When, 20 years ago on Monday, 22 top-flight teams completed an agreement to create their own league, breaking away from a First Division which had the weight of 104 years of history behind it, they made a decision which changed the landscape of English football forever. Now in its 20th season, and seemingly growing in popularity and appeal by the year, the Premier League was merely an ambitious project back in 1992, designed to enhance the stature of the country’s biggest sides both at home and abroad.
After a traumatic decade throughout the 1980s, which included the death of 56 people after a fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade ground in 1985, the Heysel stadium disaster of the same year, and the tragic loss of 96 lives at Hillsborough in 1989, football in England was undergoing a period of renewal and reflection. Encouraged by the national team’s fourth-placed finish at the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy™, new plans for all-seater stadiums to increase safety, and with clubs eligible again to participate in European competition following a UEFA ban, optimism was returning as the 1990s began.
While talk of a breakaway league had been commonplace in preceding years, words turned to action when an initial plan, formulating early ideas for how the Premier League would operate, was produced in July 1991. Seven months later, on 20 February 1992, all 22 clubs playing in the First Division declared their intent by resigning from the Football League and, shortly after, secured a lucrative satellite television deal which provided an additional financial boost. The stage was set and, in mid-August the same year, the first Premier League season got underway.
United dominate early years
That inaugural campaign ended with Manchester United, guided by Sir Alex Ferguson, crowned as champions for the first time in 26 years. Perhaps the clearest example of how the Premier League has evolved since the 1992/93 opening season can be found by examining the Red Devils’ closest challengers for the title. With Liverpool, still yet to lift a championship since the format changed, down in sixth and Arsenal and Chelsea stranded in mid-table, it was Aston Villa, Norwich City and Blackburn Rovers who provided a stern, but ultimately futile, test for United.
End-of-season celebrations at Old Trafford would become a familiar theme during the Premier League’s first decade, as United claimed the title in seven of the first nine editions, finishing runners-up to Blackburn in 1994/95 and Arsenal three years later. Indeed only four different teams have earned the right to call themselves the best in the land, Chelsea the latest to join the list when they won back-to-back championships following the arrival of ‘The Special One’, Jose Mourinho, in 2004.
Although the Blues added another title in 2009/10, with Carlo Ancelotti at the helm on that occasion, United have returned to dominance as the second Premier League decade draws to a close. Having rebuilt his side around Cristiano Ronaldo and latterly Wayne Rooney, Ferguson has eased his team to the top of the pile in four of the last five campaigns, surpassing great rivals Liverpool as England’s most decorated club with regards to league titles in the process.
While Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish, who led Rovers to their single taste of glory, forged a strong home-grown backbone in their squads, the growing appeal of the Premier League helped teams across the country attract star names from Europe’s other elite leagues. Eric Cantona was a key figure in United’s early successes, Arsenal thrived after the likes of Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira appeared at Highbury, while Chelsea put together a cosmopolitan side featuring the mercurial talents of Ruud Gullit and Gianfranco Zola, among others.
Success in Europe follows
The trend of recruiting players from abroad has continued to this day, with the Premier League now considered one of the strongest leagues in Europe and a preferred destination for star names both young and old. That in turn has helped make England’s top teams a force in European club competition, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and United all having appeared in at least one UEFA Champions League final during the last ten years, the latter two lifting the trophy with the big ears in 2005 and 2008 respectively. Ferguson’s side then did what the Reds could not three years previously, claiming the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2008.
Success in Europe has not been limited to the country’s biggest sides, though, and the Premier League has been well represented in UEFA competitions during the last 20 years. Leeds United, Blackburn, Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur have all participated in the Champions League, with Spurs particularly impressive when reaching the quarter-finals a year ago. Further proof of the top flight’s strength in depth was proven by Middlesbrough and Fulham finishing runners-up in the UEFA Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup).
As the Premier League prepares to enter its third decade there has again been a change of emphasis at the summit, with Manchester City emerging as both a new force and a legitimate championship contender after a concerted influx of the foreign talent which continues to enlighten the division. Inspired by international talent such as Sergio Aguero and Yaya Toure, United’s “noisy neighbours” from across the city have invigorated the Red Devils and their rivals, helping to ensure that the Premier League is unlikely to lose its sparkle any time soon.