The Rise of the Premier League: Rising Above Expectations

by | Oct 7, 2021

I had low hopes for the BBC-transmitted four-part documentary “Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League.” But it ascended, at least in part, from the expected money/superstar hagiography into a proper examination the consequences, good AND ill, of that money and stardom.

As the doc concerned the league’s (EPL’s) rise, it’s origin story was sped through, while still providing jarring notes. The genuine dustbin-lid vibe of Amstrad’s satellite dish. David Dein and Martin Edwards labelled “progressives.” Ken fcuking Baily (don’t ask) at the 1990 World Cup. Vinnie Jones. And media magnate Rupert Murdoch’s millions ‘’’’’saving’’’’’ English football.

It’s fault line was inherent in the focus on Dein and Edwards, whose pictures illustrated script references to “leading” club chairmen…when neither WERE chairmen. And it was made by Studio 99 (prop: David Beckham). Thus, vital contexts were dropped to facilitate Beckham contributions, which offered not one shred of insight.

Other jarring notes came from tinkering with footballing timelines and contexts. Norwich City led the 1992/93 EPL by eight points, nine clear of United, after 18 games. But the relevant league table was a two-second backdrop to Eric Cantona’s Old Trafford arrival. And Aston Villa, Manchester United’s main, and CLOSE, title challengers got nary a mention.

1993/94, when Tottenham (one of the ‘big five’ clubs behind the EPL) avoided relegation by THREE points, was covered by Gary Pallister in six seconds. So, the emergence of a Blackburn Rovers/United rivalry was directly linked with United receiving the 92/93 League trophy after hosting Blackburn. Rovers’ Graeme Le Saux said the night was “humiliating for us” and placed United “in our sights.” But the 1-0 loss left them fourth in their first top-tier season since 1966. And the champions were surely in everyone’s “sights.”

Rovers’ home game with United in 1994/95 was labelled a “crucial head-to-head,” when both were outside the top two before and after the game, eight and ten points behind leaders Newcastle, not the only time that accompanying league tables undermined the doc’s script. And in presenting the Arsene Wenger-transformed Arsenal as a seamless replacement as United’s main rivals, Rovers’ ultimate demise was brought forward three years.

“It fell apart really quickly,” Le Saux said, over pictures of Rovers’ infamous on-pitch brawl in a Champions League game in Moscow. But although Rovers were bottom of the league 19 months after winning it, Le Saux could not have been on about 1997/98, as the programme suggested. Rovers were third after 13 games, undermining the claim that “by 1998, Blackburn’s rivalry with Manchester United was a distant memory.”

The doc’s interviews were weakness AND strength. For every Beckham, there was a Gary Neville; showing more sincerity in one word – “Deansgate,” during his recall of United’s post-Champions League homecoming – than Beckham in four episodes. And for every Jones, a Cantona, compelling throughout because of course he was. The only manager interviewed BY the doc was Blackburn’s Kenny Dalglish, which left Ferguson and Wenger-shaped holes in the hindsight-enhanced perspective on the doc’s subject matter. Both featured as contemporaneous interviewees. But Ferguson was contemptible, too.

Celtic fans maybe enjoyed the ex-Rangers player saying “if you know your history” after referencing the “auld alliance” when asked if he, a Scot, could handle Frenchman Cantona. But his famed “mind games” were simply spite, unchallenged by cowed interviewers (including Barry Davies, alas). For instance, Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it if we beat them” interview is recalled as a Ferguson-inspired plot-loss which kiboshed Keegan’s Newcastle team’s 1996 title bid. But ‘Fever Pitch’ reminds us otherwise.

After United beat Leeds 1-0, with three games left, Ferguson said it was “more important” for some Leeds players “to stop (United) winning the league than anything else,” accusing them of “cheating their manager” because “of course” against Newcastle five days later you’d “see the difference.” Thus Leeds, only recently safe from relegation, had motivation again. But Newcastle won there, keeping the title race open. And only then did Keegan open up.

Sky presenter Richard Keys said Ferguson’s impugning of Leeds players’ honesty was “part and parcel of the psychological battle.” To which Keegan said “no,” correctly. Not “when you do that about footballers, like he said about Leeds,” he added, correctly again. As then-Newcastle striker Les Ferdinand insisted, it was what players would “want to see” from their boss. And Newcastle’s title bid was ultimately undone, three days later, by Ian Woan’s 25-yard wonder-strike at Nottingham Forest. Not bloody Ferguson.

