Rick Parry is showing me the most important document in the recent history of British sport. He has a photo of it on his phone. “Here it is in my handwriting,” he says. “Graham was upstairs, waiting for me to tell him, and I’d forgotten to put FA. So that’s Graham’s writing on the top going ‘by the way, that’s the FA Premier League’.”
“Graham” is Graham Kelly, the former chief executive of the Football Association. In 1991 he hired Parry to help him with a problem. Out of that problem was born a football competition that has become a global brand, a sporting hegemon and a form of soft power for the United Kingdom in the 21st century. But visible even in its totemic “founders’ agreement”, the document on Parry’s phone, were the tensions that would make the Premier League sometimes as reviled as it was beloved.
The Premier League turns 25 this summer and there is much to celebrate. It is by far the most popular national football competition in the world, watched avidly on television by fans in 210 countries. At home, capacity crowds attend fiercely competitive matches in brand new stadiums, largely free from disorder or disruption. The competition has dozens of star players, almost all the most famous managers, and creates enough drama to feed a relentless media appetite. It is also, again by far, football’s richest competition, generating £4.865bn in revenue during the 2015-16 season, according to the financial analysts Deloitte.
The story of how the Premier League came into being is one of determination and deceit, of clubbable bureaucracy coming face to face with free-wheeling entrepreneurialism. In effect it is a story of its age, the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Thatcherism had smashed post-war orthodoxies but created little in its place. Football, the national game, was on its knees: stigmatised as a crucible for hooliganism, grieving after the tragedy of Hillsborough. The sport was loathed by government and struggling to make ends meet. Yet a great opportunity was approaching and a small number of ambitious men were ready to seize it.