‘From out of the dark into the light’ - football and the 1990s

There has probably never been a decade where football changed as much as the 1990s, which is why Sheffield author, Tom Whitworth, has written When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler about it.

CUP UPSET: A jubilant Sheffield Wednesday team after beating Manchester United 1-0 at Wembley in the Rumbelows League Cup Final - April, 21 1991. Wednesday went on to win promotion at the end of the season 1990-91 season. Picture: Nancy Fielder/PA.

Late 1980s English football was uncool and at times unsafe.

In 1985, the year a commercial dispute kept league football off television for six months, BBC head of sport Jonathan Martin wrote: “soccer is no longer at the heart of the TV schedules and is never likely to be again”. In 1988-89 21 games were shown live, 10m watching the thrilling title decider between Liverpool and Arsenal, compared to 18.5m for the 1985 World Snooker final.

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As 1990 started, English clubs had not played in Europe since the 1985 Heysel disaster. The 1985 Bradford City fire and 1989 Hillsborough disaster finally pushed through an overdue overhaul of crumbling stadia.

World In Motion, England’s song for the 1990 World Cup which did much to kick-start the game in this country, stressed: “This ain’t no football song.”

Football in the 1980s was less sophisticated, tackling often brutal, defences given the benefit of the doubt by the offside rule, and goalkeepers free to pick up backpasses. England’s best players headed to Italy, Spain, France or even Scotland.

“I grew up in the 1990s so it’s quite hard to get my head around how things were,” says Owls fan Whitworth. “It turned from out of the dark and into the light.”

Sheffields United and Wednesday, Middlesbrough and champions Leeds United were Premier League founders but all except Boro have since had spells in the third tier.

NEW ERA: The John Smith's Stadium in Huddersfield is one of many new stadia built within the last three decades. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Wire.

Winners of the 1991 League Cup as a Second Division side, Wednesday reached both major 1993 cup finals, propelled by Chris Waddle, bought from Marseille, where he shone in one of Europe’s best teams. The Owls failed to progress and were relegated in 2000, yet to return.

“Change was happening all around us as Wednesday fans but they didn’t really capitalise on it,” says Whitworth. “There weren’t the signings to take them to the next level in each position.”

The Sky Sports money which transformed the game made it harder for Wednesday and later Leeds once they dropped out of the elite and changed perceptions. Staying in the top division is now a triumph, finishing fourth more prized than the FA Cup.

“When Wednesday dropped out of the First Division under Ron Atkinson they came back up with pretty much the same group of players and they were just far too good for that division,” points out Whitworth. “That was possible in that era. Now a lot of teams are seemingly just interested in staying in the division and that’s it. Some of the clubs seem almost stuck.

“Look at Huddersfield – what is the legacy of their time in the Premier League?”

Leeds kept pace, ending the 1990s top of the Premier League, building towards a semi-final in the Champions League – another 1990s invention. Eventually, it caught up with them.

“I guess Leeds could be an example of how although all this money is quite good, you’ve got to be careful,” reflects Whitworth.

One area Yorkshire can take pride in is Huddersfield’s leading role in a new generation of stadia.

“Grounds are safer and more comfortable,” he points out. “The new stadiums probably appealed to a wider audience, although it became more expensive.

“Huddersfield really made a statement in terms of the design of their new ground and where they decided to build it, close to Leeds Road. They went for it, in terms of the capacity and everything to build a stadium fit for the Premier League.”

Unless Barnsley can do something special, in a matter of weeks, Yorkshire will be back to one Premier League club. Like most revolutions, football’s in the 1990s could be brutal.

When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler, by Tom Whitworth, is published by Pitch.

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