Top ten influences on the modern Premier League

Date published: Tuesday 3rd September 2019 8:40 - Seb Stafford Bloor

10) Rupert Murdoch
Darth Vader himself.

At this point, it’s important to establish a working definition of influence. The circumstances which created the Premier League are different from those which currently define it. While the competition evolved from the decisions made by the original, breakaway cabal, and the tensions that existed between the Football Association and the Football League, others are responsible for its longevity and form.

Clearly, nebulous morality or otherwise, Murdoch is top of that list. BSKYB’s cultural effect is addressed later, but the value of his company’s initial investment extends beyond just its capacity to fund transfers and wage bills. That £304m over five years was never paid in full, but it served as an endorsement. There was a practical use, in that it helped to fund some of the improvements demanded by The Taylor Report, but it was (and continues to serve) as a signpost towards the industry for investors and the first tangible suggestion of British football’s enormous, but latent potential.


9) Eric Cantona
Sport needs stars and that seems to be true irrespective of what the sport is and where it’s being played. The Larry Bird/Magic Johnson rivalry in basketball, the Tiger Woods boom in golf, a juiced-up Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chasing homeruns in baseball; personalities drive interest.

It also helps when that personality is slightly opaque, too. It’s why Keith Richards will always be a bit more interesting than Mick Jagger. There are stars, then there are stars have an alluring… subversiveness, originality, whatever you want to call it.

And Cantona had it. And whatever ‘it’ was could manifest at any time and in any way, making him compelling to a degree that none of his peers were.

Here’s an interesting question: if there had been no Cantona, no figure with that kind of crossover appeal playing for a club of Manchester United’s size during that period, would the value of the broadcasting contract have more than doubled between 1992 and 1997?

It’s unanswerable, but it’s tempting to think not. After all, what would have filled the resulting void – who would have taken his place on the posters and in the adverts, which other player would previously disinterested people have felt obliged to watch? There aren’t many alternatives. There certainly wasn’t anyone who could compete with his otherness.

At a time when it needed attention, the Premier League had the most captivating – and marketable – personality of its lifespan.


8) Jose Mourinho
Mourinho’s influence can be separated into many parts, but his most substantial and relevant contribution is his popularisation the 4-3-3 and its variations.

It won’t be popular, but it’s arguable that Mourinho’s first Chelsea side were actually superior to Wenger’s Invincibles. They weren’t as exhilarating to watch, in fact the repetition of their phases was often quite the reverse, but they conceded just 15 goals in 2004-05 and kept 25 clean sheets, both of which were new division records.

Tactically, he established a local trend which lasts to this day. While 4-4-2 was still the default formation in England when Mourinho arrived, his 4-3-3 exploited its limitations, particularly owing to the numerical advantage it created in midfield and the displacement of opposition players from wide positions.

That architecture survives. Mourinho has authored other, more malignant parts of the modern Premier League – the press conference theatre, the vulgar animosity between head coaches – but, 15 years after his arrival, there are still very few sides in the division who don’t utilise his 4-3-3 at some stage within every game they play. He didn’t invent it, Chelsea weren’t even the only side in Europe to be using it at the time, but he did adapt it to suit English football in a way that survived all the innovations which came in the years after.


7) The Abu Dhabi Group
In one sense, theirs is the most obvious influence of them all. Manchester City have become the most powerful team in the country, they’re funded by inexhaustible resources, and they’re coached by – arguably – the continent’s premier ideologue.

But the Abu Dhabi Group’s subliminal power is more interesting. Individuals and entities have tried to use the game for their own aims for as long as football has been played, but never on anything like this scale or anywhere near as successfully. City transcend sport now. Their caricature is of a modified geopolitical tool, perfectly designed to balance interest, simultaneously dominating one sphere while also altering perceptions within another.

The morality of that is a separate issue. The relevance, in this list at least, is shown in their path being followed by others and in the number of Premier League clubs that are owned by those who harbour real world, macro ambitions. Some are political, others are commercial, a couple are even instructed by a need for personal financial security. City weren’t the first to attempt this, but the Abu Dhabi Group’s 2008 entry can reasonably be considered a eureka moment  – the point at which football’s reach and power was uniquely harnessed, and when the full range of opportunities beyond the pitch were finally revealed.


6) Sky Sports
More of a tonal influence; Sky completely changed the atmosphere within which televised football occurs.

