Early last week a story broke in The Times stating that ‘Premier League clubs are locked in an escalating row over how to divide billions of pounds of television rights. Demands by the ‘big six’ for a greater share of the soaring overseas income have divided the rest of the clubs.’ 

This resonated with me as it brought back memories of when, in 1995 (just three years after the start of the Premier League) The Football League faced the very real threat of another breakaway from The League, this time by our First Division clubs, who were demanding that they receive 80% of The League’s new £125m, 5-year TV deal.

I had joined The Football League as Marketing Executive in January 1991 and immediately fell headfirst into the issues caused by our then First Division clubs wanting to breakaway to form The FA Premier League. The Premier League started in 1992 and over the following three years we worked hard to stabilise The League. Now, in late 1995 we faced the prospect of another breakaway, which, in my opinion if it had gone ahead would have threatened the very existence of many clubs.

At that time I used to write a daily diary. The following is my personal account of that difficult period between 27th December 1995 and 1st January 1996.

Wednesday 27th December 1995

I was first into the office today. As I walked in I thought to myself that Christmas decorations always look so sad after the holidays. Lee Walker, our Controller of Broadcasting, arrived shortly after me. Lee and I, after asking each other the obligatory ‘nice Christmas?’ questions, then discussed the situation with regard to last Friday’s meeting of all Clubs at the Connaught Rooms in the West End. We both agreed that, at a time when we should be looking forward to the future due to our new £125m, 5-year deal with BskyB, we are feeling rather depressed. All over the Christmas period Ron Noades of Crystal Palace has been quoted in the media threatening a breakaway of Clubs if the First Division do not get at least 80% of the income generated by The Football League. Whilst I personally believe that everything must be done to ensure that our top Clubs can compete and mount realistic attempts to win promotion to The FA Premier League, I do not know how much real support Ron has regarding another, potentially disastrous, split of Clubs. Of course, I have known Mr Noades for some time, as he was my ‘landlord’ when I was based in a portakabin on his ground during my time as Charlton Athletic’s Commercial Manager. I’ll be glad when Friday 29th December, when the clubs meet again, has been and gone!

It has been an extremely quiet day in the office; most people are still on Christmas leave. It feels like the ‘lull before the storm’.

Thursday 28th December 1995  

Tomorrow’s meeting is looming larger and the atmosphere within The Football League is awful. Ron Noades is in the papers again this morning:

‘’Unless we get a guarantee of more money we will set up on our own’’.  

As I’ve said, I perfectly understand and agree with the concept that The Football League’s First Division must receive the lion’s share of The League’s income. It is vitally important that we keep in touch with the Premier League financially if our Clubs are to have any real chance of success. Since the formation of the Premier League we have seen several Clubs gain promotion only to get relegated the next Season, mainly due to their lack of resources i.e. Leicester, Oldham and Crystal Palace and the odds are stacked against Bolton Wanderers already. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that the Second and Third Division Clubs have a right to exist as well, in fact, it would be the death knell of the game if these Clubs were allowed to disappear. Where would the young talent learn their trade?

Friday 29th December 1995

The big day. It’s absolutely freezing. I arrived at the office by 8.30am to catch up on the latest quotes from Chairman Ron. It’s interesting isn’t it? All the Clubs making the most trouble are failed Premier League teams who are hardly likely to get back to the top by immediate success on the field – you know, the old fashioned way! Palace, Oldham, Norwich; they are all disenfranchised Premier League outfits desperate to be back with the big boys.

Well what a shambles. It’s now 5.20pm and I’ve just experienced a complete nonsense of a day. The grand setting of the New Connaught Rooms was ready for action but the first thing to strike me was that it was bitterly cold. The heating in the Connaught Rooms was barely on. After a lot of false bonhomie, the tension was broken by the sight of Luton Chairman David Kohler’s dog proudly sitting in the Luton representative’s seat next to a slightly bemused Reg Burr, the Chairman of Millwall! This was typical David Kohler style.

The meeting was opened formally by The Football League President, Gordon McKeag, the former Chairman of Newcastle United. David Dent gave a comprehensive presentation of the facts regarding the background to The League’s decision to agree the £125m deal with BskyB. He then made an impassioned rallying call for Clubs to show a united front.

Geoffrey Richmond of Bradford asked Robert Chase of Norwich City outright whether it was the First Division’s intention to resign from The League if the resolution for restructuring the distribution of income did not go through i.e. that The First Division get 80% of the funds up to a figure of £35m. Chase made a nonsense statement that it has never been the intention to ‘hold a pistol to the head of the Second and Third Division Clubs’. At this point ironic sniggering could be heard from the main body of the hall. Geoffrey Richmond then made it quite clear that the Second and Third Divisions would expect The League to evoke regulation 68 by High Court injunction if necessary.

Regulation 68 states that on resignation from The League the registrations of the players revert to The League i.e. ‘you can go but you won’t have any players!’ Now things were hotting up. After the correct constitutional opening to the meeting the ‘gloves were starting to come off’. At this point, Gordon McKeag, a barrister by profession, very carefully and in my opinion, skilfully stabilised the meeting.

However, just before the vote on the structure of the Board, Douglas Craig, the Chairman of York City and a member of The League’s Board very forcibly spelt out the perils to The First Division of resigning. Not only would regulation 68 be used but also The League would immediately cease all monthly payments.

The First Division then went into a private meeting and apart from a break for lunch, were locked away until 4.30pm. They all then left, apparently sworn to secrecy. However, the deadline for resigning under League regulations is next Sunday, New Year’s Eve and it now looks unlikely that they will leave the League. But, as you can imagine, the mood and atmosphere is now just awful. In fact anything but a ‘united front’. It is a complete mess and who knows where we go from here.

Saturday 30th December 1995

The storm has abated, or has it? The resignations can still be lodged this weekend; they have until midnight on 31st December. Happy New Year!

Jack Taylor telephoned me this morning to discuss yesterday’s meeting. Jack feels that we have ‘turned the corner. I hope that he is right. I cannot speak highly enough of Jack. The man is a football legend, (he refereed a World Cup Final!), and I am honoured to be able to call him a friend.

Sunday 31st December 1995

Jack telephoned again. Someone he knows who was at the Wolves game yesterday told him that Wolves Chairman Jonathan Hayward was still suggesting that the resignations could be submitted tonight. I personally now believe that the legal threat to the First Division for resigning is too big a deterrent. Hopefully I will be proved right.

It was New Year’s Eve but I could not forget about what was going on in my professional life; after the kissing, hugging and drinking of champagne at midnight, the first thing that I did in 1996 was to turn on teletext to see whether the Clubs had handed in their notices – they hadn’t!

Steve is a freelance Marketing and PR consultant. He is the former Head of Marketing and PR at leading Apprenticeship Training Providers, MiddletonMurray. Prior to that Steve spent 23 years in professional football, including being the Marketing Executive of The Football League throughout the 90’s and he was Commercial Director at Charlton Athletic FC during the Club’s seven year period in the Premier League.