As is the wont of someone in lockdown who writes, eats and breaths football, in the absence of any live action I’ve been gorging on the retro stuff the TV companies have been churning out in their attempt to sate our footballing appetite.
Among the offerings have been ITV’s Saturday teatime ‘classics’, some Match of the Days from the archives and now, between ITV Hub and ITV4, the full gamut of Euro 96. Much to love.
But, for me, what resonated most this week, were a couple of documentaries I finally caught up on. One was 1989 – the tale of Arsenal’s 1989 final day title win through the eyes of their players and manager – and the other, When Football Changed Forever, a look at the season that preceded the start of the Premier League and the events that led to its creation.
Both would probably appear more than a little bit daft to anyone who can’t recall football when the shirts were baggy and the shorts were short, but for those of us who can, it was impossible to not get a little dewy-eyed. Unfortunately, it was also impossible not to feel a little anger (a state in which I find myself far too often these days), especially when considered in conjunction with the Premier League of today.
The Arsenal documentary was the pick of the two for its production and it handled sensitively the Hillsborough disaster, which was the reason why the Anfield finale was played, unusually, after the FA Cup final.
It even featured City and there was one joyous frame of the top four in the table, from the mid-February I think, with Dave Stringer’s lads sitting top. It was balanced out, however, with a 5-0 thumping we took at Highbury as the Gunners closed in on the title with four games left.
As it transpired, Arsenal only picked up a single point in their next two games, meaning they needed a 2-0 win at Anfield to win the title. But they needn’t have worried. Alan Smith, Michael Thomas and Nick Hornby did the rest.
If you haven’t, I’d recommend it, if only for Tony Adams’ less-than-sophisticated take on top-level football and Lee Dixon’s scarf. It was good.
When Football Changed Forever was equally interesting but rather more than a gentle jog down memory lane.
It took the expected digs at the dodgy hairstyles, the huge shirts and less-than-perfect pitches but [*cliche klaxon] it really was a simpler time, laid bare by an unexceptional but immensely well-organised Leeds United team winning the title.
It also told the tale of how the original enfant terrible, Eric Cantona came to join Leeds and showed that classic scene of him ‘celebrating’ their league title victory with David Barry Gary McAllister on Lee Chapman’s sofa – a more understated celebration you’ll seldom see.
It was also a time when Saint & Greavsie were a harmless version of Neville and Carragher; Ian St John finding the most benign Jimmy Greaves aside as reason to rupture his spleen on a weekly basis. And it was also the beginning of 5 Live’s 606 with a very youthful-looking and feisty Danny Baker; a forerunner to much of the fan-generated content we hear, see and read today.
But, while that victory for the Real Madrid of the north was a thin premise on which the piece was set, the real story was the off-field skulduggery by the then top five – Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool, Everton and Manchester United that led to the creation of the Premier League. These giants had decided, in a frenzy of self-interest, they wanted a bigger slice of a cake that, at that time, benefitted everyone.
One club, one vote wasn’t for them.
Driven by Arsenal’s David Dein, Manchester United’s Martin Edwards and Spurs’ Irving Scholar (who grotesquely named themselves the ‘young bucks’) and steered by two older heads – Liverpool’s Noel White and Everton’s Philip Carter – the secret meetings, phone calls, and hush hush tête-à-têtes began.
That Dein, in particular, sees himself as one of the PL’s founding fathers is as factual as it is galling.
Quote: “To make an omelette you need to break some eggs and we broke a lot of eggs at the time”.
The eggs in Dein’s analogy were too numerous to mention. In fact, it’s easier to describe the non-eggs – the big five and BSkyB.
With a modicum of arm wrestling between the young bucks and their accomplices, it soon boiled down to a ‘join us or we’ll bu.gger off’ to the other teams in the top division. Out of it, in April 1991 came the FA’s Blueprint for the Future of Football, which advocated the launch of a new league. At least 12 clubs, including said ‘big five’ obviously, said they would join.
It was the biggest upheaval to hit football since the game turned professional, but it wasn’t about all professional teams. It was about five.
By June 1991, four more clubs had signed up to the proposed FA Premier League – including Norwich City – thereby making any opposition to the proposal futile. Despite understandable opposition from the Football League, the die was cast.
The FA Premier League, as it was originally known, was to become a thing for the 1992/93 season but, while the FA will always be the overseers of the English game, the fact FA has been dropped from its title speaks volumes. No one doubts where the power lies.
Which brings us to the TV deal. The bit that stinks.
In May 1992, the TV rights for the FA’s new product was on the table. BSkyB and ITV were the two contenders and, up until this point, Rupert Murdoch’s satellite TV project had only had limited take-up. For him, the prospect of losing was unpalatable and had he missed out on this deal, it may not have prospered going forward.
As the meeting opened, ITV, led by their Head of Sport Greg Dyke, were in pole position. In the late 1980s, he had brokered a deal with the Football League that saw live football at 5pm on Sundays in exchange for the big clubs getting a slightly larger slice. Dyke had been involved in the Dein/Edwards meetings from the word go, but the numbers in those interim deals were peanuts compared to those being considered for the rights to show the new product.
On the day of the deal itself, Alan Sugar was at the meeting representing Spurs, for whom he had recently bought a controlling interest. The same Alan Sugar who owned Amstrad, which had the contract for producing the BSkyB dishes that adorned the country’s rooftops.
See where this is going?
Despite the clear conflict of interest, Sugar was permitted a vote and, worse still, somehow managed to engineer himself into a position where he acted as Murdoch’s proxy at the meeting. And when it was revealed that a late increase in the ITV bid looked likely to see them win the contract, it was he who was first on the phone to Murdoch.
Their conversation was overheard. “Blow them out of the water” was the joint-conclusion of the two megalomaniacs… and so they did.
With Dyke unable to respond, BSkyB won the rights to live Premier League football in a £304 million five-year deal. The stench of dodginess lingered but only until the millions started rolling in.
The consolation prize of a highlights package was won by the BBC who were then able to resurrect Match of the Day but, as a result, ITV football was frozen out and, for a time, wasn’t even a thing.
Interestingly, while Murdoch/Sugar’s £304 million was sufficient to ‘blow away’ Dyke’s offer of £262 million, in the end, BSkyB paid just £190m, after failing to meet certain foreign sales targets.
So, we partly have Sugar to thank for where we are today.
In his own words, “Not blowing my own trumpet, really [he really was] … but the whole revolution started with me and BSkyB.”
So much of the rhetoric of Dein, Edwards and Sugar fits perfectly with the money-driven, immoral monstrosity the Premier League has become today. And anyone who’s seen said documentary will recognise the tone and assimilate it with the PL’s actions and words of the last few months, when people rather than pounds should have been, but weren’t, the clear priority.
The Premier League, as a result of that initial deal, is without question the richest league in the world, and, for some, that also equates to it being the best. Football clubs, including our own, have feasted on the goodies made available as a result of that initial deal and have themselves had access to tens, sometimes hundreds, of millions of pounds.
Football did indeed change forever, and no-one baulks at safe, largely trouble-free, stadia, the perfect pitches and the enhanced fan experience, but has it changed for the better directly as a result of Mr Murcoch and co?
I’m not so sure. Even less sure after that little reminder of its creation.
I’d like to think we’d have (eventually) arrived here even without them.