(illustrations courtesy of http://www.museumofjerseys.com)
The Premier League, as we understand it in 2022, is about as slick and modern as it’s possible for a sporting competition to be: cosmopolitan teams of scientifically-trained players, rushing around with incomprehensible betting logos on their shirts, performing breath-taking skill for the benefit of a global audience via a huge media operation. It’s worlds apart from English football before its introduction, and getting more different with each passing year. And yet, this “Whole New Ball Game” – to use the inaugural season’s tagline – was, inevitably, a gradual process: the league’s first few seasons more closely resemble the few years before, when the English game was gradually recovering from the low of Hillsborough.
This can be seen in stadiums, kits, and media presentation, but nowhere more than in the make-up of squads, with the shift to more foreign players still in its very early stages. There was, of course, huge overlap with the pre-Premier League players in those early days – new stars like Shearer, Cantona and Keane had played in the old first division, while a number of big names from the 1980s such as John Barnes, Mark Hughes and Ian Rush were significant figures in the first few years of the new league.
This situation led to another, more curious category, though: players from the 1980s, and often further back, who just scraped into the Premier League, with the odd appearance in the first couple of seasons. Their time in this division will be forgotten to many, in fact their status as Premier League players feels anachronistic, scarcely believable. This is an XI of those players.
GK: Gerry Peyton
Chelsea, 1 appearance (on loan from Everton), 1993. Born 20/05/1956.
The nature of goalkeepers’ careers is such that there were a lot of strong candidates for this position – veterans ousted from the first-team by younger rivals making the odd cameo as a sub, or serving as rent-a-keepers, with multiple clubs per season. John Burridge’s appearances for Man City in 1995 make him the oldest player to play in the league, but conversely, this makes him too obvious for this list. Peter Shilton was on a similar path at the same time, but despite spells at Bolton, West Ham and Wimbledon, didn’t make a Premier League appearance on his way to 1000 games.
Peyton, on the other hand, not only feels like a player from a different era, but from a different level, with most of his nearly 600 league appearances coming in the second and third tiers, for Fulham, and later Bournemouth. He had been an international though, with 33 caps for the Republic of Ireland between 1977 and 1992, and was understudy to Packie Bonner at Euro 88 and Italia 90. In 1991 he left Bournemouth for Everton, sharing backup duties with Jason Kearton. He made no appearances during his spell with Everton, in which he was loaned out four times, and it was in the last of these – at Chelsea – that he got his only Premier League action. A long way off the Chelsea of Gullit and Vialli, let alone Abramovich and Mourinho, the blues lost 2-0 at home to Sheffield Wednesday in front of 16,000 fans, with Peyton replacing the injured Dmitri Kharine at half time.
After a spell at Brentford, Peyton would end his career as a Premier League player, an unused reserve at West Ham for the 1993/94 season. He has since entered coaching, a career that has taken him to Japan and India and has seen him serve 15 years as Arsene Wenger’s goalkeeper coach at Arsenal.
Other candidates: John Burridge, Mervyn Day, Les Sealey
RB: Mel Sterland
Leeds United, 3 appearances, 1992-94. Born 01/10/1961.
While many players on this list were winding down their top level careers when the Premier League began, Mel Sterland began the 1992/93 season as a first-team regular with the reigning champions, but injury restricted his Premier League career to a brief, early cameo.
An attack-minded right-back, Sterland spent 11 years with Sheffield Wednesday before joining the English exodus at Rangers during the 1988/89 season. After a few months, however, he returned to England, reuniting with his former Wednesday boss Howard Wilkinson at Leeds. He helped the club win the second division, and become league champions two seasons later, but suffered an ankle injury just three games into their title defence. He retired in 1994, having not been able to recover, and dropped into non-league as player manager of Boston United. In 1996, he made a comeback, helping Sheffield United reach the FA Cup final – as an actor in the film When Saturday Comes, alongside Sean Bean.
Other candidates: Viv Anderson, Ray Ranson
LB: Kenny Sansom
Coventry City, 21 appearances, 1992-93, Everton, 7 appearances (1 goal), 1993. Born 26/09/1958
Sansom is a rarity in this team in that he made Premier League appearances for two clubs, but neither of which he is readily associated with. Perhaps the most quintessentially 1980s English footballer there is, Sansom was part of Crystal Palace’s “team of the 80s”, before joining Arsenal at the beginning of the decade. There followed eight solid years as first choice at Highbury and for England. 1988 brought an end to this though, with Sansom, ousted by Nigel Winterburn in George Graham’s back four, embarking on a nomadic few years with Newcastle, QPR and Coventry. He was a Sky Blues player at the outset of the Premier League, but left during the season to join Everton, for whom he scored on his debut. He was released at the end of the 92/93 season, and ended his career after brief spells with Brentford and Watford.
