Premier League 30 years on: How the top flight was formed

The first Premier League season 30 years ago was a riotous tale of fireworks, football, glitz and gimmicks… but there was NO inkling of the monster it was going to grow into: SPECIAL REPORT

  • The 2022-23 Premier League season begins on Friday in what will be it’s 30th anniversary since it’s inception in 1992
  • The Premier League concept was the brainchild of ‘the big five’ back then, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham
  • They wanted to remove the old First Division’s 22 clubs separate from the 92-club Football League structure and claim a greater share of the game’s cash
  • Sky outbid ITV and shelled out a massive £304m to show 60 games per season over the next five years 

In our first piece marking the 30-year anniversary of the Premier League’s first season, Sportsmail looks back at the formation of the division and build up to the debut campaign as remembered by some of those who were involved at the time. 

It was billed as a whole new ball game, not that many of those involved in the Premier League’s first ever season 30 years ago fully grasped the scale of change coming to English football.

‘I think most of us thought when it started, if we’re being brutally honest, that it was just the first division with some fancy wrapping and a bit of rebranding. It was just football by another name,’ commentator Ian Darke remembers.

That sentiment was shared by the players, including Sportsmail‘s Chris Sutton, then an emerging youngster at Norwich.

The Premier League will be celebrating its 30th anniversary this season when it kicks off

Sportsmail columnist Chris Sutton was there from the beginning – having played for Norwich

‘In all honesty it, it didn’t [really hit me how big it was]. This sounds really miserable, doesn’t it? It was just top-flight football, and that was always the big deal for me. My aim was trying to get in the team and make a name for myself as much as anything and selfishly just worry about that. I didn’t really think [specifically] about it being the Premier League.’

Former Blackburn goalkeeper Bobby Mimms added: ‘There was no inkling of what it was or the monster it was going to grow into.’

However, one thing Blackburn’s bosses did know as Kenny Dalglish’s team chased second division promotion in the season before the Premier League’s launch, was that the riches on offer meant the new league was the place to be.

‘The directors, they’d been talking to people about how things were going to change, how much money there was going to be and that started to get through to the players,’ Mimms remembered.

‘[Owner] Jack Walker, was not daft. He was a business man and knew that it was going to be big for the football club and, I suggest, probably easier on his pocket if we were in that Premier League, earning the money as a club. The clubs knew they were going to benefit from it because of the television money coming in straight away.’

Well clear at the top of the second division at one point, Blackburn ended up scraping into the play-offs.

Mimms said: ‘The actual play-off final day was probably the most nervous team meeting I’ve ever been in from the players’ point of view knowing we would be going into the new Premier League if we get promoted so from that side of it there was pressure but it was more from a professional point of view because I don’t think anyone knew how it was going to take off.

‘It was the quietest dressing room ever. No laughing and joking going on, everybody was properly focused and thinking about the job in hand where normally it can be a bit lighter, not that Kenny and Ray [assistant Ray Harford] were any different it was just the players a little more focused.’

Blackburn got the job done, beating Leicester 1-0, and deservedly partied hard that summer after completing the line-up for the first ever Premier League.

Its status now as the biggest league in the world means those who plotted to form it, controversially at the time, can feel fully vindicated.

Blackburn celebrate after earning promotion to the inaugural Premier League season in 1992

The concept was the brainchild of ‘the big five’ back then, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham, who wanted to remove the old First Division’s 22 clubs separate from the 92-club Football League structure, form a new top division and claim a greater share of the game’s cash, which they felt English football’s biggest draws were entitled to.

It was one breakaway super league, that had long-been threatened, and nobody could ultimately stop, though that is not to say there was no opposition (more on that later).

The idea gained further momentum thanks to a number of parallel circumstances.

After the declining interest and attendances following the violence and hooliganism that marred English football in the 1980s, the post-1990 World Cup positivity provided a platform to build on.

Meanwhile the league’s founders were searching for broadcast partners at the same time as Sky’s attempted satellite TV revolution was not going to plan – they were haemorrhaging money and desperately hunting for something to transform their fortunes.

Sky outbid ITV and shelled out a massive £304m to show 60 games per season over the next five years, compared to 18 screened the previous campaign and dwarfing the £44m ITV had paid for the previous four-year deal in 1988 and their £5.2m two-year contract in 1983.

‘It was like the old Godfather, an offer you couldn’t refuse, for the clubs,’ Darke laughed.

And Sky badly needed their big gamble to pay off.

Ian Darke was part of the revolution – working for Sky Sports, who bought the rights to broadcast the new Premier League in 1992 – gazumping ITV and taking it off terrestrial TV

Darke said: ‘Back then a kind of hard sell was needed really to convert people because in plain, brutal commercial terms, they were trying to sell the dishes.

‘If they hadn’t won the football rights I doubt Sky really would have all been a sustainable operation. Everything Sky have done, including Sky News, the whole empire depended on winning that deal.’

Not everyone was happy they did.

‘My main memories really were when Sky started was that they were regarded really as a bit of an outlier,’ Darke continued. ‘There was a kind of shock and revulsion almost. Now, the game wasn’t going to be on terrestrial TV anymore.

‘Everybody was sort of outraged that this channel that they had hardly heard of, had come in and bought the rights for an astronomical sum of money, which it was in those days.

‘Because of that, people and even maybe the players too, were pretty anti-Sky Sports and this change, particularly about having to play on Monday nights.

