How Football Was Changed Forever
Against a grim backdrop of recession, hooliganism, dwindling attendances and a European club ban, five men instigated a process that would forever change the complexion of English football.
That gang of five included Everton Life President, Sir Philip Carter, and their brainchild was the Premier League – the world’s most lucrative association football competition.
Yet, at the very outset, few could have predicted how the seeds sown could have germinated and flourished so brilliantly.
“Looking back it grew faster, so much faster than you would expect in a situation like that,” said Sir Philip reflecting on the league's success.
“The way in which TV money would eventually come to fund football was not realised or understood. I don’t think anyone really anticipated how it would grow and grow and grow.”
Satellite television was the fertiliser – with English football’s top flight becoming a muscular global brand, a magnet for sponsorship, a vehicle for commercial bounty, revolutionised by uber-capitalism and viewed with envy by the international sporting fraternity.
On the pitch it has brought the best players, the best managers and a standard of athleticism previously unheralded.
The picture is practically unrecognisable from the murky prelude to the Premier League epiphany.
Indeed, the first half of the 1980s perhaps witnessed the modern game reach its nadir.
A crippling recession left clubs and supporters alike starved of cash, and with stadia decomposing and the malevolent presence of hooligans a deterrent, declining gates became a worrying trend.
The 1985 Bradford fire was symptomatic of the game’s maladies and when the Heysel disaster occurred – less than three weeks after 56 people had lost their lives at Valley Parade – English clubs found themselves banned from European competition and confronted with some startling home truths.
And it was those malignancies that led Sir Philip – then Chairman of Everton - into a series of secret meetings with four other footballing powerbrokers - Liverpool’s Noel White, Irving Scholar of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal’s David Dein and Manchester United’s Martin Edwards.
“If you go back to the early '80s there were great difficulties in football,” said Sir Philip. “There was obviously a recession going on and hooliganism was rearing its ugly head – there were real problems as far as the supporters were concerned. I think there was a five-year period in the early '80s where average attendances went down everywhere and that was really not good.
“In 1985 we were in a major discussion with both TV companies [ITV and BBC] and the Government soon became involved because of all the hooliganism and other things. We five came together and said something really had to be done.
“If you look back now, we maybe became a bit threatening then, sort of saying we might break away. We didn’t mean we five would break away, but we hoped we might stimulate the rest to do something about it and from then it sort of clicked into gear.”
The major problem the top clubs faced in reinvigorating the First Division was that when it came to decision-making, all 92 league clubs had an equal say.
Illustrating that point, there had been a call from the big sides to increase the number of substitutions to two – it was one in those days – only to be thwarted by smaller clubs, who were worried about increased laundry bills.
So naturally, when it came to the issue of top-flight clubs negotiating their own TV deal, there was stern opposition.
“Even before TV became interested, the five of us discussed the situation and we concluded the major problem we had was that the First Division alone couldn’t change anything,” added Sir Philip.
“The Second, Third and Fourth Divisions could always out-vote the First and this was a major problem.
“When TV did become interested they made the point that it was to be First Division teams only. That was of course vetoed by everyone and I can understand why the lower-division teams would do that.
“But when you have a product that you think is saleable then you seek to sell it in the best possible way.
“This gradually developed and we as a group discussed with the FA and the PFA and they vetoed it. The FA vetoed it on the grounds that legally it could not be done and the whole thing went into hibernation.”
Despite the best efforts of Mr Carter and his cohorts to push the agenda, it wasn’t until the second half of the 1980s that people began to listen.
Then came Hillsborough and the Taylor Report, the ramifications of which – allied with the growing support among the top clubs for a breakaway – ushered in a period of unprecedented change.
“Our main concern was that we put football right in this country – it was about what was going on,” Sir Philip stated. “How do we get the gates back? How do we get TV to help us? These things were very important.
“We started with the five but soon more clubs became interested and another four or five got involved and then it was the First Division basically.
“This wasn’t behind closed doors by this stage. We started off with the five of us operating separately but once we brought in the First Division obviously everyone knew about it.”
Soon Sky television would arrive and provide the catalyst the entire process needed. But, initially, nobody – including Sir Philip – was necessarily convinced the answer was in subscription-based TV.
“I can remember an early discussion we had with them,” he said. “We were invited to sit down in London with the people who were in charge of developing it [satellite television] and, while we were very impressed with it all, we didn’t see it as making all the difference.
“It was another element in the picture alongside the BBC and ITV, but eventually it became what it was all about.”
On 20 February 1992, the First Division clubs resigned from the Football League en masse. Three months later the Premier League was formed and the signing of a maiden TV deal with Sky altered the landscape permanently.
That initial deal was worth £191m over five years and opened the floodgates for sponsorship, endorsements and other lucrative add-ons, such was the increased exposure.
For Sir Philip, it added glamour.
“I think in the early days of the Premier League Sky were quite frantic and wondered who was going to buy satellite dishes and for what reasons,” he continued.
“But it was not for shopping or the odd TV programme – it was for football – and we had a common interest there. Football provided this product for the TV companies and allowed them to develop it.
“If you go back to the coverage before then, if the game started at 3pm then TV coverage started at 3pm. And if it ended at 4.45pm then TV coverage ended at 4.45pm.
“Then, suddenly, Sky came along and said we will have an hour beforehand and an hour afterwards and that transformed everything – people who before were not interested in football became interested in the chat.
“I remember the first season when they came back and said they had made a profit, that was quite significant when you think about the development and everything that was involved.”
Since those fledgling days, the Premier League has morphed into the world’s hegemonic football competition – a global powerhouse.
That unprecedented boom has also brought huge cultural differences – not least the influx of foreign players and heightened standards of professionalism, dietary discipline and training regimes.
Again, that was something quite unforeseen. But, for Sir Philip, these changes augmented what was an already exciting venture and expedited its foray into international markets.
He said: “The clubs we had and the type of football that was being played started to attract the foreign players over.
“And, if you remember the really early days, the three or four we had, everyone watched them and admired them and that gradually developed and in itself was part of the picture that was being sent out to the public.
“As well as our own players and the players from the home nations, we had these foreign players who brought something to the game and it wasn’t just on the field; they brought things off the pitch in terms of training and diet and so on.
“I think that also brought a foreign TV audience. I remember early on, the idea of the foreign transmission was fairly remote. You would get the odd country that would be willing to pay something – I think at one stage you had only two or three countries willing to pay anything at all.
“Yet, as the foreign players came in, this stimulated the desire to see what was going on.”
And while only four different clubs were crowned champions in the Premier League's first 20 years, Sir Philip – a staunch advocate of market principles – feels the clubs who prospered quickest should be congratulated for their enterprise. He feels their dominance was a by-product of the factors that transformed England’s top flight. Put simply, the others can’t have their cake and eat it as well.
“Some people might not like it but that is the way of life,” he said. “If you organise such a thing as the Premier League with 20 clubs – 22 originally – who are functioning on performance, then there is not much you can do about it unless you impose restrictions on how clubs can run themselves. I am completely against that. I believe in a free market and in free enterprise.
“If a club is able to attract owners with millions or billions, then so be it. The rest of us have to fight that out. I think now when you do get the odd club who makes a move up there, the rest of the league are saying ‘go on, get up there and beat them’.”