1. German maths
"Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, at the end, the Germans win” – Gary Lineker
Gary Lineker is as adept at turning a phrase as he was at turning the ball in from six yards, and this adage now gets wheeled out every time England face Germany in any sport. The most traumatic memory for Lineker was Bobby Robson’s Three Lions being eliminated by the Germans on penalties in Turin at the 1990 World Cup.
The despair in Lineker’s oft-quoted words hint at how inevitable it all felt, even in 1990, before the painful exits that would follow over the following 20 years. It was an emotional game for Paul Gascoigne, and for the country – yet one that has been credited with sparking the sweeping changes to come.
2. Sky is the limit
“It’s a whole new ball game” – Sky Sports slogan at launch, 1992
They might be on the verge of losing some more Premier League rights to Amazon, but Sky’s tenure as the home of English football has been transformative. It all started in 1992 with the launch of the Premier League, and a slogan that spoke of an ambitious plan to reshape and modernise football. In the beginning, there were cheerleaders and fireworks, but those were quickly dispensed with.
Those who could pay were treated to more live football than ever, and it’s the money, rather than the glitz and glamour that had the biggest effect on what was happening on the pitch. As cash poured in, football became a high stakes game – nutrition improved and some of the best players in the world started arriving.
The game got faster, more technical and arguably more exciting. But it came at a cost – rising prices, the alienation of the sport’s traditional supporter base and the loss of the community element that had seen football through darker times.
3. Mission: Impossible
“Do I not like that” – Graham Taylor, 1993
The astonishing fly-on-the-wall documentary An Impossible Job follows Graham Taylor’s England squad and their doomed attempt to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, with a level of access that would be unthinkable in 2018.
It’s very much the Fire and Fury of the 1990s; only Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool would possibly consider it would be a good idea to give this much access to a camera crew nowadays.
Taylor, who passed away in 2017, was a much loved and respected figure in football, but was eviscerated by the newspapers for England’s performances during his tenure. The Sun – never ones to shy away from roasting a public figure – were particularly brutal, mocking Taylor up as a root vegetable, which must have required a lot more effort in the days before Photoshop CS6.
The documentary is bursting with notable moments, which could have filled this list on their own. There’s the sight of Taylor calmly thanking the linesman for getting him the sack as the Three Lions’ campaign finally comes unstuck, and the infamous: “Can we not knock it?”. But it’s “Do I not like that” – uttered as England gave the ball away seconds before falling behind away in Poland – which has passed into football folklore.
4. Eric goes fishing
“When seagulls follow the trawler, it’s because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea” – Eric Cantona, 1995
This is one of the most analysed quotes in football history, and has gone some way to cementing Eric Cantona’s status as an enigmatic, misunderstood genius rather than a combustible hot-head. However if you watch it now, you’ll see Eric Cantona trying not to laugh. The Frenchman was playing a role and loving it – he even pauses halfway through his statement in an attempt to compose himself.
The meaning of the words – a thinly veiled comment on how reporters will swarm over the smallest scraps – was kind of lost in the aftermath. Without a hint of irony, they were discussed in books, opinion pieces and enough newspaper copy to fill the English Channel. They were spoken at an impromptu press conference the day of Cantona’s sentencing for his flying kick on a Crystal Palace fan in an infamous incident at Selhurst Park.
As Jim White reveals in A Matter of Life and Death, Cantona penned the words in the minutes before facing the press, with the help of lawyer Maurice Watkins. “I played that moment,” Cantona told White. “It was a drama and I was an actor.”
5. Child's Play
“You can’t win anything with kids” – Alan Hansen, 1995
Manchester United missed Cantona badly during his nine-month ban, losing out in both the league and the FA Cup. Alex Ferguson’s response was to tear up the squad that had broken the club’s long title drought. Andrei Kanchelskis, Paul Ince and Mark Hughes were out, and on the opening day of the 1995-96 season, a cast of youngsters lost 3-1 to Aston Villa.
Match of the Day pundit Alan Hansen was quick to stick the knife in – but he was far from alone. The general consensus was that Ferguson would need to drastically strengthen his squad if he wanted to mount a title challenge. A team with six players under the age of 20 was not going to cut it.
Of course, everyone was wrong. David Beckham, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Phil Neville – plus the already blooded Ryan Giggs – would go on to form one of the dominant sides of the decade. Hansen was made to look rather foolish in hindsight.
6. Zidane vs Sherwood
“Why do you want Zidane when we have Tim Sherwood?” – Jack Walker, 1995
A fair question – if you’re putting together a “Legends” five-a-side tournament in Marbella or a gilet modelling contest. Unfortunately, Blackburn chairman Jack Walker was trying to build a team that could defend the club's first and only Premier League title.
Zinedine Zidane was still at Bordeaux at this point, and actually visited Blackburn’s training ground alongside Christophe Dugarry, with former manager and now director of football Kenny Dalglish the interested party.
Walker’s reported response to Dalglish his gone down in infamy, while Zidane went on to Juventus, then Real Madrid, bagging a hatful of medals. Sherwood got a great anecdote out of it, though – and you can bet it’s one he loves telling.
