Richard Pike takes a walk down memory lane to a simpler time, giving us all nostalgia as he talks about some of the key events and features of English football in the 90’s.
The birth of the English Premier League, a town team lives the dream, English football goes global by attracting top foreign players and coaches and the first occurrence of a treble from an English club. The 1990’s were an historic and memorable decade in English football.
The Original Battle of Old Trafford
Think of the phrase “Battle of Old Trafford” and your thoughts automatically turn to two memorable encounters in the fierce rivalry between two powerhouses of English football, Arsenal and Manchester United which took place in the 2000’s. The first of these two encounters took place in September 2003 in a 0-0 draw which was memorable for a missed penalty by Ruud van Nistelrooy in the final minute of the match and the fracas that ensued afterwards which saw several Arsenal players confront and physically attack van Nistelrooy which was the spark that led to a brawl between both sets of players. This match was famously dubbed “The Battle of Old Trafford” by the media. The second such encounter happened just 13 months later at the same venue when Man United defeated Arsenal 2-0 to end the Gunners’ 49 match unbeaten run in the league. After the final whistle another fracas between both sets of players began in the players’ tunnel immediately after they had left the pitch with its most abiding memory being a food item, widely speculated to be pizza was thrown at Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the players’ tunnel. This second conflict between the 2 rivals in 13 months was commonly referred to as “The Battle of the Buffet”.
However, right at the start of the 1990’s, there was another encounter, once more at Old Trafford which can strongly lay claim to being the original “Battle of Old Trafford”, which really kicked off the strong rivalry that existed between the 2 clubs up until the mid-2000’s. The match in question took place on 20th October 1990, which Arsenal won 1-0 courtesy of a 42nd minute goal by their Swedish international winger Anders Limpar. The touchpaper was lit halfway through the second half when Arsenal fullback Nigel Winterburn lunged in at Man United’s fullback Denis Irwin which then led to a retaliation from Irwin and his Man United team-mate, Brian McClair against Winterburn. Immediately 21 players out of 22 (the only player abstaining was Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman) got involved in the fracas which lasted for 20 seconds. After the match, the Football Association punished both clubs by handing both a GBP 50,000 fine and deducting 2 points from Arsenal and 1 point from Man United. Despite this both clubs had successful seasons, Arsenal went on to win the 1990-91 title losing only a single game all season, whereas United, despite a disappointing 6th place finish in the league won the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup final by defeating Barcelona 2-1 in Rotterdam.
Marching on Together – Leeds United return to English football’s summit
The build up to and events throughout the 1991-92 English football league season were dominated by continuous talks about England’s largest clubs and others amongst them in the top division breaking away from the English Football League to form their own competition. However, whilst negotiations, agreements and disputes were being conducted off the field, on the pitch, a fallen giant of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s were beginning to rise once more, Leeds United. Leeds’ club anthem is “Marching on Together” and never was that more apparent than in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when the club underwent the most successful era in its history winning 2 league titles in 1968/69 and 1973/74, an FA Cup in 1971/72, a League Cup in 1967/68 and 2 Inter-Cities Fairs Cups (the predecessor to the UEFA Cup) in 1967/68 and 1970/71. It was a team featuring household names in English football such as Norman Hunter, Jack Charlton, Billy Bremner, Johnny Giles, Peter Lorimer, Eddie Gray and Allan Clarke coached by future England manager Donald Revie and it was the close relationship and bond between Revie and his players which turned Leeds into one of the dominant sides of their era, nicknamed “The Leeds Machine”.
Revie’s departure to take the England job in the summer of 1974 signalled a decline in the fortunes of the club. Post-Revie, 7 different permanent managers between 1974 and 1988 including former Leeds playing legends Allan Clarke and Billy Bremner and Brian Clough whose 44 days in charge of the club in 1974 post-Revie were widely chronicled in the book and film “The Damned United” were unable to replicate Revie’s success. The appointment of English manager Howard Wilkinson in October 1988 initiated a turnaround in Leeds’ fortunes. Upon Wilkinson’s appointment, Leeds were languishing towards the bottom of the second tier of English football, within 18 months at the conclusion of the 1989-90 season, Wilkinson had guided Leeds back to the top flight of English football. Leeds’ first season back in the top flight in 1990-91 saw them finish in an impressive 4th place and by the time of the 1991-92 season, Wilkinson had a team capable of returning Leeds back to the top of English football and they duly delivered such an outcome, after a 3-2 victory over Sheffield United in the penultimate game of the season followed by Liverpool’s 2-0 victory over Leeds’ closest challengers Manchester United later that day gave Leeds their first league title in 18 seasons which they eventually won with 82 points from 42 games, 4 ahead of their fierce Lancastrian rivals.
