There are 763 footballers out of work and many clubs face an uncertain future. Barney Ronay looks back ten years to the bright sunrise of the Premiership era, the beginning of the boom when football was just money, money, money
In the summer of 1993 the tabloid press was in the process of acquiring a new footballing vocabulary. The first Sky TV-fuelled English Premiership season had just ended, and suddenly “come and get me pleas” were being issued, “want-away contract rebels” abounded, and Big-Spending Blackburn rubbed shoulders with Moneybags Man Utd as multi-million market madness descended. It all sounded extremely empowering for the soaraway red tops; and there would be plenty more to come. Topped and tailed by the Murdoch corporation, football had gone tabloid.
Ten years on, English football has begun to feel the chill. The PFA website lists 763 professionals “available for transfer”; or, in popular parlance, out of a job. “Unemployment may be an unpalatable consequence of fighting inflation,” Margaret Thatcher once barked and after a decade of the shiningly Thatcherite Premiership, there has certainly been plenty of inflation. Time for a little unemployment perhaps. But what about administration orders, bankruptcies, football franchises, panic mergers? With an empty wallet and a feeling of having done something hideously self-defeating the night before, English football is finally waking up from its ten-year binge.
At which point the screen slowly dissolves, wind chimes jingle and the mists of time part slowly to reveal… Pat van den Hauwe. In the summer of ’93 English football was feeling decidedly nouveau riche. All around there was a quickening of the blood. It wasn’t as good as they’d promised: it was much, much better. And football was hungry for a little glamour to go with the feel-rich factor. Into this vacuum stepped the proto Posh and Becks, the footballing faces of the moment, and the subjects of a 17-page spread in Hello: Pat van den Hauwe (“one of the world’s top footballers”) and model Mandy Smith (“one of the world’s most beautiful women”). The styling was less slick, the faces not quite so narrowed by money-gloss and celebrity veneer, but in the awkward rictus smiles of defensive hardman Pat (also “a striker for Tottenham” and “the world’s most romantic man”) and his elfin bride, Hello provided its readership with a foreshadowing of the solemn pomposities of the very Beckhams themselves.
Meanwhile, there was only one real topic of conversation: money. Gold Trafford, leered Today, above a slaveringly sensual ramble about “Roy’s treasure chest”: the £8,500 a month offered Roy Keane on his move to Manchester United from Nottingham Forest. With clubs already giddy from their first real draught of TV revenue, Keane’s move was one of many. Rangers broke the British transfer record by paying Dundee United £4.1 million for Duncan Ferguson, while in Italy David Platt became the world’s costliest player (total fees: £17.5m) after moving to Sampdoria from Juventus. Further down the scale, the Sunday Mirror recorded that “humble” Southend were the focus of a “multi-million pound sales rush” for the services of “towering striker Stan Collymore, the 6ft 4in giant” (who would appear to have shrunk over the years).
Elsewhere, David O’Leary was set to become “soccer’s newest millionaire” – no longer such an exclusive club – in his final year at Arsenal, and the Sun took a deep breath and screamed: I’ll Throw Cash At It Until The Men In White Coats Take Me Away, above a picture of Wolves owner Sir Jack Hayward, who escaped confinement that very summer despite pinning his hopes on big money trio Geoff Thomas, Kevin Keen and David Kelly. The “it” was of course promotion to the Premiership, and Hayward looks to have finally made it just as the party is starting to fizzle out. But back then he was just going with the flow. The Premiership energised football in the most basic sense. Politicians often say that you can’t improve something just by throwing money at it; but you can certainly make it richer. And suddenly sponsors wanted a fatter slice of the action. “Teenage whiz-kid” Ryan Giggs’s record £2,000-a-week boot deal was widely marvelled over. The Football League announced a £3.5m link-up with Endsleigh Insurance, while Leeds United’s new kit deal was whisperingly described as being worth £2m – paltry by today’s standards – over two years.
With all manner of rebranding being applied to the great sporting dinosaur of the 1980s, football turned towards its young. The phrase “Ferguson’s Fledglings” cropped up in a preview of the ’93 Youth Cup final, as a Manchester United team featuring Gary Neville, Keith Gillespie, Nicky Butt, Robbie Savage, Paul Scholes and David Beckham (“no one should expect to see tonight’s teams appearing in the Premiership two years from now” cautioned the editorial) took on Leeds United. Of those Fledglings, Gillespie, Ben Thornley, Chris Casper and John O’Kane all appear on the current PFA roster of out-of-work footballers – emphasising, if anything, the gulf between top and bottom of the professional ladder after ten years of Premiership puff and bluster; the barely conceivable wealth of a Neville, or even a Savage, set against the mundanity of scraping a footballing living among the outer reaches of the nouveau pauvre Nationwide League. Meanwhile, England’s Under-18s were giving journalists reason to get hot under the collar. In the European Youth Championship Kevin Gallen and one Robert Fowler scored freely as England’s youngsters beat a Dutch team containing Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert 4-1, while “ice-cool ace” Darren Caskey converted the winning penalty kick in the final.
However, even in the soft focus glow of the summer of ’93 not everything was rosy. Barnet were in the process of imploding under the weight of implausible debts. And there were misgivings at the first signs of major gentrification inside the nation’s stadiums: the Times featured an article bemoaning the cost (£15) of a seat in the Stretford End. But in among all the dirty talk of transfer fees, wage hikes and signing-on sprees, there was real excitement, too. Everybody wanted to be a footballer. A 13-year-old called Scott Parker managed to attract the attention of Premiership scouts with a display of keepy-uppy in a McDonalds advert. “But they are not queuing up for quarter-pounders,” the News of the World was quick to point out. Oh no. It’s Scott himself that “top clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal” have taken a shine to. The accompanying picture shows a small boy with early-Nineties bobbed hair (Yes! It is the same Scott Parker) juggling a ball that looks bigger than his head.
But with hope comes disappointment, too. The same week the Sun carried a story (The Boys Who Done Good!) about “11 mates from one small school [who] have been snapped up by top soccer league clubs”. Posing in the colours of their chosen clubs, the 11 wannabes smile and clench their fists in – anticipated – triumph. At which point it would provide a pleasing circularity, and a salutary rebuke, to report that ten years down the Premiership line the likes of Daniel Fearnely (age: 14; club: West Ham) and Barry Stewart (14, Millwall) find themselves pasted up in the PFA’s roster of the unemployed. In fact they never got that far. Sam Keevill (12, Chelsea) plays for Basingstoke. Adam Morrish (14, Queens Park Rangers) had a spell at Dover. But the rest – as is usually the way – vanished from the game.
What remains of them is a snapshot; a clutch of gawky grins at the start of a decade of decadence that has seen the professional game hugely altered at every level. Boom years will come and go, but teenage boys will always try – and fail – to become footballers. Taking a look at the PFA’s list of 763 vagrant members, many carrying their own dog-eared sponsored holdall full of disappointment, might just soften the blow for the cream of Dartford West School class of ’93.
From WSC 198 August 2003. What was happening this month