He was even worse with Wenger, when Wenger dared to counter Ferguson’s fixture schedule moans. “Well, he’s come from Japan,” Ferguson sneered, as if only Scots could be imported into English football. “And he’s telling everybody in England how to organise their football,” he added, as if he wasn’t doing precisely that. Wenger, he opined, “should keep his mouth shut. Firmly shut.” Sound advice, if you’re not Scottish. Neville called it Ferguson “at his absolute peak.” Which it was. Peak petulance and hypocrisy.

And after Arsenal turbo-charged their title challenge with the famous 1-0 win at Old Trafford (Marc Overmars, wide-eyed loon fan etc…), Ferguson’s ‘mind games’ failed, again. “Now, every mistake they make will cost them,” he said. “They will have to win their games in hand and they’ll find out how difficult that is.” Not very, it transpired, Arsenal winning the title with three games left.

The programme called Wenger and Ferguson “the national soap opera.” And, in the sense of badly-acted, badly-scripted sh*te, they were. United regained their title in 1999, thanks enormously to Arsenal losing their penultimate game…at Leeds. Who clearly weren’t “cheating their manager” this time.

United dominate ‘Fever Pitch’ because they dominated the era it covers, which they did because Ferguson was/is an all-time great manager. And he was/is a good man. Yet ‘Fever Pitch’ exposes his malevolence, despite the hagiographic efforts of other contributors.

But, to cleanse pallets, ‘Fever Pitch’ provided light-hearted little gems throughout. Pallister’s “Oh God, the ad” when shown Sky’s vaguely homo-erotic (I’m told) first Premier League promotion film. Steve Bruce’s unsettlingly thin-faced bemused horror as Martin Tyler told him how Ferguson went “apeshit” after Bruce’s mega-late winner against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 (another game given unwarranted significance, Peter Schmeichel out-and-out lying about United “needing to win…to stay in the title race.”).

Victoria Adams, fortune-telling before an interview with then-boyfriend and Fred Durst wannabee Beckham: “I’m going to be really, really crap, now.” Pallister’s befuddlement at Cantona: “He did art.” Edwards on United’s expanding in-house merchandising, suggesting that United would prefer fans to “purchase clothing off us rather than go into Harrods.”

A Norman Tebbit tribute act and what resembled the disembodied head of Bobby Ball appearing behind Dalglish at Liverpool on the day Blackburn won the title. The handlebar moustache on the guy escorting Cantona into court…well…into where ‘Fever Pitch’ shone brightest; on two largely off-field issues, racism and gambling. Especially impressive given the programme’s hagiographical origins and intentions.

Full context is given to Cantona’s January 1995 assault on Crystal Palace fan Matthew Symonds, as he walked off the pitch after being sent off. The predictable outrage is covered by hot-take radio commentary (Clyde Tyldesley’s more measured TV tones go missing from the programme’s soundtrack at the key moments) and ‘background’ screams of indignation from Capital Gold-era Jonathan Pearce. Ten times louder and more self-righteous than his current BBC persona. No…really.

Others’ indignance is extensively aired. A condemnatory BBC Question Time audience (in Liverpool of all places) with too much facial hair. Some pompous-ologist called it “the classic example of the highly strung rather over-emotional Frenchman.” Or, as the next interviewee says: “Eric Cantona’s off his ‘ead.” But Schmeichel admits that he couldn’t “tell you how many times I’ve felt like doing it,” And the focus eventually shifts to Symonds’ own highly-strung rather over-emotion (trans: racism), to the doc’s huge credit and benefit.

Symonds was criminally charged for his provocation of Cantona. And the account of “when he launched an attack of his own in a South London Magistrates Court” was shamefully glorious. Symonds was found to have “questioned” Cantona’s “race, sexual orientation and the sexual orientation of his mother in words designed to hurt as deeply as possible.” And when he was found guilty, he “exploded with anger, jumped over the bench and grabbed the prosecutor by the neck.”