Other candidates: Mal Donaghy, Lee Martin
CB: Kevin Moran
Blackburn Rovers, 55 appearances/5 goals, 1992-94. Born 29/04/1956
Moran has a relatively high number of Premier League appearances for this team, and lasted two seasons, but qualifies because there can’t be many Premier League players who won two all-Ireland Gaelic football medals in the 1970s (I think Kai Havertz is the only other). Known for being the first player to be sent off in an FA Cup final, Moran was a Man United regular throughout the 1980s, but fell victim to the Ferguson revolution, moving to Sporting Gijón in 1988, where he roomed with a young Luis Enrique. Two years later he returned to England, joining a pre-Dalglish Blackburn, where he stuck around to help them reach the Premier League and challenge for the title twice. He retired in 1994, just before Rovers’ ultimate triumph, having been a squad member for Ireland at that summer’s World Cup.
CB: Terry Fenwick
Tottenham Hotspur, 5 appearances 1992-93, Swindon Town, 26 appearances, 1993-94. Born 17/11/1959
Another player with two clubs and two seasons, the latter of which was with the doomed Swindon side of 93/94. This squad is a goldmine for names from the past, with such luminaries as Brian Kilcline, Frank McAvennie and Lawrie Sanchez, and Fenwick in particular stands out. Another member of the “team of the 80s” at Palace, Fenwick was involved in, or at least was present at, one of the most memorable moments of the 1980s, Maradona’s goal of the century at the 1986 World Cup. He followed his mentor Terry Venables from Palace to QPR to Tottenham, but was a fringe player by the time the Premier League began. He joined Swindon early in the 93/94 season, and was a regular in their only Premier League season, before ending his career in 1995 after just two appearances post-relegation. He entered management, firstly with Portsmouth and Northampton, and latterly in Trinidad & Tobago, where he is now national coach.
Other candidates: Paul Elliott, Brian Kilcline
RM: Alan Harper
Everton, 18 appearances, 1992-93. Born 01/11/1960
Stocky and moustachioed, Harper looked like a man out of time in 1992, let alone compared with modern Premier League players. Harper had a very successful 1980s, as an unsung member of Howard Kendall’s great Everton team, winning two league titles, the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup. His versatility earned him the nickname Bertie Bassett (he could play in “all sorts” of positions), but also meant he was usually the 12th man. He left Everton in 1988 to join Sheffield Wednesday, before reuniting with Kendall at Man City the following season, and two years later Kendall – now back at Goodison – brought Harper back. His two seasons back at the club took in the start of the Premier League, but by then he was a fringe player, and left in 1993, winding down his career with Luton, Burnley and Cardiff. Since retiring, Harper has become a well-respected youth coach and scout, including another spell at Everton.
Other candidates: Mike Phelan, Ian Ormondroyd
CM: Paul Lake
Manchester City, 2 appearances, 1992-96. Born 28/10/1968
The youngest player on this list, and with that, the most unlucky. Part of the great generation of City youth players that included Ian Brightwell, Andy Hinchcliffe and David White, Lake was considered the best of the lot, able to play across defence and midfield, and named club captain aged 21. By then, Lake had helped City reach the top flight, and after a solid 1989/90 season was named in England’s provisional 30-man squad for the 1990 World Cup. Still uncapped, Lake didn’t make the final squad, and early the following season he suffered the injury that would end his career. The cruciate injury, sustained against Aston Villa, would put him out for the season, which became two after he broke down again in the summer of 1991. He returned to play in City’s first Premier League game, a 1-1 draw with QPR, but was taken off after 60 minutes, feeling a tightness in his knee. Despite not feeling like he’d fully recovered, he played the next match against Middlesbrough. He snapped his ligaments after ten minutes, and this proved to be the injury that ended his career. He made repeated efforts to recover, but none were successful – often not helped by the club – and he finally retired in January 1996.
CM: Chris Kamara
Sheffield United, 24 appearances, 1992 and 1993-1994, Middlesbrough, 5 appearances, 1993. Born 25/12/1957
Kamara is, of course, a well-known figure in the Premier League era, but more as a media personality than for his football career. In fact, much of his playing days were spent in the third division, and he didn’t make his top-flight debut until he was 32, having helped Leeds win promotion in 1990. He made a couple of appearances early in Leeds’ title-winning season in 1991/92, but couldn’t get past their famous midfield, and left for Luton in November 1991. Luton were relegated, missing out on the Premier League, but Kamara didn’t: he had two loan spells in the league’s inaugural season, with Sheffield United, and then his hometown club, Middlesbrough.
