If you thought transfer deadline day was the shuddering climax of all things Sky Sports – a multi- coloured and frequently bad trip alongside alternating flights of fantasy and the positively humdrum – then believe me, you ain’t, as Randy Bachman has so frequently warbled, seen nothing yet.
And yes, Sky Sports do indeed celebrate the humdrum in much the same way that they deify the spectacular or prostate themselves at the feet of the unfeasible.
Barry Bannan moving on loan from Crystal Palace to Bolton Wanderers is afforded as much comment, insight and revelation as that which might be expected if Zlatan Ibrahimoivic had been spotted at Victoria coach station.
Yet all of that will be for naught by the time we get to next summer.
Because nothing short of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (with Conquest being heavily fancied to join Manchester City in a swap deal that will see Eliaquim Mangala team up with War, Famine and Death and subsequently be known as Folly) will detract Sky from celebrating an epoch shaking celebration in a year’s time.
Because the 2016/17 season will be the 25th season of Premier League football.
And, just like any anniversary of that nature, the cheap wine, vol-au-vents and Ferrero Rocher (“Mr Murdoch, you are spoiling us”) will come out, together with a wide range of guests; some obvious, some otherwise residing in the ‘Where are they now?’ file and some, well, some who you had completely forgotten about and are, even now, struggling to remember.
Think Steven Gerrard, Dave “Harry” Bassett and Andy Sinton for example.
They might even invite the two naughty uncles along, that is Richard Keys and Andy Gray. Will they come or won’t they? Richard will make the obligatory remark or two about the high visibility blazers he wore during the stations early years whilst Andy will be invited to remember the night when he first coined that irritating phrase “Take a bow son” – one that has now become so ubiquitous in its use that the Queen has adopted the phrase and now uses it whenever she inadvertently encounters a footman or equerry in any of the long and dusty corridors of Buckingham Palace.
Twenty five seasons of Premier League football. Twenty-bloody-five years. A quarter of a century and ‘the product’ as it’s so fondly referred to at Sky to this day still hasn’t eaten itself.
Who remembers the promotional film used by Sky to push said product onto the few thousand or so people in the UK who originally had one of their satellite dishes attached to an outer wall in order to receive, as it was cruelly referred to by some at the time, as ‘council house television’.
You couldn’t call it that today as hardly anyone under the age of 40 would know what a council house was.
But I digress.
The fact of the matter was that Sky was banking on live coverage of Premier League football in order to sell dishes and garnish subscriptions. No-one was going to sign on the dotted line for exclusive access to stations like Bravo, UK Gold and VH1. But live football? That was another matter entirely.
It was a gigantic gamble. Sky’s fate hung on football. If people weren’t attracted to the prospect of more live games than had ever been shown before, then Sky would, quite simply, have gone under. As simple as that.
But it worked for them. And how.
Sky’s investment in Premier League football from next season will be in the region of £5.136 billion – a 70 per cent increase on the deal that runs out at the end of this coming season.
That works out, incidentally, at around £79.50 for every man, woman and child in Great Britain today.
It’s a lot of money.
And we were, of course, all part of it at the beginning. Take a look at Sky’s old promo film again. Is that Ian Butterworth on 0:04 seconds? Don’t blink or you’ll miss him. But there it was, we were part of it.
Our subsequent success that season is now well known and documented. Some chancer even wrote a book about it. If we were to repeat the achievement of finishing third in the Premier League next season we’d end up qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League, a conclusion to a Premier League campaign that would be, if we really managed to bisect the establishment in such a manner, one of the biggest shocks in English footballing history.
It’s highly improbable of course. And when I say ‘highly’, I’m talking exosphere and beyond. But it’s not impossible.
I bet Alex Neil doesn’t think it is anyway.
But what was it about that squad of players we had back in the 1992/93 season that enabled them to reach such heights?
And would you swap any of them, at their peak, for their peers in that position today?
Let’s play a game. A Mike Walker side from that season against one that Alex Neil might well play at some point next season. To make things easier from a comparable point of view, both sides are lining up in a 4-4-2 formation and I’m not including any of our new signings.
Who would you chose?
GK – Bryan Gunn or John Ruddy
RB – Ian Culverhouse or Stephen Whittaker
CH – John Polston or Russell Martin
CH – Ian Butterworth or Seb Bassong
LB – Mark Bowen or Martin Olsson
RM – Ruel Fox or Nathan Redmond
CM – Ian Crook or Jonny Howson
CM – Jeremy Goss or Alex Tettey
LM – David Phillips or Bradley Johnson
CF – Mark Robins or Lewis Grabban
CF – Chris Sutton or Cameron Jerome
What immediately strikes me as interesting is, given all of the transfer speculation that seems to be affecting us all at the moment, is the origins of the players in each of those two sides.
