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Fever Pitch: Amazon’s entertaining look back at the Rise of the Premier League


REVIEW: In the late 1980s, English football was going nowhere.

Banned from Europe since the tragic events of the 1985 European Cup Final between Liverpool and Juventus at Brussels’ Heysel Stadium, overall crowd figures were almost half what they were two decades earlier in the aftermath of England’s sole World Cup win.

Stadiums were in disrepair and families stayed away, as the terraces became more of a battleground for rival supporters than a place to watch a match from. To paraphrase a Sunday Times editorial, football had become “a slum sport, watched by slum people in slum stadiums”.

But, as the entertaining and enlightening new four-part BBC documentary series Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) recounts, England’s success in reaching the semi-finals of the 1990 World Cup in Italy changed all that. Although they eventually only ended up with “tears for souvenirs”, Gazza, Gary Lineker and company’s fourth-placed finish had united the nation and made watching the beautiful game more than acceptable again.

Brian Deane scores the Premier League’s first goal, on August 16, 1992, for Sheffield United against Manchester United.

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Brian Deane scores the Premier League’s first goal, on August 16, 1992, for Sheffield United against Manchester United.

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Sensing the time might be right for revolutionising the more-than-century-old Football League structure, five of the major clubs plotted to create a 22-team breakaway league.

While it left smaller clubs like Oxford, Southend and Gillingham facing an uncertain future, as Arsenal executive David Dein put it, the game had to evolve away from a time when “buses were pulled by horses”.

Key to the success of the venture were selling the broadcasting rights. Enter Australian multi-media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Looking for a way to hook viewers into his new satellite TV service Sky, he was prepared to pay over the odds to secure exclusive rights.

The surprise signing of Eric Cantona was key to United’s success in the first season of the Premier League.

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The surprise signing of Eric Cantona was key to United’s success in the first season of the Premier League.

And so, after a Simple Minds-scored Alive and Kicking promotional campaign, the competition kicked off on August 16, 1992 with a match between Sheffield and Manchester Uniteds, complete with the “Sky Strikers” cheerleading squad and at-ground entertainment packages that were “more than just a brass band at half-time”.

Monday night football was also introduced, as Sky’s wall-to-wall coverage ramped up. Fortunately, as the first episode of Fever Pitch details, the on and off-field dramas of the season lived up to the hype. Smaller teams like Aston Villa, Norwich and the revitalised Blackburn Rovers dominated early (the latter helped by steel magnate Jack Walker’s millions and newly minted star striker Alan Shearer), while Manchester United sought a desperate solution to their goalscoring woes by signing Cambridge target-man Dion Dublin. However, just three weeks after his arrival, he was injured, and it was only a quickly rebuffed inquiry from Leeds United about Manchester’s Irish left-fullback Denis Irwin, that led to the sudden, surprise move of the defending champion’s enfant terrible Eric Cantona to Old Trafford.

As his team-mates Gary Pallister, Peter Schmeichel and Paul Parker recount, the transformation was almost instant, with Cantona walking in “like he already owned the place”.

Alan Shearer scores his first league goal for Blackburn Rovers in an early season clash with Norwich.

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Alan Shearer scores his first league goal for Blackburn Rovers in an early season clash with Norwich.

It’s these candid recollections, as well as the richly detailed archival footage that make Fever Pitch such a compelling watch. Shearer details the reasons why he chose Blackburn over Manchester United, a new interview juxtaposed with soundbites given by their boss Alex Ferguson at the time, criticising the then 22-year-old for spurning his advances.

Elsewhere, former bad boy turned Hollywood star Vinnie Jones (who describes his time at Wimbledon in the 1980s as more akin to being part of a borstal, than a football team) admits to losing his Nike boot deal after failing to turn up with suitable footwear for the Premier League promotional video, while Cantona is as equal parts inscrutable and erudite as ever. Then there’s the inside story of the “unprofessional” all-night party before a big match.

With the promise of plenty more recollections and revelations around incidents such as the ongoing feud between Ferguson and Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger and Cantona’s kung fu interaction with a heckling “fan”, those of a certain vintage, and football fans of all ages, will enjoy this fabulous trip down memory lane.

Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.



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