Premier League at 25: A whole new world – 1992-1997

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When Sky’s adverts to herald the new Premier League famously promised “a whole new ball game” it was as much about hype and hope as the reality.

A little was new but a lot was still old. The ad featured Gordon Strachan with a 1980s mullet and John Wark with a 1970s moustache, even if David Hirst was wearing an earring and Tony Daley working out with his top off. It was soundtracked by a Simple Minds song, Alive and Kicking, that was seven years old and had more to do with the Brat Pack than the Brit set, let alone the country’s nascent rave culture.

All 22 clubs (there were that many) had British managers. Shirt sponsors were the traditional – JVC for Arsenal, Sharp for Manchester United – and aimed at the VHS market rather than the satellite. Others were targeted squarely at the local market rather than overseas eyes: Shipstones and Nottingham Forest, Fisons and Ipswich.

Glamour was hard-working Scandinavians such as Gunnar Halle and John Jensen.

Manchester United’s big summer signing was Dion Dublin, for £1m, from Cambridge United. Dublin’s new team, 25 years without a league title, would begin the brave new world by losing at Sheffield United.

Only one manager in the division was sacked in that first season. Two years further on, 15 of the 22 Premier League clubs changed their manager during the season or in the close seasons that bookended it.

If that was an indication of how quickly the influx of television money and its attendant pressures were altering the landscape, so too were the signings teams were making. By the league’s fourth birthday Middlesbrough, who had been relegated in 1993 with a team led by Bernie Slaven playing in a 90-year-old stadium, could celebrate the opening of their new 30,000 all-seater ground with the arrival of Champions League winner Fabrizio Ravanelli from Juventus and a line-up that featured three Brazilians.

Inflation took hold even as the nation’s economy flatlined. By the summer of 1995, Warren Barton was worth £4m to Newcastle, which at least made Liverpool feel better about the £3.5m they had spent on his Wimbledon team-mate John Scales the year before. Neither man played a competitive fixture for England.

With each passing season the quality of the football on offer seemed to improve a little more. Strikes that were comfortable winners of Goal of the Month a few years before became humdrum; seemingly impossible efforts from Matt le Tissier and Tony Yeboah reflected the sense of never having had it so good. With it came wonder games too, Liverpool’s 4-3 win over Newcastle in April 1996 maybe the best of the lot.

The breakaway had been triggered in part by the Football League’s desire to improve the national team. After an awful European Championship in 1992 was followed by a failure to qualify for the following World Cup, Premier League talent took an invigorated Terry Venables team to the semi-finals of Euro ’96.

Of course, they lost on penalties to Germany, just as they had in 1990, just as they routinely would to other nations into the future. But the hosting of that tournament and the national celebration that came with it, Three Lions and all, fed back into the Premier League. Football had come home, and now everyone was into it, even if not everyone could now afford to watch.

There were crises along the way – Arsenal manager George Graham sacked for taking bungs, former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar being accused of match-fixing, Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson admitting to addictions to cocaine, alcohol and gambling. Ever more money in the game, ever more temptation.

Nothing was as shocking as when Manchester United striker Eric Cantona launched himself into the Selhurst Park crowd. But then nothing had been as critical to the direction of the league as United’s decision to sign the Frenchman close to the start of it all.

When Alex Ferguson brought him in on 26 November 1992, following a phone call from Leeds enquiring about Denis Irwin, United had just gone seven league games without a win and were eighth in the table. Over the next five years they would win the title in all but one, establishing a hegemony that would only occasionally be broken over the next 15 years.

The seeds of the next era were being sown too. On 17 August 1996, David Beckham scored from the halfway line in a 3-0 win over Wimbledon, beginning a transformation that would take football players into the celebrity mainstream and in many cases beyond.

Just over a month later, Arsenal appointed 46-year-old Frenchman Arsene Wenger as their new manager. Few had heard of him. Even fewer guessed the changes he would bring to the Premier League.

Farewell beer, hello broccoli; in with foreign talent, out with the old certainties. Now it was a new ball game, and there was a great deal more to come.

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