The Analyst’s Premier League History Part I: The Scotsman, the SAS and Old Football
This series analyses the best stats and insights from every single Premier League campaign. Along the way, we’ll analyse the numbers underpinning the ultimate rivalry between Alex Ferguson and Arséne Wenger; delve deep into the era of The Big Four and England’s continental dominance during the same period; and explore the tactical star wars within the Guardiola-Klopp rivalry, as Liverpool and Manchester City set record books ablaze.
With the help of now nearly 30 years of data, the series will provide the valuable historical context needed to examine each era’s major talking points. How do the iconic early strike partnerships of Cole & Beardsley and Shearer & Sutton compare to those of the modern era? How do those early years of Manchester United dominance stack up when compared to other title-winning teams? Has the Premier League got less and less competitive over time? All these questions, and more, will be answered throughout.
Part I starts with 1992-97, the birth of modern-day English Football in the form of the Premier League, and a period that marked the true end of the First Division.
On Aug. 15, 1992, at Bramall Lane, a 28,000 strong crowd watched Sheffield United and Manchester United make history. The Blades’ 2-1 victory over the Manchester club – in which Sheffield United striker Brian Deane etched his name into immortality with his opening goal – ushered in the new dawn of the Premier League.
Backed up by a five-year, £304 million with broadcaster Sky, the Premier League was heralded as a new era for the sport in the country. In truth, it took a while for the Premier League to loosen the shackles of its First Division heritage – the cosmopolitan, prosperous product of today would only start to take shape as late as 1997.
The main trends of the 1992-93 season were continuations of those seen toward the conclusion of the First Division. The rise of Manchester United under Alex Ferguson, who would go on to dominate the Premier League era up until his retirement in 2013, was one of them. However, this ascension to greatness began in peculiar style as The Red Devils started the opening season poorly, taking only one point from their first three games. To this day, they remain the only team to have lost their opening two games of the season and then go on to win the title.
What the inaugural season lacked in stylistic and narrative differences compared to the First Division, it made up for with excitement. The investors at Sky would cheer with glee as each of the 1,222 goals were scored – more goals than any other season in history. Indeed, May 8, 1993, saw 47 goals scored in nine games, the most on a single day in Premier League history. That crazy day in May witnessed six more goals than the next most productive day, Feb. 5, 2011.
The biggest surprise of the campaign was Nottingham Forest. Bidding farewell to retiring manager Brian Clough, winner of back-to-back European Cups in an 18-year spell at the City Ground, Forest finished rock bottom of the league. The only light in a season of darkness for Forest was a certain Roy Keane featuring in the 1992-93 PFA Team of the Year, the last player to do so for a side finishing bottom of the Premier League table.
Manchester United made no mistake in defending their Premier League crown the following season. They achieved this with a far more dominant campaign than in the prior season, spending 262 of the 268 days of the league season top of the table. Only Chelsea in 2014-15 (274 days) and Liverpool in the prolonged 2019-20 season (346) spent longer in first place in a single Premier League campaign.
In a season that saw the rise of newly-promoted Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan’s swashbuckling attacking football, Andy Cole was the league’s top scorer with 34 goals, the joint-most by a player in a single Premier League season alongside Alan Shearer in 1994-95. In arguably one of the most dominant attacking seasons on record, Cole also led the assists chart with 13. He was the only player to finish outright top for both goals and assists in a single Premier League season, until Harry Kane equalled this feat in 2020-21 season.
At the other end of the table, Swindon Town found themselves setting Premier League records for all the wrong reasons. They shipped 100 goals in 42 matches, becoming the only side ever to concede triple figures in a single Premier League campaign. With that defensive record, it is perhaps unsurprising that Swindon were bottom of the table in the 1993-94 campaign for a record 97% of the season (260/268 days).
Despite plundering an impressive tally of 31 league goals, Alan Shearer was forced to watch as Andy Cole scooped up the Golden Boot in 1993-94. The following year was a different story, however, as Shearer propelled Blackburn Rovers to their first and only Premier League title, breaking an 81-year wait between English top-flight titles – the longest broken drought ever. Kenny Dalglish’s side secured the championship on the last day of the season despite losing 2–1 at his former club Liverpool (Manchester United could only manage a 1–1 draw at West Ham), sparing the rest of the league of having to endure a third successive Manchester United title.
