On 17 July 1991, English football’s 22 biggest clubs signed off on a deal which would transform the domestic game until the present day. The five-year ban on English clubs competing in European competition had been lifted; England had just reached the semi-finals of Italia ’90. In the wake of the Hillsbrough disaster, English football was emerging from the dark days of the 1980s and embracing a new dawn.
With commercial independence from the Football Association, the newly founded Premiership offered both the new division and its clubs the opportunity to expand their reach across the globe. A close-knit relationship with Sky Sports was central to the agreement and continues to be today with BT Sport muscling in. The latest example of which arrives tonight when Manchester United welcome Southampton to Old Trafford for the première of Friday Night Football.
Hosted by Jeff Stelling and Rachel Riley, it promises to change Friday nights beyond recognition. Even if football isn’t your thing, your immediate social circle are liable to be glued to the TV set in the corner of your local pub. But spare a thought for the Southampton fans. The last train back leaves Manchester Piccadilly at 9.15pm – before the match has even finished.
If not for Virgin, the south coast club’s shirt sponsor, throwing on free coach travel back, many would have been forced to swap their seats in the corner of the Sir Matt Busby Way end for their couch back home. They’re still unlikely to get back before the sun rises. Spending 223 miles on a coach in the early hours is surely the epitome of that unplumbed feeling we all have for our local teams.
They’re not being forced to go, of course, and the Premier League initiative to cap all away tickets at £30 gives them a little extra cash to play with. If this were a one-off it would perhaps be easier to swallow. The next Friday night fixture - Chelsea vs Liverpool on 16 September – includes a 218 mile journey home. Everton and Crystal Palace, the subjects of the third match pencilled in for 30 September, requires supporters of the latter to embark on a 243 mile trip.
It makes little sense until you delve deeper into why all 20 top-flight clubs would sign off on such a decision. It invariably comes down to money. With £5.14bn set to flood through the English game, clubs barely had a choice. Next season, the winners of the Premier League will receive £156m. The bottom club, meanwhile, is set to be gifted £99m en route to the Championship.
Last season United travelled to Aston Villa on a Friday night and travel chaos invariably ensued. Those who yearn for 3pm kick-offs on a Saturday afternoon might not be a dying breed, but they're certainly becoming a silenced one. The proof will be in the pudding tonight.
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