Premier League The Observer ‘An electrifying jolt’: how Agüero’s goal sealed Premier League’s global rise Not just a moment to remember, Manchester City’s thrilling late title win in 2012 embodied the Premier League’s ascent to international dominance
• The big bang: how the Premier League was born
It’s 4.53pm BST on 13 May 2012. The score at the Etihad Stadium is 2-2 between Manchester City and Queens Park Rangers and the game is into a fourth minute of added time. The Italian international Mario Balotelli has the ball on the edge of the QPR area. Slipping, he pokes a pass beyond two defenders into the box. His team-mate, a £38m recruit from Atlético Madrid the previous summer, manages to read the pass. With one touch, Sergio Agüero eludes a despairing final challenge. With a second, he fires the ball past Paddy Kenny. Flying into the near corner of the net, Agüero’s goal wins the game in the final second. It also means the 20th Premier League title goes to City ahead of Manchester United, on goal difference.
Owain Mumford saw the goal from the opposite corner of the stadium, low in the South Stand. “With the score at 2-2 we thought they’d gone and done it again,” he says. “City had bottled it and United fans would never let us forget it. There were younger lads in front of us who hadn’t been through the wringer with City before and they were bereft. They didn’t know what to do. Then the ball broke to Agüero. Initially I thought he would go down, but he didn’t. There was this huge sucking sound as the crowd drew its breath, followed by sheer pandemonium. I ended up in a pile with those lads and a load of stewards.”
Overlooking the ground from the media gantry was Martin Tyler, the Sky Sports broadcaster. He was commentating on the match and announced the goal to his audience with a howl, crying Agüero’s name and extending the final “O” for a full four seconds, which is a long time in television. “I knew when he took his touch that he was going to score,” Tyler says now. “I’ve been in the job for 38 years and it doesn’t always happen that you anticipate the moment, but he’s such a good player and his touch was so sure, I trusted my instinct. That allowed me just enough time to get air into my lungs.”
In Singapore, it was nearly midnight. About 60 members of the local Manchester City Supporters’ Club – Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indonesians and British expats – had gathered at Molly Malone’s in the Quayside district to watch the match. “The satellite feed went down for about 15 minutes with QPR 2-1 up,” says Chris Hollingworth, an Oldham native who had moved to the Asian city that year. “So you can imagine what it was like. Everyone had meandered outside because of the heat and were just milling around. But then the picture came back. I’d managed to make it to the doorway when Edin Dzeko equalised and the place went mental. Then Agüero got the ball and we were cheering before he’d even scored. It was the first time I’d met a lot of the lads and I went home with them arm in arm. It was the most incredible finish to a league ever.”
Bill Bush, the executive director of the Premier League, agrees with Hollingworth. “It was a huge electrifying jolt,” he says. “It was Man City announcing that they were there, that the noisy neighbours had arrived. It had been either City or United for the title for some time: two big-money clubs, two rivals going at it. It had a great local narrative that the rest of world football could enjoy. The Premier League is a soap opera but there are moments you can’t design. You just try to create an environment in which it might happen.”
Agüero has scored on 121 other occasions during his time in England but that moment is known as the “Agüero goal” and is among the most celebrated in Premier League history. It also serves as an instructive point from which to observe the changes the competition has gone through in its 25 years. Designed in a hurry during the spring of 1992, the Premier League looked very different by the time it arrived at its third decade.
It doesn’t always happen that you anticipate the moment but his touch was so sure, I trusted my instinct
In 1992 Manchester City was owned by the Football Association nabob and hi-fi entrepreneur Peter Swales. By 2012 the club had been bought by the ruling family of the emirate of Abu Dhabi. In the first weekend of the Premier League, 22 clubs fielded 12 foreign players between them. In the final weekend of 2011-12, 116 of 220 starters were born outside the UK. In terms of wages, Agüero had signed for City on £200,000 a week. In 1992 the average salary was £75,000, a year. And while the 48,000 in the ground enjoyed an experience they would take to their graves (even the QPR fans, who saw their side avoid relegation), an audience thousands of times greater was watching around the world on television.
