Thursday, 16 August 2012

1988-89: First Division opening day

Football, whether we like it or not, is now a multi-million pound business. Personally, I'm not totally sure who I should blame for this: Sky, the introduction of the Premier League, Gazza and all his tears, Euro 96, the list goes on. However, there were times in the 70s and early to mid-80s where football was dieing a slow and painful death, as hooliganism along with poor grounds and facilities led to a steady decline in crowd attendances.

Rock bottom had to be reached, and in 1985 it arrived in the shape of Bradford (an accident waiting to happen) and Heysel (a sadly inevitable consequence of the "English disease"). As English football spent the rest of the eighties taking a good long look inwardly, gradually, bit by bit, the game in this country started to get it's house in order.

By the end of the 80s it was becoming apparent that football was beginning to turn a corner, as clubs started to splash the cash and television began to get their hands on the beautiful game.

The growth in TV revenue between 1983 and 1988 was dramatic: in 1983 the Football League received £5.2million for domestic football rights; in 1986 £6.3 million; by 1988 this figure had swelled to £44 million over a 4 year period. This was due to the birth of British Sky Broadcasting (BSB) and their involvement in the TV bidding process.

Previously the BBC and ITV had held all rights for football coverage within England, but ITV's desire to show live football, twinned with BSB's rival bid for live coverage, split the BBC-ITV partnership up, and led to ITV's vastly inflated bid. It was a decisive moment in football television history.

In just four years time, we would witness the unlikely marriage between BSkyB and the BBC, the birth of the Premier League, and a staggering combined TV package worth £304 million over five years. But that was all for the future. In 1988, for the next four years Sundays would be all about The Match, Elton Welsby and all.

On the back of this new shiny TV deal, some clubs chose to spend big. Tottenham invested £1.7 million on Paul Stewart (oh dear), and would be the first to break the British transfer record in the summer of 1988, when they spent £2 million on Paul Gascoigne. Everton proceeded to push the record up to £2.2 million as Tony Cottee left West Ham, and they also purchased Stuart McCall for £850,000 and Pat Nevin for £925,000.

Not to be out done by their Merseyside rivals, Liverpool ended Ian Rush's Italian nightmare, paying a whopping £2.7 million to bring the striker back from Juventus. George Graham went about his business quietly at Arsenal, only adding Steve Bould to his squad for a bargain price of £390,000.

Where to begin on August 27, 1988? We might as well start at the game that didn't happen. Tottenham may very well have invested heavily in their squad over the summer, but they failed to get their game on against Coventry, due to the lack of a safety certificate for their East Stand. It was an embarrassing start to what had already been an uneasy summer for Terry Venables. Losing 4-0 to Arsenal in the pre-season Makita tournament at Wembley was worrying enough for any Tottenham supporters, but the opening day debacle did not paint the club in a very positive light.

Arsenal on the other hand hit the ground running. Despite going behind to an early John Fashanu strike at Plough Lane, Brian Marwood, Paul Merson, and Alan Smith tore Wimbledon apart in an impressive 5-1 victory. Marwood's involvement in the comeback on that day was crucial, as it would be over the season. Not only did the winger get Arsenal back into the game (aided by a Simon Tracey error), but his crosses from the flanks throughout the season finally provided Alan Smith with the ammunition that the former Leicester man had so desperately craved for in the previous season at Arsenal.

Smith's hat-trick was a sign of things to come, as his golden boot for the 88/89 season proves, although Smith was honest enough to pay a big thanks to Marwood. It was ironic that in a summer of such frivolous spending that one of the key signings of the season had actually taken place in the March of the previous campaign, and at the bargain price of £800,000.

We've got Brian, Brian Marwood on the wing, on the wing...

The return of Rush to Liverpool meant that Kenny Dalglish now had, what the press like to call, a "wonderful selection headache". This point was emphasised on the opening day, when John Aldridge netted a hat-trick against Charlton at Selhurst Park. With Rush only managing to make the bench, and with players such as Hansen, McMahon, Houghton, Barnes and Beardsley also added to the mix, it was understandable that all the experts still saw Liverpool as the overwhelming favourites for the league title.

This may shock and appall some younger readers out there, but there was a time when Manchester United under plain old Alex Ferguson were mediocre at best. The start of their 1988/89 campaign and their dire 0-0 draw at home to QPR was another example of United's early struggles under Ferguson, even the return Mark Hughes for £1.5 million failed to provide the spark that the team needed.

"United they stand at their lowest ebb" stated the headline in the Daily Express on the Monday following the QPR draw, James Lawton adding that "United and their manager Alex Ferguson do have time. Conservatively speaking, I would say until Christmas. If that sounds callous, well, the truth often is." Troubled times indeed for Fergie, who would eventually finish 11th in the league, lose 5-1 away at Man City in September 1989, and still keep his job until the famous cup run of 1990. Impossible to think that he would have survived the axe in this modern era.

