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David James on Fever Pitch for the BBC - Copyright StoryFilms

Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League

With drama, gripping sporting narratives and moments of conflict, this is the story of English football’s revolution.

About the programme

When The Football Association and the 22 clubs of the First Division created the Premier League in 1991, it marked the beginning of a 30-year-long soap opera, starring business tycoons, superstar players, voracious journalists, and obsessed fans. 

Told by the people who were there – Eric Cantona, Vinnie Jones, Alan Shearer, David Beckham – this series charts the story of how English football was transformed from a sport into a business, literally overnight. 

For more information, visit the BBC programme page


Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

David Beckham on BBC Fever Pitch, copyright StoryFilms

Copyright: StoryFilms

Alan Shearer, Fever Pitch Open University Short Film, Copyright StoryFilms

Watch our exclusive interviews

Dive deeper into the Premiership with three exclusive short films, featuring unseen footage from the series.

Fame and fortune

03:58

Harry and Jamie Redknapp, and others, on football's fame and fortune

Famous faces from the worlds of football, press and fashion, reflect on the explosion of fame and wealth that followed in the wake of the Premier League. 

A word from our expert, Dr Alex Twitchen

In January 1961 The FA decided to abolish their maximum wage policy. This followed the threat of strike action by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) who were led by the Fulham player Jimmy Hill. At the time the maximum wage for a professional footballer was £20 per week and this was only £5 more than the average wage of an industrial worker. Wages soon increased and by the end of 1961 Johnny Haynes, also of Fulham, became the first player to earn £100 per week - equal to about £2000 today.

As Hunter Davies outlines in his book The Glory Game, by the 1970s the best professional footballers were typically earning the same as doctors, solicitors and architects. They were also beginning to embrace other commercial opportunities and sponsorship deals. Kevin Keegan for example promoted Brut aftershave alongside boxing legend Henry Cooper.

The arrival of the Premier League vastly accelerated the earning power of players. The money they now earned elevated their social status and standard of living to levels even higher than their predecessors.  

It’s also worth highlighting that any conversation about players wages is still discussed as a weekly wage rather than an annual salary. No matter how much they earn, a footballer’s income is still associated with the regular weekly wage of the skilled working-classes.  


Blackburn Rovers - A Cinderella Story

04:16

Alan Shearer, Kenny Dalglish and others, on the rise of Blackburn Rovers.

You will go to the ball. Former players and staff reflect on the fairytale story of Blackburn Rovers, as they go from small community-pitch club, to Premiership promotion and beyond.

A word from our expert, Dr Alex Twitchen

In 1888 Blackburn Rovers were one of the twelve founding members of the Football League. All twelve teams were from the Midlands and the North of England and Blackburn share the distinction, alongside Aston Villa and Everton, of also being founder members of the Premier League.

The roots of the Football League lay deep in the mostly working-class manufacturing towns created by the industrial revolution. Many Football League clubs, like Blackburn, were the beating heart of their communities and a source of civic pride. They were financially supported by local businesspeople whose horizons never went beyond their relationship with the local population.

The success of Blackburn winning the Premier League title in 1994-95 serves like an umbilical cord that symbolically connects the Football League Division One to the Premier League. But this cord, if not already cut, is becoming increasingly severed as the Premier League continues to accumulate a magnitude of wealth and global appeal which the Victorian founders of the Football League could never had imagined.  

As Kenny Dalglish observes, Blackburn’s title success was a fairytale, a story built on the values of localism, community and family that is unlikely to be repeated.


The Premiership revolution

04:39

Watch premiership legends, including Alan Shearer, David James, Harry Redknapp and others, reflect on the Premier League revolution, that transformed English football into a worldwide powerhouse. 

A word from our expert, Dr Alex Twitchen

There has been a long-standing reluctance to televise live games in England. A fear that televising live games would lower attendances and therefore reduce gate receipts, a major source of income for most clubs, has prevailed for many years. Up until 1983 Football League matches were only shown as highlights on Match of the Day (BBC) and The Big Match (ITV).