Kamara returned to Brammall Lane on a permanent deal for the 1993/94 season, and made 16 appearances as the club were relegated, before he joined third-tier Bradford City as a player-coach. In November 1995, Kamara became manager, and was an immediate success, taking a relegation-threatened team to the playoffs, and a Wembley win against Notts County to secure promotion. He made clever signings, including Mark Schwarzer, Darren Moore and Robbie Blake, and by the time he quit in January 1998 – due to disagreements with Chairman Geoffrey Richmond – they were on their way to the Premier League under Kamara’s nominated successor, Paul Jewell.
Before the month was out, Kamara took over at Stoke City, a club he’d played for, but would only last a month, and one win from fourteen games. This was Kammy’s last active role in football – he took up punditry roles with Sky Sports, and hasn’t looked back – even when he probably should have.
Other candidates: Nigel Spackman, Stewart Robson
LM: Ronnie Whelan
Liverpool, 40 appearances/2 goals, 1992-94. Born 25/09/1961
Whelan made a decent number of appearances in his two Premier League seasons, mostly as a starter, but as the club most obviously left behind by the start of the Premier League, Liverpool have to be represented in this XI. Graeme Souness, to his credit, saw this, and took steps to remedy it, but not always successfully, but it’s striking how many of the old guard were still on Liverpool’s books well into the mid-90s. Grobbelaar, Nicol, Molby and Whelan were all great players in their day, but remained at the club long after they’d been replaced (again, not always successfully).
Of those candidates, Whelan stands out for a few reasons. His career had already become blighted by injuries at the beginning of the decade, causing him to miss the 1992 Cup final, and these continued into his two Premier League seasons, meaning he could never hold down a regular place in the team. His marginalised status was illustrated clearly when squad numbers were introduced for the second Premier League season – his preferred number 5 was given to Mark Wright, and the number 6, which Wright had worn fairly often, was given to the much younger Don Hutchison.
Whelan was released by Liverpool at the end of the 93/94 season, as Roy Evans sought to rebuild. He joined Southend – then in the second tier, and a year later became player manager. After being sacked in 1997, he had a few managerial jobs in Greece in Cyprus, including a memorable run with Panionios in the last ever Cup Winners’ Cup.
Other candidates: Graham Rix, Perry Groves
CF: Gary Bannister
Nottingham Forest, 31 appearances/8 goals, 1992-93. Born 22/07/1960
Forest were one of the pre-eminent teams in English football at the turn of the 1990s – not quite at the level of a decade earlier, but Brian Clough was still able to work his magic, leading the club to five Wembley finals in the four years before the Premier League began. They had reasons, then, to begin life in the rebranded league with optimism, and began by beating Liverpool in the first ever Super Sunday. However, their goalscorer that day, Teddy Sheringham, was immediately sold to Tottenham, and not adequately replaced.
Bannister was the man to step in. He’d been a decent player in the 80s, playing for Sheffield Wednesday and QPR. but by 1992 he was 32, and coming off a three goal season with West Brom in the old Third Division. He actually managed a respectable goal tally, but a clearly diminished Forest team finished in last place, marking a sad end to Brian Clough’s career.
While Forest bounced back well – finishing 3rd in 1994/95, Bannister was released. After spells with Stoke City and Hong Kong Rangers, he spent two seasons in the basement division with Lincoln and Darlington, retiring in 1996,
CF: Frank McAvennie
Aston Villa, 3 appearances, 1992, Swindon Town, 7 appearances, 1994. Born 22/11/1959
Another player who’s about as 80s as it’s possible to imagine, McAvennie began his career in Claret and Blue, but not at the English club with which he’s most associated. He made his name in West Ham’s title-chasing team of 1985/86, and became known for his playboy lifestyle. After a spell with Celtic in which he won the double, he returned to Upton Park in 1989, with the club now in the second division. He helped them earn promotion, but they went straight back down, missing the first Premier League season, and McAvennie moved on to Villa.
It was a successful season for Villa – they would finish second, and McAvennie was unable to get past the front two of Dalian Atkinson and Dean Saunders. He left the club, and following brief cameos in Northern Ireland and Hong Kong, returned to Celtic. After a decent start, he became out of favour after Lou Macari’s appointment as manager, which led to another brief return to the Premier League. He joined Swindon’s collection of veterans on loan in January 1994, playing 7 games without scoring. He had further spells with Falkirk and his first club, St. Mirren, before calling it a day in 1995.
Other candidates: Mo Johnston, Imre Varadi, Trevor Francis