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.
Chris S says
Informed opinion. Marvellous, thanks Mick. It’s a peculiarity that even with parabolically increased incomes since the advent of Sky, no club seems to be any richer than they were before (although stadiums are a lot better than they used to be). Vast amounts of money come in, even vaster amounts of money go out. Someone must be winning somewhere. It’s a shame, but it makes you wonder if the game will eat itself.
martin penney says
A fascinating read which reveals several things I didn’t know about the emergence/creation of the Premier League.
When Mick says: “I learned that he [Murdoch] is a ruthless despot who employs ruthless generals” I can confirm the part about the generals is largely true.
I was earning extra by moonlighting as a casual sports sub on The Sun when it was on Bouverie Street. On a six-hour shift there could be very little to do then suddenly it was a case of – “I want this in five minutes. Go”. That was the chief sub Dave Beresford, a nicer man you would never meet and he’d love to chat with the rest of us until the copy started to arrive and then it was all hands on deck. All copy paper and casting off in those days of course.
Rambo was the topic of the day on the occasion Ian Botham scored that mighty century against the Aussies. One of my colleagues came up with the 72pt bold header: Rambotham!
The then editor, Kelvin McKenzie [an Aussie himself] heard our whoops of delight and came stomping into the office, braces and all to congratulate us on what he perceived to be a piece of brilliance. He was like a large, excitable kid but perfectly OK by us.
It was the original case of work hard, play hard. The News International rates were very generous but you had to work your nuts off to enjoy them.
I never met Murdoch 🙂
Mick Dennis says
Dave Beresford was a genius, Martin. He wasn’t who I had I mind when I talked about ruthless generals — but Kelvin certainly was. I used to lose the power to urinate whenever I found myself in the same loo as him. The sports editor in my time in Bouverie St was Peter Boyer. Years (and 3 employers) later when I joined the Standard I was horrified to learn that Boyer was assistant (later to be deputy) editor of the whole shebang. At his eventual retirement dinner I had to make a speech. I told guests who included Lord and Lady Rothermere that my wife thought Boyer’s middle name was ‘F***ing’ because when I’d worked at The Sun and my home phone went during the evening I would slam it down and curse: “Peter F***ing Boyer”.
martin penney says
I’m glad you remember Dave B in the same way that I do. I’d phone him on a Wednesday to see if I was needed for Thursday, Friday or both. It was nearly always both.
Unfortunately when they moved to Wapping I couldn’t continue because my main job then was closed-shop NUJ/NGA and everybody knew what I was doing with The Sun and politely [really] asked me to cease.
Such a pity because I genuinely enjoyed my time there but que sera and all that.
I never came across Peter Boyer and from what you’ve said I’m glad I didn’t.
They were happy days for me.
An enjoyable bit of reading.
The old League HQ in Lytham was demolished a few years ago and is now an apartment building called Hardaker Court it is such a shame they didn’t incorporate the old building into it as in reality it doesn’t blend with the older ones around it so much for progress.
I just wonder what Allan Hardakers take on the so called premiership would have been as he was a renowned strict administrator for the FA and would have fought hard to keep it in tact.
The new owners is Sky I presume will not let the interlopers take their biggest money makers away without a fight so with all them trying to get parcels of it I can only see the the Premiership getting richer and the other 3 leagues getting poorer in comparison but then we could return to a north and south league 2 encompassing a non league clubs.
Things must move on but the greed at the top must be controlled by the majority not the minority, it they want their super European league let them have it the rest will survive and prosper
Onwards and upwards
Keep safe and well
Old Yeller says
Thanks, Mick, for the insight. We all know that greed is the primary motivator in all things, not just football. And now we end up in this current mess, like so many examples in history.
I may be the only one, but my disenchantment with the Prem has finally distilled into apathy. I’ve cancelled my live TV footie subs and I will not renew my season ticket. I will miss the pre and post match beers with my mates, and the banter with the rival fans, but I will not miss the generally poor fair being served up on a very unlevel playing surface, hyper-inflated by the slick marketing teams of the TV companies.to be something it is not.
I love football, especially the way it is played by the paupers in the lower leagues. It still retains humour and loyalty: attributes now missing in the top flight because ‘there is too much at stake’. So next season (CV19 permitting) I will trot along to the Wellesley or Emerald Park for a bit of fun without needing to plan the excursion months in advance and without it depleting my bank account.
Although it won’t happen, I would love it if many thousands of fellow football fans followed suit around the country and stuck it to the greedy fat cats. The minnows would fare better too…..
martin penney says
I’m not at that stage yet Old Yeller but I certainly take on board what you say.
Many years ago when City were away on a Saturday I’d take my daughter in a pushchair to the Rec and we’d watch Blofield United. Sometimes the Reserves.
When Rachel howled with boredom I’d walk her home and go back for the second half and have a few beers in the excellent clubhouse until the Pink Un arrived.
I was so into it I even produced their programme for a while for free and they let me train with them a couple of times. Lovely people.
If I had to I could enjoy my football that way again although I’d have to find a different club to adopt as I don’t live anywhere near Blofield any more!
Living in Blackpool we have numerous teams to watch, and on my doorstep there is Barton’s Fleetwood Town, Blackpool and the new comer is AFC Fylde who are struggling after a near miss last season to join the league.
I could and possibly will go to games at AFC Fylde but my first love will always be city
Sorry deviate on this but the greed of the clubs are only matched in my opinion by the AGENTS having just read that the city striker Dymic is going to court in Switzerland for not paying him €615k for a free transfer now that is greed.
Tim Ball says
Great article Mick.
I too harken back to the old days when playing a weakened team in a league cup quarter final would have had the men in White Coats at the offending Manager’s door.
Remember the packed crowds which created fantastic atmosphere. For instance City V Palace 1973, City V Man Utd league cup semi final 1975 what great days they were.
I loved it if you were suddenly able to go on a Saturday and pay at the turnstile. ( It was when I was 12 and upwards and I had to have a mate go with me or my parents wouldn’t let me go, rest assured I did lie sometimes ! )
In those days every league and cup match was treated more or less the same and it didn’t matter if it was a top 6 team or one of the teams from the lower leagues. Ok January 15th 1972 may have been an exception, FA Cup 3rd round. Norwich City 0 Hull 3, in the year we won the league.
But on the other hand Mick the football was basic, grounds dangerous and the game was rife with hooliganism. Now we have great grounds( mostly) some excellent football and hooliganism is limited to the periphery.
So in a way its gain with one hand lose with another. As you say this change was inevitable, its just so sad many supporters can no longer afford to go, I for one have been priced out to a certain extent though my prime reason for missing games in recent years has been health issues.
Lovely to hear from you Mick. Keep safe.
I agree with Tim. There are many things wrong with Premier League football but we should also recognise the progress since it’s formation.
The main mistake has been giving virtually all the money to the players. A salary cap should have been introduced many moons ago, which would have meant more investment in infrastructure and maybe lower league feeder clubs. Also, and I accept this is a long shot, they could have actually saved some for a rainy day, which this period certainly is. We could then have been spared this unedifying spectacle of clubs desperately trying to get their money by finishing the season.
FWIW, I love Sky’s coverage, I have no desire to watch anything on the terrestrial channels with their smug uninformed presenters.
And, for all it’s faults, The Premier League is where I want us to be.