A great football club - with a pitch attached
The year is 2005. The revolution is complete. Jim White looks back to 1995 and the beginnings of soundbite soccer, corporate super-clubs and the Football Experience
Thursday 17 August 1995
"I want this club to be big," he told a hapless employee at one stage during the film. "You know why? This club has to be big because soon that's the only type of club there'll be." And you know how naive we were in 1995? We thought that the film was a comedy.
At the start of the 1995/96 English Premier League season, football was about halfway through the revolution engendered by the twin forces of the Taylor Report and large quantities of Rupert Murdoch's cash. It was changing, irrevocably, from the game of the people into the vehicle that delivered a prime-time, wholly committed, free-spending television audience to the advertiser. The Taylor Report, published in 1990 after the Hillsborough disaster, in which 96 people were caught in a death-trap masquerading as a football ground, insisted that the leading clubs convert their stadiums into structures fit for the 20th century, never mind the 21st. His Lordship's principal ruling was that they should be all-seater. The football clubs saw this as an opportunity not to be missed, an architectural method of shedding the ghastly fans who had attached themselves to the game since the late Sixties. By charging more for the provision of a plastic bucket seat than they would ever dare for providing a space on a crumbling piece of concrete terracing, they could price out the unwashed and attract a clientele with more money and less propensity for punching their fellow paying customer. Moreover, in the days of terracing in the Sixties and Seventies, the supporters turned up on a Saturday, paid their 90p at the turnstile, perhaps bought a programme and a pie, watched the game and then went home. But the clubs found that handsome, safe, comfortable new grounds could help them to exploit the fervour of their supporters much more satisfactorily. Now, football could be sold as a day out, a rival to the family trip to the theme park: come early, look round the trophy room (entry pounds 4.95), have a browse in the souvenir superstore, lunch in the under-stand dining facilities. At Manchester United, the leaders in the business of football, a Super class of ticket was introduced in 1994, which enabled the enthusiast to dine before the game with an old player, have a guided tour of the club museum, walk on the hallowed pitch itself, all for the act of devotion of handing over more than pounds 300 a time. Oh, and it guaranteed you a ticket for the game, too.
Meanwhile, from 1992, the smarter, richer clubs refused to continue subsidising the trickle-down system which meant the revenue from television fees was shared out, providing a slice of the cake to all 92 league clubs. They broke away, formed the Premier League and negotiated a massive deal of their own with Rupert Murdoch's Sky Television, worth more than pounds 60m a year. Mr Murdoch wanted football as a loss leader to sell his pay television system into the living-rooms of the nation, and used the back pages of his papers to remind people that the only way of seeing the game (short of actually turning up at the ground) was via his satellite system. On Sky, the game was hyped up into the sexiest, smartest thing around, its practitioners sold as the new pop stars. On Sky, football became gladiatorial combat, re-played in mega-slo-mo, 90 minutes of muddy slog reduced into a couple of seconds of glory: soundbite soccer. Once it gained momentum, the hype could not stop: dozens of new magazines fed it; the launch of a new kit or the cutting of a player's hair became news items. And football got lucky, too: two television moments, Gazza weeping in 1990 and Cantona kicking in 1995, provided concrete evidence that this was the biggest thing around.
By the start of the 1995/96 season, bloated with money, their grounds more or less finished, the Premier League clubs began to behave like children let loose in a Ryan Giggs poster shop. Players began to be paid huge salaries, and transfer fees span into a Seventies-style inflationary spiral. Transfers became part of the selling drive of the sport: Denis Bergkamp's pounds 7.5m signing by Arsenal and his pounds 25,000 a week salary were as much to do with reassuring the fans disillusioned by a season of sleaze that it would be worth forking out yet more for their season ticket as it was to do with strengthening the team. How else, for instance, could you justify Spurs paying pounds 4.5m for Chris Armstrong? It is not what he can do that's valuable, it is what he represents - the team can make it without their German star Jurgen Klinsmann.
