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How Have the Premier League Rules Changed Over the Years?

When arriving in 1992, the Premier League immediately changed the face of English football forever. It marked the beginning of a new era and one that has brought so much revenue to the clubs in the top flight of English football.

Today’s Premier League looks very different to the league that first appeared in the early 1990s, however. There have been a plethora of rule changes over the years, some having a small impact but others proving huge in their magnitude. Often it is the FA or Premier League that has been the driving force behind changes but, at times, new rules have been forced upon them by higher powers such as FIFA or the IFAB (International Football Association Board).

To see exactly how the Premier League has evolved over the years, we will take you through its ever-changing history with some of the main rule changes that have occurred.

1992 – Back-pass rule adjustment period

The rollout of the new Premier League season happened to coincide with a major shake-up to the rules of football. Having seen Denmark completely exploit the absence of a back-pass rule on their way to winning Euro 1992, the IFAB swiftly took action. The new rule prevented a goalkeeper from picking the ball up if a defender (or indeed anyone on their team) played it back to them. As defenders had played years without such a rule, many experienced a difficult period of adjustment.

The new rule led to some quite awful pieces of goalkeeping/defending early on in the season, as you can see by watching these clips:

1994 – Stadiums must be all-seated

In response to the Hillsborough tragedy of 1990, a government inquiry was launched, overseen by Lord Justice Taylor. The initial report focussed on the horrific scenes witnessed in Sheffield, while the final report outlined some recommendations for the future of football grounds. One of these was that all stadiums in the top two tiers of English football needed to remove standing spaces and become all-seater venues. This requirement came into force for the beginning of the 1994/95 season with all Premier League teams complying.

1994 – Four-team relegation

A 22-team Premier League did not last for very long at all. Just a couple of years in and it was decided that the league was only big enough for 20 clubs. As such, four teams faced relegation during the 1994/95 campaign with Crystal Palace the first and only Premier League side to go down while finishing fourth from bottom. To account for the other reduction, only two teams rather than three came up from the First Division. These changes made it possible that the 1995/96 Premier League season featured 20 teams, a rule that has stuck ever since.

1995 – The Bosman Ruling

BosmanMany active footballers might not know the name Jean-Marc Bosman, but they have the Belgian to thank for giving them the freedom they enjoy today. The fight began when the midfielder was at RFC Liege and upon his contract expiring, he wished to join French outfit Dunkerque. Liege however demanded a £500,000 fee for him, which needed to be paid up front. Dunkerque refused to pay up meaning the transfer was off, and in a seeming act of spite, Liege cut Bosman’s wages by 75%. Bosman was clearly not a happy bunny.

Eventually, the case made its way to the European Court of Justice which decided that players should be able to move to another club, on a free transfer, once their contract expires. Sadly, the legal case and costs involved had a massive toll on Bosman’s career and personal life. His bravery to stand up to his club though has had a monumental impact on football, including the Premier League. Without the ruling, we would not have seen such shocking transfers like Sol Campbell moving from Tottenham to bitter rivals Arsenal on a free transfer in 2001.

1995 – Foreign quotas relaxed

The fallout of the Bosman case did not just relate to individual player contracts, it also helped loosen the rules regarding foreign players. Pre-Bosman, clubs across Europe were under a “three-plus-two” rule for European fixtures. This meant they could name no more than three foreigners in their squad plus two “assimilated” players that had originated from the academy. It was a particularly harsh rule for Premier League clubs given that Welsh and Scottish players counted as foreigners for English sides. In one instance, this forced Alex Ferguson to drop Peter Schmeichel in place of Gary Walsh for a must-win game against Barcelona.

Post-Bosman however, clubs could fill their boots with players from within the European Union. There were no longer any restrictions on the number of EU players you could field at once, making them suddenly much more attractive to Premier League clubs. This was pivotal in Manchester United’s historic treble as only five of the 13 players to feature in the Champions League final were English.

1995 – Offside rule relaxed

Football’s offside rule underwent a major change in 1990 with any player who was level with the penultimate defender now considered onside rather than offside. This decision came from FIFA and the IFAB so quickly transcended through leagues across the world. There was a further, non-insignificant adjustment ahead of the 1995/96 season though which stated that being in an offside position was no longer automatically an offence. Only when a player became ‘active’ would they be deemed offside.

1996 – Benches increased

It is hard to imagine now but back in the day a spot on the bench was rather more of a privilege. Early Premier League games saw clubs only allowed to name three substitutes and bring a maximum of two of them onto the pitch. As one substitute was a goalkeeper, this meant outfield players always had a very good chance of coming on if named as a substitute. This restrictive rule was amended in 1996 as the English top flight allowed teams to name five subs, and to make three changes however they like.