Everton's transfer market forays looked to be paying instant dividends, with a 4-0 thrashing of Newcastle at Goodison Park, record signing Cottee scoring the third hat-trick of the opening day. Cottee took only 34 seconds to get off the mark for his new club, and was so delighted with his debut that he declared after the match that he had set himself a 30-goal target for the season.

Alas, for both Cottee and Everton, their performance against a poor Newcastle team (who would only win seven league games all season) was as good as it got. Cottee ended the campaign with a total of 18 goals (which included 3 goals in the pointless Simod Cup), and with Peter Reid joining QPR in February, Gary Stevens already at Glasgow Rangers, and Trevor Steven following him at the end of the season, Everton's excellent side of the mid-80s was slowly breaking up. Unfortunately for Evertonians it was the start of the gradual decline of the great club.

Newly promoted Aston Villa and Millwall shared a 2-2 draw at Villa Park, Millwall's first game in the top flight of English football. The main talking point was the 100th league goal of Tony Cascarino's career and his continuing rise to the top. "If I get 20 goals this season that would be incredible but that's the kind of standard I'm in now" stated Cascarino after the Villa match.

Like Cottee, Cascarino would end the season with 13 league goals, but this was an impressive return for a striker in his first season in amongst the big boys. In fact, Millwall would remain unbeaten in the league up until October 29, topping the table briefly on their way to an admirable 10th placed finish.

Another team that would ultimately punch above their weight was Norwich City. Despite losing Kevin Drinkell to Rangers (there's a pattern developing here), Dave Stringer had built up a team where the whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts. The 2-1 victory against an often forgotten and underrated Nottingham Forest side (3rd in the league, League Cup winners, FA Cup semi-finalists), provided Norwich with the ideal start to the season, the new little-and-large striking duo of Roberts Fleck and Rosario gelling well.

If Newcastle's 4-0 reverse sounded alarm bells on Tyneside, then the same could be said in the East end of London. West Ham's abysmal 4-0 loss at The Dell against Southampton set the tone for what was a turbulent season for the Hammers. New £600,000 signing David Kelly looked lost, whereas Paul Rideout, making his Southampton debut after leaving Bari in the summer, marked his return to England with a brace. A young man named Le Tissier also scored after a mazy dribble, and we would hear quite a bit about him in the years to come.

Elsewhere, Sheffield Wednesday beat Luton 1-0 with a goal from emergency striker Mel Sterland (who, it may surprise you, ended up at Rangers in the March of 1989), and Derby started the campaign with a 1-0 victory at the Baseball Ground against newly promoted Middlesbrough. Derby would enjoy a fine season, finishing fifth and completing the double over eventual champions Arsenal. Middlesbrough however did not survive, relegated on the final Saturday of the season.

The very first day of the 1988/89 season of course pales into insignificance when compared to the thrilling conclusion of the league on May 26, 1989. But for me at the start of that season, something just felt different. Perhaps it was the fact that my team (Arsenal) were contenders once more, maybe it was just wishful thinking on the behalf of a youthful dreamer.

Even looking back though, it is not hard to see why I had these feelings. The close season would see clubs spending vast amounts of money, and from October onwards many of us would be provided with our first real exposure to regular live football on television. From that angle it feels as if the start of the 88/89 season was the beginning of the game we see today. Whether that is a good thing or not is open to debate.

Sadly, it would take the horrific events at Hillsborough to improve conditions for spectators attending matches. From this point on, things simply had to change. The 1988/89 season really was a significant landmark in the British game. When Italia 90 proved an unexpected success, the sport was about to change forever.


  1. Nice bit of nostalgia.

    However, while some change may have been in the air, August 1988 seemed very much part of the bad old era of English football. The Euros that summer had been marred by hooliganism, and the top flight featured dilapidated grounds like The Den and Plough Lane.

    But things did change dramatically at the end of that season, after Hillsborough. I remember wondering how football could continue at all that evening. The talk of all-seater grounds followed soon afterwards and I think we all realised then, at the end of that 88/89 season, that things would never be the same again.

    1. I think you're probably right. As I said, it was probably partly down to my younger years that I had this feeling that things were changing, but Hillsborough was definitely the big turning point in terms of improving the situation for the paying supporter.

      ITV's deal though, along with BSB's involvement, was certainly a significant moment in television history for football in England.

  2. BBC and ITV shared lives league games before this season. Liverpool were regularly featured live in 1987-88, with their brilliant team that won the title at a canter that season.

  3. BBC and ITV shared lives league games before this season. Liverpool were regularly featured live in 1987-88, with their brilliant team that won the title at a canter that season.