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My first memories of the Premier League began in the glitzy times of the 2003/04 season. Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and, for the first time, foreign money really started rolling into the league. In the same season, Cristiano Ronaldo arrived at Manchester United and Arsenal were the Invincibles. Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Damien Duff were the players who captured my primary school playground imagination.
The lack of football under lockdown has given me the opportunity to discover what the Premier League was like in the decade before I could remember it. I was initially unsure about how much I would be able to care about the nostalgia-fest that has filled our footballing void. Would watching football matches that took place when I was a toddler actually make me feel anything?
Part of our enjoyment of football comes from the suspense of not knowing who will win. It is that desire that means even in the age of non-stop internet coverage, BBC newsreaders still warn people to turn their TV off so they don’t have Match of the Day spoiled for them. Meanwhile if you’re rewatching matches, you get to relive the emotions that you felt at the time. Normally the positive ones – there’s a reason why clubs are hosting watch parties of their most successful moments on the pitch, rather than drab 0-0 draws.
For me, neither of these things can be true. I have a rudimentary idea of the history of football. I don’t gain much tension from watching league reviews when I already know who won. And the memories I recall are hardly thrilling. Watching Liverpool vs Newcastle in 1996 and then reliving when you scrolled through a Wikipedia article about the match hardly gets the heart going.
So it has surprised me how much I have enjoyed the long-reads, podcasts and television shows from the archives of 1990s football. On the one hand, it is amazing how little has changed. Premier League round-ups open with the same reflection on the rising prices of exotic player acquisitions. Meanwhile, Sunderland appear to still be rubbish, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger look a little more fresh-faced, but Ian Wright somehow looks identical.
Watching these games has allowed certain aspects of football that I have taken as givens to make more sense. Understanding that Alan Shearer has factually scored the most goals in Premier League history is very different to watching him score week in week out to help Blackburn lift the title. Similarly, Eric Cantona’s sheer brilliance and personality on the pitch had always been overshadowed for me by the history of his ‘kung-fu’ kick. Even in grainy highlights packages these players still come to life.
Aspects of my own relationship with football have fallen into place too. Until I watched Roberto di Matteo score for Chelsea in the 1997 FA Cup Final, I feel like I hadn’t truly comprehended the sheer circularity of watching him lift the Champions League as Chelsea manager. I even understand why Manchester United overlooked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s woeful managerial record so that his appointment could summon successes now past.
Then there are the moments that have not gone down in lore. Matches forgotten by brief overviews of Premier League seasons – like Gordon Strachan unretiring himself to help Coventry avoid relegation. Idiosyncrasies that time forgets – like Ruud Gullit being awarded ‘Best Dressed Man in Britain’. Without contemporary football, we have to enjoy the detailed round ups of seasons gone past. Premier League highlight packages which revel in the insignificant or unimportant, be it clubs who have not graced top flight football for many years, or players who faded fast into obscurity. Even without having watched or lived through these times originally, it feels fitting to pay homage to those who played before. To remember a Premier League of poor camera quality, muddy pitches, and terrible defending. There was so much terrible defending?!
With live football having gone for so long, it is also hard not to get sucked into the emotion on and off the pitch. The noise and roar of crowds, the sheer joy in the faces of fans. To be able to imagine for a second, however slight, what has become unimaginable for the foreseeable future. In times as bleak as this, it can be hard not to be a cynic. When I initially thought about whether I would enjoy the look back on a footballing time beyond my memory, I wanted to be sceptical. If you have grown up with the superbly shiny Premier League, could you really enjoy what was before it?
But football is not a sport for sceptics. It is about believing in the impossible. Getting caught up in the moment. Enjoying every kick of the ball – warts and all. Reading a Wikipedia article or book about what happened before cannot make up for seeing what took place on the pitch itself. Somehow I have been sucked into seasons that I thought would be dull and old fashioned – and I love them. Or at the very least, I’ve been without the shiny football for so long, I can no longer tell the difference.
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