7. True love
“And I’ll tell you honestly, I will love it if we beat them. Love it” – Kevin Keegan, 1996
In time-honoured fashion, Fergie’s kids left themselves a lot to do. In February 1996, they were 12 points behind Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle. But United began rapidly closing the gap – including a win over Newcastle away – and Keegan started to visibly show the pressure. With the precision of a master butcher, Ferguson started sticking the knife in.
Before a game between Newcastle and Leeds, the Manchester United boss questioned whether the Leeds players would put as much effort into beating Newcastle as they did into facing his side. “I can’t understand Leeds United,” said the Scot after the game. “Their manager doesn’t deserve to have his players playing like that only when they come to Manchester United.”
The comments were probably designed to get the Leeds players desperate to beat Newcastle, but they had a bigger effect on Keegan. After the game against Leeds – which the Magpies won – Keegan exploded. His rant, which was voted the most memorable quote in Premier League history, prefaced a title collapse by Newcastle, and the birth of “mind games”.
8. Fine dining
“If you eat caviar every day it's difficult to return to sausages” – Arsene Wenger, 1998
Arsene Wenger’s arrival in England was greeted with a series of newspaper headlines wondering who this demure, bespectacled character was. 'Arsene who?' blared the Evening Standard headline.
The Frenchman, for his part, seemed to spend his first few years in the Premier League in a state of perpetual horror at the English ways – from the attitude of players after a loss, to training ground breakfast menus. “Apparently they are given bacon sandwiches with all kinds of colourful sauces,” he said at one point, with barely contained horror.
There’s also a culinary slant to his best quote. Arsenal supporters – who had hardly been gorging on haute cuisine during the latter George Graham years – had seen their side win the Double the previous season, but booed the Gunners during a 1-1 draw with Middlesbrough in 1998. Wenger showed his disapproval in terse fashion – and Arsenal would go on to push Manchester United to the final day of the league season and reach the FA Cup semi-finals. If that counts as sausages, then what are they eating now?
9. Talking balls
“The world would be a better place if some of the kids who came out of Eton had half the b****cks Vinnie’s got” – Joe Kinnear
Joe Kinnear was at the helm of Wimbledon’s Crazy Gang for much of the 1990s, when they were a slide-tacklin’, hell-raisin’, ball-grabbin’ outfit. Kinnear could have had a number of entries on this list – he seemed to emit a constant stream of expletives which were gleefully tapped by microphone-clutching journalists like prospectors striking oil.
The quote above formed part of a robust defence of equally robust midfielder Vinnie Jones, well known for epitomising the Wimbledon way as it was in the 1990s. Jones was a controversial figure, the archetypal football hard man. He certainly had a lot of bollocks – although they sometimes belonged to opponents and were clenched inside an angry fist.
Jones was also such a combustible character, we’re not sure the country would be in a much better state if those were the values that Eton imbued in its students (although it couldn’t be much worse). There would certainly be a lot more punch-ups in parliament.
10. 'Arry nails it
“I’m telling you now, and I didn’t want to say this in front of him, but he will go right to the very top” – Harry Redknapp on Frank Lampard, 1996
The former manager of West Ham, Portsmouth, and every other club within a two-hour drive of Sandbanks might not know how to operate his mobile phone, but he can certainly spot a player. Or at least he could in the 1990s.
At a Hammers fan forum, Redknapp stepped in to passionately defend his teenage son-in-law from criticism. He was proved spectacularly right.
11. Born winner
“That lad must have been born offside” – Alex Ferguson on Filippo Inzaghi
There’s quite a lot of Ferguson on this list but, hey, it was the 1990s – what do you expect? The Manchester United manager did have a gift for turning a phrase (see 2003’s “squeaky bum time”) and sometimes handed down judgements about players that would stick with them for the rest of their career.
There was his bizarre pronouncements about Jordan Henderson’s (admittedly bizarre) running style, labelling Paul Ince a big-time Charlie and also this famous quote about Filippo Inzhagi – the striker who was so often the thorn in United’s side during some epic encounters with Italian giants Milan and Juventus in the 1990s.
12. Final drama
“Football. Bloody hell” – Alex Ferguson, 1999
For football fans of a certain vintage, the last few minutes of the 1999 Champions League final are etched into their memory like an unforgettable dream. Whether it's a joyous one or a nightmare depends on your perspective.
Clive Tyldesley’s dulcet tones countdown the seconds as Manchester seemed to be falling at the final hurdle in pursuit of their treble dream. “United have to score,” intoned the commentator, as Peter Schmeichel jogged forward from a corner. “They always score.”
In the dugout, Ferguson had all but given up, as he admitted in the post-match interview after those famous late goals. But in the moments after the game, the often difficult Scot coined a phrase that has resonated just as much as the incredible ending to the game.
Eyes wide with euphoria, adrenaline and beaming with pride in his players – many of whom he’d promoted from the youth team – Ferguson put together three words that seemed to sum up the madness, frustration and delight of being a fan. “Football,” he exclaimed. “Bloody hell.”
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