25 Years On: The murky underbelly of the Premier League

Words By Stephen Tudor
August 3, 2017

1992 was English football’s ‘big bang’. It was a whole new ball game and for the 22 clubs fortunate enough to be stationed in the top tier for the formation of the Premier League it amounted to hitting serious pay dirt. In truth, to infer they were lucky in any way is somewhat pushing it considering that several of the top flight’s leading lights were so instrumental in the breakaway happening in the first place: it even necessitated a high court ruling in 1991 and the averting of a player strike. Perhaps then ‘blessed’ is a more apt term.

Between 1988 and 1992, £44m of TV revenue was split evenly between all four Football League divisions. SKY’s £304m five year deal, reserved only for the elite, blew that spectacularly out of the water meaning that both Manchester, Merseyside, and Sheffield clubs, along with Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs, Norwich, Blackburn, Aston Villa, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Wimbledon, Southampton, QPR, Oldham, Middlesbrough, Nottingham Forest, Leeds and Ipswich could now look forward to £2.8m a season apiece. That’s quite a sudden and steep increase on the £119.565 per year they had to previously eke by on. By excluding those poor schmucks roughing it ‘downstairs’ meanwhile it made the previous deal feel like a socialist utopia.

The 22 founding fathers of the Premier League didn’t only benefit financially. Their VIP pass into the expensively branded, shiny-bedazzling new creation meant they each now had a prestige bestowed upon them which in turn put an extra nought onto the value of their players. Commercial avenues opened up too. Okay, so it really did just come down to money.

Clubs wasted little time in spending their bonanza with Blackburn smashing the transfer record for Alan Shearer while elsewhere two million pound signings became the norm. Concerns were raised in parliament and public houses, of a similar nature to the concerns being raised at present but less centred on morality and more a genuine fretting on what the future held for lower league clubs. Parachute payments were still twenty years away and this was disparity writ large. A pulling up of the drawbridge. The haves and the have-nots.

Looking back now a quarter of a century on we can see that our fears were indeed well-founded but it wasn’t so much the money that should have frightened or the closed shop ethos we imagined it to propagate: it was the unscrupulous individuals that were eventually lured by the promise of both.

Of the 22 clubs who competed in the Premier league’s inaugural campaign eight now reside in the Championship, two in League One, and another in League two. A further club in Wimbledon was stripped of its very identity and transplanted wholesale in Milton Keynes.

Leaving the Dons for just a moment those figures at least reveal a fluidity of movement and fortunes throughout the football pyramid because it naturally follows that eight clubs who originally were not basking in Premier League sunshine now are. Additionally since the league’s founding, traditionally smaller clubs such as Blackpool, Barnsley, Swindon, and Cardiff have experienced the heady climes and trips to Old Trafford and Anfield, priceless times about to be enjoyed for the first time by Huddersfield and Brighton too. This is anything but inconsequential.

Yet when we return to those original 22 we find that little shy of a third of them have plummeted – at one time or another – to the third tier or lower. Even though the elitist ideals behind the breakaway in 1992 were distasteful it can still be said that such widespread migration was really not supposed to happen. It shouldn’t have happened and certainly not in such great numbers. That it did – in some cases – can be somewhat cruelly put down to natural selection: Sheffield United may have been saddled with an extortionate wage bill on relegation in 2007 but their subsequent drop occurred four seasons later largely as a result of poor recruitment and mediocre management. For others however – most notably Leeds, Coventry and Blackburn – their awaydays to Fleetwood and Rochdale resulted from being eviscerated by owners who somehow passed the farcical ‘fit and proper person test’.

For Leeds, their downfall came about through boardroom greed of ambition and their startling deterioration has since served as a warning to all others clubs not to over-reach. At Coventry the vampiric hedge fund owners SISU have ripped the heart and home from a proud Midlands club that once spent 35 years in the top division. For all their disgusting actions it is the trivial examples that most reveal their ineptitude: after abandoning the idea of ‘text-a-substitute’ (at premium rates natch) a senior representative of the company sat in a key meeting as the club faced bankruptcy.

“I want to raise the subject of our mascot. He’s too fat and it’s not setting a good example to our children.”

It was politely pointed out that Sky Blue Sam was an elephant.

At Blackburn the reviled Venky’s first reduced the 1995 Premier League champions to a laughing stock before asset-stripping them to two relegations. Earlier this year the MailOnline accused the chicken magnates of leaving the club to die. That record breaking move for Shearer now seems a very long time ago.

Lastly we come to Wimbledon, a club boasting 115 years of history that included shocking the world to its very core. At the start of this century all of that meant for nothing as it was relocated seventy miles away to a hockey stadium, renamed, rebranded, and essentially expunged at the behest of moneymen.

These clubs, and others, were figuratively re-born with a silver spoon in their mouths back in 1992 yet were taken to the brink of rack and ruin by disreputable owners blinded by selfishness and greed. Most regrettably of all, when we look back now, it all seems so inevitable.

These next few weeks we will be inundated with celebratory content across all media delighting in the 25th birthday of the Premier League. We will revisit the goals and memorable games and be asked to vote for the greatest XIs and managers. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that for all of its shine and bedazzlement football’s ‘big bang’ has a flipside that’s cold and decidedly murky.

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