Shearer was ably assisted by the summer signing of Chris Sutton, and SAS went on to score 49 of Blackburn’s 78 goals that season (63%) while also supplying 23 assists. Their partnership is arguably one of the greatest in Premier League history.
Despite their disappointing campaign in the inaugural Premier League season that saw them relegated, Nottingham Forest were back in the country’s top division. Their third-place finish in their first season back is a record: no newly promoted team has finished inside the top three since.
In the last ever Premier League season to see four clubs get relegated, Ipswich Town, Leicester City, Norwich and Crystal Palace were the ones to fall through the trapdoor.
The 1995-96 season looked for all the world that it would continue the trend set by Blackburn in the prior season – clinching the title despite a relentless Manchester United that wouldn’t give in. However, it ended up establishing a narrative template for some time to come: Ferguson facing down and vanquishing his challengers.
Keegan’s Newcastle had stretched their early-season lead at the top of the table to 12 points by mid-January. Newcastle saw their lead gradually eroded by Manchester United who amassed 13 wins from their final 15 games. That this finish remains Newcastle’s joint-best in Premier League history will be no solace to those on Tyneside. In total, Newcastle United spent 212 days top of the Premier League in the 1995-96 season, the most of any side not to win the title in a single campaign. Their harrowing record is a full 23 days longer than Arsenal’s agony in 2002-03, where they were bettered by Manchester United.
In front of goal, Shearer continued to score at a blistering rate with 31 goals. That tally meant that he had scored over 30 goals for the third consecutive campaign. It should be mentioned that for the first two of these three seasons, Shearer was playing in a league with 22 teams, and so had an additional four matches each year to find the net. However, his dominant display in 1995-96 proved his lethality in front of goal. Shearer remains the only player in the competition’s history to score 30 or more goals in a campaign on more than one occasion. It’s only been done 11 times, and Shearer alone accounts for three.
By the end of 1995-96, Shearer had scored 112 Premier League goals in 138 appearances for Blackburn and topped that off by ending the season as the top scorer at Euro ’96. He became the first player to score 100 goals in the Premier League and still holds the record for achieving this milestone in the fewest appearances. Fellow Englishman Harry Kane lies in second place, reaching his century of goals in 141 games, while Argentine Sergio Aguero is in third. Shearer was rewarded with a pre-season move to Newcastle for £15 million in the summer of 1996.
Normality resumed the following season, as Manchester United claimed their fourth title in five years. This one, however, was more due to the inadequacies of the competition rather than United’s stellar performances. United lifted the trophy with just 75 points – the fewest ever needed to win the competition. In fact, the three campaigns in which the title winner required the fewest points to lift the trophy came in consecutive seasons. Arsenal’s winning points tally of 78 in the 1997-98 season is the second-fewest needed to win the title and Manchester United needed just 79 points to win in the subsequent season, the same year they completed historic league, FA Cup and Champions League treble.
Newcastle and Liverpool, tipped at the outset as title contenders, both failed in their bid to dethrone the Mancunians. Within three months Kevin Keegan had resigned at St James’ Park and Liverpool’s title bid was derailed as they slumped to just four wins in their last 12 matches.
United’s uptick in form was inspired by Eric Cantona, who scored an iconic chip in a 5-0 win against Sunderland. That was one of 11 strikes in 1996-97 for the Frenchman, who scored over 10 goals for the fourth Premier League season running. In the same season, Cantona also became the first player to reach 50 Premier League assists, finishing the season with a league-high 12 assists.
Part two of The Analyst’s Premier League historical series examines Arséne Wenger’s impact on the Premier League, focusing on his intense rivalry with Alex Ferguson. This era was a finite window in a rapidly changing world where the values and intensity of Old Football met the skill and diversity of New Football to produce a titanic struggle between two heavyweights.
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