If there is one thing everyone involved with the Premier League agrees on, both inside the organisation and out, it is that it could not have become fully realised without TV, and more specifically Sky. The satellite broadcaster had blown terrestrial rivals out of the water to win exclusive rights to show the new league in 1992. Twenty years later and it was the dominant partner in a deal worth £1.78bn to the competition. Later that summer an even greater sum was to be agreed, Sky sharing the rights with BT Sport for £3bn (renegotiated once more since, that sum is now £5.14bn).
As well as upping the fee, each new deal also increased the number of matches shown on screen. In 1992-93 the total was 60, in 2011-12 138, and next season 168 matches will be broadcast live. TV money funded new stadiums across England and Wales. It funded hi-tech academies for the development of young talent. It also encouraged foreign takeovers of clubs and provoked an orgy of spending on players; their transfer fees, wages, loyalty bonuses and the extra percentages on top for their agents. These were all indirect effects, however. What Sky did directly was to change the way we saw the game, how we watched it and how we talked about it.
Tyler was just one part of a grand team covering the match in Manchester on that memorable day. There were cameramen (with up to 33 cameras), editors, graphics designers and producers, all working to make sure the coverage did not just show the events but told a story. They were aided by a change made in 1995. In agreement with Sky, the Premier League had decided that, for the first time, the season’s final round of fixtures would be played simultaneously on a Sunday.
For the League this was “to ensure there is no unfair advantage to any of the clubs involved in relegation and championship issues”. For Sky it meant they could show two competing fixtures at the same time and heighten the drama. From then on the day became known as either “Survival Sunday” or “Championship Sunday”, depending on which was more relevant.
In 2012 Sky could not just show two matches on separate channels but on the same screen, plus a variety of other information to boot. Sky’s director at the Etihad that day, Tony Mills, was able to tell not just the story of the match but of a league title. United had been playing at Sunderland and had already won by the time City’s game entered injury time. Mills immediately put a graphic on screen that showed United at the top of the league table, as things stood. Then he went further, adding inset footage of United’s players, on the pitch, waiting for their rivals’ match to end.
“Tony took a chance at splitting the screen,” Tyler recalls. “But he ended up showing United players watching the City match on our monitors at the Stadium of Light. As we cut back, Balotelli stretched for the ball. You couldn’t have post-produced that any better, and Tony did it live. One of the reasons why this story is so powerful is because the vision of it was so splendid.”
This was the Sky way in microcosm. Technical innovation alongside an unwavering focus on narrative. Everything had to tell a story. The pictures, the commentary, the post-match analysis, the round-the-clock rolling news channel. The subjects of the story could be sporting moments such as Agüero’s, or controversial moments such as Joey Barton’s sending off in the same match. They would be articulated by strong personalities, especially the managers, City’s Roberto Mancini, who had declared “we don’t have any chance, the title is gone” less than a month earlier, and United’s Sir Alex Ferguson who congratulated City on their title in a post-match interview before adding: “It will take them a century to get to our level of history.”
One of Sky’s earliest innovations, from its very first match, was to ensure a camera was focused on the managers. By obligating the same coaches to talk to TV both before and after games, the Premier League showed once again they understood their partner’s priorities.
The second defining trend in the Premier League story, that of global expansion, followed on from the first. Before the Premier League came into existence, English football lost money on its overseas TV deals. Such was the paucity of income, big clubs even agreed to share the money equally with small clubs in the League’s founding agreement. But within five years the Premier League was taking foreign TV rights seriously, selling on a country-by-country basis to local broadcasters who, like Sky, were looking for a competitive advantage.
