Premier League behemoth now bigger & richer than ever

Premier League behemoth now bigger & richer than ever

It has been 30 years since England’s ‘Big Five’ (Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham) led a breakaway from the Football League to rebrand the division as the Premier League.

Rupert Murdoch’s satellite service Sky Television went big on the TV rights, landing a £304m five-year deal and throwing the kitchen sink at its innovative coverage to sprinkle some glitter on a game that had crawled out of the 80s under a cloud. The Premier League has never looked back.

Over the next three seasons, international rights will be worth over £5.05 billion (€6 billion). The broadcast rights in the UK alone will be worth £5 billion.

Games are shown in 212 countries, accessible to over 600 million people, and they feed insatiable media coverage that churns out content 24/7.

The league has usurped Serie A and La Liga as the promised land for most of the world’s best talent. Money talks, and the Premier League has had a megaphone to its lips for years now.

Back in ’92, Sky Sports trumpeted their coverage with the tagline, ‘it’s a whole new ball game’, but really the early seasons were indistinguishable from what had gone before, certainly in terms of the standard on the pitch and the players competing. It was a division full of British and Irish footballers.

The Premier League’s launch photo, which had a player from each of the 22 clubs (reduced to 20 in 1996), included grizzled old warhorses like Vinnie Jones, John Wark and Andy Ritchie.

Sky tried all sorts to jazz things up. A TV audience that had previously been accused of watching Des Lynam and Jimmy Hill chewing the fat over the intricacies of the 4-4-2 system were suddenly being treated to half-time fireworks displays, parachutists landing on the pitch and bands plugging their latest single.

The Shamen belted out Ebeneezer Goode at Highbury in one surreal Monday night performance.

Once the increased TV money started rolling in though, international stars followed, and the hype machine went into turbodrive: foreign stars (led by Eric Cantona), foreign managers (led by Arsene Wenger), and foreign owners (led by Roman Abramovich) – a trifecta of key influencers who changed everything.

It has snowballed to the point where the Premier League is blowing everyone else out of the water financially; even finishing bottom in the league this season will earn a club £106m.

Irish interest in proceedings, of course, remains extremely high. Liverpool enjoy more support on these shores than any other club, according to a recent report conducted by Dublin-based analytics and performance marketing consultancy adaptive & co. They estimate the Reds have over 440k supporters here, just ahead of Manchester United, with Chelsea a distant third.

That’s despite the fact that there’s not much Irish representation at either of the two north-west of England giants: only Caoimhin Kelleher, who serves as back-up keeper to Alisson Becker at Anfield, is currently flying the flag.

Andy Townsend in action for Aston Villa in 1993

Back in ’92 there were 30 Irish players in the league: Curtis Fleming, Chris Morris, Graham Kavanagh, Alan Kernaghan, Alan Moore and Bernie Slaven (all Middlesbrough); Steve Staunton, Paul McGrath and Ray Houghton (Aston Villa); Gerry Peyton, Andy Townsend and Tony Cascarino (Chelsea); David McDonald and Andy Turner (Tottenham); Scott Fitzgerald and Paul McGee (Wimbledon); Terry Phelan and Niall Quinn (Manchester City); Willy Boland and Tony Sheridan (Coventry City); Ronnie Whelan (Liverpool); Dennis Irwin (Manchester United); Roy Keane (Nottingham Forest); David O’Leary (Arsenal); John Sheridan (Sheffield Wednesday); Lee Power (Norwich City); Kevin Moran (Blackburn Rovers); Alan Kelly (Sheffield United); Eddie McGoldrick (Crystal Palace); and Mike Milligan (Oldham).

Now the landscape is very different. The Premier League trawls the globe for rising stars, combing every town and village like a huge industrial fishing vessel. No country is left unexplored, and the competition within academies is unprecedented.

Last season, 14 Irishmen featured in the English top flight, most of them bit-part players. They got just under 10,000 minutes on the pitch between them with Everton’s veteran full-back Seamus Coleman clocking up a fair chunk of that total. It was a record low for Irish players in the Premier League era and the signs are that downward trend is not going to be reversed any time soon.

In September 2021, FIFA released a report detailing data from the last decade of international football transfers. It revealed that the Republic Of Ireland was the country with the most players under 18 years of age transferred abroad from 2011 to 2020. The majority of those players went to England.

Brexit means Irish players can’t head across the water before they’re 18, so the challenge of breaking into the Premier League – which has always been mindbogglingly tough – is even harder for youngsters.

That’s not necessarily a fatal development; there are plenty of good leagues for Irish footballers to get minutes, and we’re already seeing talent flowing to Italy, Germany and elsewhere as teenaged talents broaden their horizons.

But there’s no doubt Stephen Kenny would like to see more of his players starring in the Premier League, and it’s unlikely we’ll be hearing any current club boss riffing on Ron Atkinson’s old line: “I used to joke with Jack that I had more Irish players at Villa than he did.”

The Premier League has not seduced all Irish football supporters of course. In 1996 the National League United (NLU) was formed by a group of League of Ireland fans to passionately oppose the mooted move of Wimbledon to Dublin. The then-Wimbledon chairman Sam Hammam called the move “a fantastically sexy option”; Eamon Dunphy believed it would be “a fantastically fruitful project”. It never happened. But there was no drop-off in Irish Premier League interest either.

Hundreds of thousands will tune in again tonight to watch Crystal Palace host Arsenal in the opening match of the season as one of the world’s glitziest sporting competitions cranks up again – bigger, richer and more popular than ever before.

In 1992 the average price of a ticket to watch Arsenal at Highbury was £10.50. This season the Gunners’ cheapest season ticket at the Emirates will cost around £927 per year – an average of £48.70 per game.

A whole new ball game indeed.

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