In 1983 a new deal between the BBC, ITV and the Football League allowed 10 First Division games to be shown live each season. Broadcast by ITV, the first live league game televised since 1960 took place on 2nd October 1983 between Tottenham Hotspur and Nottingham Forest.

When Sky won the inaugural contract to broadcast the newly created Premier League, it significantly increased the number of games televised live from 18 per season to 60. Suddenly live football became more abundant, at least to those who had access to Sky.

Yet, the continued ‘3pm Blackout’ on Saturdays, means the unrestricted televising of live games in the UK is still not possible.


Football pitch from above

Creating a Powerhouse

Alex Twitchen looks at the tense relationship between The Football Association and The Football League and how it led to the creation of The Premier League.

How it all started

Centre of a football pitch

Understanding the reasons behind the creation of The Premier League is like putting together an intricate jigsaw. It is only when all the pieces of the jigsaw are joined together that it becomes possible to make sense of it all. The involvement of SKY TV is widely recognised as an important piece, but often overlooked is the tense relationship between The Football Association and The Football League. This tension has been ever present since the formation of The Football League in 1888, and in this article I describe how it escalated in the early 1990s because of two competing documents that set out each other’s vision for the future of English football. As we will learn it was the proposed re-structuring of professional football contained in The Football Association Blueprint that eventually pathed the way for the formation of The Premier League.


‘A slum sport played in slum stadiums’

A penalty box with white-line flags
‘…a slum sport played in slum stadiums…(which) needs cleaning up and revitalising…(and) needs to be leaner, healthier, safer, more prosperous and more fun.’

Professional football in England during the 1970s and 1980s was in the doldrums. Football related violence and disorder was on the rise and sensationalised reporting in the media turned it into a kind of moral panic. On the terraces of already ageing and decaying stadiums steel fencing and ‘pens’, designed to control and segregate the hooligan element of each team’s supporters, were installed. This made spectating a more intimidating and unwelcoming experience and explains one of the reasons why attendances declined to an all-time low during the mid-1980s. 

Such was the state of English professional football that an editorial published in The Sunday Times following the Bradford City Stadium fire in 1985 described it as ‘…a slum sport played in slum stadiums…(which) needs cleaning up and revitalising…(and) needs to be leaner, healthier, safer, more prosperous and more fun.’

Following another tragic disaster at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, when 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death, the subsequent Taylor Report made the recommendation that all major stadiums must now become ‘all-seater’. Replacing the standing terraces with seats was going to be a costly exercise and it focused the minds of the top clubs as to how the money could be found. The evident need therefore to reform and modernise the game would also provoke a new chapter being written in the ongoing tension between The Football Association and The Football League.


Two competing visions for the future

Two white arrows pulling away from each other on a football pitch

he Football League were the first to set out a comprehensive proposal for the renewal of football in England. The One Game, One Team, One Voice document published in the Autumn of 1990 covered aspects such as improving stadium standards, youth football, coaching, the sale of broadcasting rights and generating more income from sponsorship. It also proposed that an executive committee, made up of members equally representing The Football League and The Football Association, should assume overall responsibility for the governance and leadership of English football. This proposal threatened to weaken the authority of The Football Association and they soon announced their own intentions to produce a rival document.

In June 1991, The Football Association released their Blueprint for the Future of Football with Chief Executive Graham Kelly, ironically recruited from The Football League, proclaiming it to be a Blueprint that mixes ‘radicalism with realism’, and once implemented it will be ‘regarded as landmark in the history of football.’ Like The Football League document, the Blueprint was comprehensive and contained many proposals across a wide range of topics. Yet unequivocally it was a firm rebuttal of The Football League’s attempt to acquire more control of the game. As the introduction to Chapter 4 (p. 29) in the Blueprint states:

“The future of Association Football depends, fundamentally, on confirming and strengthening the position of The Football Association as the Government of the game…All other Associations, Leagues and Clubs should be subordinate to The Football Association.”

This introduction then concludes by saying:

“The Football League…presented a case for an equal share of power within The Football Association. This proposition has been rejected by The Football Association Council, and properly so.”