In 2010 it launched its own channel, again following the Sky model, producing content that would help foreign broadcasters fill gaps between matches. That station, often to be found conducting phone-ins with irate Arsenal fans from Lagos, is now seen in 185 countries. With 23 separate deals in place across the world (some for single countries, others for entire regions), the Premier League now earns £1.1bn a year from overseas TV.
The upshot of all this change is the Premier League has turned a local spectator sport into a global TV phenomenon. The success is down, in no small part, to understanding the needs of the medium. But there are other reasons why the Premier League can inspire devotion across the world from people who may never have even visited the UK.
Firstly, to appeal to a global audience it helps that 65 different nationalities are represented in the competition. Its style of football is not only action-packed, but full of players giving their all (one that, incidentally, conforms to a dusty stereotype of English fair play).
There is a relative absence of scandal, barely a hint of corruption, which means viewers are inclined to trust what they are seeing, and it is in English, everyone’s second language. There are more unlikely, but equally significant factors, such as the fact the Premier League (unlike Spain’s La Liga) organises its calendar months in advance, making it easy for broadcasters to plan a schedule. Similarly, the absence of a winter break (unlike Germany’s Bundesliga) means there is football to watch all year round.
One final reason behind the Premier League’s success is the organisation itself. In its conception the League was designed not as a sporting body but as a start-up business. Its founding agreement encouraged internal competition and structural flexibility. That agreement was handwritten on two sides of A4 paper. The Premier League Handbook is now 655 pages long and contains rules on everything from the position of TV cameras to watering the pitch at half-time.
Now employing 130 people, the Premier League is still a relatively lean organisation but it is a mean operator. It saw off regulatory challenges over the sale of its TV rights and rode out scandals over the third-party ownership of players (Carlos Tevez) and financially reckless ownership of clubs (Portsmouth). According to Bush: “Everything that seemed straightforward in 1991 was substantially more complicated even by 1995. By the 2000s we were Britain’s biggest audio-visual overseas export. We’d had three bruising rounds with the regulator over how we sell our rights, we’d had the third-party ownership stuff, we’d had the Portsmouth crash, we’d had various other things. I don’t think the founding fathers thought these things were going to happen. They knew it was brave, they knew it was going to be exciting, but I don’t think anyone could have known what was coming.”
One man who, to this point, has had an uncanny sense of what was coming round the corner is Richard Scudamore. The executive chairman of the Premier League, who served as chief executive from 2004 before stepping up to his current role (a type of switch, it is worth noting, commonly frowned upon in the corporate world), has presided over all of the League’s boom years. Feared and admired in equal measure, those who have worked with Scudamore describe a man with an acutely sensitive political antenna, able to satisfy the needs of his 20 member clubs without jeopardising the qualities that set the competition apart.
As CEO of the FA between 2010 and 2014, Alex Horne worked closely with Scudamore and says he is “equivocal about change”. Yet Scudamore has been notably vocal in his support of the League’s globalisation, the very change that has left many long-standing football supporters in England disenfranchised.
After the final of the Premier League Cup, a pre-season trophy featuring Liverpool and Leicester City in Hong Kong this month, Scudamore straightforwardly championed the claims of the fan whose love for the game has nothing to do with where they were born. “I fully understand those who have bought a season ticket, been to every game home and away for the last 25 years, deem themselves to be at the highest echelon of fan commitment. I get that,” Scudamore said. “You can’t take that away from anyone but I also think those fans realise that now the Premier League and those clubs are global success stories.
“That global success has come from interest that other fans have. This is not a patronising, false interest. The bit that always strikes a chord [with me] is how knowledgeable and passionate they are. I would put a lot of people here on these trips up against anyone back home, pub quiz, in terms of knowledge of the club.”
However you might read those remarks, they are hardly a bromide to the “left behind” supporter in the UK, those who cannot afford to get in to matches while the game drowns in riches. But there is another reason they cannot get in: because the grounds are already sold out. “Despite what people think fans are at the heart of the Premier League’s success,” says Bush. “What’s the test of that? Grounds are bigger, more pleasant places to go to. Gates are much, much larger, and we sell out. There are a more diverse range of people in the stands: more women, more younger people, more supporters from ethnic minorities. High ticket prices are not typical; the average price for an adult without concession last season was £31. That compares so well with other high-end attractions.”
