How it all started
Understanding the reasons behind the creation of the Premier League is like putting together an intricate jigsaw. It is only when all the pieces of the jigsaw are joined together that it becomes possible to make sense of it all. The involvement of SKY TV is widely recognised as an important piece, but often overlooked is the tense relationship between The Football Association and the Football League. This tension has been ever present since the formation of the Football League in 1888, and in this article we describe how it escalated in the early 1990s because of two competing documents that set out each other’s vision for the future of English football. As we will learn it was the proposed re-structuring of professional football contained in The Football Association Blueprint that eventually pathed the way for the formation of the Premier League.
‘A slum sport played in slum stadiums.’
Professional football in England during the 1970s and 1980s was in the doldrums. Football related violence and disorder was on the rise and sensationalised reporting in the media turned it into a kind of moral panic. On the terraces of already ageing and decaying stadiums steel fencing and ‘pens’, designed to control and segregate the hooligan element of each team’s supporters, were installed. This made spectating a more intimidating and unwelcoming experience and explains one of the reasons why attendances declined to an all-time low during the mid-1980s.
Such was the state of English professional football that an editorial published in The Sunday Times following the Bradford City Stadium fire in 1985 described it as ‘…a slum sport played in slum stadiums…(which) needs cleaning up and revitalising…(and) needs to be leaner, healthier, safer, more prosperous and more fun.’
Following another tragic disaster at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death, the subsequent Taylor Report made the recommendation that all major stadiums must now become ‘all-seater’. Replacing the standing terraces with seats was going to be a costly exercise and it focused the minds of the top clubs as to how the money could be found. The evident need therefore to reform and modernise the game would also provoke a new chapter being written in the ongoing tension between The Football Association and the Football League.
Two competing visions for the future
The Football League were the first to set out a comprehensive proposal for the renewal of football in England. The One Game, One Team, One Voice document published in the Autumn of 1990 covered aspects such as improving stadium standards, youth football, coaching, the sale of broadcasting rights and generating more income from sponsorship. It also proposed that an executive committee, made up of members equally representing The Football League and The Football Association, should assume overall responsibility for the governance and leadership of English football. This proposal threatened to weaken the authority of The Football Association and they soon announced their own intentions to produce a rival document.
In June 1991, The Football Association released their Blueprint for the Future of Football with Chief Executive Graham Kelly, ironically recruited from The Football League, proclaiming it to be a Blueprint that mixes ‘radicalism with realism’, and once implemented it will be ‘regarded as landmark in the history of football.’ Like the Football League document, the Blueprint was comprehensive and contained many proposals across a wide range of topics. Yet unequivocally it was a firm rebuttal of the Football League’s attempt to acquire more control of the game. As the introduction to Chapter 4 (p. 29) in the Blueprint states:
“The future of Association Football depends, fundamentally, on confirming and strengthening the position of The Football Association as the Government of the game…All other Associations, Leagues and Clubs should be subordinate to The Football Association.”
This introduction then concludes by saying:
“The Football League…presented a case for an equal share of power within The Football Association. This proposition has been rejected by The Football Association Council, and properly so.”
Chapter 4 of The Football Association Blueprint outlined detailed proposals for restructuring the pyramid of professional football in England. At the apex of the pyramid would be the England men’s team and below that a smaller top division of 18 clubs. This, it was argued, would reduce the number of fixtures and therefore allow players more time to prepare for England internationals. Three proposals were put forward to achieve a smaller top division:
- Create the league within the current Football League structure.
- Create an autonomous break-away league.
- Establish a Premier League under the administration of The Football Association.
The last proposal caught the attention of the top clubs, particularly the so-called ‘Big Five’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham who had previously entertained the idea of forming a break-away league. Their idea was essentially re-packaged under the wing of The Football Association’s Blueprint and the aspiration to create a league separate to the Football League was now within their grasp. Divorce from the Football League would mean the clubs would not have to share the commercial income generated by a new Premier League with the rest of the clubs in the lower divisions of the Football League. Faced with the cost of redeveloping their stadiums, and other increasing costs, the ability to generate and retain as much income as they could was a major concern for the top clubs and a concern The Football Association exploited.
With The Football Association gaining the vital support of the clubs in the First Division of the Football League they were able to create the foundations for the formation of the Premier League. The Premier League was then created through a series of stages including the notice of withdrawal from the Football League by the 22 clubs of the First Division on the 17th July 1991. On the 15th August 1992 the first matches of the inaugural Football Association Premier League season kicked-off, and a ‘whole new ball game’ began.
The dawn of a new era?
The Football Association’s Blueprint for the Future of Football proclaimed a number of benefits associated with the introduction of a Premier League. The first being the end of the power struggle between The Football Association and the Football League. The ending of this struggle would, it was argued, “…bring with it the dawn of a new era of progress and development throughout the game.” (p.30). As the Premier League nears its 30th anniversary there will be many who question what kind of progress and development has been made and has it really been for the benefit of the game as a whole? Unequivocally however the Premier League has emerged as a dominant force in English and European football, if not world football, eclipsing in the process the two organisations whose acrimonious relationship significantly influenced its formation.