How the Premier League has evolved in 25 years to become what it is today

A quarter of a century ago, a new era of English football began. At the time, only a few things about the newly minted Premier League looked different: more TV cameras, some referees wore green rather than black, and the new backpass rule meant the sight of goalkeepers panicking at having to control the ball brought a few laughs.

But one thing really stood out: the hype. After Sky Sports arrived and started to sell football as almost a lifestyle choice rather than simply a sport, suddenly it was everywhere. "Very much so," Brian Deane, scorer of the first ever Premier League goal, tells ESPN FC when asked if the players were aware of the hype.

"Obviously if you package someone up differently because it's new, there are going to be changes. There was a lot of razzmatazz and a lot of advertising on TV. You've got to remember that at that time we were just used to seeing Match of the Day, then all of a sudden we realised as players we were going to get a much bigger profile."

That profile has increased incredibly in the intervening 25 years, to the point that it's almost a different sport. Any sport will move on over a generation, but English football has changed beyond recognition. Here is how it has evolved since the opening weekend of the first Premier League season.

Number of teams

When the Premier League began there were 22 teams -- the First Division had voted to increase the number of clubs for the preceding 1991-92 season -- but was reduced to 20 again after three seasons for the start of 1995-96. Norwich, Crystal Palace, Leicester City and Ipswich Town lost their Premier League status as the league slimmed down to play just 38 matches a season, instead of 42. And it has remained that way ever since.

League of nations

One of the most visible ways in which the Premier League has changed on the pitch is the number of foreign players. On that first weekend there were 13 representatives from outside the UK and Ireland: Eric Cantona (Leeds United - France), Craig Forrest (Ipswich Town - Canada), Hans Segers (Wimbledon - the Netherlands), Gunnar Halle (Oldham - Norway), John Jensen (Arsenal - Denmark), Anders Limpar (Arsenal - Sweden), Ronnie Rosenthal (Liverpool - Israel), Robert Warzycha (Everton - Poland), Peter Schmeichel (Manchester United - Denmark), Andrei Kanchelskis (Manchester United - Russia), Roland Nilsson (Sheffield Wednesday - Sweden), Michel Vonk (Manchester City - the Netherlands) and Jan Stejskal (QPR - Czechoslovakia).

Of the 273 who played on that first weekend for 22 teams, 205 were eligible to play for England, 55 came from Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In total, 15 nations were represented.

The story is very different in 2017: of the 277 who played this weekend, only 86 were England qualified and the remaining 191 were spread across 49 different nations.

The managers

It has changed in the dugout too: in 1992, 18 of the 23 managers (Tottenham had joint bosses in Ray Clemence and Doug Livermore) were English, there were four Scotsmen and one Irishman. This season, four Englishmen took charge of Premier League teams, the others hailing from Croatia, Wales, Portugal, Argentina, Spain, Germany, America (via Germany: David Wagner was born near Mainz but played for the USA eight times through his American father), the Netherlands, Italy, Ireland and France.

A knock-on effect of the shift to foreign managers is also that only two of today's bosses (Eddie Howe and Slaven Bilic) had any previous connection with their clubs: in 1992, nine had played for the teams they went on to manage.

That first Premier League season saw 22 of the 23 keep their jobs too: Chelsea sacked Ian Porterfield in February, but otherwise everyone else survived. In these times of trigger-happy chairman, you can be sure there will be more than one dismissal before next May.

Kick-off times

The first weekend of the 1992-93 season did see one revolution: while nine of the 11 games played were at the traditional English kick-off time of 3 p.m. on Saturday, Nottingham Forest vs. Liverpool was on Sunday afternoon and Manchester City vs. QPR was on Monday evening.

Today's schedulers would laugh at the fact there were only two. This season Arsenal vs. Leicester kicked off at 7.45 p.m. on Friday, Watford vs. Liverpool began at 12.45 p.m. on Saturday, then there were five games at 3 p.m. before Brighton and Manchester City began in the balmy evening at 5.30 p.m. Then, on Sunday, two more games followed as Newcastle hosted Tottenham at 1.30 p.m. and Manchester United thrashed West Ham at 4 p.m.


The team that had the highest attendance of the opening weekend in 1992 will shock you: it was Sheffield United. Yes, 28,070 turning up to watch eventual champions Manchester United lose to 2-1 to two Deane goals.

"People weren't going to just smash it from 30 yards just to try and get the first goal," Deane tells ESPN FC. "But I think if you asked most players -- the likes of Ian Wright, Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand -- if they wanted to be the first goal scorer, I'm sure they would have said yes."

The aggregate attendance that weekend was 237,029 -- an average of 21,458. And during that first season, the total number was 9,759,750 -- working out at 21,125 a game.

This weekend, a total of 399,781 went to see Premier League football -- an average of just shy of 40,000. The lowest attendance now (20,407 at Watford vs. Liverpool) was only just smaller than the average 25 years ago while the biggest (74,928 for Manchester United vs. West Ham) was nearly three times the top figure in 1992.

The obvious reasons for these wildly different numbers is the stadia: back then many grounds were still in their pre-Hillsborough state, and others were in the process of being upgraded to comply with the Taylor Report that demanded all-seater stands. But it's also interesting to note that over the 1992-93 season, grounds saw an average of 69.6 percent capacity, while last season the figure was 96.5 percent.

The cards

Another area in which things have changed massively is discipline: or rather, punishment for the contravention of it. On that first weekend in 1992 nobody was sent off, there were three games that didn't feature a booking at all and over the remaining eight, 23 yellow cards were issued, one each to Eric Cantona and Roy Keane (perhaps unsurprisingly).

This year, in 10 games as opposed to 11, 34 yellows were brandished and three players -- Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas and Jonjo Shelvey -- were given red cards.


While the breakaway from the Football League was broadly about money, generally people hadn't quite worked out how to make the most of what they had. This was true in broadcasting, for while Sky had signed what was then a significant deal worth £304 million over five years (£60.8m a season), the global appeal of the Premier League hadn't really been tapped into. Thus, the overseas rights were given to an agency, and it's tricky to figure out exactly how many countries the league was broadcast in.

In the late 1990s the decision was taken to sell rights on a "territory-by-territory" basis, leading to the situation today where 189 of the 193 countries recognised by the United Nations will show the Premier League this season. The missing four are, for assorted reasons, Cuba, St Kitts and Nevis, North Korea and Moldova. Domestically, that broadcasting deal has ballooned to £5.14 billion for just three years (£1.71bn a season.) That's an increase of 2,728 percent over 25 years.

The cost

Football has clearly become more expensive over the last 25 years. Back in 1992, individual ticket prices ranged from a bargain of £8 to an outlandish £30: now, if you're lucky/young enough you can still get a ticket for £9, but the most expensive has more than trebled in price to £97.

Huddersfield are keeping the price down this season though: their season tickets were available for £299, and if you had been going since the days when they were in League One, you can get one for just £100.

Style of play

Finally, the most noticeable change in football since that first weekend in 1992 is how the game is played. The speed has increased exponentially, as diets become more finely tuned, alcohol is frowned upon and training becomes more sophisticated.

Clubs have teams of experts whose sole job is to get the most, physically, from their players, and every little thing is taken into consideration. Both players and the ball (which has evolved hugely on its own scale) move at a lightning pace now, in comparison to 25 years ago.

However, Deane thinks a big reason for the change is a little more prosaic. "A big difference was the state of the pitches," he says. "Some of the top stadiums in the country, you only have to look at those pitches to see it's not really fair to compare players' abilities then and now. There were some fantastic players, but you can't play tiki-taka on the pitches we played on."