Seven players from Walker’s side had been purchased from fellow top flight clubs – four from Tottenham (Culverhouse, Bowen, Polston and Crook) plus one each from Nottingham Forest (Butterworth), Coventry City (Phillips) and Manchester United (Robins) whilst Bryan Gunn had signed from Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League.
And these weren’t free transfers, bought in at little to no expense having made no first-team appearances for their previous top flight clubs. Far from it. Phillips had already played over 200 games for Manchester City and Coventry whilst Butterworth had appeared in over 100 games for Coventry and Nottingham Forest.
Even Mark Bowen and Ian Crook had made around 75 league appearances for Tottenham between them – with both Bowen and Ian Culverhouse thought good enough to be on the club’s bench in the 1984 UEFA Cup Final.
Robins, meanwhile, had made around 50 appearances for Manchester United, scoring more than his fair share of goals – including, famously, the one that supposedly saved Sir Alex Ferguson from the sack when he scored the decisive goal for the Red Devils and their under pressure manager in an FA Cup game against Nottingham Forest in 1990.
Players who already had Premier League quality and experience? They all ticked the boxes. And how.
Now look at that hypothetical Canaries side that Alex Neil could pick. How many players in that starting XI had previous Premier League experience when we signed them?
Just three of them – Seb Bassong, Martin Olsson Cameron and Jerome. With only Bassong at a Premier League side when we signed him – in his case, Tottenham.
Such an arbitrary observation doesn’t mean anything of course. At least, not seriously.
But it has left me wondering, especially with that aforementioned transfer window in mind, that it is, perhaps, just that little bit more difficult to get that much vaunted “Premier League quality” on board than it used to be.
If Mark Robins was at Manchester United today, do you really think we’d stand a chance of signing him permanently? Or, come to that, manage to persuade him to come here, even on loan?
I don’t think we would stand a chance. He’d probably be on, even as a Manchester United fringe player, a higher wage than we could afford. But which teams like Sunderland, Aston Villa and Everton would be more than willing to pay.
We’d have next to no chance today. Who is his current day equivalent in the Manchester United squad? James Wilson maybe? Would we stand a chance of signing him on a permanent basis if they chose to sell him? Not unless at least a dozen other Premier League clubs weren’t already interested-and, again, as far as his wages were concerned, he’d probably be way out of our financial league.
At least Robins got a small rise when he came to Norwich. But not much. We did, however, have a win bonus system in place at the time that was as good as any in the Premier League. But that was then.
Likewise promising young players like Ian Culverhouse, Mark Bowen and Ian Crook at Tottenham. Could we expect to sign players of that calibre from Tottenham this summer?
I don’t think so.
Crook was just 23 when we signed him from Tottenham for just £80,000. He was highly rated at White Hart Lane, hugely so in fact. But he couldn’t get a game. And how could he with players like Glenn Hoddle and Ossie Ardiles, for starters, playing in his position? So what else could Tottenham do but sell him?
We got lucky there. It was a steal, we knew it, they knew it – and they knew we knew it.
As with Wilson at Manchester United, if we wanted a young Crook now, we’d be looking at someone like Alex Pritchard. But they aren’t going to be letting him go anytime soon. And certainly not for the sort of fee we’d be either willing or able to find.
The door to Premier League bargains is all but locked and barred. There may be the odd glimmer of light and hope shining through its now impregnable facade. But what are the odds of us ever unearthing someone like Crook again for next to nothing from a rival? Not far off zero I’d reckon.
And not just because Tottenham wouldn’t want to sell. But because they don’t need to either. And, for that matter, I would guess that Pritchard has no intention or desire to leave either.
We’ve managed to sign Graham Dorrans, Youssouf Mulumbu and Robbie Brady this summer. And they are significant signings for us simply because all are, or were, current Premier League players with both the experience and quality needed to thrive at the rarefied level of football.
But, for all the reasons and examples cited above, they are going to be the exception rather than the rule.
Premier League quality. There’s a lot of it about. But it’s mostly a case of look but don’t touch.
Which is one of the reasons why we have to do a lot of our shopping elsewhere these days; because you just can’t get the quality bargains from your own footballing high street anymore.