‘Cascarino said there would eventually be a player on £100,000 a week and I was telling him there was no chance. how wrong I was

Ronnie Whelan can clearly remember the dressing room discussions.

Thirty years ago this month, English football changed forever with the birth of the Premier League. Experienced professionals could see how the wind was blowing.

His mind was not focused on the promotion of Sky Sports, the pre-match productions of his early games with cheerleaders and intro music and all those bells and whistles.

Nor were they particularly caught up in fear by conservatives, who thought handing over TV rights to a subscription service that was losing money put everything at risk.

“Can Glory survive the sale of its soul to Game TV?” This weekend in August 1992 a major piece in this newspaper had a headline.

But in the Liverpool dressing room they were already seeing what was coming on the track.

“Football was going to be what didn’t change,” Whelan says, “but the money was getting better. That was the thing that changed.”

Whelan would only play in Brave New Worlds for two seasons, yet when he was in the autumn of a trophy-filled career, and was drawn to a club in the fall under Graeme Souness, they were two of his highest-earning figures of play. There were seasons. Life

“There was more money coming into the game,” he says now. “The players were coming to a club for more money, so the players who were there were able to see more. We were talking about it, we could see how it was going to go. I was getting closer to the end. Was living and thinking that I wish I was 22 instead of 32.

The figures now seem small in comparison, yet they were revolutionary by the standards of the time – £304m was the magic figure for a five-year broadcast deal tied with a breakaway to build a new top tier. Clubs collected £700k in advance and an additional £175k for each live match. ITV was spending £8,000 on Old World.


Ray Houghton moved to Aston Villa for the 1992/93 season

Ray Houghton joined Aston Villa that summer, and would challenge for a title that first season. He doesn’t remember the dramatic change in bank balance overnight, yet remembers how the day-to-day environment had changed quickly. Sky became the dominant player in every sense.

“I remember the FA Cup final against Sunderland (months ago in 1992), and there was hardly any coverage of Sky, or BSkyB as they were. I remember Andy Gray being there, probably not Martin Tyler. He was there for the game. The latter were trying to get the players to speak, but they were well below the pecking order.

“Overnight he became a superstar. People were a little hesitant, they (skeptics) were wondering if it was sustainable. It was down to whether people bought the package. You were thinking ‘Will this fly?’ Because the level of exposure was very different than before.

“Razzmatazz was part of it, we didn’t have that, it was very different than it was before. A lot of Monday Night Football was Americanized. And I probably didn’t expect it to all go on like it did .

“I remember talking to Tony Cascarino once. He said there would eventually be a player on £100,000 a week, and I was telling him there was no chance. How wrong was I?

“It grew so quickly. From five thousand pounds in a week to six, then seven, then eight, then 20 to 22. Young players who had the potential were suddenly getting lucky. It was those players Very good for them, maybe not so much for the people who came together too early.”

But there were two elements to that explosion. The expansion opened doors to the European market and the proliferation of imports changed the profile of dressing rooms dominated by British and Irish voices.


Willie Boland in action for Coventry against Blackburn Rovers. Photo: Clive Brunskill/Allsport

In that first Premier League campaign, 32 Irish players saw game-time. Willie Boland was one of them, a 17-year-old from Limerick who made a sub appearance away from Chelsea for Coventry in the final weeks of the season. He himself says that his contract was in the hundreds instead of thousands. American Roy Wegerle was the only member of the squad that did not come from these islands.

“I joined Coventry for that first year,” says the former midfielder, who is now serving as director of coaching with the UCD/Mount Merion youth in Ireland. “It was an exciting time in English football, you could see the buzz around the place. I think it was all new to me anyway, but with all the commercials, the extra details, the different schedules, it was clear that the game was changing.”

And so were the dressing rooms. Coventry were an established top-flight club and Boland remained there as a peripheral squad member until 1999. He himself says that he considers the latter spell with Cardiff a greater achievement than being involved at the highest level as he plays for them regularly. “I was never fully part of it,” he says politely.

Still, he had a front row seat for the duration of the incredible transformation. Household names suddenly became antagonists.

“Chelsea also had Ruud Gullit, Glenn Hoddle, Gianluca Vialli came in later. Spurs had Jurgen Klinsmann. Later at Palace also Attilio Lombardo. World-class names. I think some of them were coming at the end, but these boys It was a wonderful experience to meet you.”

Boland and Houghton noted how diet and lifestyle changed. He laughs, “The boys who went for a pint went out the window during the week.”

His extraordinary memory is sharing the same place as Eric Cantona, and sees his transformative role in Manchester United’s return to the summit.

“He had this aura of talent about him, and it seemed to project onto the rest of his teammates,” he recalls. “I played against him several times, and when he was on the pitch he felt like a completely different team.”

Boland loved hearing behind-the-scenes stories about how her friends and family had moved to a local hostel for her TV games. However, before his eyes, he could see why stories like his would eventually lack regularity.

“Another aspect that people tend to forget is that the English academy system actually started then. Before that, a lot of Irish players left because we were on par with them at that age (17), or not too far from them anyway. The UK system started really early, and then what happened was that English clubs started asking for a lot more money for their players.

“It was a big factor in why some clubs went abroad to bring in foreign boys, even though they weren’t all of real international standard. They were cheap.”

Houghton can see the good and the bad of demographic change. The standards were raised by talent attracted to the English market.

“It was a great time to be there, right at the beginning, even though it is the players coming after us who have got the prize after actually building the product.

“You look at it now, and its power is incredible, it really is. It’s a phenomenon. I thought with the pandemic it might slow down a bit but it seems to have gone the other way.”

Global broadcast deals underpin growth, as much as the picture of the English league’s bottom is increasingly shaky.

Foreign rights have risen to £5.3bn (€6.28bn) worth more than domestic rights earlier this year after new arrangements were finalized around India and Asia. The Sky, BT and Amazon Prime deal sits at £5.1bn (€6.05bn).

It is a world away from that 1992 arrangement, which had an unusual Irish angle as Sky had to pay to install floodlights at League of Ireland grounds so clubs could go on Friday nights and avoid the new Super Sunday.

UEFA rules of the era ruled that Sky needed the FAI’s permission to screen games in Ireland if it affected the local league, so a deal was cut.

Now there is no such limit and the round-the-clock element has increased. The presence of such a powerhouse at the door has arguably proved to be both a blessing and a curse from an Irish perspective alike.

Houghton does not acknowledge that the league is beyond Ireland’s best, however. Summer moves for Gavin Bazunu (€14m) and record-breaker Nathan Collins (€24m) could make them flag bearers for the foreseeable future.

“It’s the new boys we should be talking about now,” he continued. “We had those times when we relied on Robbie Keane and then Seamus Coleman and maybe there was a lull but now there are new boys we should be watching and promoting. Gavin and Nathan have worked hard, they have shown that if If you are a good player and you can introduce yourself then you can get there.

For this generation, the rewards will be life-changing.