The report of what happened next could have been from brilliant mid-nineties news satire ‘The Day Today’: “As three police officers and two court staff struggled to hold him down” (the court artist’s drawing of which should be in a gallery) “he fought his way across to journalists, calling them ‘scum.’ He then appeared to try and bite one of the officers…” As ‘When Saturday Comes’ magazine noted wonderfully, his “chances of an appeal are thought to be slim.”

“I have one regret,” Cantona tells the doc, “that I didn’t kick him more than that.” Marvellously, he offered no sign that he was kidding. And the doc then segues into the issue described by the News of the World’s then chief football writer Paul McCarthy as “football fans fuelled by right-wing bigotry,” two of whom are shown claiming that “black c**t” was “a term of endearment” and something “off the top of your tongue.”

Ferdinand notes bitterly that “nothing was done about” racism at grounds, “then, all of a sudden, this guy jumps into the crowd, because he was called a French this that and the other, and then they decide that there’s a problem.” He was equally bitter about sponsor Nike’s “kick racism out of football” campaign, including a TV ad featuring him and Cantona, who took the campaign a little too literally. “This was ’95,” Ferdinand noted, adding wearily: “We’re now in 2021 and we’re still talking about it” and bemoaning anti-racist “gestures, gestures, gestures,” when he wants “action.”

And when the doc addresses Cantona’s successful appeal against a two-week prison sentence for his assault, a wryly-smiling Ferdinand says: “If that was a black player, he’d have been in prison, and I ain’t alone in thinking that. Loads of black players have mentioned that since.” Probably not the sort of thought-provocation envisaged when the documentary was commissioned.

‘Fever Pitch’s’ similarly unexpected gambling segment focused on Keith Gillespie and Paul Merson. United prodigy Gillespie’s problems were, like Cantona’s, contextualised properly, with Ferguson again part of them, as one individual among what sounded like half the club with “a (betting) syndicate.” They merrily used the teenager as a “bookies runner,” turning someone who had never been in a bookies before joining United into someone with what Neville called “the contacts with the trainers and…people who would give him tips.”

Then Ferguson used Gillespie as “the bait that hooked Andy Cole,” a “makeweight” in the deal to sign the Newcastle striker, despite having impressed in United’s first team before Beckham, Neville et al. Gillespie is honest about his problems and his own role in them. Others were not.

And Merson is way wiser than you’d expect from someone who once cited the “unbelievable belief” Wenger gave Arsenal players. Having lived the gambling, drink and drugs lives, which the programme fully exposed, he gave a magnificent mini-lecture on the extra devils of gambling: “You can only put so much up your nose. You can only put so much down your throat. But with gambling, you could lose absolutely everything. It’s the one thing you can hide. If a footballer’s had ten pints, you know they’ve had a drink. If a player’s lost all their money, you would never know.” No glamour here, to the programme’s immense credit.

The doc then examines Murdoch’s/Sky’s failed 1999 bid for United. “This club is just one big theme park now,” one United fan sneered at the prospect of a Murdoch-owned club, in the London accent so beloved of United fans’ critics. While impressive fan-group leader Andy Walsh still wonders what Sky wanted, as “they don’t want Man United dominating, that’s not very good for the TV, is it?” There still seems no way that the EPL’s exclusive live broadcaster could own any of its teams, let alone the largest, under any credible competition law; a point unmade for too long, as the narrative of “fan victory over Murdoch” is over-pursued.

And the doc draws the arresting conclusion that the Premier League’s rise in the 2000s would not have been so steep without United’s Champions League triumph, about which I will not draw any Brexit comparisons or analogies whatsoever…oh no.

“This was still just the beginning of the story,” narrator Mark Benton notes, as if angling for the second series (and narration gig) strongly implied by TV guide references to “Season 1.” And then BBC Newsnight journalist Michael Crick’s programme-closing remarks effectively set one up. After the “temporary success in fighting off BskyB” came “takeovers galore of top football clubs in this country,” making 1999 seem “rather naïve and innocent…compared with what we’ve got today.”

It was hard to imagine Studio 99 being as comfortable with tales of dodgy takeovers, owners and club finances as they were with the glam “rise of the Premier League.” But their inclusion, and presentation, of difficult issues in series one, which I enjoyed beyond hope and expectation, suggests that series two might be worth it.