One of the features of the lockdown is that people have begun feeling a little nostalgic. With no actual football to watch (and least in the UK and Ireland), a lot of attention has been paid to “on this day” posts, often in recent weeks relating to Cup Finals or League final days.
One fundamental question I saw asked was how was football pre-Premier League different? The question actually asked for three main ways…
As someone who began following Arsenal and Northern Ireland in 1981/2, my view, complete with a bit of cheating, purely for the fun of it…
Firstly, there are some interesting ways in which the game is not different.
For example, compared to hockey (the sport in which I currently participate), the laws of football have proved remarkably stable. I wrote about officiating the two sports here, but in football the only major differences in the laws concern technicalities around goalkeeper’s possession (the back-pass law came in just in time for the Premier League) and kick-off. There have also been some amendments to when a goal is permitted from a restart (for example, you can now score direct from a goal kick), but this happens so rarely as to be irrelevant. In practice, perhaps the major difference on watching a game from the pre-Premier League era versus now is around offside; the law has fundamentally remained the same (except now “level is on” – so the benefit is supposed to be given to the forward, although the ludicrous precision of VAR has effectively now wiped this out), but the interpretation of the law is quite different, so that it is much harder to set an “offside trap” as players are much less likely to be deemed to be “interfering with play”. Otherwise, you can watch a game from 1990 or even 1960 and understand without difficulty what the players are trying to do and the parameters within which they are allowed to do it (good luck doing that with hockey!)
The basic principle of fan culture that it is a “game of opinions” has not changed either. Fans are still far more likely to judge that their own team’s players are noble and reasonable and that opposing team’s are devious cheats. Rivalries are still generally the same, based on geography and an element of heritage.
Things such as the size of the ball and the playing field, that the game is still played on grass, and that there are still league and cup competitions remain the same, albeit with significant differences in detail which are ultimately the point of the article! In other words it is still, identifiably, the same game.
For me personally, the most striking difference is the relative decline in importance of the FA Cup relative to other competitions.
A recent Sky Sports survey attempted to decide the best English club team of all time over three-season periods. However, in my view, the arguments in favour of Liverpool 1976-9 and 1981-4 or Nottingham Forest 1977-80 are enhanced in retrospect by considering what was then the then European Cup as equal to the current Champions’ League but forgetting that in those days the FA Cup (which none of those sides won) was of much higher value than it is currently.
There is no question that, when I was young, boys kicking a ball around against a wall or in a garden were imagining scoring the winning goal in the FA Cup Final – not to wrap up the League or to win the European Cup. I suspect that has changed considerably, and not just because they are now winning the Champions’ League on their PlayStations!
The FA Cup Final in particular was a much more significant day in the calendar – much like Super Bowl Sunday still is to Americans. It was for a long time the only club game screened live at all; and even later in the ’80s it was full of build-up, comedians, entertainers, marching bands, ridiculous suits and the astonishingly common occurrence of the underdogs winning (when it was settled on the day itself, the team finishing lower in the League actually won the Cup Final more often than it lost from the War to the Premier League era – though the favourites tended to win replays).
The introduction of the Premier League and the money that came with it relegated the FA Cup in importance. As late as 1992, the same two teams playing each other in the Cup would draw 25-30% more spectators than when they played each other in the League; as early as 1998, the equivalent League games began to attract higher gates. Even a couple of places in the Premier League, even if they do not define Champions’ League qualification or relegation, are literally worth more in prize money than the FA Cup.
Because of its status as the oldest competition of all, I would still just about rather win the FA Cup than qualify for the Champions’ League – but I do wonder if the two shouldn’t be combined, or even that will change.
Kits? Honestly, kits struck me as the second most obvious difference.
This is one area where I am clear I prefer the “good old days”. There was a delightful simplicity to the fact that goalkeepers wore green, referees wore black, and away teams remarkably frequently wore yellow. Goalkeepers could even be identified as belonging to their team by the fact they wore the same shorts and socks.
What is more, teams changed kit only every other season; sometimes they alternated home and away so they had one new kit every season. Third kits were not necessary as they cunningly ensured their home kits didn’t clash with their away kits…
(There was the peculiar “rule” in England for a while that teams were not even allowed to clash shorts; frankly this sometimes left Arsenal in a rather ludicrous yellow-shirt white-shorts combo when they went to places like Southampton which made them look like they were wearing nappies. They won two League Championships during that period, that said…)
Whereas now? It’s just a farce. And an outrageously commercialised one at that.
