An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1992 – The Premier League


15 August 1992 – London, Ipswich, Liverpool, Southampton, Coventry, Leeds and Sheffield

The sport of Association Football was invented in 1992 when the Premier League first kicked off at 3pm, 15 August 1992 in nine grounds around England. It developed out of primitive proto-football games played in local parks, the British Colonies and, for 104 years, as a professional sideshow in England and Wales.

The video below shows some grainy footage of one of these games being played in front of a small audience of circa 107,000.

While the “Sky Sports Generation” is roundly mocked for its insistence on statistics that start with the phrase “in the Premier League era”, it is worth taking my tongue out of my cheek for a moment to note that it has been almost 23 years since the first Premier League game was played. As a result, we are as about as far removed from Brian Deane’s goal against Manchester United as Brian Deane’s goal against Manchester United was from the Apollo XI moon landing.

Brian Deane scored the first Premier League goal. Against Manchester United. For Sheffield United.

Now, as with posts about Wrestlemania or Sol Campbell, why should anyone who doesn’t care about sport give a damn about the Premier League? Well, as with ‘Mania this is a story about globalisation. It is about the breaking down of national boundaries and the great benefits and inherent dangers of the commercialisation of working-class culture.

To set my stall out from the beginning – I am a fan of a non-Premier League club. Walsall. A club whose only real claim to fame is beating Arsenal in the days before the mass production of penicillin and the ground zero of Paul Merson‘s managerial career. If you don’t know who Paul Merson is, don’t bother Googling.

I am, however, very much part of the “Premier League Generation”. I have a Sky Sports subscription. My wife is an Arsenal fan. Rightly or wrongly, I view the Champions League Final as the biggest game of the season. And I still believe David Beckham is a flawless human being.

Flawless. (Source)

Flawless. (Source)

When professional football started in this country back in the 1880s, it was viewed with suspicion by the public-school educated men who governed the sport. The Corinthian – amateur – spirit was supposed to pervade. Football was played for the love of the game, to make men manly and to reflect the masculine Christian ideal of the defender of the British Empire. Professionalism sullied that ideal. So what if the factory workers of the North needed to be compensated for the time they took off work to play the game? So what if the money from paying customers went straight into the hands of business men, not the athletes competing?

If that sounds like a stupid argument, bear in mind the Rugby Football Union only approved of formal professionalisation in 1995. The NCAA in the United States still forbids it.

As time went on, the business side of football became more entrenched. The British Football Association briefly championed the rights of professional clubs, before the Football Association caved and supported the paying of players in 1885. Clubs in the North of England organised a league in 1888 so that teams could play regular fixtures and therefore guarantee a certain standard of matches for paying customers. 12 clubs signed up. Over the years, more clubs were added and split into hierarchical divisions. In 1950 the last expansion occurred, creating a league of 92 professional teams in four divisions. They played over 40 games a year, plus various local, national and eventually international cup competitions.

The first league champions, Preston North End. (Source)

The first league champions, Preston North End. (Source)

League football, then, has always been a business. It exists because owners wanted more reliable income streams. The laws of the game may have changed significantly since 1888, but this has been the one constant. Until 1961, it was against the rules to pay a player more than £20 a week. (£412 or $615 in today’s money.) Owners have always found ways to overcrowd delapidated stadiums to get as much in ticket revenue as they could – sometimes with disastrous consequences. And so when a new cash cow came along, it was no surprise that the bigger owners tried to exploit it to their own ends.

Between 1990 and 1992 a series of negotiations were held with the biggest clubs in the country and broadcasters to form a breakaway league. Under Football League rules, revenue from televised football was split between all 92 clubs. Those in Division 1 believed this was unfair; since they provided the best quality football, they argued that they should keep the vast majority of the proceeds.

The 22 teams in that division voted to form their own league – The FA Premier League – and negotiated a separate deal with BSkyB, the biggest pay-TV supplier in the country. The structure of English football was retained, with three sides relegated to the second tier ever season, and three new arrivals taking their place. Other than one season in which the number of sides was reduced to 20, this has remained the case. The total number of clubs in the top four divisions in English football is still 92. So, why the fuss?

As satellite television became increasingly popular in the UK, BSkyB were able to bid even more for Premier League football. Off the back of a reasonable performance by England in the 1990 World Cup, the return of European competition following the Heysel ban, and the safety improvements off the back of the Taylor Report, football became a more popular product to attend and view on screen. Rupert Murdoch’s TV empire was built on its ability to provide exclusive access to Bart Simpson, Rachel Green and Eric Cantona. Football fuelled Sky as much as Sky fuelled football.