Important figures in this Leeds team included goalkeeper John Lukic, English fullback Tony Dorigo, striker Lee Chapman and the late season signing of flamboyant French attacker Eric Cantona. However, it was a magic quartet in midfield that proved the most important component of Leeds’ title victory, it comprised of defensive midfielder David Batty, box-to-box midfielder, the late Gary Speed, veteran right midfielder Gordon Strachan and creative left midfielder Gary McAllister. The summer of 1992 saw the emergent of Manchester United’s exceptional youth team termed the “Class of 92”, yet Leeds had their very own “Class of 92” that season under Wilkinson, who to this very day remains the last English manager to win an English top division championship title.
The birth of the modern-day financial and international juggernaut that is the Premier League
At the end of 2016, a documentary was shown on English channel ITV called “When Football Changed Forever” which outlined the happenings that occurred in the 1991-92 season in English football and how the top 22 clubs in the country broke away from the Football League and formed the Premier League immediately after that season. One of the principal reasons for the breakaway which was cited was a lack of ability from English clubs to compete in the transfer market for the world’s best talent. Two of the most significant transfers that took place in 1991 by English clubs were the transfer of Welsh international forward Dean Saunders from Derby to Liverpool for a fee of GBP 2.9 million and Manchester United buying Russian international winger Andrei Kanchelskis from Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk for a fee of GBP 650,000. Whilst Saunders, then aged 27 was a good player in his day and won 75 caps for the Welsh national team, he was not amongst the elite players in the world. Likewise, in purchasing the then 22 year-old Kanchelskis, Man United were investing in future potential as opposed to investing in a ready-made player and one of the world’s best at that time. Compare and contrast these figures spent to Fabio Capello’s dominant AC Milan side, in the summer of 1992, AC Milan, splashed out a reported total of GBP 34 million on new players, such as GBP 9.4 million on Yugoslav midfielder Dejan Savicevic, GBP 10 million on French striker Jean-Pierre Papin and GBP 13 million on Italian winger Gianluigi Lentini.
There were a number of reasons for this, firstly Italian clubs back then were a carbon copy of their English counterparts of today, multi-millionaire chairmen owned many of the Serie A clubs, even clubs not at the same level as Capello’s AC Milan such as Roman giants Roma and Lazio, Genoese club Sampdoria and southern giant SSC Napoli were able to attract stacks of international players to their squads. Secondly, in the immediate aftermath of the Heysel Stadium disaster which preceded the 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool, English clubs were banned from European competition for a period of 5 years until the 1990-91 season, this ban on English clubs playing in European competition lowered the attractiveness to come and play in England. Equally, it meant that current English and other British international players who were starring for the top clubs in England left these clubs to sign for clubs on the continent. This is said to have had a significant effect on Football Odds for English matches as many of the best athletes were no longer playing for English teams. They went to clubs like the Scottish giants; Celtic and Rangers, who unlike their English counterparts were able to play in European competitions. Finally, throughout the 1980’s at all levels of English football, fan hooliganism was rife and as a result crowds were affected throughout the whole of the Football League, which in turn affected the attractiveness of a product that English football could provide. That is until betting sites like FanDuel came about!
After many discussions and negotiations throughout the 1991-92 season, it was announced on the conclusion of that season that a breakaway Premier League was to be formed by the top 22 clubs in English football. The fight for the television rights for the newly formed league was a straight battle between terrestrial channel ITV and News Corporation’s pay television operator BSkyB, more commonly known as Sky. The battle for the rights was won by Sky, who according to the aforementioned “When Football Changed Forever” documentary, won the rights by a majority of 1 vote, that vote coming courtesy of the then chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, Alan Sugar. The first television rights deal which lasted for a 5 year cycle between 1992 and 1997 was valued at GBP 191 million between all the clubs, however, the value of the rights quickly skyrocketed, rising to GBP 670 million between 1997-2001, GBP 3.018 billion between 2013-16 and the now mammoth GBP 5.136 billion which lasts between 2016-19. The formation and current status of the Premier League has both its plus points and criticism. Plus points have included the upgrading and building of improved stadiums for English clubs and as Leicester winning the league highlighted in 2016, a large competitiveness throughout the league as a result of the equal television rights deal. Criticisms have included an increasing financial gap between the Premier League and the rest of the Football League, a perceived loss of identity, with a majority of the clubs now having overseas owners and how the formation of the Premier League and the massive power that it has accumulated has harmed the performance of the English national team who are as far away from replicating their 1966 World Cup triumph as they have ever been. Nonetheless, it was not just a new league that was born in the summer of 1992 with the Premier League, it was a global and financial juggernaut, whose power and standing is showing no signs of slowing down.