Even then, in the midst of football's celebratory boom, in the midst of the hurricane of hype telling us it was bigger, better, ballsier than ever, there were siren voices. In July 1995, the accountants Touche Ross produced an audit of the football trade: during the 1993 season, taken as a whole, the industry turned over pounds 330m and made pounds 17,000 profit; the kind of performance which if repeated in a City institution would result in the instant departure of the board. Worse, many of the smaller clubs, starved of television income, were wilting in the shadow of their rich rivals: in the lower reaches of the Endsleigh League, the report revealed, several clubs were making losses of more than half their incomes. With wages being driven relentlessly skywards, a reduction in the number of clubs was inevitable.
Even in the Premier League, the long-standing supporter was beginning to count the cost of his addiction. As season-ticket prices rose miles above the rate of inflation (some Coventry City prices increased 60 per cent on the previous year) they began to see the real possibility of being priced out of attending live games.
"The problem is," said Steve Black of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, "lads like us are part of the event. If we're not there to make the noise, they won't be able to sell it to the corporate types as a big occasion. Besides, if we're not there, who'll turn out on a wet Monday night in January when we're playing Middlesbrough?"
But in August 1995, with the bright new season looming over the horizon, nobody was in the mood to listen to talk like that.
Can Arspurs beat Queen's Park Palace this weekend?
The 2005/6 Microsoft Euro Super League season kicks off on Sunday afternoon when Manchester United play Milan in the new 75,000-seater Word for Windows Team England stadium built on a greenfield site at the intersection of the M6 and the M560 near Knutsford; a facility paid for by the National Lottery. Such is the anticipation engendered by 24-hour-a-day advertising on the Red Channel (United's own cable TV station) that match tickets are presently changing hands on the football futures market at more than pounds 3,000 a time. Those not selected to apply for a ticket, and not in possession of a Red Channel receiver, however, will be able to watch United's new Azerbaijani international left back- a summer capture at pounds 18m - in selected highlights on Mr Alan Hansen's Soccer Screen channel, shown exclusively at their local Nike sports bar.
According to Professor Vincent Jones, Hornby Chair of Football Studies at the University of the North Bank, the concept of the new Euro Super League was inevitable "as soon as it became clear that the viewing figures were unacceptably low whenever clubs such as Wimbledon or Southampton appeared on television". At the end of last season, the so-called Big Three - Manchester United, Chelsea and Carlisle - broke away from the Premiership and formed the 10-club Euro League with Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Internazionale, Juventus, Rangers and Marseilles (the club that was recently reconstituted by its new owner, the ex-President Jacques Chirac, after the match-fixing scandals). Television rights alone guarantee each of the clubs pounds 40m, with a further pounds 20m to come from each of the four key partnership franchises: McDonald's, Sega, Nintendo and Virgin.
Professor Jones also sees the total overhauling of the rules that will be showcased this autumn as no surprise.
"Let's face it, most of those in the hospitality restaurants never could grasp the offside law anyway," he said. "And as for the concept of only one commercial break between the first and second halves, it was positively antediluvian. The new eight eighths will develop the clients' sales window much more cost-effectively."
Eric Cantona, United's manager, yesterday said he saw no reason why his team could not beat Milan. This, even though they lost 4-0 in last year's European Cup qualifying round to Reykjavik; a result, incidentally, said to have precipitated the need to form the Super League and thus eradicate any chance of a ratings-destroying giant-killing act. "We'll be all right," Cantona said. "As long as the lads keep their discipline."
Meanwhile, for those of an old-fashioned disposition who prefer to watch their football live, the part-timers of Arsenal Hotspur will be playing Queen's Park Palace in the Kwik-Fit Premiership at Highbury. Much interest will focus on the Arspurs' big summer signing, the centre-back Dawn O'Grady. The club's new owner - Damon Albarn - said yesterday that O'Grady looked every inch an Arspurs player in training. "With defensive capabilities like hers I can see the old times returning to Highbury soon," he added.
A quick call to the John Fashanu Pools Prediction telephone line suggests he might be right. Fashanu is putting his money on a 0-0 draw.
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