The size of the television contracts meant that promotion to the Premier League became increasingly lucrative. Those in the division had a ridiculous competitive edge over those outside. Those in the old Division Two – now the top tier of the Football League – were forced to either face a season of losing regularly in the Premier League (and inevitable relegation), or to overspend in the pursuit of Sky money. Others found themselves unable to cope with the loss of income that followed relegation. The knock on effects were obvious; even lower league clubs were forced to pay inflated prices for average players just to try and compete in the divisions they had historically been associated with. Football fans are well aware of the difficulties of Crystal Palace, Southampton, Portsmouth, Leicester City, Cardiff City, Luton Town, Wrexham, Wimbledon, York City, Port Vale, Boston United, Leeds United, Chester City, Hereford United, Halifax Town…

Liverpool fans oppose the American owners of the club. "Built by Shanks [Bill Shankley, legendary manager of the club who built the success of the 1970s and 1980s], broke by Yanks [Americans].  (Source)

Liverpool fans oppose the American owners of the club. “Built by Shanks [Bill Shankley, legendary manager of the club who built the success of the 1970s and 1980s], broke by Yanks [Americans].

There have been other problems. As football has increased in popularity with the middle classes and foreign tourists, ticket prices have increased well above inflation, so that the demographics of working class men and women who would have attended games 20 years ago can no longer afford to do so. The influx of money has also led to the mass importation of the best talent from around the world, cutting off the traditional opportunities for young British players to play at the highest level of English football. For those who do get the opportunity, wages are so over-inflated it can be difficult to keep their egos grounded. Fans of clubs outside the top six or seven have absolutely no hope going into a new season of winning the league – unless, by some miracle they get a multi-billionaire show interest in their team. But that causes its own unique problems.

Sky's television deals have distorted the competition between the 92 "league" clubs. (Source)

Sky’s television deals have distorted the competition between the 92 “league” clubs.

On the other hand, the quality of football on the field is undoubtedly better than it was before the Premier League. World television deals have improved the facilities and talent pools of all the top clubs across Western Europe (soccer’s traditional powerhouse). Players are stronger, fitter and spend more time honing their technique than ever. Tactically, the teams are better drilled. Sometimes that results in turgid chess battles that are less interesting than watching actual chess. But it also gives us the brilliance of Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez. Stadiums across the country are now safe and comfortable. It is easier than ever to follow your team if you cannot for some reason get to the ground. And for people like me and my wife, who grew up in rural areas without access to a decent professional team, it means that you can consume and follow the sport in a way that would have been difficult in the past.

Of course, as with all change narratives, some will praise the march of progress; other will mourn for a culture lost. But this assumes that footballing culture in Britain was always static. Football had already evolved from a local activity to a national and increasingly ‘Europeanized’ culture by 1990.1 Wages had increased since the maximum wage was scrapped in 1961. While not a multi-millionaire in the same way the average Premier League player is now, it would be a stretch to suggest that someone like Kevin Keegan (active 1968-85) was some sort of romantic local working class boy who remained part of the local community. Maybe he was more “one of the people” than Wayne Rooney. But it is a crass over-simplification to assume that the game in 1991 was somehow pure and Bohemian.

The rabid opposition expressed in some to what is considered the “over commercialisation” of football is also reflective of a wider concern about the encroaching power of globalisation and the destruction of local identities. The “39th Game” proposal, an anathema to many, was offered as an example of how modern club owners place profit above the integrity of the sport.2 This would have broken the traditional structure of the league, in which each club plays every other team twice (once at their own stadium and once away). Thus, every team has the same schedule, and can therefore prove over the course of a year which is the strongest. But the opposition also reflected a grave concern that by playing English football in the middle east that local clubs, traditionally rooted in a local community, were simply businesses who happened to be based in England. Those fans from the surrounding area were far less important than anyone who was willing and able to buy a ticket. A culture was being lost.

Even when English clubs play each other, the prize at stake is often international in nature. Whether it be here, in a UEFA Champions League match; or whether it be as part of the process of finishing in the "top 4" so that the club can qualify for the mega-riches of European competition. (Source)

Even when English clubs play each other, the prize at stake is often international in nature. Whether it be here, in a UEFA Champions League match; or whether it be as part of the process of finishing in the “top 4” so that the club can qualify for the mega-riches of European competition.

The trends seen in the Premier League are not unique to England. Spain’s league has also become less competitive in the wake of foreign stars, despite possessing arguably the best two teams in world football over the past 5 years. The increased popularity of the Champions League – an annual competition for the top teams from each of Europe’s leagues – has further distorted the financial gap between the top and bottom of each country. “National” football makes increasingly less sense in a global market place, let alone the idea that a club should reflect and be integrated with the city in which it happens to play.

European football as a whole, then, reflects a world in which local and national assets are owned by increasingly powerful and distant entities, and bear little relation to their historical origins. Much like a car factory can simply leave an area for one with cheaper labour, causing local unemployment in its wake, football clubs can price out their traditional fans in the knowledge that there will be enough TV subscribers and tourists willing and able to fork out the price of viewing. Those praising and demonising the Premier League do so within this historical context. One in which quality undoubtedly improves, but the local character and culture become discarded in favoured of uniformity and the interests of distant powers.

  1. Mark Turner, ‘From local heroism to global celebrity stardom: a critical reflection of the social cultural and political changes in British football culture from the 1950s to the formation of the premier league’, Soccer and Society, 15(5) (2014), 751-60.
  2. Joel Rookwood and Nathan Chan, ‘The 39th game: fan responses to the Premier League’s proposal to globalize the English game’, Soccer and Society, 12(6) (2011), 897-913.
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