A golden lion, a silver trophy, and thirty years of rampant football. The Premier League, from its birth in the halcyon days of the early 1990s, through to the commercially grandiose times we live in presently, has been a fixture of British sport throughout this period. On every street, in every town, in every county, there are thousands of fans impacted by the luxurious gifts of this sporting concept. However, as its third decade of existence rushes upon the horizon, one must ask: what is the Premier League’s legacy thus far?
‘Let there be money’ Greg Dyke (the then managing director of ITV) and Rupert Murdoch (the notorious owner of Sky) seemed to say, hands metaphorically joined as they welcomed a world of football-fuelled indulgence during August 1992. Aside from such a momentous development, that summer had been rather insignificant. There had been the Olympics held in Barcelona, Pablo Escobar had escaped from prison, Baroness Thatcher was inducted into the House of Lords, Nirvana took to the charts with Smells Like Teen Spirit, and one could find titles such as Lethal Weapon in their local Blockbuster. Pretty boring.
With frequent advertisements of players sharing showers, going shopping, and threatening to go on strike via the PFA, the Premier League era came roaring onto our screens. Hostility towards the idea had been rife during the preceding decades, but the introduction of the Taylor Report and UEFA Champions League turned enough heads for the new format to get the necessary thumbs up. This was going to be big, and the men with golden plaques knew it.
After the inaugural season, which saw the likes of Oldham survive relegation and Manchester United win the maiden title of the novel era, televisions around the world were now haunted by shows such as Super Sunday and Monday Night Football. Murdoch was keen to profit from the £304m deal he had struck for that initial lustrum of coverage.
This was, quite simply, a decadent beginning for the Premier League and, as with any other deluxe brand, it has maintained its fashion sense ever since. The grounds in those early days were old, decrepit and statutorily required to become new beasts of a seated nature. The money conferred by these fresh television deals allowed for such an evolution.
Today, we can see for ourselves the fruits grown by this tree of wealth. The pitches are refined and excellent, with barely a mud splash present on those green carpets. The stadiums, overall, are outstanding with their world-class facilities. One can spend a whole weekend attending to their museums, club shops and restaurants. No longer are these grounds mere social hubs; Instead, they are now fully functioning businesses. This is a trend that continues both on the pitch and beyond.
For clear examples of how the Premier League has drastically transformed the destinies of several clubs, look no further than Chelsea and Manchester United. The former, in their Stamford Bridge residence, had until 1992 been fluctuating in the top flight’s midtable and were of the same pedigree as most other sides in the professional leagues of English football. In other words, the perceived ‘Big Six’ did not include the Blues.
Nonetheless, the sheer exposure provided by the Premier League’s creation led to the London side being promoted to the cream of the game. This ugly duckling of blue distinction grew its wings and soon attracted the investment of a certain Romain Abramovich. Without the potential coffers of the coverage agreement, the Russian-Israeli oligarch would have barely given the club a second sniff. The rest of the story writes itself: In walks Jose Mourinho, and two decades of sustained success make themselves known in the trophy room.
Now for the red side of Manchester. When Dyke and his cash-heavy buddies arrived on the scene, the Red Devils were well on their way to knocking Liverpool “off their f****** perch”, in the ever-eloquent words of Sir Alex Ferguson. As aforementioned, they won the first Premier League title, and marched onto twelve more in a rather greedy attempt at domestic domination.
Yet, in the last two decades or so – with the Barclays beast growing ever larger – the club has gradually developed into something different to a mere footballing organisation. The grip of commercialisation has taken hold of the Theatre of Dreams. Success no longer comes in the form of sliver pots and pans. Instead, dividends and shirt sales hold precedence in the executive boardroom.
This is an indirect result of the Premier League’s introduction. This is the legacy it has left on the elite clubs of England, man-made or natural. The stormy clouds represented by the European Super League proposal evidence this in abundance.
The division has, admittedly, allowed us to experience some wonderful moments, which burn eternally in the memories of fans and neutral observers alike. Picture the ‘Aguero moment’, Alan Shearer’s record-breaking goal, or Leicester City’s fulfilment of the impossible dream. Visit the stadiums it has built, on the Solent shores of Southampton, or in the hearts of Sunderland and Tottenham.
Perhaps its legacy lies in the embellishment of the game that the league has created in such forms, and the great charity work it enables across the country. Maybe it can be seen in the pubs and parks of England and Wales, where every young child can dream – if only for their brief childhood – of being the next Wayne Rooney or Gareth Bale. Moreover, it could be discovered in the conversations we all have at work and at home, about great Premier League goals and matches.
Let us not forget the help it has given to the topic of the day: women’s football. Without the financial support presently provided by the league’s organisers, there is a strong likelihood that the game would remain unduly neglected by both cameras and sponsors.
However, as its birthday beckons, something suddenly feels missing at the heart of the game we love. The financial dynamic of English football has crippled several clubs already. The illusionary crutches of parachute payments and the supposed glory of promotion to this promised land do not adequately hide the woes incurred annually by many community hubs.
Owners, to this very day, continue to act with pecuniary irresponsibility for the sake of this profitable mirage. Cast your eyes toward Derby County, Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic, Oldham Athletic, Reading, Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United. All have spent time in the Premier League; all have suffered the boardroom consequences of this money madness. There are so many more to mention besides these few, and that speaks volumes in itself.
The ripples of this cash flow do not stop here, with the Premier League offering a resort of refuge for those on the world stage seeking to ‘sportswash’ their way to a cleaner image. What does it matter if a journalist is killed in your embassy if you manage to win the title with Newcastle United? Who truly cares about your murky involvement with Vladimir Putin if you win the Champions League with Chelsea? Such pioneers in the art of cleansing their troublesome reputations will be followed by many more if the current trend of inept ownership regulation continues. The lure of the Premier League is too good to refuse at present.
Thus, what can the legacy of the Premier League be regarded as after thirty tumultuous years of existence? On the pitch, the nation has witnessed an evident increase in footballing quality and coaching, the development of grassroots football for both men and women, as well as the crystallisation of a consistent source of sporting joy.
On the other hand, off the pitch, the financial mire created by the Premier League threatens the integrity of the game. A stagnation of competition is being risked by the deluxe exploits of excessive television and sponsorship deals, whilst those below risk every penny to reach these higher echelons. Furthermore, the game is also being subjected to a subtle, but dangerous, politicisation by those with unsavoury reputations. For the people’s sport to have a glorious future, the old ball game needs to be the focus.