The Premier League has come to be defined by its ‘Big Six’ of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.
They have become the marquee clubs and they dominate everything from the cup competitions, the flow of children into academies, the transfer market and the destination of the league title.
Their influence is so strong that they even dictate the very perception of the English game around the world.
However, the Big Six is the result of 30 years of evolution and change, and that suggests it won’t be too long before further change arrives.
The original big five
If you want to trace the evolution of the big clubs in English football, you have to go all the way back to just before the Premier League started. In fact, those clubs were the reason why it started.
Before then, English football was a very different place. The top division was one that anyone could win, for a start, because success was not married to wealth. There was a very good – and simple – reason for that too: the wealth was shared.
Gate-sharing was a policy that meant Luton, for example, received half of the gate receipts from an away match at Manchester United. In other words, every club got the same. That was great for the majority but the big clubs didn’t like it. A threat of a breakaway was enough to scare the Football League into abolishing the policy. It didn’t satiate the clubs’ greed and it opened the door for them to hold the game hostage.
Where the real money was, though, was broadcasters. The 1990 World Cup had seen Britain once again fall in love with football like never before. That piqued the interest of the broadcasters, and they wanted to maximize it by agreeing to a new deal that granted them the freedom to feature the bigger clubs more often.
If they could do that, audiences were higher, advertising rates increased, and the clubs would get a bigger slice of the pie. Everyone would win. Except the smaller clubs, of course, but not one cared about them.
It all came down to a fateful day at the end of the 1990/91 season. ITV boss Greg Dyke held a secret meeting and those invited became known as ‘the big five’. Present were Liverpool’s Noel White, Arsenal’s co-owner and vice-chairman David Dein, Everton life president Philip Carter, Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards and Tottenham Hotspur supremo Irving Scholar.
From that meeting, the Premier League was ultimately borne, although ironically it was Sky Sports who benefited from it, not ITV, who found themselves starting a bidding war that quickly outgrew their resources.
Big Five: Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham
1991-1996: The era of the local heroes
Out: Everton, Tottenham
In: Newcastle, Blackburn
Initially, nothing really changed. The order had already been established with quite an equitable distribution of talent around the clubs and it was going to take time to channel it to the richest clubs. Norwich and QPR finished above all of the Big Five clubs that season except Manchester United.
Slowly, football’s new riches started to take effect, but it wasn’t based upon broadcaster money or gate receipts – it was the era of the local owner.
Finances were at a level where ambitious local businessmen willing to spend their fortunes on football teams could make a huge difference. There were two in particular who did that: Jack Walker at Blackburn and Sir John Hall at Newcastle.
Quickly, those two sides started competing at the top of the pile. In the early days of the Premier League, it was those two clubs and Man Utd who contested the title. It was here where it became apparent that the size of the club was only relative to the size of its bankroll, or at least that of someone willing to give them access to theirs.
Big Five: Arsenal, Blackburn, Liverpool, Manchester United, Newcastle
1997-2004: Enter Wenger
Out: Blackburn, Newcastle
In: Chelsea, Leeds
Since the advent of the Premier League, Arsenal had mostly been treading water. Manchester United had been winning everything and Liverpool had managed to remain largely relevant, but the Gunners were hanging on a little.
All that changed when Arsene Wenger walked through the door at Highbury. The Frenchman managed to breathe life into what had always seemed a strong Arsenal side on paper and, coupled with some clever additions from abroad, they started dominating.
Chelsea had decided to have a right good go, too. They started using their swanky London location to attract aging foreign superstars like Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli and, soon enough, younger players started following them.
This was also the era when Leeds proved the dangers of trying to buy your way into the elite Premier League.
Peter Ridsdale embarked on a period of investment so eyewatering that the second they failed to qualify for the Champions League, Leeds had essentially put themselves out of the game for best part of two decades.
Another club who were well-and-truly spent up were Blackburn, who were relegated in 1999 after the Jack Walker money dried up and the mega-rewards from broadcasters started to dwarf the super-riches of local owners.
Newcastle had some decent times still, but they were not serious players.
Big Five: Arsenal, Chelsea, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester United
2004-2009: The era of the big four
In 2004, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and caused a shift so seismic that the Premier League no longer had the wealth to support the Big Five. We were down to a Big Four and we stayed there for quite some time.
That was ultimately a major problem because the Big Four’s dominance led to them completely monopolizing the four Champions League places. The Premier League had entered a phase where the four richest clubs were also completely monopolizing all the outside income too, and it became boring. You knew which four teams would finish in the top four. All that remained was trying to guess the order.
During those six seasons, Manchester United and Chelsea won three titles a piece.
Liverpool and Arsenal challenged for the third place, which seemed important (to them at least) because whoever finished fourth had to go through the qualifying stage for the Champions League and that was apparently just too much bother and legitimately seen as something of a humiliation.
That battle for a third every year encapsulated the fact that the Premier League had become nothing but the undercard for the same four clubs and their boring little mini-league every year.
However, on the blue side of Manchester, a plan to break the top-four’s domination was gathering pace.
Big Four: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United
2009-present: Four becomes six
In: Manchester CityTottenham
History can get a little skewered here. The perception is that the Manchester City takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group was never really wanted by the rest. The truth is, that after years of the Premier League being held hostage by the same four clubs, a shake-up was welcomed by most.
It was a double-edged sword, no question, as everyone knew it would drive up prices for the rest and ultimately increase the gap in wealth between the haves and have-nots.
Within a few years, Man City had become the team to beat for the most part, which everyone expected. What no one expected, though, was Tottenham joining the party.
They finished fourth in 2009/10 and the resulting Champions League football transformed them. It was Liverpool that they had managed to push out of the picture, with the Reds finishing seventh.
From that point on, the Premier League has settled into an era of a generally accepted Big Six. It is not ideal by any means, but at least it means at least two of them are guaranteed to miss out on the Champions League every year so the competitive edge has returned.
Big Six: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham
Are we about to see the advent of the big seven?
This is a question that many have asked since Newcastle were taken over by the Saudi Arabian state. In terms of the wealth of their owners, that makes the Magpies the richest club on the planet.
In theory, they could be able to do something similar to Manchester City. In practice, they may find the pack too established and too strong now for anyone to be able to muscle them out, or themselves in.
And what of Everton? Right now they are the biggest losers of the Premier League era. They started as one of the giants, yet have regressed to such an extent that a return to the top table looks well out of reach.
That may change when they get the boost of a new stadium – something that has worked wonders for Tottenham and West Ham – but the ship might have already sailed.
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