1999 – Restrictions on non-EU players

Passport Denied Stamp

While Manchester United fans celebrated all these foreigners sending their team to glory in 1999, not everyone was as impressed with the non-English influence on the game. Even the government were concerned that Premier League clubs were passing up young English talent in favour of foreign players.

In response to this, the Home Office tightened the rules on granting work permits to players from outside the EU. The new rule stated that a non-EU player must have played in at least 75% of his country’s internal fixtures within the last two years and his country must have been 70th in the world or better on average (as per the FIFA rankings). Appeals were allowed, however, in cases where a player did not fulfil this requirement, and many were successful.

2000 – FA attempt to clamp down on dissent

With refs regularly getting an earful from irate players, the FA revealed a new ‘10-yard rule’ in 2000. This concept, borrowed from rugby, allowed referees to move a free-kick 10 yards forward if the defending team were hurling expletives his way. Initially, this did reduce instances of dissent, until defending teams cottoned onto the fact that sometimes it was in their interests to move a free kick forward. A dead ball situation from 28 yards, for instance, is seen as more dangerous than 18 yards due to the difficulties of getting the ball over the wall and back down. Subsequently, FIFA scrapped the rule in 1995 and, just like that, it disappeared from the Premier League.

2002 – Modern Transfer Window enforced

The transfer window, as we know it today, was forced upon leagues around the continent by UEFA. Prior to this, in the Premier League, a player could be freely traded throughout the season up until the 31st of March. One of the last examples of these now-impossibly timed transfers was Peter Crouch who moved from Queens Park Rangers to Aston Villa for £5m on 27th March 2002. Having made his move, he then played Villa’s last seven league games of the season.

2005 – Liverpool handed a reprieve

Liverpool Champions League Trophy
Image: Cosmin Iftode, Bigstock Photo

When the Premier League was first introduced in 1992, only the team that finished top of the table (Manchester United) gained entry to the Champions League. The clubs in second and third headed to the UEFA Cup while the side to finish in fourth place was rewarded with nothing. Skip forward a decade and by this stage, the top four finishers in the English top flight received passage to Europe’s elite contest (or at least the qualifying stages of it).

In 2005 though, Liverpool managed to win the Champions League despite only finishing fifth domestically. As this was the first time this had happened, UEFA agreed to award the Reds a special pass for the following year’s competition but ruled that after this, no country could ever have more than four Champions League participants. This rule ensured that in 2012 fourth-place Tottenham missed out on the Champions League because sixth-place Chelsea won the competition.

Not long after Spurs had their hearts broken, in 2015, UEFA amended the rules to allow one country to have five Champions League representatives in such cases. That didn’t come as a great consolation to Spurs fans of course!

2010 – Squad changes including “homegrown” quotas

For the 2010/11 season, Premier League clubs were obligated to name a 25-man squad which should include at least eight homegrown players. If they did not have eight homegrown players, they would simply play with a reduced squad size. Similarly, if a club did not have 25 players, they could play at a reduced number, allowing them to add a free agent outside of the transfer window. Any side with a full squad however would be unable to register a free transfer until the close of the following transfer window.

The home-grown requirement did not mean simply having at least eight English players in the squad. The term homegrown was defined as any player “registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday”. As it was irrespective of nationality, this meant Cesc Fabregas of Arsenal was classed as a homegrown player because he joined the Gunners’ academy at 16.

2011 – Freedom to make wholesale changes

For a November 2010 league game, Ian Holloway made 10 changed to his starting 11 ahead of a match versus Aston Villa. Many of you will think he is perfectly entitled to do that but the Premier League had a different opinion and slapped Blackpool with a £25,000 fine two months later. Even Alex Ferguson weighed in on the issue asking why, given that you have a 25-man squad, are you restricted from selecting some of them? Feeling the weight of their unpopular decision, the Premier League said that any combination of players within the 25-man squad would no longer incur any sort of penalty.

2013 – Goal-line technology introduced

Football at Goal Line

After a series of hugely successful trials, Hawk-Eye technology was brought in to help to cut down potentially game-changing mistakes. With the aid of this technology, referees would simply be notified via their watch if the ball had crossed the line. Accurate down to a matter of millimetres, its seamless introduction was warmly received by players, managers and fans alike. The first goal to be awarded courtesy of this technology in the league was scored by Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko in a game versus Cardiff City.