Blackburn Rovers – A town, a team, a dream
Blackburn, despite being a small town with a population of 105,085 inhabitants has punched well above its weight when it comes to its football team. Blackburn Rovers were founded in 1875 and were founding members of the Lancashire Football Association in 1878 and the English Football League in 1888. Between 1874 and 1876, Blackburn won 3 consecutive FA Cups with 3 further successes coming in 1890, 1891 and 1928. The club also won 2 English Football League Championship titles in 1911-12 and 1913-14, confirming their status as one of English football’s top clubs pre-World War 1. However, post-World War 1, Blackburn’s success dried up. At the end of the 1965-66 season, Blackburn were relegated from the top flight of English football and it seemed unlikely that the glory days would ever return to English football’s most successful town club.
All that changed halfway through the 1990-91 season, however, when in January 1991, the late Jack Walker, a multi-millionaire born in Blackburn who had made his fortune in steel purchased his hometown club. Walker had designs on making Blackburn a force once more in English football and his intentions were clear in October 1991, when just 8 months after leaving the then defending English champions Liverpool FC, Kenny Dalglish was appointed as new Blackburn manager with a remit to lead the team who were then languishing in the second tier of English football into the top flight. In May 1992, Blackburn achieved Walker’s goal of making them a top flight club and ending 36 years outside of the top division of English football, when Dalglish masterminded a 1-0 win over Leicester City in the 1992 Second Division Play-Off Final courtesy of a Mike Newell goal.
However, Blackburn’s promotion merely acted as an appetiser to Walker’s goal, in the 1992-93 and 1993-94 Premier League seasons, Blackburn, under the stewardship of Dalglish finished in 4th and 2nd place respectively. In these 2 seasons, bankrolled by Walker’s riches, Blackburn embarked on a mass spending spree, Alan Shearer, Kevin Gallacher, central defender Henning Berg, left back Graeme le Saux and goalkeeper Tim Flowers were all purchased for transfer fees exceeding GBP 500,000, a fortune in footballing terms back then. The foundations were set, all that was now needed was the finishing touch.
1994-95 saw that finishing touch applied with the GBP 5 million signing of striker Chris Sutton from Norwich City, which saw the birth of the Shearer and Sutton striking partnership, famously known as the “SAS”. The partnership was a huge success contributing a combined 49 goals (34 for Shearer and 15 for Sutton) as Blackburn ended an 81 year title drought by capturing the Premier League title on the final day despite a 2-1 loss to Liverpool as a result of their nearest challengers Man United’s failure to beat West Ham. However, to attribute the title win solely to the SAS would be wrong as other members of the team like the aforementioned Le Saux and Berg, midfielder captain Tim Sherwood, winger Stuart Ripley and central defender Colin Hendry all played their part.
Nonetheless, the most important contribution came from the aforementioned Flowers in Blackburn’s penultimate game of the season, a 1-0 victory at home to Newcastle United. A goal in the 29th minute by Shearer gave Blackburn the lead in the game, before Newcastle dominated the remainder of the game, however, were denied by Flowers, the man of the match who made 3 outstanding saves to preserve a priceless win for Blackburn who had been feeling the heat from Man United chipping away at their lead in the title race. However, whilst Flowers’ performance in the match was iconic, his post-match interview became even more iconic. Prior to the match with United catching Blackburn in the title race, it was suggested that Blackburn did not have the bottle to hold their nerve under pressure, however, after a post-match interview with Sky Sports, Flowers certainly made sure everyone know loud and clear (and repeatedly I must add) that Blackburn had bottle.
How to mug a Magpie – Newcastle United left empty handed in a historic and unbelievable collapse
In English football in the mid 1990’s, there was one team who captured the hearts and minds of all neutrals with their football and style of play, yet agonisingly failed to win a trophy, that team was Newcastle United. Despite being a one-team city and with fans as passionate about their team as any other club anywhere, Newcastle’s last major trophy of note going into the 1995-96 season was their FA Cup triumph in the 1954-55 season, it had been an even longer wait for a league title with the club’s last title triumph occurring in the 1926-27 season. Yet for large parts of the 1995-96 season, it appeared that Newcastle were about to crown a successful 3 and a half season period with a richly deserved championship win. The mastermind was former England international forward Kevin Keegan. After retiring at the age of 33 as a player with Newcastle in the summer of 1984, Keegan, formerly of Scunthorpe United, Liverpool, Hamburg SV, Southampton and Newcastle never originally had any intention of entering into management and headed out to live in Spain after retiring as a player.
