As the Premier League approaches its nineteenth birthday, it is important to remember some of the younger years that have helped shape it into the spectacle it is today. About to enter its landmark twentieth season, let’s look back to the start of the 21st century when England’s revamped top flight league began a steady transition that continues to this day.
Since 2001, only three different teams have won the league, only four different teams have finished as runners up and only six different teams have made the top three. With both Newcastle United’s and Manchester City’s highest finish being third place within this time (achieved once each), it is no wonder that a focus was placed on the “Big Four” consisting of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool.
The 1990s were undoubtedly dominated by Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, with the side winning five of the seven Premier League trophies available. Such success resulted in their Scottish manager being knighted ‘Sir’ in 1999 at the end of a decade where the Red Devils had won half of the First Division titles on offer (1990-1999). Arsenal (1991 and 1998) were the only other team that managed to win the league more than once within the period, with the other three champions being Liverpool (1990) Leeds United (1992) and Blackburn Rovers (1995). Ferguson’s side ensured they left the 20th century on a high; they achieved a treble in their most successful campaign to date, winning their fourth FA Cup of the ’90s, which was followed by their first Champions League victory, earning them their second European Cup. United’s success continued after the millennium and in 2001 they won their third consecutive Premier League title. By this time, academy products such as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes had gained a wealth of experience, not to mention medals. Captained by the fiery tempered Roy Keane, “Fergie’s Fledglings” had established themselves as some of the best players in the league.
The turn of the century saw the emergence of a certain Henry. Thierry Henry to be precise. The French forward moved to Arsenal from Juventus in 1999 for a fee of around £11 million. With the Gunners having won their first Premier League title the year before, Henry helped the club to three consecutive second placed finishes, runners up to a tenacious Manchester United each time. Finally, in 2002, Arsenal regained the championship from the clutches of the Red Devils, Henry finishing the season as the league’s top goalscorer in the process. This would be the first of the prolific Frenchman’s four Premier League Golden Boots. Interestingly, each time Henry won the award, Manchester United were unable to win the league, three times finishing third and once as runners up. Never out of the top three since 1992, these third placed finishes were United’s lowest in the Premier League era. As well as veteran strike partner Dennis Bergkamp, Henry’s compatriots Patrick Vieira and Robert Pirès would also go on to further success for the Gunners. They were to join him as members of “The Invincibles” in 2004, as Arsenal became the first Premier League team and only the second team in English football history to complete a season in the top division unbeaten.
Another £11 million transfer, Frank Lampard was already well established in the Premier League when he switched from Upton Park for Stamford Bridge in 2001. Following in the footsteps of his father, Frank Lampard Sr., the midfielder had begun his career at West Ham United. He was an ever-present in his first season at Chelsea, where the club maintained their sixth placed finish of the previous campaign. Although now the club’s third all-time goalscorer, Lampard only managed seven goals in his debut season, which meant the team relied heavily on their forward pairing of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eiður Guðjohnsen, who together contributed a total of 53 goals in all competitions. This would also be the season in which, although temporarily, a youthful John Terry was handed the captain’s armband for the first time. The year 2002 was the last time the Blues finished outside of the top four, just a year before long-time chairman Ken Bates sold the club to Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.
Liverpool Football Club: Treble Winners 2001. Although this did not include the Premier League title or the European Cup, it was still an incredible feat achieved by a side including a young Merseyside-born quintet. Steven Gerrard, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher, Danny Murphy and Robbie Fowler all played their part in a memorable season for the Reds as they recorded a unique cup treble, winning the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup. Surely this was the time for Liverpool to push on from their third placed finish in the league? Surely it was now that the club would regain its dominance of the 1970s and 1980s and win the league for the first time in over a decade? Although they did win the European Cup for the fifth time in 2005, on an unforgettable night in Istanbul, the club are still waiting for that elusive Premier League title. A League Cup win in 2003 and an FA Cup victory in 2006 stand either side of Liverpool’s Champions League success. Their last cup final appearance was in 2007, a repeat of their famous match against AC Milan two years earlier, only this time it was the Rossoneri who would prevail.
And so, as another Premier League season dawns, exactly who has remained with the club they were at ten years ago? Sir Alex Ferguson continues to prove he is with United for the long-haul, whilst of the 90s’ fledglings, veteran Ryan Giggs appears to be the first one in and the last one out; fellow one-club men Gary Neville and Paul Scholes having recently called time on their playing careers. With no players still at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has overseen a revolution that started at Highbury and continues at the Emirates Stadium. This has included a period in which relatively few British players have appeared in the Gunners’ first team. Chelsea and Liverpool are very similar to one another in that they have each retained a midfielder and a defender; Frank Lampard and John Terry for the Blues and Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher for the Reds. The influence of these players is undoubted, with comparisons between Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard being made to the point where they were seen as too alike to play together for England. Proud Scousers, Gerrard and Carragher brought the European Cup back to Anfield in 2005, the only major trophy the Stamford Bridge club have been unable to secure. Although this is something Liverpool can claim to have over Chelsea, the duo of Lampard and Terry has seen more success.
With talk of the United chief only having a couple of years left at the helm, Arsenal fans turning on Wenger due to the club’s lack of silverware, and the fact that the five aforementioned players are now all into their thirties, just how much longer will these Premier League clubs be able to boast such loyalty?