefore an interesting season for English clubs to be allowed back in. However, 1990 English champions Liverpool would not compete in the European Cup, with UEFA deciding to extend their ban since they were the club involved in the Heysel tragedy. While they were allowed to compete in the UEFA Cup the following year, they wouldn’t qualify for Europe’s top competition again until 2001. In other words, that one year extension to their ban resulted in an 11 year wait to be back at Europe’s top table.

In fact, there were just two English entrants in Europe this season. Manchester United in the Cup Winners Cup and 1990 runners up Aston Villa in the UEFA Cup. English football previously had four teams in the UEFA Cup, but, due to years of absence, and with their return to Europe being on a probationary basis at this point, they had lost their co-efficient and therefore had to earn back these places.

While Aston Villa fell early (although their encounter against Inter was an occasion in itself), Manchester United helped to begin the process of boosting England’s reputation and co-efficient by going on to lift the trophy, with Mark Hughes scoring against his former club Barcelona in the final. To demonstrate how different the landscape was back then, Manchester United played Welsh Cup winners Wrexham in the last 16. Wrexham were in the bottom division of the football league. Such an event would be unthinkable in today’s climate. Strictly speaking, it couldn’t happen now anyway because, a couple of years after this campaign, the League of Wales formed, and any Welsh teams competing in the English league system were ineligible for the Welsh Cup. Even so, the thought of the Welsh Cup winners, or a fourth tier side, reaching the last 16 of a major continental competition would be the stuff of fairytales. Nowadays, they’d be delighted to even make it to the final qualifying round in August.

Back then, though, this was not uncommon in Europe’s two major cup competitions. With no seeding system, only one entrant per nation, and a knockout format making upsets more likely, unfancied clubs could progress to the latter stages. Fans could dream. Sadly those days are over now. The magic’s gone.

Back to domestic matters, and spare a thought for newly promoted Leeds United. They finished the season in fourth place, which would have been high enough for Europe prior to the ban, and would be good enough again a few years later, but not in 1991. They reached the semi-finals of both the League Cup and the Full Members Cup (beaten by Manchester United and Everton respectively), and in the FA Cup, it took four matches to decide their fourth round against Arsenal – they lost. So many matches, so many draws and victories, so much progress and yet nothing to show for it, not even a Wembley appearance.

Their 1990/91 story nicely sums up everything I’ve written about though – their end of August opening day actually saw them win at Goodison Park in a match famous for Neville Southall’s half-time sit-in, then we have the endless FA Cup replays, the limited European spaces for English clubs after the ban. Incidentally, the Full Members Cup would also become defunct after another year. By the spring of 1992, though, Leeds United had bigger dreams to aim for, and they would make up for this season of disappointments.

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As for the 1990/91 Championship – well, just like two years earlier, Arsenal pipped Liverpool to the title. While there wasn’t a repeat of the incredible last minute drama of 1989, the destination of the championship was once again decided in front of a TV audience.

On the May Day Bank Holiday, Monday 6 May 1991, ITV staged a double header – Nottingham Forest vs Liverpool followed by Arsenal vs Manchester United. At the start of the day, Liverpool trailed Arsenal by four points, so whatever the outcome, this would be a pivotal day. As it turned out, Liverpool lost in Nottingham, meaning Arsenal were champions before their game against Manchester United even started. So the TV audience instead witnessed a title party.

Between yet another title settled in front of the live TV cameras, Manchester United giving English football immediate success upon its readmission to Europe, and yet more live TV drama involving Paul Gascoigne (who suffered a severe injury early on in the aforementioned FA Cup Final), it’s fair to say English football had built on the potential after Italia ’90. The momentum was palpable, and the appetite for televised football was becoming too insatiable for terrestrial TV to fill.

The top flight of English football was about to undergo major change. With the current TV deal due to expire the following year, the murmurs of a breakaway league that were present when this deal was being discussed in 1988 were once again being heard. This time, though, the breakaway would happen.

1990/91 would be the last time that top flight clubs would file for membership of the First Division for the following season.

The Author

David Hardman

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