View from the Kingsland: Happy Birthday Premier League

View from the Kingsland: Happy Birthday Premier League

by Nick Mabey.

Image: Southampton’s Kyle Walker-Peters celebrates his equaliser in front of the Kingsland stand, during Saints’ first home game of the season against Leeds United Picture: Chris Moorhouse/Southampton FC

We’re back. The Premier League celebrated 30 years in existence this month and Saints duly commemorated the occasion by registering one point from their first two games, just as they did in 1992.  In both years we opened the season against Spurs; our home draw way back then was rather more positive than the heavy defeat we endured this time. 

The thirty years has passed in the blink of an eye. I was living in a flat in London when a strange thing called Sky Sports arrived and heralded in this new shiny era, with firework displays, loud music and wall to wall coverage. What many of us viewed as the death of football actually became the birth of a new era of all-seater stadia, Ford Super Sunday and multiple camera angles.  Goodbye professional hooligan, hello global football tourist.

It’s difficult for my children to imagine life before the Premier League, but not for me to remember it.  My fondest memories are probably of football’s darkest times, in the 70s and 80s, when the grimness of the grounds and the terrible pitches mattered less than the pride and sense of belonging I felt on the terraces, home and away.  It helped of course that Saints had arguably their most successful period then. FA Cup in 76, followed by Europe.  Promoted back to the 1st Division in 78. Runners-up in 84, followed by Europe.  

The advent of the Premier League, and the emergence of Sky Sports, changed everything.  Thirty years on there’s still much debate, in pubs and lounges around the country,  about the upsides and downsides of the changes, but there is little doubt about the size of the shift.  At the heart of the Premier League is money and globalisation. For better or worse, and sometimes both, 1992 will prove to be a defining moment in the history of the sport I love.

Southampton’s record in the Premier League is surprisingly good, given our size and heritage.  Of the fifty teams to have graced the top flight in the last thirty years, only ten have spent more time there than us. We might have been hanging on by our fingernails some of the time, but our twenty-three seasons in the Premier League is unmatched by any club of our stature.  Being the 11th most successful club in the last thirty years doesn’t get you a trophy, but it’s something to be proud of nonetheless.

Of the twenty-three years, we’ve finished in the top ten on seven occasions.  Four of these came in our recent golden period under coaches Pochettino, Koeman and (perhaps surprisingly) Claude Puel.  Such spells are rare and not an accurate reflection of our natural place in the grand scheme of things.  One of the less enjoyable features of the Premier League era has been the ever increasing predictability of where teams will end up.  The big six generally end up in the top eight places, and promoted teams have to fight valiantly just to get the fabled 17th position, therefore avoiding relegation.  Everyone in between, including Southampton, have occasional dreams of glory scattered among regular nightmares about the big drop. Saints have finished in the bottom six on eleven occasions, so nearly 50% of the time; the nightmares are never far away.

The seven years we disappeared from the premier division represent some of the worst and best memories of recent times. It’s easy to forget just how near we came to folding as a club only 15 years ago. And who doesn’t get misty-eyed at the memory of the Marcus Liebherr inspired bounce back to take our seat at the top table?

Each season that top table gets ever richer and more hyped.  The food on offer, i.e. the football quality, continues to evolve and improve but that can be lost in all the pomp and glamour.  It’s hard for me to imagine what the future holds for the Premier League.  Every year there are stories of the bubble bursting. And every year the bubble just seems to get bigger.  Surely it can’t keep growing for another 30 years? Can it?

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