However in Feburary 1992 with Newcastle struggling to avoid relegation in the second tier of English football and having dismissed their then manager, former Argentine and Spurs legend Osvaldo Ardiles, Keegan was appointed the club’s new manager. Keegan achieved survival in 1991-92 and then the following season won the 1992-93 Division One title and with it promotion to the Premier League for 1993-94. In 1993-94, the Magpies’ astonishing rise under Keegan continued when aided by the 34 goals of striker Andrew Cole who won European Football’s Golden Boot, Newcastle finished a highly impressive 3rd in their first season back in the top flight. 1994-95 saw another strong season for Newcastle, who finished 6th in the league despite the sale of the aforementioned Cole to Manchester United. After 25 games of the 1995-96 season and a 2-1 victory over Middlesbrough on 10th Feburary 1996, it seemed that Newcastle would win a first league title in 69 years, Newcastle were 12 points ahead of their nearest rivals Man United with just 13 games left, had lost just 3 games all season, scoring 47 goals in 25 games at an average of nearly 2 goals per game with an attacking “We will score more goals than you” style and had won the hearts of every neutral across England who did not support Man United. Keegan’s team were christened “The Entertainers” and the final 13 games were expected to serve as a coronation.
However, astonishingly, Newcastle and Keegan collapsed in the final 13 games of the season, winning only 5 of their remaining games alongside 5 losses as Newcastle finished with 78 points, 4 points behind eventual champions Man United. So what went wrong for Newcastle? There were a variety of factors and events which led to Newcastle’s collapse and three stand out as being pivotal and memorable.
The first took place on the 4th March 1996, when the top 2 in the league, Newcastle and Man United, met at Newcastle’s St James Park stadium for a pivotal title encounter. The game ended up being one of those typical smash and grab victories, throughout the match Newcastle dominated in terms of attacks and shots, United’s legendary Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel was forced into several top saves and on the one occasion he was beaten, Phillipe Albert’s rasping free kick hit the crossbar. Despite having created barely anything all game, United won the match in the 51st minute when a floated cross from Phil Neville was met by Eric Cantona who rifled the ball past Newcastle keeper Pavel Srnicek to seal a 1-0 victory for the Red Devils. Despite still holding a lead over Man United in the league after the loss, in a 2012 interview with BBC Sport, former Newcastle midfielder Rob Lee believed that it was this game that eventually ended up costing Newcastle the title that season.
The second took place on 3rd April 1996 when Newcastle faced 3rd placed Liverpool at Anfield. Going into the game, Man United were leading the table, 3 points ahead of 2nd placed Newcastle, yet had played 2 games more, so the title was still in Newcastle’s hands. What followed was a classic, Robbie Fowler gave Liverpool a 2nd minute lead, in the 10th minute, Newcastle were level courtesy of Les Ferdinand and they then took the lead just 4 minutes later through David Ginola. The next twist came in the 55th minute when Fowler levelled for Liverpool, yet the crowd had barely had enough time to catch breathe before Faustino Asprilla gave Newcastle a 3-2 lead just 2 minutes later. Back came Liverpool though in the 68th minute of the match when Stan Collymore equalised. 3-3 seemed a fitting result to a memorable game of football, however, there was late drama that would be a death blow to Newcastle’s title hopes, in the second minute of additional time, Liverpool winger John Barnes, surrounded in Newcastle’s penalty box saw Collymore free on the left running into space, one pass and Collymore was away and he rifled the ball home to seal an epic victory for Liverpool. The moment is memorised by Sky Sports’ commentator Martin Tyler’s iconic commentary: “Barnes, Rush, Barnes, still John Barnes, Collymore closing in!”, “Liverpool lead in stoppage time!”, “Kevin Keegan hangs his head, he’s devastated!” When Tyler issued the final part of that iconic line of commentary, the TV cameras showed Keegan slumped over the advertisement boards, almost knowing that Newcastle were succumbing to the title pressure. In 2003, in celebrating the first 10 seasons of the Premier League, this game was voted the best ever during that time period by fans and a panel of 10 experts.
However, the most memorable event of Newcastle’s collapse came on 29th April after Newcastle won 1-0 against Leeds in their 36th game of the season. Just under 2 weeks earlier Man United defeated Leeds 1-0 in a tight and hard-fought victory at Old Trafford and after the game, United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson stated that Leeds, who finished the season in 13th place should be up and around the top 6. Ferguson also suggested teams considered it more important to get a result against United than any other team, hinting that when Leeds played their next opponents, ironically Newcastle, that the determination by Leeds’ players would not be there and that as a result they were “cheating” their manager. It was managerial mind-games by Ferguson and Keegan fell into the trap. Immediately after Newcastle’s victory over Leeds, Keegan laid siege into Ferguson stating that he should be sent a tape of Newcastle’s victory over Leeds to show how hard they tried. The astonishing interview finished with the famous cry “I will love it if we beat them, love it!” Watching Keegan during this interview in his tone of voice and body language, it was clear that Ferguson had rattled him and Newcastle’s title bid never recovered as Newcastle drew their final two games against Nottingham Forest and Tottenham, finishing 4 points behind United. In the celebrations of 10 seasons of the Premier League in 2003, Keegan’s famous aforementioned cry was named as “Best Quote of the Decade“.
Better late than never? – Think again Middlesbrough
In the vast majority of cases, it is better to do something late rather than never, however, Middlesbrough FC found out that there was one occasion where this was not the case.
