Belfast Telegraph

How NI star Kingsley gained close up view of Sky-high demand for Premier League

 

By Jonathan Bradley

For as long as there are TV subscriptions to sell, you'll hear Martin Tyler's voice screaming "Aguerooooooo!!"

It's one of the most memorable pieces of commentary of recent times, the unmistakable, rising excitement in Tyler's voice as the Argentine's last-gasp strike secured Manchester City's first Premier League title in 2012, followed by his confident declaration that "you'll never see anything like this ever again".

We likely won't, but what's for sure is that 25 years ago we couldn't have even imagined being able to see it all unfold in front of us from every angle.

If what was the perfect storm for televised football - simultaneously being able to watch the eruption of joy from Manchester's blue half while the reality of the situation slowly dawned upon Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United side - had occurred in the pre-Premier League era, such drama could never have played out in front of millions of eyes in millions of living rooms all over the world on Sky television.

It was a quarter of a century ago this week that the broadcasting giant showed their first Premier League game, the new competition having been launched after a breakaway by the clubs from the FA, forever changing the face of British football.

From players to kits, and from standards to stadiums, it was a very different product back then but one former Northern Ireland international, the 30-times-capped Kingsley Black, had the best seat in the house for the moment Sky first dipped their toe into the waters of live top-division football with the broadcast of Nottingham Forest's 1-0 win over Liverpool.

Looking back, the tricky winger, who came off the Forest bench in the 84th minute of the clash, admits that the players on show, and indeed on screen, that day never imagined that this was only the start of an industry that now sees the Premier League bank billions upon billions per season.

"The funny thing is, at the time nobody could have envisaged how big Sky and obviously the Premier League was going to be," the 49-year-old told the Belfast Telegraph from his Luton home.

"At the time, for the players anyway, it just seemed like it was a change in name, a little bit of a re-branding more than anything else.

"You couldn't have anticipated how it was going to turn out.

"Looking back, it seems like this huge event but it certainly didn't feel like it at the time."

The idea that this was not the start of some brave new dawn was aided by a few teething problems during that first match.

"The game was a Sunday but it didn't quite start on time," recalled Black with a laugh. "We were standing there ready to go, ready to kick-off, but had to wait for Sky to come back from the adverts.

"It wasn't too long, but the referee had to get the nod that the TV boys were ready.

"I guess they hadn't quite honed it like they have now."

Other differences between then and the present day are stark, not least the changing face of both the crowds and the squads.

While there are plenty of regular punters who have been priced out of attending - the average price of the cheapest home ticket by the end of the 1980s was under £4, now it's just under £30 - so too are there plenty of players who back then would have been top-flight players but now fight it out in the lower leagues thanks to the influx of foreign imports.

In that first season, 10 players with or who would go on to win caps for Northern Ireland would feature in the top flight - this season it will be half that number.

Obviously related is the fact that in that first weekend just 13 foreign players would appear, a total already eclipsed in this year's opening fixture after last night's game between Arsenal and Leicester.

But in a month when people will pay £20 for the answer to whether a fighter with no previous professional boxing experience can be the first man to defeat a World champion boxer, and there was genuine interest in a race between a decorated Olympic swimmer and a CGI shark, it seems more obvious than ever that hype sells.

While Sky are often criticised for the bells and whistles they attach to even the most seemingly mundane of matches, Black believes there is no doubt that the relationship between the broadcaster and the sport has been instrumental in raising the profile of the league to previously unprecedented and unimaginable levels.

"It's two opposing views, and that's why you have the limits on foreign players in a squad and the home grown rule to help the national teams, but this is a package that sells all over the world. The clubs are brands now," he said.

"I know some people don't like it but that's why you have such good players with such technical ability.

"Initially, I think they felt they could just get better value abroad. That started the early influx but it was only when the real TV money started coming that then you start attracting the best players in the world, which of course gives TV something better to put on the screens. Sky and the Premier League, they helped each other in that way."

While that first season is best remembered for Man United's dramatic claiming of their first title since 1967, complete with Sir Alex Ferguson and his assistant Brian Kidd's touchline jubilation, things did not go as planned for Black's Forest.

It turned out that the first goal scored in front of the Sky cameras would be Teddy Sheringham's last for the side before transferring to Spurs and winning the Golden Boot.

Forest, under their legendary manager Brian Clough, would win just nine more games that season and be relegated.

"I always remember our goalkeeper Mark Crossley after that first game saying he thought we could really do something this year," recalled Black.

"We did I suppose, just not the something we wanted."

The following season, now in the second tier of English football, would also see Black make his final appearance for Northern Ireland, the end of a four-year international career that began with legendary manager Billy Bingham tracking him down at Luton's League Cup victory party in 1988.

With a father from Castlerock, Black was eligible for the Green and White Army despite playing schoolboy football for his native England, making a full debut just days after his side's famous Wembley triumph over Arsenal - the Kop marking the occasion with a famous serenade of "you're not English anymore".

"It all happened so quickly after the '88 final," said the man who, after initially moving into property, currently coaches youth footballers in Luton.

"It was on the Sunday after the game that Billy Bingham actually rang me.

"There were no mobile phones in those days, so he had to track me down at the hotel where we were having the party.

"One of the waiters came over and said there's a call for you, and when I answered it was Billy.

"I have a massive affiliation to Northern Ireland family-wise and it was a real privilege to go over and be a part of that squad. Playing the likes of Spain, that draw with Germany, they're great memories."

Indeed, between his international career, multiple Wembley outings and that Premier League experience, Black amassed a real collection of highlights before winding down his career in the lower leagues.

Yet you wonder, given the riches on offer to players nowadays, if he ever wishes he had played just one generation later.

"I suppose from that point of view, maybe some people would, but I don't think you can think like that," he added.

"I had my day and the chance to be involved at the high level.

"I look back on it and think it was a pleasure to be involved when I was. Maybe the money is different, but so is everything else. I played before the non-stop analysis, the non-stop interest in everything you were up to.

"Since that day, everything really just mushroomed into a different beast."

As Sky warned us with the very first words of that very first game, things would never be the same again.

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