Decade that changed the face of the game

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The Independent Online

There's an absolute deluge of money washing over the European game as the top clubs across the Continent kick off the new season this month.

There's an absolute deluge of money washing over the European game as the top clubs across the Continent kick off the new season this month.

The English Premiership clubs are not the biggest spenders, but they are within shouting distance of the mega-millionaires in Spain and Italy. It's a far cry for the top-flight English clubs from the dim dark days which heralded the opening of the season just a decade ago, after five years in the European wilderness following the Heysel disaster.

At that time, the Football Trust, recently superseded by the new Football Foundation, sponsored a conference entitled "Football into the 1990s" at the Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research.

Only a handful of clubs thought it worthwhile to devote a couple of days towards planning for the future. When the conference opened to the dreary delivery of a speech written by the Sports Minister, Colin Moynihan, the absentees were credited by those present with remarkable prescience. The minister's condemnation of the "shameful behaviour" of English followers who had just rioted in Germany at Euro '88 was not unexpected, as his civil servant proceeded to outline why the chairmen should dig deep into their pockets to fund a national membership scheme for all fans which, he assured delegates would not only keep the hooligans out of the grounds but would also bring untold commercial riches.

"How would an English membership scheme have prevented the trouble on the streets of Stuttgart?" asked one delegate, not unreasonably. The reply was straight out of Yes Minister. "I can't give you an answer. I'm here as a civil servant. I can only note what you say and convey your views to the minister."

The second theme of the conference was how to sell professional football. Trevor Phillips the commercial director of the Football League, arrived bloodied and bruised from one of the television rows which erupted at regular intervals throughout the 1980s.

Phillips had been frustrated by the big clubs in his desire to develop a long-term partnership with the emerging British Satellite Broadcasting. Greg Dyke's London Weekend Television pledged a guaranteed sum to each of the so-called "Big Five" clubs who made it clear they were not prepared to risk their sponsors being adversely affected by the initial low audience figures for the new medium. "Whilst there is so much power in the hands of a few powerful clubs," Phillips remarked bitterly, "the Football League has no chance of creating a centralised marketing policy. We have a system where it just takes one club to say 'no' for a whole marketing plan to collapse." He went on to argue for a league that would recognise the realities of life in the 1990s. It was ironic that, a couple of years later, Phillips was obliged to fight against the establishment of just such a league, the Premier League, whose first act was to sign a deal with BSkyB.

As the television income mushroomed in the 90s and the National Lottery came into being, the longest-standing commercial partner of the Football League, Littlewoods Pools, declined in influence in the game. Their money had previously been vital to professional football. This summer the business has been sold.

Synthetic surfaces were a major bone of contention 10 years ago. The leader of Preston Borough Council leisure services extolled the virtues of Deepdale's plastic pitch. That same community is probably happier that North End are now in the First Division, the synthetic grass long since torn up.

Few present could have predicted the boom that football in the Nineties became, at least at the highest level of the game.

One issue that was not discussed was the increasing influence of the EU, surprising when one recalls that Uefa , the governing body of European football, should have read the signals that led to the Bosman ruling midway through the decade.

Ten years ago the Community Programme in professional football, set up to strengthen links between clubs and communities, was still in its infancy. It subsequently took off throughout the Leagues and it is interesting to note that one of the six pioneers was Manchester United, the very embodiment of football commercialism at the end of that decade.

What would those same delegates be discussing 10 years on? The ever-growing gulf between rich and poor, continuing EU threats to the transfer system, increased promotion and relegation between the League and Conference?

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