Larry Ryan: The three pillars on which the Premier League was built

Larry Ryan: The three pillars on which the Premier League was built

Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson lift the Premiership trophy in 1993 for Manchester United. To the United faithful it opened the gates to the great modern love affair with the Premier League. Picture: Allsport

There was one loud warning klaxon during the first episode of the new BBC series Fever Pitch — Rise of the Premier League.

Central to the opening installment was Manchester United’s famous win over Sheffield Wednesday in April 1993 that drew them closer to that inaugural crown in the season football began.

It was an afternoon that changed many lives. To the United faithful it opened the gates to the great modern love affair with the Premier League. Indeed, so many of them surfaced on these shores, Steve Bruce’s winner that day is probably overlooked as a contributing factor to Ireland’s boom, when you consider the credit Riverdance got, a year later.

Yet there is a curiosity about the show’s treatment of Brucey’s late brace that turned around what looked set to be another title implosion by Alex Ferguson’s men.

Naturally, these pivotal moments get the full treatment, swelling strings scoring the heroic denouement of a long quest emotionally ending.

But notably, in the way the footage is cut, we hear Martin Tyler tell us, in the build-up to the clincher, that “we’re in the 90th minute”.

There was no indication that it was, famously, scored in the 97th minute, an extension of opening hours that led many people not of the United persuasion to never truly trust again.

So we got the early impression this was a series looking for its own particular version of the truth.

The same episode also seemed unduly keen to present the arrival of Sky Sports as visionary saviours of a sport on the verge of extinction due to hooliganism.

Overall, it seems a show set on making 1992 football’s ground zero, and Manchester United the architects of football’s rebuild, without any attempt to identify what was levelled in the process.

To be fair, episode two this week was much nearer the mark — at least in tracing what drove the Premier League as a cultural phenomenon.

As we look back from this distance, much of the revolution seems quaint. Andy Gray pushing checkers into flat back fours on a glass table was an immersive novelty. Split-screen insets from another game on the season’s last day was impossibly high-tech. Jack Walker building a team that cost £26m was the first audacious attempt to buy the title.

The Blackburn odyssey was told as a touching love story — the miracle of Ewood’s new glamour tarting up a shabby, gloomy town. “It was like a religion, something to believe in,” a fan recalls.

We remember that chapter slightly differently here, of course. A curious subculture that sprung up of young gentlemen in blue and white halves roaring at pub televisions on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. You often wonder what became of them, how many of them made it through the Venky’s years.

There was also the rise of the ABU movement, Des Cahill conducting it from the wireless. And when the show revisits Henning Berg being sent off and conceding a penalty for a clean tackle on Lee Sharpe, it’s fair to say that many tinfoil hat conspiracies have been seeded on a lot less.

But back to the special sauces — the three founding pillars of the spectacle that was ‘the Premiership’. Warchests, Mind Games. And, of course, ‘Controvassy’.

Did Kenny Dalglish have access to the very first warchest on record? Old news footage notes that Chris Sutton, Britain’s most expensive player, was now worth eight times his weight in gold, at £5m.

When Walker’s investment was repaid with the title, ‘this changed football forever’, we are told. An ‘arms race’ began that would eventually lead to transfer windows becoming another trophy to win.

And with the Growing Pains years well behind him, Fergie was now embracing the fullness of his powers.

“We can only hope for a Devon Loch,” he ventured, as Blackburn powered clear late in that 1995 campaign. Kenny proved less liable to bite than Kevin Keegan in years to come. “If he wants to play his mind games… I don’t think we’d swap with anybody.”

A spin-off industry around the post-match interview and the presser would grow and grow. The show uses those romantic words: “brilliant content”.

And somebody else utters the most magical words of all: “A dramatic controvassy…”

In the first episode Eric Cantona was described as “a producer’s gift from God”. In this one, a Red Devil delivered a lasting present by launching himself two-footed into the crowd.

Sport became news and BBC’s Question Time led with a debate on whether he should be banned for life. Football’s horizons broadened and players would never again be confined to the back pages.

One of the better contributors to the show is Les Ferdinand, who wryly notes that it was only then that football’s racism problem was finally denounced, when a white Frenchman was provoked into violence from the terrace.

Big Les went along with the reaction at the time, wearing a Kick It Out t-shirt. But since we are still talking about the scourge 26 years on, he has given up on gestures.

As hysteria in many forms wrapped itself around football, gradual disquiet also built that “the ordinary fan” was being priced out. “Something has to be done,” pleads man of the people, Tory David Mellor.

Cantona’s involvement in the show is engaging. “I’m afraid about one thing,” he mutters at one stage, for reasons unclear. “The emptiness. I hate emptiness.”

Is that what some feel nowadays, empty, taking in the scale of what was built in 1992?

United now trying to keep pace with oil states rather than a local who made a few bob out of steel. Still part of an elite that wanted another ground zero this year, to level anybody else left standing.

The ordinary fan never welcomed back. But a game more than ever about generating brilliant content. Still a religion but something obscene about the depth of its idolatry of false Gods, even as warning messages fly overhead.

And yet you can always strip it back to the football, if you choose, which Fever Pitch wasn’t really about.

It did bring to mind that letter Alex Ferguson sent Cantona, after he left Old Trafford, when Fergie seemed to be wrestling with some of his own empty feelings.

“I keep hoping that I will discover a young Cantona. It is a dream.”

I suppose that is what happened when Fergie found Cristiano Ronaldo first time round. And why, if you strip away everything else, so many of us keep dreaming.

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