Book Review: Before the Premier League

Before the Premier League: A History of the Football League’s Last Decades by Paul Whittle (self-published, 2021); 216 pages, RRP £9.99.

A lot has changed in the near thirty years since the Premier League was first established in February, 1992 and then launched at the start of the 1992/93 season. The subsequent blanket media coverage of the Premier League has served almost to remove the preceding era (‘Pre-PL’) from the public consciousness. For many younger fans the history of football began in that Year Zero and has made anything other than the Premier League irrelevant and barely worthy of attention.

Yet whilst there has been radical change – TV, stadia and the extent of commercialising being obvious examples not to mention foreign ownership of the kind at Manchester City or Newcastle United – much has remained the same. The Premier League ultimately accelerated trends that were already evident in the game, in particular serving to increase the extent of inequality between professional clubs in England & Wales as well as the power of the larger sides.

It is interesting, if not painful to reflect on what existed prior to 1992 and consider what might have happened had not the Frankenstein been conceived. Possibly the biggest surprise is that today there still exists a 92 club structure for senior professional football in England and Wales. Remember the predictions at the time of the Premier League’s introduction that the game was living on borrowed time?

I am no fan of the Premier League and the division of football wealth yet for all the criticisms, I suspect that had the revolution not occurred in 1992 the Football League would have imploded. And with the threat of a European Super League hanging over English football we might yet find sentimental attachment to the Premier League. With the benefit of hindsight there seems to have been an inevitability to the Premier League. Was it the least worst outcome for the Football League and its remaining clubs in 1992?

Nevertheless if it could said that the game was close to financial ruin in 1992, let’s not deceive ourselves that the game is healthier nowadays. What has changed since 1992 is that everything is being done on a superlative scale. Bigger clubs have become bigger in all that they do whether the wages or transfer fees that are paid, the level of football club debts, the amounts that clubs are sold for, the cost of admission and all the rest. In that sense the impact of the Premier League has been about financial multipliers.

The supporter experience has similarly been transformed, not least with the exponential rise in ticket prices to see the biggest clubs. The other headline change has been the modernisation of stadia and the final disappearance of stands and structures dating back to the Edwardian era. Whilst the improvements in spectator comfort and safety can hardly be faulted it has come at the expense of atmosphere. Back in the 1980s for example I don’t think that many people would have expected the German Bundesliga match day experience to have eclipsed that at many leading English stadia.

The thirty year anniversary of the Premier League is timely to remember what existed Pre-PL and the task is well served by Shipley-based author, Paul Whittle whose credentials are derived from his excellent blog at His project has been a brave venture, not simply because of the risks of self-publishing but the ambition of tackling a fairly complex and emotive subject.

Before the Premier League is a well-written publication and its success is derived from the combination of a concise overview of the trends in English football Pre-PL alongside a number of interviews with players and supporters familiar with the game either side of 1992. Paul Whittle thereby effectively narrates the changing experience of football.

What struck me from reading his book was the extent to which English football has lost much of its distinctive localism. It seems that in those olden days, different clubs and stadia were more defined by quaint characteristics and traditions underpinned by a strong local identity. Forgive my cynicism but it feels that the Premier League is becoming defined by brands and it won’t be too long before that extends to franchises. 

I have enjoyed Before the Premier League and can recommend it to others with an interest in the history of the game and of how things used to be in those long gone dark days. This book offers both nostalgia as well as a thought-provoking historical review. It can’t pretend to offer all the analysis and investigation about English football Pre-PL but it goes a long well to reminding us what it was like and encourages further debate. At £9.99 it is excellent value for money and I encourage people to support Paul for his endeavours.

When all is said and done, the Premier League has been about football finance and it would be fascinating to see comparative case studies of a sample of clubs to see the extent to which their finances have been transformed in the past thirty years. Has there really been progress for the better?

  • Copies can be purchased through Paul’s blog, The 1888 Letter which I can also recommend.


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Details of my own most recent book, WOOL CITY RIVALS: A History in Colour (volume 7 in the Bantamspast History Revisited series) in collaboration with George Chilvers: Wool City Rivals: A History in Colour