On 21st December 1996, halfway through the 1996-97 season, when despite possessing a squad comprising internationals such as Brazil’s Juninho Paulista and Emerson and Italian Fabrizio Ravanelli who was reportedly amongst the highest paid football players in the world at that time, Middlesbrough were in the relegation zone of the Premier League. Admittedly, one of the reasons why Boro (as the club are affectionately known by their supporters) were in such a poor league position was due to a large number of injuries to their first team squad. On the evening of December 20th, less than 24 hours before playing Blackburn away, the club’s assistant manager at the time, Viv Anderson just minutes away from the team’s hotel in Blackburn received a phone call from Boro’s manager, Bryan Robson. In the phone call, Robson told Anderson that he was going to call Blackburn and the Premier League to inform them Boro would like to postpone the game until a later date in the season. Boro had a reported 23 first team players unavailable for the game as a result of illness, injury or suspension. Later, the Premier League sent up a team of independent doctors to verify Boro’s case that the illnesses and injuries were genuine and that the club could not fulfil the fixture.
Boro took the decision after having reportedly received advice that because there were no set rules about sanctions should a club have to cancel a fixture at such short notice, the most severe punishment they could receive was a fine. However, Blackburn were angered at the cancellation of the fixture at 24 hours notice and demanded a hearing to discuss a potential punishment for Middlesbrough, which the Premier League agreed to. The decision of the hearing was made 3 weeks later and Boro’s initial belief that the worst possible punishment they would receive would be a fine turned out to be completely false. Boro’s punishment was not only a fine of GBP 50,000, but they were also hit with a 3 point deduction for failure to fulfil a fixture via cancellation at 24 hours notice. Blackburn themselves did not get everything they wanted either as the Premier League ordered that the postponed match would have to be replayed at a later date in the season when Blackburn demanded that they receive the 3 competition points from the postponed game citing that at the rearranged game Boro potentially playing new players that they had signed between the date of the initial cancellation and the rearranged game was unfair.
However, the decision affected Boro, more than Blackburn and how costly a points deduction it proved. On the final day of that Premier League season, Boro drew 1-1 with Leeds at home when they needed a win to avoid relegation to the second tier, finishing with a total of 39 points in 19th place out of 20. Coventry who escaped relegation in 17th place finished with a total of 41 points, meaning that if Boro had played the youth team against Blackburn and fulfilled the original fixture, they would have survived with 42 points. To make matters worse for Boro, on top of being relegated, the club lost in that season’s final of both the League Cup (to Leicester City) and FA Cup (to Chelsea).
Arsene Wenger – How one man made foreign managers flavour of the month
August 1996 and Arsenal, one of English football’s biggest clubs are currently in a sticky situation following the sacking of their manager, Bruce Rioch following reported disputes over transfer funds and a reportedly unhealthy working relationship with the club’s vice chairman David Dein. Rioch, due to the reasons above, did not prove a long-term successor to former manager George Graham who was at Arsenal for 9 years between 1986 and 1995. Struggling as to where to turn to next for their new manager, Arsenal decided at that time to follow the lead taken by their London-based counterparts Chelsea (who earlier that season appointed Dutchman Ruud Gullitt as their successor to Glenn Hoddle) and appoint a foreign manager to succeed Rioch.
The aforementioned Dein was to prove crucial to the eventual identity of Rioch successor, in the summer prior to the 1995-96 season when Arsenal were looking for a permanent manager to succeed Graham, Dein had reportedly recommended to the Arsenal board to appoint Frenchman Arsene Wenger as Graham’s successor. However, the board appointed Rioch instead. Upon Rioch’s sacking in August 1996, the man initially tipped to be his successor at Arsenal was the late Johan Cryuff who had recently left his role as Barcelona manager. However, when Dein recommended Wenger to Arsenal’s board once more, this time, the Arsenal board heeded his advice and in late September 1996, after he had secured his release from his then employers, Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight, Wenger was unveiled as Rioch’s successor at Arsenal.
The reaction to the appointment of Wenger by the English press was one of bemusement, not necessarily because it was a foreign manager, (Gullit was a foreigner, but was well-known amongst all football fans in England for his time as a player with the Dutch national team) but because Wenger was virtually unknown in English footballing circles. One commonly used phrase to describe the appointment of Wenger as Arsenal manager amongst English fans and media was “Arsene Who?” Unbeknown to English fans though, Wenger possessed an impressive track record in charge of French club AS Monaco, where he won a French Ligue 1 title in the 1987-88 season and a Coupe de France in 1990-91 alongside reaching the semi-finals of the 1993-94 UEFA Champions League where they lost to the eventual winners, Fabio Capello’s AC Milan. Moreover, Wenger became famous in French football circles during his time at Monaco for developing and nurturing future stars of the game when they were young such as Liberian striker George Weah. Instantly Wenger’s impact at Arsenal and ability to quieten the doubters was immediate, as Arsenal finished the 1996/97 season in 3rd place, just missing out on 2nd place and a place in the 1997-98 Champions League on goal difference to Newcastle. However, the seeds of future success had been sewn and players like Frenchman Patrick Vieira, (signed in the summer of 1996 due to Wenger’s imminent arrival at the club) who would become such a vital cog in future Arsenal successes, had settled into English football well.
