Analysis

Remembered! The Premier League's first ever season: dodgy blazers, Sky and... shower scenes?

Twenty-five seasons after its inception, Andrew Murray remembers the Premier League's very first campaign – and boy were things very different... 

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Leeds midfielder Gordon Strachan and Oldham’s Andy Ritchie marshal David Hillier, Gordon Durie, Alan Kernaghan (of Arsenal, Spurs and Middlesbrough respectively) and 17 other footballers representing each top-flight team from a hotel onto a coach.

Safely on board, Ipswich defender John Wark and Southampton goalkeeper Tim Flowers swap jokes, while Tim Sherwood of Blackburn looks a bit pensive, blissfully unaware of the gilet-loving banter cliché he will later become. While inside a shiny television studio, Chelsea’s hatchet man Vinnie Jones sashays front and center of a photoshoot, with Ian Butterworth from Norwich, Ian Brightwell (Manchester City) and Peter Beardsley (Everton) looking on. The brooding keyboard, interspersed with the odd electronic blip, builds.

“You turn me on!” yelps the unmistakably earnest clarion call of Jim Kerr from Simple Minds’ 1985 hit Alive and Kicking, as Arsenal’s Swedish midfielder Anders Limpar is given some breakfast in bed from (presumably) his wife. Team-mate David Seaman makes a save in his back garden. Cut to a changing room and Jones, Durie, Sherwood and John Salako are all having fun in the shower…

Aston Villa winger Tony Daley and Wark pump iron. New Tottenham signing Darren Anderton performs a few sit-ups. A bewildered Strachan looks quizzically at a pair of trainers. Jones, still shirtless and warming to his future Hollywood career, re-imagines a hairbrush as a moustache.

Transported to White Hart Lane, Anderton and Porsche-driving Paul Stewart mingle with fans, N17’s answer to a depleted New Kids on the Block. One petrified young supporter is helped up onto a police horse. Man City manager Peter Reid implores his team “to get that ball back as soon as we can” in a nondescript dressing room.

Emboldened by Reidy’s “all the very best, boys”, 22 actors (you never get to see their faces) run down a tunnel in club colors and out into the blinding light, as Kerr’s seminal lyrics crescendo to “ba da da dah dah dah, ba da da dah dah dah”.

“The FA Premier League…” then declares the baritone voiceover – as a long-haired player, suspended against a sunset, leaps very high to head a football – “live, only on Sky. It’s a whole… new… ball game.”

A quarter of a century ago, in August 1992 – two years before FFT drew its first breath – Sky marked the new Premier League era with an advert so ’90s it could have come doused in Lynx Africa. Careering into view amid a backdrop of half-built post-Taylor Report stadia, garish blazers and cheerleaders emerging from some oversized Christmas crackers, the replacement of the old First Division was barely recognisable from today’s multi-million pound behemoth full of the world’s best players.

Talk of a breakaway from the Football League wasn’t anything new. The Big Five clubs (Man United, Everton, Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs) had first discussed the possibility of the split with Greg Dyke – then the managing director of ITV and later the FA chairman – in October 1990, and a deal was eventually reached with the entire 22-team division in February 1992.

The top flight would now retain all money from a yet-to-be-agreed exclusive television rights deal, instead of having to divide it equally with the rest of the Football League. For their part, the FA stated they were acting in England’s interests because the new Premier League would be reduced to 20 teams within two years to avoid World Cup exhaustion. They omitted to mention that 14 of those 22 top-flight clubs had already signed up to an independent breakaway anyway.

Almost immediately, the PFA threatened to strike, concerned that clubs, not players, would be the only ones to profit.

“To a man, we were all willing to back our union, as it was something that would benefit everyone, in the same way you had the miners in the ’70s,” the former Sheffield United striker Brian Deane tells FourFourTwo. “They convinced us this was the right thing to do. I don’t really want to talk too much about the PFA, but I think that we were all in the right.”

Tony Cottee, then of Everton, agrees.

“I wouldn’t say we were taken advantage of, but there wasn’t a fair split of the money,” Cottee tells FFT. “We wanted to be fairly rewarded for what we put into the game. The wages compared to what the clubs earned weren’t relative. There was going to be more money in the game, so I don’t think there was anything wrong with it. Things have probably gone a little too far the other way now!”

"Future sold for pie in the sky"

Strike averted, the next stumbling block was the deal for exclusive television rights. With Dyke central to the Premier League’s existence, ITV were the early frontrunners, proposing £84 million across four years. Offer and counter-offer between ITV and a joint BSkyB and BBC bid (for both live rights and highlights) soon followed until Premier League chief executive Rick Parry arranged a meeting at London’s Royal Lancaster hotel on May 18 for all chairmen to vote.

Backed by BSkyB’s Rupert Murdoch in his joint takeover of Tottenham, Spurs chairman Alan Sugar contacted the satellite broadcaster’s chief executive Sam Chisholm from the hotel lobby, instructing him to “blow them [ITV] out of the water”. Sky bid £304m over five years, for 60 live games per season. They won a majority by just one vote, Sugar being allowed into the ballot despite a vested interest that his own company Amstrad made the satellite boxes for Sky.

“Future sold for pie in the sky,” said The Guardian. They weren’t alone. BSkyB was currently losing £10m a week.

“Sky came at the right time for football,” Andy Melvin, Sky’s executive producer of football in 1992, later told FFT. “When we started, the BBC and ITV were in the comfort zone.”

Melvin’s brief – given to him by the director of sport David Hill, a spiky Australian who had revolutionized the coverage of cricket Down Under – was simple. “David handed me this blank piece of paper,” Melvin later explained. “He said: ‘My order is just to make this really f**king good’ – so I was like a kid in a sweet shop.”

By 1993, Sky recorded a £63m profit. In February 2015, they paid £4.2 billion for their share of the television pie.

Not-so-humble pie

The “whole new ball game” advert was Sky’s first attempt at giving football its mass appeal. Every top-flight club featured, the focus on trying to attract a family audience.

“That’s where it all began,” recalls Darren Anderton, who had joined Tottenham from second-tier Portsmouth that summer for £2.5m and missed the first photoshoot because he was on holiday in the US. “It was pretty daunting to be asked to do the advert and interviews every week, but it was great fun. I’m fortunate to have been there while the league changed. It was very special.”

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