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How the 1990s saved English football

Paul Gascoigne Italia 90
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There were some reactionary voices raised against the new arrivals. Cantona’s cross-Pennine move was met with Little Englander disdain in some quarters. Emlyn Hughes, writing in the Daily Mirror, said that the Frenchman was a “flashy foreigner” and a “panic buy”, who could “either win Alex Ferguson something this season, or cost him his job”.

In the event, he won Fergie a fair few things: four titles in his five seasons, the exception coming during an enforced lay-off following his overly enthusiastic meet-the-crowd session at Selhurst Park. Even that event, causing headlines around the world, proved how huge Cantona and the Premier League had become. By welcoming the world, the English top flight was on its way to becoming the globe’s pre-eminent league.

Reach for the Sky

Stars accumulated because Sky speculated. The story of Rupert Murdoch’s huge gamble – popularising his bin-lid TV start-up by ring-fencing live coverage of Premier League football in return for a then stratospheric £304m (the previous exclusive deal had cost ITV just £44m) – is well-known. Sky’s influence is also both divisive and intrusive: ask anyone who’s schlepped to and from a rearranged kick-off, or watched his or her lower-league side’s only half-decent player get plucked away to rot in a big club’s reserves.

But it’s worth going over a few of the benefits and ruling out a few half-truths that appear to have hardened into dogma. First, Sky did not “split” football. The FA did that thanks to its 1991 Blueprint for the Future of Football – advocating a breakaway league following a century of fiscal solidarity. Designed to wrestle control away from the Football League, the Blueprint was quickly approved by the bigger outfits who had helped to guide it, knowing they could guarantee a greater share of the earnings.

Nor did Sky ignore the rump of the Football League. As early as 1995, Sky outbid ITV for the rights to what was then the Endsleigh League, and they also picked up the pieces when the March 2002 collapse of ITV Digital threatened to bankrupt many lower-league clubs.

That wouldn’t have been necessary had the Football League chosen to accept a 1995 offer from the Premier League to grant the 72 clubs between 20% and 25% of any future joint TV deal in perpetuity. Instead the Football League opted to go it alone with a much weaker hand. The most recent live deal – Sky again – is worth £180m a season; 20-25% of the Premier League contract would have been worth more like £428m.

What Sky did for English football was to make it rich. This attracted far better participants, and eventually the cream of the global market. These players enriched the product, in turn making it more desirable and sellable. Besides, while largely footing the wage bill, Sky serviced you, the football consumer. Before Sky, apart from on the morning of the FA Cup final, there was no in-depth coverage: a weekly episode of Football Focus was as good as it got.

Even live games were pitifully bookended by minimal analysis. Check out YouTube (below) for the clash between Norwich and Manchester United in 1989/90, televised live on The Match. The chucklesome intro graphics make way to reveal the two teams coming out onto the pitch, leaving less than four minutes before kick-off. In that time, sheepskin-coated pitchside host Elton Welsby allows guest Graham Taylor literally eight seconds on the mic before sending him to the gantry while Brian Moore runs through the teams. 

Perhaps wary of dedicating too much time from their schedules, the terrestrial TV channels were notorious for short-changing supporters. Sheffield Wednesday’s fanzine War of the Monster Trucks was named after the programme for which Yorkshire TV curtailed coverage of the Owls’ 1991 League Cup Final celebrations.

By contrast, Sky had time and space to give each live game plenty of build-up (two hours!) and analysis. Moreover, they quickly did it better than anyone else in the business, while always displaying a willingness to improve the ‘product’.

As a specialist channel, Sky could also allow for a much higher level of assumed knowledge. To hit a mass audience on ITV, explains Clive Tyldesley, a commentator “must communicate with the back row of the class”; a sports channel can expect a little more savvy. In its own way, this helped to grow the intelligence of the audience: we were no longer being ‘dumbed down to’.  

Sky Sports managing director Vic Wakeling briefed commentary duo Martin Tyler (himself a former forward for non-league side Corinthian Casuals) and Andy Gray to “tell me the things I don’t know that only a player would”. This subtle advice raised the bar for in-game analysis, while the passionate Gray and smooth Tyler proved the perfect pairing for the big games.

Away from live coverage, Sky had acres of schedules to fill and proceeded to do so with ancillary programming. To begin with there was an awful lot of WWF, golf and the Bruno Brookes-hosted fishing show Tight Lines, but new output started appearing. Gray’s Boot Room provided in-depth tactical discussion via the medium of the Subbuteo pitch, while Friday-night debate show Hold the Back Page brought together Fleet Street’s finest well before they had to pretend to be sitting in Jimmy Hill’s kitchen for Sunday Supplement

By 1994 there was enough content for the launch of Sky Sports 2, and Soccer AM debuted the following year. Afternoon-filler Soccer Saturday and hangover remedy Goals on Sunday both arrived in 1996 – the same year as Kevin Keegan’s “I would love it” post-match rant at Richard Keys – and in 1998 along came Sky Sports News with its hours of rolling reports, interviews, speculation and (eventually) Deadline Day reporters being assailed with giant pink sex toys. It’s all a long way from Elton Welsby.

Meanwhile, in Italy...

Before Sky dominated, there was a surprise hit from a left-field artsy channel which had barely even noticed football previously. It was a success which both reflected and encouraged fans’ awareness and appreciation of world football, not through hipsterism but genuine enthusiasm. 

While TV production company Chrysalis were filming Paul Gascoigne’s recuperation from his FA Cup Final knee-knack, the injured party noted that it was a shame nobody in Britain would be able to watch him play for Lazio. A lightbulb quietly popped into life, Chrysalis bought the rights to Serie A’s UK coverage and sold them to Channel 4 for £1.6m: a live game per week plus the Saturday morning preview show Gazzetta Football Italia. (Later came Mezzanotte, a highlights package aired late on Sunday and midweek evenings.)

It was supposed to be hosted by Gazza, but that plan was quietly shelved when they realised quite what a loose cannon he was. For just one illustrative example, at Bisham Abbey on England training duty in October 1992, he was approached by a Scandinavian camera crew and asked if he had a message for Norway. Calmly addressing the camera, he responded: “Yes. F*** off, Norway.” 

Boldly but ultimately wisely, Chrysalis instead promoted their researcher James Richardson to the front of cameras. It worked brilliantly. With the urbane but approachable Richardson – who had learned the lingo to converse with a Roman inamorata – sipping his coffee outside an Italian cafe, gesticulating at his mysterious pink newspaper, Saturday’s Gazzetta performed a double function: as a primer for those who didn’t know Serie A’s dramatis personae, and as an update for those who did.