1997-98 was the season when Wenger made such an impression in English football, at one point in the title race that season, fought between Wenger’s Arsenal and Ferguson’s Manchester United, after United’s 2-0 win at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea on 28th Feburary, United held a 12 point lead over the Gunners and it seemed that the title was destined once more for Old Trafford. However, Arsenal, in-between a 0-0 draw with West Ham United on 2nd March and a 4-0 loss to Liverpool in the penultimate game of the season at Anfield, won 10 consecutive games, one of which was a crucial 1-0 win against United at Old Trafford combined with a collapse from United akin to that suffered by Newcastle just 2 seasons previous handed the title to Arsenal. Moreover, what was noticeable under Wenger, was the style of football Arsenal played to achieve their title win. George Graham’s successes at Arsenal were formed off the basis of a solid defence, a pragmatic, rather than flamboyant playing style and a considerable sum of victories by a single goal, which became the basis of the famous song sung by Gunners fans’ of “1-0 to the Arsenal”. Under Wenger, however, Graham’s pragmatism was replaced with an attacking style of play which featured quick combination play, technical skill and fluid passing from its players which included the likes of Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka. Wenger had revolutionised English football in becoming the first non-British manager to win a title in England and also changed the perception towards foreign managers in English football.
Wenger’s success suddenly got other clubs thinking about following Arsenal’s blueprint and trying a foreign manager over a British manager whenever they decided to make a managerial change. Upon the surprise sacking of Ruud Gullit by Chelsea in Feburary 1998, Chelsea appointed as his player-manager successor, their Italian forward Gianluca Vialli. Like Arsenal, 21 years have passed at Chelsea and not one of their managers has been a British national. Liverpool were the next to go down the foreign manager route when they appointed Frenchman Gerard Houllier to replace Roy Evans in the autumn of 1998 and Houllier, in winning 2 League Cups, an FA Cup and a UEFA Cup in his 6 seasons at Anfield vindicated the Liverpool board’s decision. All of last season’s top 6 clubs in the Premier League, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United are coached by a non-British manager. Many mid-table and lower Premier League clubs are also now coached by foreign managers too, with Everton’s Ronald Koeman and Crystal Palace’s Frank de Boer being noteworthy examples. Wenger’s influence is so profound that Hull City, recently relegated to the second tier of English football appointed Leonid Slutsky, a man who won 3 Russian Premier Leagues during his time at CSKA Moscow as their new manager, the first Russian to manage in English football. When Wenger was appointed Arsenal manager, only 2 out of 20 Premier League clubs were coached by a non-British manager, fast-forward to 2017-18 and 13 of the 20 Premier League clubs have non-British managers. There has been praise attached for this approach for looking beyond solely the British Isles for managerial candidates and criticism highlighting the lack of opportunities for young British managers impressing in the lower English divisions at Premier League clubs. Nonetheless, regardless of your belief on this issue, Wenger’s impact on English football has been profound and long-lasting.
Chelsea – Cosmopolitan Cup Kings and a catalyst in English football welcoming the World’s top talent
Think of Chelsea and many associate the arrival of the club as a powerhouse of English football when the club was purchased by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in the summer of 2003 and the subsequent large trophy haul that Mr Abramovich’s financial injection of capital into the club provided. However, this is in my opinion a large misconception as pre-Abramovich, Chelsea had announced themselves as a growing force and crucially they had trophies to back up this argument.
The starting point began in the summer of 1996 when the club appointed legendary Dutchman Ruud Gullit, who at the time was a player at the club as their new manager. The impact was immediate, Chelsea finished an impressive 6th place in the 1996-97 Premier League, a vast improvement on the 11th place they finished in 1995-96 and won the 1997 FA Cup, beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the final. Despite amazingly sacking Gullit in the second half of the 1997-98 season, Chelsea’s thirst for trophies refused to dry up, the club finished two places higher in the league in 4th place, but even more impressively, won the 1997-98 League Cup, beating Middlesbrough again in the final by a scoreline of (you guessed it) 2-0 and the 1997-98 UEFA Cup Winners Cup, defeating German club VfB Stuttgart 1-0 in the final. The 1999-00 season also saw further success for Chelsea when they won the FA Cup defeating Aston Villa 1-0 in the final. Chelsea’s cup exploits saw the club acquire the nickname “Cup Kings” and alongside frequent finishes in the top 5 of the Premier League established the club at a high-level who were just one step away from winning a League title and challenging in the Champions League. The 1998-99 Premier League was also another example of the aforementioned argument, Chelsea ended the season trophyless, however, recorded a 3rd place finish, only 4 points behind eventual winners Manchester United. Other impressive highlights in that season which highlighted the future potential of Chelsea were a 21 game unbeaten run during the season between the 1st and 23rd game of the season and an impressive 1-0 win courtesy of a goal by their Uruguayan midfielder Gustavo Poyet over the then Champions League winners Real Madrid in that season’s UEFA Super Cup.
