More than two decades of drama and 9,746 matches later, here we are on the cusp of the 26th season of the re-branded Premier League.
Perhaps the idea of a Friday night kick-off was inconceivable in the era of the Football League, but not so in the Premier League with Friday’s Arsenal-Leicester City fixture. It shows how much the English league has transformed since its re-inception in 1992.
Arsene Wenger revolutionised the English game with his idiosyncratic dietary requirements, replacing local staples with nutritional food. He banned alcohol and ordered players to stretch. They frowned at all the particulars the Frenchman introduced, but soon Arsenal’d topple the sky with “The Invincibles”. Two seasons ago Leicester were the authors of a Cinderella story, with a “Dilly ding, dilly dong” coach polishing a squad of prosaic players to forge a tale so thrilling that they instantly entered the pantheon of the greats.
These two clubs will not have much chance of glory in May, but they will be part of the support cast, alongside neophytes Brighton Hove & Albion and Huddersfield Town, in a Homeric tussle at the top between star-spangled coaches and mega-clubs, whose lofty ambitions are shaped by out-of-control swirls of money.
In the past 25 years they, however, have given us deep pleasure. Here is a non-exhaustive listicle of iconic PL-moments: Sergio Aguero’s season-defining strike, Jose Mourinho proclaiming himself the “Special One”, Luis Suarez’s bite out of Branislav Ivanovic, Roy Keane’s unceremonious exit at Old Trafford, Thierry Henry’s hat-trick against Liverpool, David Beckham’s audacious goal against Wimbledon and of course, the Eric Cantona karate kick.
Eric Cantona, the first hero
Perhaps the irascible French striker was the first, enduring hero of the Premier League. The Premier League was a defensive mechanism designed by the “Big Five”. Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham were frightened by the prospect of bankruptcy following the Hillsborough disaster and the damning Taylor report. They broke away from the historic, four-division Football League.
Cantona arrived at Manchester United in 1992 at that crossroads moment: club executives, the media brigade and global money plotted a “brave new world” for the English game. He recounted, of his first goal on English soil that “the thousands of supporters who were behind the goal seemed to dive toward the pitch” and that only in England, “ecstasy could be found”.
That collective delirium and fandom perfectly facilitated the Premier League’s magnification. English football was transformed forever: the 1992-‘97 Premier League TV cycle generated £191 million, the current three-year TV deal is worth £5.1 billion. Clubs enjoy a collective revenue of £3.3 billion.
With those bountiful broadcast deals, the Premier League has long abandoned reality or normality. In pursuit of mega-money, the new league commodified the game with a ruthless crudeness. Arsenal-Leicester City will be played at a corporate palace, with a large prawn and sandwich club in the skyboxes and the middle tier. That corporatism envisages a different fandom across the stadium: a middle class of lawyers, doctors and architects and their families, who go to the ground to enjoy a day out, but who are, in general, not emotionally invested in the game. For them, football is not serious, but merely a weekend game to be “consumed” with crisps and a soda.
The “Entertainment League” or, as, Brian Glanville coined it, the “Greed is Good League” has another profound problem: the standard of play is often lacking. Arsenal and Leicester may both proffer their own version of the game at the Emirates Stadium to kick off the new season, but since Chelsea’s last 2012 win in the European Cup, one could argue, that the Premier League has stagnated.
The ‘Greed is Good League’?
In England, clubs combine technique, tactics and physicality. It makes for compelling viewing and knife-edge competition. La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 may not be so holistic, but those leagues each excel in their own specialist area. The Premier League’s triumph is a balance between competitiveness and quality. At the same time, the league suffers from a vaunted predictability with a top six of clubs – Leicester’s fairy tale notwithstanding – playing for the ultimate prize.
In the era of the mass media, the Premier League will remain an enthralling product, a weekly soap opera of high performance football in HD, generating tabloid story lines and tapping into feelings of tribalism. The nonsensical level of hype endures, with unending narratives: Will “Fraudiola” redeem himself at Manchester City? Will Mourinho galvanise Manchester United at last? Will Conte defend Chelsea’s title? The curtain raiser offers a delicious 90-minute starter, filled with intrigue and subplots as well: Will the Wengerocracy survive in North London? So bring on the 9,747th Premier League game and oh yes…Happy Birthday.