It’s a contrast which will likely elude anyone under 30. Prior to being endowed with its American frame, football was broadcast in a more understated way. If you’re old enough to remember those Sunday afternoon games on ITV, for instance, you’ll recall an era before all the ceremony. Even before that, when sporadic First Division matches would appear on terrestrial channels, it was very understated.

There were no Grandslam Sundays or Red Mondays, because the games themselves weren’t really billed as events – actually, you often tuned in without knowing which game was going to be shown. The emphasis was more on the sport. Come in, watch some football, see you at the same time next weekend. That was the pitch.

Sky brought the bombast. The created the hour-long leads-ins, the graphics, the fireworks, the (clever little) toys and the cheerleaders. Over time, some of those have been reduced to metaphor, but the effect is still very literal and very in your face. Now, the Premier League is that famous Mitchell & Webb parody, in which the game has a ceaseless, swelling gravity and takes itself more seriously than ever before.


5) BT Sport entering the market
When BT first bid for the broadcasting contract, they are actually rumoured to have tendered for all seven packages available. They received just two, but the result was still dramatic: the overall revenue rose by £1.3bn in three years. In 2016, presumably instructed partly by fear of a third party entering the bidding process, it rose by a further £2bn, increasing the clubs’ share of the payment by more than 70%.

One result has been a distortion of the traditional financial hierarchy within European football. According to the annual Deloitte report ranking clubs by revenue, nine of the 20 highest earners are now from the Premier League, including Newcastle, who have been relegated twice, and Everton and West Ham, neither of whom have ever qualified for the Champions League group stage.

But the more instructive effect can be seen in the communal transfer activity, where the opulence runs – in relative terms – from the top of the division right to its base. That the broadcasting contract enables big spending is self-evident, but the major difference is shown in the individual deals – where players are going, the kind of clubs they’re leaving, and the size of contracts being awarded despite sustained, significant income from European competition often being an unrealistic aim.

The result is the mass migration of resources. It’s created a Premier League world in which not only players, but coaches are accessible to clubs which, previously, wouldn’t even have had their calls returned. It’s a cash-doped environment in which West Ham can employ Manuel Pellegrini and sign Pablo Fornals. Where Hull City and then Watford were able to appoint Marco Silva, Everton got the chance to snatch a prospect like Moise Kean, and – most recently – Aston Villa and Fulham both had the fiscal confidence to spend £100m immediately after promotion.

Is it fairer? Probably. But at a time when the game’s attention should really be elsewhere, it’s impossible to look away from this most grotesque money fight.


4) Richard Scudamore
Chief executives tend to become synonymous with their organisations over time, but Scudamore and the Premier League were always such an idyllic marriage. He, like they, wore his disinterest in anything beyond the top flight like a badge of honour and his naked indifference towards the overall health of English football was almost sociopathic at times.

But his popularity with stakeholders isn’t difficult to understand: between assuming his responsibilities in 1999 and relinquishing them in 2018, the broadcasting contract grew from £1.2bn to £5.1bn. The latest three-year agreement from 2019 onwards also shows an 8% rise.

Nobody would claim Scudamore to be ineffective, he is after all the primary architect of the bounteous overseas rights packages which show no sign of becoming less lucrative. It’s impossible to disentangle him from the Premier League’s commercial success. But he will always remain one of the emblems of the organisation’s moral shortcomings; he has been a tremendous influence on the competition, but also upon the pejorative attitudes towards those who work at Gloucester Place.

He was a ruthless exploiter of the Football League’s many executive inefficiencies, a heartless hoarder in the eyes of many, but also someone to whom the Premier League’s implied responsibilities never seemed to occur. At the time of his departure, he was responsible for ensuring that under 4% of broadcasting revenue was being reinvested into the grassroots game.

“We’re not a charity,” he once said when pressed on the issue during a television interview. No Richard, nobody ever made that mistake.


3) Arsene Wenger
People are going to get annoyed: Sir Alex Ferguson is not on this list. But quantifying influence is different to recognising greatness. Ferguson’s position at the top of that tree is unchallenged, but that’s really part of the problem: his achievements at Manchester United are strangely self-contained. An uncomfortable realisation is also that he was at his best when he had a credible rival. Be it Keegan, Wenger or later Jose Mourinho: his ability to alter his thinking, adapt to the game’s trends and then overcome a challenge was remarkable.

But does what he achieved remain relevant today, or is he looked upon as a great exception destined to overshadow those who follow him? That’s probably more likely.