Whilst this period in Chelsea’s history arguably laid the foundations for the club’s takeover by Abramovich and the ensuing success that followed, this period also saw Chelsea, just like their London rivals Arsenal become pioneers that would shape the future of the Premier League. If Wenger’s success at Arsenal highlighted the value of foreign managers to English clubs, Chelsea between 1996 and 2000 highlighted the value to English clubs to look beyond the British Isles when it came to signing players. In the summer and autumn of the 1996-97 season, Chelsea made a total of 5 major signings for their first team squad, what was noticeable though, was that all 5 of these signings were from overseas, 3 Italians, Gianluca Vialli, Gianfranco Zola and Roberto di Matteo, 1 Frenchman, Franck Leboeuf and a Norwegian, Frode Grodas. In the 1997 FA Cup Final triumph, Chelsea’s starting eleven had 5 non-British players in it, 4 of the 5 aforementioned signings (Vialli being on the bench) and Romanian Dan Petrescu. At this time in the Premier League, the vast majority of the players in squads were British or Irish nationals with often just 2/3 foreign players playing frequently in a club’s regular starting eleven. It was the first sign that English football, which had to watch during the 1980’s as Italy’s Serie A became the dominant league in world football attracting the best foreign talent was now about to have their own influx of top talent from overseas. Chelsea’s 1998 League Cup Final win also saw the club field 5 foreign players, their 1998 Cup Winners Cup Final starting line-up saw 7 foreign players named in the starting eleven and by the time of the 2000 FA Cup final, England midfielder Dennis Wise was the sole English representation in Chelsea’s starting line-up, which comprised of 10 foreign players.
English football throughout the 1990’s was still below Italy’s Serie A. However, the Premier League by the late 1990’s, aided by a growing television deal with Sky Sports was beginning to catch it up and two crucial summer transfers in my opinion were the first indicator that the Premier League would eventually surpass Serie A in being the first port-of-call for the world’s top talent. Those two transfers were the transfers of 2 defenders, Frenchman Marcel Desailly from AC Milan to Chelsea and Dutchman Jaap Stam from PSV Eindhoven to Manchester United which both occurred in the summer of 1998. At the time of his transfer to Chelsea, the then 29 year-old Desailly had been a regular starter for AC Milan in their glory years, a World Cup winner with France and was in the peak of his career. Many foreign players who came to the Premier League pre-Desailly were either at the end of their careers like Gullit and Vialli or had been castoffs no longer wanted by Serie A clubs like Arsenal’s mercurial Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp. In signing Desailly for a fee of GBP 4.6 million, Chelsea had taken a player from Milan who was in his prime, not a past-his-peak, surplus to requirements player. The signing of Stam by Manchester United for a fee of GBP 10.6 million was also significant, Stam was an in-demand Dutch international who had just turned 26 at that time and was about to enter into the peak years of his career, in past years, a Serie A giant like Juventus or AC Milan would have snapped him up, however, Stam chose Man United and the Premier League over Serie A. It was a powerful statement of intent from the Premier League to Serie A, gone are the days when we are going solely for your ageing stars or cast-offs.
Chelsea became the first club in English football to field an all-foreign starting eleven for a league match on 26th December 1999 in a 2-1 win against Southampton and other top clubs like Arsenal and Liverpool quickly followed Chelsea’s lead in scouring the globe for top talent and composing the majority of their starting elevens with non-British players. Compare the opening round of the first Premier League season in 1992-93 when across 22 clubs and 242 players, only 13 players (5.37%), Andrei Kanchelskis (Russia), Eric Cantona (France), Ronnie Rosenthal (Israel), Peter Schmeichel and John Jensen (Denmark), Craig Forrest (Canada), Jan Stejskal (Czech Republic), Robert Warzycha (Poland), Gunnar Halle (Norway), Hans Segers and Michel Vonk (Netherlands) and Roland Nilsson and Anders Limpar (Sweden) were non British/Irish nationals. Compare and contrast this to data taken at the end of the 2015-16 Premier League season which showed 69% of the players in the Premier League (more than 2/3rds) are non-British players.
