- Written by Walter Pless
- Published: 26 December 2012
Photo: Princess Di shakes hands with Tottenham's Paul Gascoigne at the 1991 Wembley FA Cup Final between Spurs and Nottingham Forest [Photo by Jim Vafakos]
The English Premier League has transformed football, not only in the UK, but in the world.
The EPL has attracted some of the greatest players in the world during its 20-year history, in which just 45 clubs have graced the top-tier of the English game.
Photo: Three Tasmanian referees [(L-R) Paul Jones, Bill Harding and Roy Bonken] in the goold old days before microphones and assistants to the assistant referees [PlessPix]
But, only five clubs have ever won the title - Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City.
In his excellent book, “There’s a Golden Sky: How Twenty Years of the Premier League has Changed Football Forever”, Ian Ridley, a columnist with the Daily Express, interviews managers, referees, players, administrators and fans to show how the English football scene has changed over the past two decades.
He visits clubs from amateur level to Premier League level and provides fascinating glimpses into what makes them tick. We are taken from Hackney Marshes to Stamford Bridge and given an insight into the soul of English football.
We are taken to sample the rebirth of Cornish football at Truro, the rebranding of women’s football with the Doncaster Belles women’s team, and we meet Paul Gascoigne, that marvellous but flawed footballer and character.
The two chapters on Gascoigne are outstanding. At one stage, we are introduced to the age old question of whether great players make good coaches. When it is suggested to Gascoigne that coaching youngsters for the FA may be a way for him to get his life back together, his answer is: “Some of the stuff I did on the pitch, I don’t know how I did it. If I try and explain it to kids, they say ‘How did you do that?’ So I have to show them.” But, he could not do it because a hip injury aggravated in a car crash limited his mobility.
Photo: Manchester United pose for a team photo at the MCG in 1984, well before the introduction of the EPL, which they went on to win 12 times in 20 seasons [PlessPix]
We get a glimpse of Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire owner of Chelsea, through the eyes of Bruce Buck, an American lawyer who has been at Abramovich’s side ever since the Russian bought the club in 2003. Buck reveals that Abramovich is a very private person who does not socialise or drink and loves football.
We meet owners, managers and chairmen of clubs that struggle to get more than 250 spectators to their games (Tasmanians are not alone), but also some of the big names of the game who are internationally known.
Mark Halsey, one of the best-known referees in the EPL, is interviewed and describes his fight against cancer and his disappointment at missing out on officiating at an FA Cup Final.
Ridley delves into the pros and cons of goal-line technology and decries the introduction of assistants to assistant referees, those goal-line judges one sees in European Champions League games, who struggle to look busy and active and who, amazingly, miss some important incidents as they prance about.
I would love to know how our Tasmanian referees would go in referee tests, such as running six 40-metre sprints in under 6.2 seconds each, or the 20 runs over 150 metres in 30 seconds each, with just 35 seconds rest between each one. That’s what Halsey was required to do as he recovered from the cancer that had stricken his body.
Imagine being a referee and arriving to do an FA Cup game at Anfield several hours before kick-off and finding two young boys kicking a ball about in the car park. That’s what Phil Don encountered on his visit to Liverpool’s ground, and when he asked the boys for directions, he was greeted with, “F—k off.”
The game needs referees, but they are often not respected and abused. As one American basketball official once said: “The trouble with referees is that they just don’t care who wins.”
This is an outstanding book and one from which much can be learned and applied, even in the Tasmanian context. There is the example of Crewe Alexandra, a club that concentrates on developing youth and seeing them play in the first team before the best are sold on. The topic of club academies is dealt with, and the need to instil skill at a young age, well before physical fitness, team organisation and spirit.
I’ll leave the last word to Ridley and encourage everyone to read this book.
“Superficially, the game had never been healthier [since the introduction of the Premier League]. Then again, it had never been unhealthier either. Its biggest clubs carried huge debt to be serviced from revenue they hoped would not dry up, although many fleeced, cash-strapped fans were wobbling worryingly in their support. It was also sad to see so many clubs dining off the scraps that the gluttons of the Premier League let fall to the floor, heartening though it may have been to witness them soldiering on amid so much adversity.”
Ian Ridley, “There’s a Golden Sky: How Twenty Years of the Premier League has Changed Football Forever,” (Bloomsbury, London, 2011, pp264).