Sunday 25 February 2018

How a secret dinner changed the face of English football

Twenty-five years on, the Premier League is a sporting behemoth, with the most recent television deal worth an astonishing £8.34bn over three years. Photo: Stock Image
Twenty-five years on, the Premier League is a sporting behemoth, with the most recent television deal worth an astonishing £8.34bn over three years. Photo: Stock Image

Julian Bennett

The origins

By late 1990, English football was in crisis. The game had become defined not by sporting achievements but by horrific tragedies and violence: Heysel, rioting on the terraces, the Bradford fire and Hillsborough.

Attendances were in free-fall, the best players, such as Paul Gascoigne and David Platt, had fled abroad, and cash-starved clubs were desperately scrabbling to implement the Taylor report and upgrade decrepit stadiums.

"It was clear there needed to be change," says Rick Parry, who would become the first chief executive of the Premier League. "Sadly it took Hillsborough to realise we needed a radically different approach."

A group of forward-thinking men had taken charge of the 'Big Five' clubs: David Dein at Arsenal, Martin Edwards at Manchester United, Irving Scholar at Tottenham, Noel White at Liverpool and Philip Carter at Everton. They believed football could thrive again.

They were led by Dein, a fan of American sport. He had previously proposed three ideas to help market the sport - extending half-time from 10 to 15 minutes; having two substitutions per game instead of one; and printing names and numbers on each player's jersey. All were rejected.

In their view, the Big Five brought in the majority of the money but saw precious little of it.

The plot

With the Football League in chaos, Greg Dyke set up a dinner for the Big Five at LWT on the south bank of the Thames in October 1990 to inform them he would offer to buy their rights separately.

At that dinner it was revealed that Dean had a plan to break away. But the deal was far from done and secrecy was paramount.

The five trusted each other implicitly but knew they alone could not make up a league.

So each was assigned what was referred to as a "dancing partner" - a club they had to convince to join. The five targeted were Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield Wednesday and West Ham on the basis that, if the 10 biggest clubs joined, the others would have to follow.

The breakaway

The clubs knew they had no chance of success without the backing of the FA - FIFA and UEFA would never allow IT.

Dein and White went to Lancaster Gate to visit FA chairman Bert Millichip and CEO Graham Kelly.

The FA and Football League loathed each other and, when Dein and White made their pitch, the FA saw the chance to crush the League once and for all and commissioned Rick Parry, then an executive with Ernst &Young, to work with the Big Five on a blueprint for a new league.

The number of teams in the top division was becoming a key issue. Dein supported an 18-team league with a mid-season break to help the national side, but the smaller clubs were less sure, and eventually it was agreed that it should be a 22-team league.

The TV deal

A different battle had been raging all this while - TV negotiations involving ITV, the BBC and newly formed BSkyB.

Dyke and Sam Chisholm, a hard-nosed New Zealander brought in by Rupert Murdoch to breathe life into Sky, began to work on a package that would dwarf everything that had gone before.

Parry set a deadline for competing television bids to be submitted by midnight on May 17, 1992 - negotiations had only begun in the autumn - to be voted on by the 22 chairmen the next day. At midnight he had two bids on the table - from BSkyB and ITV.

When a decision was postponed, Murdoch authorised a new bid of £304m over five years.

Parry proposed it to the clubs. The vote, which required a two-thirds majority to pass, was 14-6 in favour of BSkyB.

Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest voted for ITV, but Tottenham and the others chose Sky - with two exceptions.

To this day, Parry does not know which of the 22 clubs abstained from the most momentous ballot in English football history.

The fallout

The reaction was furious, with the Big Five - bar Tottenham - livid at the lack of terrestrial coverage, and ITV launching legal proceedings, but losing.

Relations remained toxic, but once the football began they began to thaw - the flow of money helped.

"It changed from a sport to a business overnight," says Barry Silkman, an up-and-coming agent in the early '90s.

"Overnight, a player went from being in a good job as a working man to a very wealthy working man. It was incredible."

The legacy

Twenty-five years on, the Premier League is a sporting behemoth, with the most recent television deal worth an astonishing £8.34bn over three years. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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