Chapter 4 of The Football Association Blueprint outlined detailed proposals for restructuring the pyramid of professional football in England. At the apex of the pyramid would be the England men’s team and below that a smaller top division of 18 clubs. This, it was argued, would reduce the number of fixtures and therefore allow players more time to prepare for England internationals. Three proposals were put forward to achieve a smaller top division:

  • Create the league within the current Football League structure.
  • Create an autonomous break-away league.
  • Establish a Premier League under the administration of The Football Association.

The last proposal caught the attention of the top clubs, particularly the so-called ‘Big Five’ of Manchester United, Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham who had previously entertained the idea of forming a break-away league. Their idea was essentially re-packaged under the wing of The Football Association’s Blueprint and the aspiration to create a league separate to The Football League was now within their grasp. Divorce from The Football League would mean the clubs would not have to share the commercial income generated by a new Premier League with the rest of the clubs in the lower divisions of The Football League. Faced with the cost of redeveloping their stadiums, and other increasing costs, the ability to generate and retain as much income as they could was a major concern for the top clubs and a concern The Football Association exploited.

With The Football Association gaining the vital support of the clubs in the First Division of The Football League they were able to create the foundations for the formation of The Premier League. The Premier League was then created through a series of stages including the notice of withdrawal from The Football League by the 22 clubs of the First Division on the 17th July 1991. On the 15th August 1992 the first matches of the inaugural Football Association Premier League season kicked-off, and a ‘whole new ball game’ began.


The dawn of a new era?

The football pitch penalty box circle looks like a rising sun

The Football Association’s Blueprint for the Future of Football proclaimed several benefits associated with the introduction of a Premier League. The first being the end of the power struggle between The Football Association and The Football League. The ending of this struggle would, it was argued, “…bring with it the dawn of a new era of progress and development throughout the game.” (p.30). As The Premier League nears its 30th anniversary there will be many who question what kind of progress and development has been made and has it really been for the benefit of the game as a whole? Unequivocally however The Premier League has emerged as a dominant force in English and European football, if not world football, eclipsing in the process the two organisations whose acrimonious relationship significantly influenced its formation.


Meet the OU experts

Dr Alex Twitchen, Senior Lecturer Sport Coaching Practice and Learning, The Open University
Dr Alex TwitchenSenior Lecturer Sport Coaching Practice and LearningVIEW FULL PROFILE
Dr Alex Twitchen, Senior Lecturer Sport Coaching Practice and Learning, The Open University
Dr Alex TwitchenSenior Lecturer Sport Coaching Practice and Learning

My primary research and teaching interests are concerned with coaching and developing coaching practice. I have worked with a number of national and international organisations to develop coaching systems and qualifications. I have developed and managed degree courses in Sports Coaching and Football Coaching and Performance at previous Universities. At the Open University I developed a Badged Open Course (BOC), funded by Sport England, to support the development of people who support the development of coaches. I am part of the project team that is developing, in partnership with FIFA, a Safeguarding Diploma (safeguardinginsport.FIFA.com).

Football-Related Experience

I am a UEFA Advanced Licence football coach (since 1994) and an active Tutor and Coach Mentor for the Football Association. I currently coach at Portsmouth FC in their academy as lead coach with the u13 team.

Previously I have worked part-time for Southampton FC (1998-2000) as an academy coach, Brighton and Hove Albion FC (2013-2015) Technical Director Girls Centre of Excellence and Bournemouth FC (2016-2017) Talent Development Centre lead. I have coached at clubs in the USA, Canada and India. I have contributed to various podcasts, webinars and articles on football and coaching.

Simon Rea, Senior Lecturer on the Sport and Fitness
Simon Reasenior Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, Open Media FellowVIEW FULL PROFILE
Simon Rea, Senior Lecturer on the Sport and Fitness
Simon Reasenior Lecturer in Sport and Fitness, Open Media Fellow

Simon's research interests lie within applied sports science. His specialist areas are strength and conditioning and nutrition for sports performance. He is currently researching methods of assessment and how to provide effective feedback to students that actually improves their learning. Simon is author of 14 Sports Science text books across 17 years and he has been involved in the development of all modules in the sport and fitness award at the OU.  

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