Tin hat time for me: here is my defence of Rupert Murdoch.
No, that’s not really what this is. But I’d like to respond to and amplify Gary Gowers’ piece about the start of the Premier League — because I had a ringside seat at the fight that transformed the game in this country.
Several of the conspirators who plotted to form the new League were known to me. I was deputy sports editor of the (London) Evening Standard, and that paper was actively courted by Irving Scholar (Tottenham’s chairman from 1982 to 1991) and David Dein (executive vice-chair at Arsenal throughout the relevant period). And when Scholar had to sell Spurs to Alan Sugar and Terry Venables, just before the start of the final season of the old four-division Football League, I could always get a card marking from Nick Hewer, Sugar’s right-hand man.
Gary was right to point out that Norwich City, under Robert Chase, were among the clubs who quickly backed the new league. But there were plenty of other enthusiasts. Elton John, then chairman of Watford, told me he was flattered that his club were invited to regular meetings about the plot.
There was a rival power-block within the old First Division, co-ordinated by Ken Bates of Chelsea and Ron Noades of Crystal Palace, but they just wanted to stop the game being ruled by self-styled ‘Big Five’: Liverpool, Everton, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham.
Eventually, Bates and Noades accepted that it was the Big Five who delivered the largest TV audiences and so accepted that the clubs they represented needed to remain in alliance with the Big Five. And as Peter Storey, then at West Ham, said later, “Nobody in the old First Division voted to exclude themselves from the Premier League, which was not a surprise to anyone else.’
The only real opposition came from clubs lower down the food-chain and from Gordon Taylor at the PFA (yes, really). And, although the new competition was supposed to help the England team, the England manager at that time, Graham Taylor, told me he had not been consulted and believed the scheme for a new league was motivated by greed.
It’s impossible to quibble with that assessment. Dein and Scholar, the lead conspirators, are not bad people. I still get on well with Dein in particular. But they wanted their clubs to be among Europe’s elite, were envious of the ease with which Italian clubs and the Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, picked off the continent’s best players and knew that the two monopolistic TV broadcasters in England — BBC and ITV — had been getting football on the cheap.
Where I took exception to Dein, Scholar and the rest — and told them so, regularly — was that they wanted not only to increase the TV cake, but to take much bigger slices and leave mere crumbs for lower division clubs.
Where I depart from the popular consensus is that I don’t place Murdoch among the instigators of the rebellion, nor accept that his part in proceedings has been inherently malign.
I have to declare that I worked for three organisations that were part of his empire. I learned that he is a ruthless despot who employs ruthless generals. He makes his products brand leaders, the best at what they do, yet I abhor much of what some of them have done and do.
But the avarice of the Big Five football clubs was manifest long before Murdoch ever looked at the heavens and began thinking about satellites. As long ago as 1968 Sir Norman Chester’s report for Parliament asserted that the largest clubs were unhappy about ‘subsidising’ the small fry.
I was present in 1983 when Sir Norman announced the findings of another investigation into football, this time commissioned by the Football League. Again he spoke of the unhappiness of the biggest clubs.
Later that year (1983) the elite forced a significant concession. Home clubs were to keep all gate money instead of sharing it with the visitors — and from that moment teams who regularly filled big stadiums grew richer and richer every fortnight.
It wasn’t enough for them. Two years later they made the first overt threat of breaking away from the Football League if they were not given a bigger portion of TV money. They earned another concession — half of all TV money would go to the top division — but wanted still more.
By this time, Russia, the USA and parts of Europe were familiar with satellite television, and Murdoch had begun to investigate its potential. The likelihood of his launching a satellite channel certainly made football think there might be more money available, but it was ITV who made the first move.
In 1988 Greg Dyke, chairman of London Weekend Television and head of ITV Sport, made a direct offer to the Big Five for exclusive rights to their games. John Bromley, LWT’s head of sport even talked in detail about how games could be screened live at different times of the week.
The Football League learned about these discussions, panicked, and did a quick, exclusive deal with ITV which became known as “Snatch of the Day”. It smashed the cosy alliance with the BBC.
The previous, joint BBC/ITV deal in 1986 had been for £6m. Dyke paid £44m to keep the BBC out of the picture. That epic finale to the First Division in 1989, referred to by Gary, when Arsenal won at Liverpool, was only shown on ITV.
Dyke now had the inside track as the Big Five continued to manoeuvre for a breakaway competition to free themselves of the Football League, where their power was restricted by a complex voting structure.
The Football League remained based in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire, had an attritional relationship with the London-based FA, and were stubbornly opposed to nearly all suggestions of reform or modernisation. Compelling though much of the actual football was, its administration appeared atrophied.
For decades and decades, the Football League resisted the idea of automatic relegation to and promotion from what is now the National League. And for those of us who reported the League’s annual meeting at the Café Royal in London it did seem a moribund affair.
The Bradford fire in May 1985 and the Hillsborough disaster, one month before that Liverpool-Arsenal League showdown in 1989, provided tragic proof that the League had allowed complacency to fester and with hindsight it is clear that a revolution was inevitable. The Big Five, the clubs who stood to benefit from their lead, broadcasters hungry for live sport — these were the forces gathering to assault the obsolescent structures of the Football League.
Change was coming. It would have come without Sky, and it very nearly did not involve them.
A key moment came when Scholar sold Spurs. The club had run up debts by gambling too heavily on the replica kits/leisurewear sector, and so in stepped Sugar, who made and sold aerials for Sky.
Like Gary and some of those who have commented on his column, I don’t understand how Sugar got away with colluding with Sky’s Sam Chisholm so that the joint Sky/BBC won rights to screen the new Premier League — except, of course the clubs were delighted that Sugar’s actions secured a bigger deal.
Until that happened, Dyke believed ITV would win. He was on very good terms with Rick Parry, the new competition’s first chief executive.
If ITV had won, it would have been a different type of revolution, with football on terrestrial TV, at first at least. But the game would still have changed irrevocably, with the Premier League striding away from the Football League, able to make their own commercial deals at home and around the globe.
And we need to understand that Sky have never told the Premier League how to spend their money. The clubs could have spent much more of it propping up clubs lower down the football pyramid or on any number of good causes. They and they alone decided to give most of it to their players.
As for the present mess, in which there is no good way forward for the Premier League, only a range of calamities, there is only one certainty. We can’t pin this one on Murdoch. He hasn’t owned Sky since September 2018.