I cheated a little with my third by incorporating the entire venue…
Firstly, of course, the grounds themselves changed dramatically particularly after a series of tragedies, from the Bradford Fire to the Hillsborough Disaster, in the mid to late ’80s. By the early years of the Premier League, all grounds were all-seater; many clubs chose to build entirely new stadiums and have them named after sponsors, for good or ill (I know Bolton played at Burnden Park but I have no idea what the “Reebok” is now called…)
Secondly, the pitches themselves are now far better maintained. Back in the ’80s I would have predicted we would all have been playing on astroturf by now (clubs like QPR and Luton did this for a while), but it has not come to that. Gone, however, are the mucky penalty areas with clumps of mud the ball used to deflect off crucially, or linesmen having to change side at half-time to protect the side lines!
This, naturally, has quite an impact on the game itself – the percentages of just walloping the ball up in the air and hoping the big man gets a nick are no longer so much in your favour. Even at lower level, there is now more value in learning how to play the game properly, i.e. on the actual field (“If God had meant football to be played in the air, he’d have put grass in the clouds” said pre-Premier League management icon Brian Clough).
It has also had an impact on how we watch the game. It has, certainly from among the home support in side stands, become more like going to the theatre (and who knows when we will be able to do that again). There are some concerns that this has led to a “gentrification”, although that is probably less marked in some places than others. It is certainly true that ticket prices have become insane. We can wonder if one thing to emerge from behind-closed-doors football will be greater appreciation of the importance of the live audience – doubtful, but there is always hope!
There were, however, so many other things.
How we find out results has changed unbelievably – remember Ceefax page 303 (“aah page 2/4, the tension!!”), evening newspapers or most dramatic of all the Vidiprinter?
Scottish club football was unbelievably good – remember Aberdeen beating Real Madrid to win the Cup Winners’ Cup, or Dundee United winning at the Nou Camp?
Of course, players were more geographically restricted – Division One consisted of players from the UK and Ireland with the odd Scandinavian import (Olsen, Molby), the occasional very exotic Lowlander (Metgod, Claesen), some truly exceptional players from the Commonwealth (Grobbelaar, Johnston), and the very very occasional South American (Ardiles, Mirandinha – the fact you can name them is the point). Arsenal won the Cup Winners’ Cup Final as recently as 1994 with an entirely English and Irish (actually “Ulster”!) team. Elsewhere it was the same – Italy only allowed foreigners in at all from 1980 and was running at two per team in 1984/5, a season in which an eighth of FIFA’s greatest 125 players of all time were playing in Serie A (yet it was won by tiny Hellas Verona).
Formations were quite different too. Most teams, certainly in the UK and Ireland, utilised a “strike partnership” and a flat back four (consisting of four actual defenders). In the ‘90s this gradually shifted. Many teams now play with lone strikers or indeed no particularly evident out-and-out striker at all. Wing backs were a thing of the future, total football was foreign and tiki-taka unheard of.
Another key aspect was that Leagues were more even. Everton accumulated 90 points from 42 games in 1986/7 and that was seen as miraculous; winning ten games in a row was almost unheard of; at the other end really quite good teams got relegated with more than a point a game. Everton recently missed out on the Champions’ League with 75 points – the same number which won the title as recently as 1997, and would almost always have won it pre-Premier League (with the notable exception of the crazy finish in 1989). Now, 90 points from 38 games would almost never suffice to become champions.
As a final quirk, there were fewer substitutions, fewer cards, and perhaps as a consequence less injury time. In 1997 David Elleray re-referreed the 1970 FA Cup Final replay and awarded seven red cards; Mark Clattenburg did so again last month and awarded eleven, including two to the same player. Back in 1970, there was in fact only one yellow! Even in the ’80s, cards were rare (and not actually displayed – bookings just consisted of the referee noting the names and sendings-off, of which I saw a very rare one myself of a goalkeeper at Highbury in 1986, consisted of a simple point to the dug-out). In League games until close to the Premier League era there was only one substitute (Cup games moved first to allow two, but even the Premier League initially stopped at that and all substitutes were pre-selected). Thus, injury time at the end of the first half was typically just a minute; at the end of the game two minutes – so injury time winners were rarer and more dramatic, not least since there was no signal to tell you how long was actually left…
Over to you…