Yes, the phrase “high-end attraction” might jar for those who would prefer their football club to be an extension of a local community. But the fact is that a broader pool of people want to watch the Premier League than they did 20 years ago and their reasons are often similar to those of supporters in Hong Kong, Singapore and Lagos.
This has led to an almost constant tension between UK supporters groups and the Premier League, over whether the organisation listens enough to fans’ needs does enough to redistribute its riches around the game. It was only after a well-organised campaign against high ticket prices for Premier League away fans that prices were capped at £30 (supporters wanted £20). But those prices are now lower than several clubs in the Championship. Fans outside the big six clubs – United, City, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs – say they are either satisfied or happy with pricing. Another initiative, safe standing,, by which fans and clubs both hope to maintain an atmosphere distinct from that inside of a theatre, is very much on the agenda. A more substantial problem is the scheduling of matches, with TV’s demands requiring long journeys for away fans on weeknights.
If previous experience of the Scudamore era is anything to go by, a low-key compromise on the fixture issue will be the likely outcome. This has been the case with another tension: that of the Premier League’s role in helping develop the England team.
This was given as one of the main motivations behind the League’s formation, though one easily dropped when the deed was actually done, and the performance of the England team has steadily declined over the past 25 years. Acrimony has broken out over a shortage of talented English players and their absence from Premier League XIs.
In his role at the FA, Horne was at the centre of this tension, but says the Premier League proved a willing partner in trying to rectify the problem. “When I was leading the FA I was very much of the view that English players in the football system was something we had to crack from a systemic perspective. And I was convinced that club owners and people in the Premier League were 100% aligned with us on getting that system to work better. In fact, my view was that we at the FA were a long way off the professionalism that existed in some academies. So we shamelessly recruited from academies.”
A new system, under the aegis of a former Premier League youth coach in Dan Ashworth, was agreed between the FA, the Premier League and the Football League. The Elite Player Performance Plan again has its critics, mainly because it has created an elite number of clubs specialising in developing young players. But those players are being developed. This summer England’s under-17, under-20 and under-21 sides all performed creditably in international tournaments, with the under-20s world champions in their age group. The next challenge is to get the youngsters playing regularly in the Premier League. Again it is a challenge that, from a distance, might seem insurmountable. “To write rules about how often a young player should play is impossible,” says Horne. “But the economic reality is that clubs are now investing in a system and want an outcome for it.”
In 2017 it is common to hear that globalised capitalism is in retreat, at least as a political idea. The Premier League, however, continues to fly the flag. Where possible it likes to leave the market to find a solution, its approach to regulation (pitch sprinkling apart) is laissez-faire. It is hard to argue that this approach has not been successful. The next step on its journey would appear to be even further away from its roots and focusing more on its international support. It is also likely to concentrate less on the “in ground” supporter in preference of the “modern fanatic” (the League’s own term) who lives and breathes football online. At some point a bubble may burst. On the other hand, something unexpected and compelling may emerge.
On the future of the Premier League, Martin Tyler is an optimist. “I grew up with the Third Division North and South,” he says. “Then suddenly my team were playing Gateshead and not Swindon. It was a change I hadn’t expected and wasn’t sure about. There is a resistance to change in our British psyche, even my kids are nostalgic and they’re in their 20s. There’s always room for that but you have to look forward. The key question is: is it change for change’s sake or is it developmental change?
“I am challenged in my job to be constantly aware of the present and to look forward to the future. I have to be ready for Arsenal v Leicester on a Friday night for the start of the 26th Premier League season. But I’m absolutely excited. I have to be in tune with what’s happening now. Even Agüero is gone!”
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