Rampant Red Devils – Manchester United’s Historic Treble of 1998-99
Throughout the 1990’s, one club stood above its peers in their domination of English football, that club was Manchester United. Managed by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, like the aforementioned Chelsea team of the late 1990’s, United were seen as cup specialists, who won the 1990 FA Cup, the 1991 European Cup Winners Cup and the 1992 League Cup, however, they fell short in the league, which was dominated by both Liverpool and Arsenal at that period. The formation of the Premier League in 1992-93 saw United turn their cup domination into league domination. Everything fell into place at the right time for United to dominate in the 1990’s, the unexpected signing of French attacker Eric Cantona from Leeds partway through the 1992-93 season who became such a catalyst in the club’s success, the emergence of the Neville brothers Gary and Phillip, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes through the clubs youth team into the first team, affectionately known as “The Class of 92” and the disastrous appointment by Liverpool of Scot Graeme Souness as their new manager to replace their successful manager throughout the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in Kenny Daglish. In 6 seasons between 1992 and 1998, United won 4 league titles in 92/93, 93/94, 95/96 and 96/97, finishing runners-up in the other two seasons and 2 FA Cups in 93/94 and 95/96.
Yet despite domestic domination, the club were unable to achieve anything of note in European competitions, their best performance in the UEFA Champions League being a semi-final defeat to German side Borussia Dortmund in 1996/97. The club’s forays into European competition between 1992 and 1998 had included some poor results and performances, the nadir of which was an embarrassing elimination in the second round of the 1995/96 UEFA Cup by Russian side Rotor Volgograd. Furthermore, come the summer of 1998, Arsenal, under talented French manager Arsene Wenger had in beating United to the 97/98 league title emerged as a new threat to their domestic domination.
1998-99 however, saw the club achieve results and trophies that significantly eclipsed their previous successful seasons. On the final day of the league season, United won the Premier League, coming from 1-0 behind to defeat Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 at Old Trafford subsequently pipping Arsenal to the title by one point. Just 6 days later in the FA Cup final at Wembley, goals from Teddy Sheringham and Paul Scholes sealed a 2-0 victory against Newcastle and secured the club’s 3rd league and cup double in 7 seasons. However, the biggest and most significant trophy came just 4 days after the FA Cup final, when United, a goal down going into the 1st minute of stoppage time scored two goals from two corners courtesy of two substitutes on the night, Sheringham and Norwegian striker Ole Gunnar Solskjaer within 2 minutes to defeat Germany’s Bayern Munich and clinch a historic treble, the first English club to achieve such a feat.
Man United’s treble success was achieved via a combination of an exceptional squad of players, including Danish goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, Dutch central defender Jaap Stam, English right back Gary Neville, the central midfield duo of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, two fine wingers in Ryan Giggs and David Beckham and a legendary strikeforce of the aforementioned Sheringham and Solskjaer, Andrew Cole and Dwight Yorke and never-say-die attitude and spirit. The four aforementioned strikers plundered 76 goals in all competitions between them and whenever United had to find a way to win a game, they found a way. Noteworthy examples of this came during a 4th round tie at home to Liverpool in the FA Cup, when going into the 89th minute of the game, United, a goal down to their fierce rivals, scored twice in 2 minutes to win the game 2-1. After being two goals down in the Champions League semi-final to Juventus, skipper Roy Keane, who would miss the final due to a booking picked up earlier in the game scored a goal and produced a true captain’s display to ensure United turned around the tie and progressed to the final. In the last minute of the FA Cup semi-final replay against Arsenal, Schmeichel saved a penalty from Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp which would have won Arsenal the game and then in added time Giggs scored one of the all-time great goals to knockout Arsenal and send United through to the final.
The most notable example though of United’s unbreakable spirit however, was in the Champions League final against Bayern, when missing both Scholes and Keane due to suspension, a makeshift central midfield of Beckham and Butt prevailed against Bayern. Of course, every successful side needs its share of luck and when Bayern, whilst 1-0 up in the game hit the woodwork twice in the second half courtesy of Mehmet Scholl and Carsten Jancker, one sensed it would be United’s year. In fact, ITV co-commentator for the match and former United manager Ron Atkinson even stated during the game with the score 1-0 to Bayern that if United were to equalise, he could see them winning the game. Upon Solskjaer’s late winner, ITV’s second commentator for the game, Clive Tyldesley, exclaimed “Manchester United have reached the promised land”! The legendary commentary stuck with United even naming their official video for the following 1999/00 season, “Manchester United, Beyond the Promised Land”. Despite Barcelona’s and Bayern Munich’s trebles in 2008/09 and 2012/13 respectively being more relevant in the eyes of football fans, Manchester United’s treble of 1998/99 should be placed right up there with both, United had to overcome an exceptional Arsenal side in the Premier League that season who possessed the meanest defence in Europe, conceding only 17 goals in 38 games, defeated Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in that season’s FA Cup and defeated both Inter Milan and Juventus in addition to Bayern Munich in that season’s Champions League at a time when the Italian Serie A was the best league in the world.
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