Fever Pitch! The Rise of the Premier League review – how Rupert Murdoch ‘saved’ football
“Now they analyse everything in football,” laments Eric Cantona, genial, bearded and altogether more mellow than he was in his karate-kicking, sardine-citing 1990s Old Trafford pomp. “All I know is I can express myself. I don’t want to know more. It’s like in love – I don’t want to know why I love my wife.”
These wise words from the Manchester United talisman come during the first episode of Fever Pitch! The Rise of the Premier League (BBC Two), a new series devoted to precisely what he was indicting. As Cantona’s compatriot and fellow philosopher Marc Perelman argued in Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, today the media are “all united to make sport inescapable, so that everyday conversation is bloated with invasive logorrhoeic blather”.
Britain needs to learn the lesson Cantona taught a downtrodden, endlessly mugged-off Manchester postman in Ken Loach’s film Looking for Eric. Eric taught him to say non. We must too. Non to Robbie Savage. Non to 606 phone-ins. Non to TalkSport and sports talk. Non to Gary Lineker and his dreary foils microanalysing offside decisions at Carrow Road. Non to knowing more about Joel Matip’s groin strain than my own.
The series traces the revolution that Rupert Murdoch and the breakaway group of top-flight teams inflicted on English and Welsh football from 1992 onwards. Murdoch’s paper the Sunday Times laid the groundwork for this revolution in the 1980s, claiming football was a slum sport for slum people. Fever Pitch! proposes that in the 1980s the game was so overrun by hooliganism and free of entertainment that plutocratic football chairmen and an Australian-born tycoon were necessary to save football from oblivion. And they did. We should be grateful.
The story could be told from the opposite perspective: thanks to these greedy men and, subsequently, oligarchs from Russia to Thailand, Britain’s most successful football clubs became cut off from their communities, their teams consisting of globe-trotting mercenaries watched in near silence – if games at the Emirates stadium are anything to go by – by passionless season ticket holders from the suburbs emerging from Chelsea tractors.
That said, this opening episode is valuable in suggesting that the experiment to save football could have failed dismally, like an Andorran left-back in a foot race with Kyle Walker. Murdoch’s £300m investment in TV rights was widely seen as speculative folly aimed chiefly at saving Sky, his struggling satellite TV business. Marketing initiatives borrowed ineptly from the American playbook included grisly half-time cheerleaders and, my personal favourite, oversized sumo wrestlers chest thumping each other in the centre circle.
More successful was scheduling regular Monday-night matches on Sky Sports. As longtime Murdoch lackey and Sky Sports supremo David Hill explains, in the US, American football had extended the stupefying weekly ritual of sports by an extra 24 hours and doubled the number of female viewers. Sky Sports did the same in the UK. Not only were the moneymen taking over football, but football was taking over the week until no day would be free of its plague.
What really sealed the Premier League’s initial success and rewarded Murdoch’s investment, though, was old-school drama. When big-money signings Dion Dublin of Man Utd and Blackburn Rovers’ Alan Shearer got crocked before the season’s decisive games, a new hero was needed to defibrillate football. Step forward Cantona: brooding, shirt collar turned up, chest puffed out, not yet fluent in English but beautifully expressive in the final third of the field. Hill calls the Frenchman “a producer’s gift from God … He almost had a hip-hugging hologram around him.” Cantona had more elan, jeu d’esprit, footballing savoir faire and other French qualities than English defences had hitherto encountered.
Cantona tries to explain his flair, likening himself to lions and tigers who move from seeming slumber to suddenly pouncing at speed. I love Cantona’s animal metaphors. Who can forget his gnomic, disdainful remark to the media: “When seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea.”
The truth of the matter is that it wasn’t Cantona’s artistry that enabled Man U to win the first Premier League title. Rather, in their crucial 2-1 victory over Sheffield Wednesday, they relied on a brace of headed goals from flair-free defensive enforcer Steve Bruce to win the game. The legend of Eric the redeemer, as much as the idea that the Premier League has made football beautiful anew, can be exaggerated.