On Wednesday 27 May 1992, the FA Premier League was finally established as a limited company. This had followed the mass resignation of English First Division clubs to join a new, controversial league setup. Top tier football would now be broadcast by subscription-based, satellite television company BSkyB. That same day, The Liverpool Echo’s ‘£10 Star Letter’ angrily stated that “the Premier League sells out to Sky so depriving the majority of people and of supporters from watching.” It concluded by asking rhetorically, “I also wonder will the football be any better?”
Anger and despair had swept over the dominant footballing city of the 1980s. Of the ten seasons in this decade, eight league titles were won by either Liverpool or Everton. Football was now making a turn away from the established norm and into the unknown. The new Premier League-era represented a grey-suited, money-obsessed takeover of the game. On opening day weekend of the first FA Premier League season, tensions needed settling. It would find an unlikely hero from Yorkshire who would do just that.
More than a striker
Brian Deane’s journey to the top-flight could be described as normal for the early 1990s, although not necessarily straightforward. Whilst contemporary players such as Jamie Vardy or Andy King have managed to work their way into the Premier League from the lower divisions, stories such as this feel increasingly inconceivable. Leeds-born Deane started his career at Doncaster Rovers in the Third Division, playing at this level until 1989. He finally gained promotion after transferring to Yorkshire-rivals Sheffield United, who were then on the rebound.
Starting from the Third Division, successive promotions with the Blades featured decent goal tallies for the striker. By 1990 they had reached the First Division under promising young manager Dave Bassett. For two seasons, however, the side was overly reliant on exemplary post-Christmas performances to beat the drop. Bassett was determined to start 1992/93 with success, even if he had to channel the festive spirit. The opening weekend’s matchday program cover saw him wearing Santa costume, sitting between Deane and club captain Brian Gayle.
Deane was not just a standard-issue First Division English striker, however. His profile as black footballer also made him a progressive figure within the game. The opening weekend of the Premier League featured only 16.5% of players from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. By the 2017/18 season, this had doubled to 33%.
His playing style was no less evolutionary. Far from merely using his impressive physique as a battering ram, Deane also possessed an excellent level of technical ability. Deane regularly treated crowds to pieces of skill and flair which would look remarkable even in 2019. In March 1992, Deane showcased his quick feet to calmly dispossess a Kamikaze-Bruce Grobbelaar rushing from his penalty area. He then lobbed Liverpool’s backtracking defenders to score from around 45 yards. He netted twice that day.
On the eve of the 1992/93 season, Deane was only 24 years old, over six-feet tall, highly skilful and black. He was a living embodiment of both consistency and change co-existing within English football. His involvement represented a seismic shift within the game. Therefore, it was appropriate that he would score its first ‘modern’ goal.
An environment influx
The footballing landscape at the onset of the first Premier League season in 1992/93 was uneasy. Across the world, the game was changing and causing many to worry over what it would become. Closer to home, the same old ghosts had still not been exorcised.
European football had itself been rebranded. The European Cup had now taken on the UEFA Champions League moniker, marking its break with its rich past. This re-birth of the tournament coincided with Arsenal becoming the first English club to compete following a UEFA sanctioned ban. This had been issued after 1985’s European Cup final when 39 Juventus fans died following a confrontation with Liverpool fans.
Globally, FIFA altered rule XII, leading to what became known as the ‘back pass rule’. Fans were increasingly tired of the poor quality of games stemming from stale efforts to see out results. In response, football’s overlords decreed that goalkeepers would not be able to pick up passes from their teammates’ feet.
English football appeared stale and inflexible. Questions were raised over whether the English game was ready or even worthy of the new glitzy, Americanised-style of coverage. Deane himself has been critical of the first generation of Premier League players for being “a little bit lazy.” A lack of professionalism existed within the English mentality which was still apparent through its prevalent drinking culture.
Arsenal’s infamous Tuesday Club, where players engaged in raucous behaviour over their days off, was ignored by manager George Graham. Despite his disciplinarian tendencies, Graham felt that he didn’t see any disruption to training, thus permitting such conduct. Former England captain Terry Butcher admitted that had Italia ’90 been “a drinking World Cup, we would have won it hands down.”
On an international level, England had been poor, crashing out of Euro 1992 by finishing bottom of their group. Both England players and fans still wrestled with the hooligan image as interest drifted away from the home of football. The day’s biggest hell-raiser, its most prodigious talent, Paul Gascoigne, departed that summer for Europe’s sexiest league, Italy’s Serie A.