‘I remember doing a Southampton v Manchester United game in the early days. It was the second Monday Night Football. I went to the Manchester United hotel because in those days Sir Alex Ferguson he’d perhaps have a coffee with you and give you the team. It didn’t happen every week but if he was in the right mood and that happened for that game.

‘As I was walking out Neil Webb and a couple of the others said to me: “Are you the commentator?” I said: “Yeah.” They said “oh, why are we having to play Monday nights? What’s this about? We played on Saturday. It’s mad.” I had to explain to them “look I wasn’t in charge of the scheduling. Apologies if there was any problem but the clubs have done this deal…”‘

Manchester United’s Neil Webb expressed his unhappiness to Darke at having to play on a Monday night – which was part of Sky’s new initiative ‘Monday Night Football’

There were also, ultimately unfounded, concerns about all the additional games negatively impacting attendances.

Darke remembers the doubters having ‘daggers drawn’ but that ‘the quality of product, the introduction of the sort of coverage that is now a given, won plaudits and praise,’ soon dispelled the fears.

Needing something drastic to make their whole plan work, inspired by American sport Sky revolutionised coverage of English football.

David Hill, Sky’s head of sport and ‘an innovative, brusque but likeable Australian’, saw that showing games on Monday’s – ‘a bit of a dead night on TV’ – had worked in the US so was behind the idea of introducing a glitzy show for the Premier League, with Darke the commentator.

US viewing figures also showed double the number of women watched games on Monday compared to Sundays, with Sky keen to tap into a wider audience.

It was the first time domestic football had been shown in the UK on Monday nights.

‘The first Monday night game was Manchester City vs QPR at the old Maine Road and David Hill was in the tunnel before the game and he goes [Darke adopts an Australian accent] “don’t f*** this up Darkey.” I thought “no pressure then!”‘

The Sunday offering was also overhauled by Sky with Martin Tyler on commentary duty and shown from the beginning of the season rather than, strangely, around November as it was on ITV.

And viewers were treated to significantly more in-depth coverage featuring increased pre and post-match discussion, analysis, interviews, and highlights from other games compared to the previous two hour-long squeezed productions.

On the pitch, a cheerleading team named The Sky Strikers became part of the pre-match and half-time entertainment.

Cheerleaders The Sky Strikers became part of the pre-match and half-time entertainment

Fireworks displays, bizarre battles between giant inflatables, parachutists delivering the match ball and performances from popular 1990s bands were among the other gimmicks trialled early on with mixed success.

‘It felt like we were trying to become a bit Americanised but it was good and exciting what they were trying to do to showcase the league,’ Sutton said. ‘Looking back it was great to be part of.’

‘It was all the things that English football wasn’t about,’ Mimms remembered. ‘It captured the imagination.’ Inevitably there were some teething problems.

Darke laughed: ‘One day at Arsenal they hired a band called The Shamen who were top of the charts with Ebeneezer Goode. What they hadn’t realised is all of the kids knew they were Spurs fans so when they started to play, they were just booed off stage.

‘We had to sort of say: “Well, that that worked well, didn’t it!” There were a few red faces and awkward questions in the Sky marketing department after that, you know like “what the hell happened last night?”.’

The Sky Strikers were popular while they lasted though.

Darke said: ‘I remember being in the tunnel at Norwich when the Sky Strikers were around and a couple of the Norwich players – I won’t mention their names – came up to me in the tunnel and said “do you know where those Sky Strikers are staying tonight? Are they staying in Norwich?”

‘So we had a Sky Sports Football Xmas party in Norwich one night and all the Norwich players found out where it was somehow and turned up because they thought the Sky Strikers were going to be there!’

Norwich players were fond of The Sky Strikers and hoped to find them at a Sky Christmas party

‘Razmatazz’ was a recurring word used to describe what the Premier League brought to the English game.

And the big promotional campaign was a prime example of the new glitz and glamour that came with the Premier League and one of the big indicators to any previously-unsuspecting players that things were now going to be different.

One player from each of the 22 clubs posed in a team photo to help push the new league but the highlight was the unforgettable TV advert.

The likes of David Seaman, Tim Flowers, Bruce Grobbelaar, Darren Anderton, Vinnie Jones and Tim Sherwood all starred in the feel-good, ‘a whole new ball game’ advert aimed at ramping up the anticipation for the new season.

Simple Minds’ Alive and Kicking was the soundtrack and some of the acting might have been questionable but the end product is an iconic part of Premier League history.

Former Aston Villa winger Tony Daley, said: ‘I had to do a scene with [Ipswich defender] John Wark in the so-called showers pumping iron and stuff like that and it was hilarious. I got such a ribbing from when the ad was played from my team-mates about that. It’s funny, or ironic now, they’d say “what are you doing with your little pigeon chest out, doing bicep curls and things like that? Are you sure? Look at the state of you”.

‘And it’s quite ironic because I’m a fitness coach now (with his own company 7D Fit For Life).

‘It was a really, really good day and that was part of it, thinking “hang on, what’s going on with this Premier League here?”

‘Everyone still talks about that iconic picture, the advert – probably one of the best adverts Sky have done – and being part of that is awesome.’

Former Crystal Palace winger John Salako said: ‘When you saw the finished product, I felt very proud to be part of that initial first advert. With the music, the power of it, that was really special and as time goes on it almost becomes more special.

‘Every now and then people bring it up and they show it. It’s just a very special thing to be involved in.’

Sky’s original photo to help promote the launch of the new Premier League in 1992-93

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