Anyway: Wenger. Yes, the conditioning and the training methods endure, but not more than the preconceptions that Invincibles side was able to defeat. Within the context of the league’s growth towards becoming a multinational entity, their achievement destroyed many of the assumptions that still existed about foreign players.

Remember, for instance, the muttering on Boxing Day 1999 when Gianluca Vialli named the first side to contain no English players. The accepted wisdom seemed to equate Britishness to sporting honesty. The logic being that change was broadly fine, just that the core of teams had to retain a strong domestic identity. Essentially, it was okay to have a Lebouef, a Di Matteo and a Babayaro, but without a couple of yapping Dennis Wises the fundamental premise of a team would always be too flimsy.

It was never a sustainable attitude, but Wenger’s third title in 2004 defeated it for good. While his two previous titles had leaned heavily on the defensive axis he’d inherited, that side notably did not. Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole may have been English players, but neither were typically so and neither embodied the intangible virtues which were presumed to be prerequisites.

Some of the detail of that season has been forgotten. It’s not generally remembered, for instance, that Wenger’s most picked outfield player was Kolo Toure, and that he was exactly the kind of unorthodox centre-half to strike fear in the hearts of traditionalists. Or that Jens Lehmann was the side’s only ever present and that his bold, impulsive goalkeeping would have had the pundits hiding behind the Match Of The Day sofa.

Or Thierry Henry. He may have become the forward against whom all of his predecessors would be measured, but it’s easy to forget that he too was an anomaly of sorts. He scored unusual goals from unusual positions, and he was nothing like the traditional centre-forward to which the English game remained incredibly loyal.

It’s a really difficult argument to make. That side made their case so overwhelmingly that, in retrospect and with what we know today, their success must have been so obvious. It wasn’t though and the pioneering aspect of their accomplishment remains an under-referenced part of Wenger’s career.


2) The Taylor Report
It’s hardly an original conclusion, but the range of Lord Taylor’s recommendations would alter the top-flight stadium experience for ever. The rise of all-seater stadiums, and the removal of perimeter fencing and terrace barriers, gave the game a different public face which, importantly, gradually put distance between itself and the description contained within that notorious Sunday Times editorial.

Perhaps the easiest way to measure the result of those changes is through sponsorship. In 1992, shirts were typically – although not exclusively – still adorned by companies of a particular size. ICI’s logo was on Middlesbrough’s shirt, Draper Tools and then Dimplex were on Southampton’s. Fisons were partnered with Ipswich, Thistle Hotels would be Leeds United’s kit sponsor until 1996 and Laver, a timber merchant, were partnered with Sheffield United.

The profile of those companies, compared with their successors, is very descriptive. They were generally local and their products or services had little relevance within the day-to-day lives of the match-going supporters. How often does someone need an air conditioning unit or a vast supply of timber? Rarely, meaning that by implication sponsorship appears to have been a vanity business – an avenue by which to procure hospitality, prestige or privilege.

By 2000, though, the shirts looked very different and so did the hoardings. Dr Martens, BT Cellnet, NTL, Sega, Vodafone; these were not only bigger companies, often multinationals, but they were selling a clear, consumable product to what by then was evidently viewed as a prosperous audience. Being associated with football clubs, football players and the football public had become desirable.

The dots connect themselves. There are other conclusions to draw, including the increasing influence of an American sponsorship culture on British sport,  and football’s increased visibility and status, but the era of commercialisation was also seeded by Taylor’s work, albeit inadvertently.


1) The Bosman Ruling
In 1992, over 90% of the players in the Premier League were British or Irish. By 2016, that figure had fallen below 45%.

There were a range of factors complicit in that change, but none with such obvious effect as the decision made by the European Court of Justice in December 1995. The Bosman ruling permitted players to move for free at the end of their contracts, but – crucially – it also deemed it illegal to impose quotas on foreign players.

The result was the abolition of the three foreigner rule and, combined with Freedom of Movement within the European Union, a spike in growth between 1995 and 1997 of English-based players from EU countries.

Assessing the merit of that influx is naturally imprecise, but it is an obvious contributing factor to the rising quality of play in the league, the growth of the competition’s general reputation and also its appeal to audiences beyond just the United Kingdom. Rising wealth may have attracted players from other parts of the world to English football, but without the Bosman ruling, the Premier League would have been forced to remain quintessentially English and, as a consequence, relatively insular.


Seb Stafford-Bloor is on Twitter.

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