It was a sunny day in Sheffield. A crowd of 28,070 swelled into Bramall Lane to witness the dawn of the new era. Yet, few football fans in the country expected the home side to be the ones making history. Alex Ferguson’s visiting Manchester United were title-hungry and determined to go one better than their second-place finish the season before. It was assumed that they would be the protagonists.
Within minutes, however, Carl Bradshaw stepped up to take a long throw-in from the right, deep inside the Manchester United half. The ball didn’t touch the ground until it first rippled against the back of Peter Schmeichel’s net. The English game had not matured overnight to the neat, possession-based football seen in the modern day.
Despite being tightly marked by two of United’s burly defenders, Alan Cork was the target of the throw. He did enough to send Clayton Blackmore off balance, who then inadvertently sent his defensive header backwards. Within the triangle of space between Dennis Irwin, Steve Bruce and Schmeichel, Deane found space to dart into. He powered his header high and just to the left of centre. Schmeichel scrambled but an acrobatic dive from the Danish goalkeeper wasn’t enough to claw it back.
Deane has himself admitted that it has only been with hindsight that he has laid importance on the goal. “I found out I had scored the first goal at half-time but it didn’t really feel like a big thing at the time,” before adding, “It didn’t really have any real significance until years’ later. Now it’s known the world over.” We often use its landmark status to romanticise the goal but its real value here comes from its ugliness.
The goal was simple and would have been perfectly at home in the 1991/92 season a year before. Sheffield United fans still savour beating the Red Devils 2-1 that day, with a penalty from Deane ensuring the victory. The rest of us English football fans could heave a sigh of relief. Normal programming had resumed.
The 1992/93 season was a watershed moment in both how the game would be broadcast and consumed the world over. Outcomes from the season show that Brian Deane’s early goal marked the start of a monumental sea change in football. These tremors are still felt throughout the footballing landscape of England.
Manchester United finished top in that first ever Premier League season, their first top-flight title in 26 years. Manchester United and the later-knighted Sir Alex Ferguson have since become synonymous with the competition. United under Ferguson went on to lift the Premier League trophy a record 13 times.
Two-time European Cup winners and First Division stalwarts Nottingham Forest finally waved goodbye to Brian Clough. Assumingly a rather mutual decision, as they tumbled down to the second tier at the end of the season. Throughout the 1990s, Forest yo-yo-ed somewhere between the top two divisions, although this was just the beginning of a capitulation. Following relegation in the 1998/99 season, the Reds have since been unable to return to the nation’s top-flight.
For Sheffield United and Deane, the season simmered into a rather tame 14th place finish. However, this proved to be Deane’s best ever season in top-flight football. Racking up 15 goals in 41 games, he managed a cool goal per game ratio of 0.37. For reference, this season 0.37 puts Deane between Wolves’ slightly more successful Raúl Jiménez and Manchester United’s comparatively wasteful Marcus Rashford. Everton’s Richarlison is on course to hit this same number. The completeness of Deane’s season was also exemplified by his remarkable assist record, averaging 0.243 per game. This is more than both João Moutinho and Mohammed Salah currently sit on.
Despite their own dismal 17th place finish, Deane did enough to earn a transfer to his hometown club. He signed for Leeds United at the end of the season for a staggering £2.9 million. His own transfer history smacks of historical significance. When signed from Doncaster, Sheffield United spent a liberal estimate of around £40,000. This signified the rapid exponential increase in player transfer fees throughout the divisions, which has continued to the present day.
The introduction of the FA Premier League ahead of 1992/93 season was one which changed the direction the sport would take. At the time, however, no one really knew how this would happen. Former Sky television pundit Andy Gray has said that Sky knew things would be different. Surely, the behemoth that is the modern Premier League could not have been expected. Regardless, anxious fans needed comfort when facing this storm of uncertainty at the onset of the 1992/93 season. They could turn to an understated Sheffield United striker for guidance.
Perhaps it was a coincidence? Perhaps it was destiny? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Nearly 27 years ago, football in England faced a hazy future. With the game descending into a fog of disorder due to both new concerns and pre-existing anxieties, fans were worried. Brian Deane and his first strike against Manchester United showed us that this wasn’t the end. He was the man who represented both old and new. He bridged this gap and led us safely into the modern era. Rather, we should be asking, ‘what would the game have been if it wasn’t for Brian Deane?’