2015 – It’s Friday again

The Premier League welcomed the return of a Friday evening fixture in 2015. Prior to this, there had not been a non-Bank Holiday Friday game since Arsenal smashed Leeds 5-0 in 2004. The return of Friday night football in August saw Manchester United edge past Aston Villa 1-0. Just two years later and the Premier League kicked off a new season with a Friday night fixture for the very first time as Arsenal took on Leicester.

2016 – DOGSO no longer an automatic red

For many years, any player guilty of the denial of an obvious goal-scoring opportunity (DOGSO) would be branded a straight red card, no ifs, no buts. If they denied this by committing a foul inside the box, this also meant giving away a penalty. So, a perfectly innocent, mistimed challenge inside the area would effectively result in a triple punishment, 1) a penalty for the opposing team, 2) removal from the pitch, 3) a suspension for the player in question. Believing this was too harsh, the IFAB decided that any foul that appears like a genuine attempt for the ball inside the box would only result in a yellow card.

The 2016/17 season also saw players able to kick the ball in any direction from kick-off. This led to teams only starting the match with one player in the centre circle as they could simply lay it off to a player behind them.

2017 – Sleeve sponsors given green light

For the first time, clubs in the top-flight of English football could don a corporate sponsor on their left sleeve. The Premier League stipulated the sponsor could not be more than 100cm2 and if no sponsorship deal was agreed, the league logo would feature instead. It was a nice additional source of income for some teams with it being worth approximately 20% of the value of the main sponsor.

2018 – Suspension changes

Previously, every yellow card a player collected in a domestic match would be tallied up, no matter if it was a league or cup contest. After totting up five yellow cards, this meant a one-game ban, and 10 yellow cards a two-game ban. So collecting a yellow in an FA Cup/League Cup would edge them closer to a potential league suspension. This changed in 2018 however as cautions become competition-specific. Red cards, on the other hand, remained unchanged so suspensions would cover the next X matches regardless of the competition.

2019 – Premier League says hello to the VAR era

VAR Controllers
Image: Robert Hoetink, Bigstock Photo

Premier League clubs were initially asked in May 2018 if they wanted VAR to feature for the start of the 2018/19 season. The feeling was that there was insufficient time for testing and this could harm the implementation of the new technology. After a lengthy trial period that followed, clubs agreed that VAR could debut at the start of the 2019/20 season.

It took very little time for VAR to make the headlines once introduced. Only two weeks into the season it was used to overturn Gabriel Jesus’s would-be winner as Manchester City faced Tottenham. Although this was largely uncontroversial given there was a clear handball in the build-up, VAR would not enjoy a popular first season in the Premier League.

2019 – Major handball change

In an attempt to provide some degree of objectivity to the always controversial handball rule, the IFAB decided that any “goal scored or created” with the use of a hand or arm would be disallowed. The notion of intent was completely irrelevant so referees had a very simple decision to make for this. For a defending team, a player who handles the ball while making themselves “unnaturally bigger” would be penalised, providing it had not ricocheted off their own body or a nearby player.

2019 – No more contested dropped balls or long walks

The 2019/20 season was one of real change as in addition to the handball rule, there were other adjustments relating to different areas of the game. One was the removal of contested drop balls. A real shin batterer, no longer would we see players hacking away at the same bit of turf in a feisty contest to aimlessly boot the ball first. Instead, if a drop ball was required, the rules stated it would be given to the player of a team that last touched the ball.

In addition to this, the Premier League put an end to sneaky players walking to the opposite end of the pitch just before they were substituted. Previously this was a great ploy for killing 20 seconds as you had players walking 50 yards at a snail’s pace but now they were forced to exit by the nearest touchline. Failure to comply with this would result in a yellow card.

2020 – Temporary subs

When Premier League action resumed following a length pause caused by the global health crisis, clubs were now allowed to make five substitutions per game. This was a first in the Premier League but not one that lasted long as when put to a vote on three occasions, not enough clubs elected to keep the measures in place longer-term.

2021 – Concussion trial begins

Man With Head Injury

Having been criticised numerous times for their protocols regarding head injuries, the Premier League eventually decided to take action in 2021. They announced that from 6th February, they would roll out what was known as concussion substitutes. This would allow teams to make a substitute if a player had a serious head injury, even if they had used up all their three normal substitutes. Even if they had not made all their substitutes yet, they would still be granted an additional change.

Just a few weeks later and the rule was used for the first time in the Premier League as Rob Holding came off against Manchester City after bashing his head against Joao Cancelo’s knee. Although this was Arsenal’s third change, because it was concussion-related, they were able to bring on Dani Ceballos for Mohamed Elneny afterwards.

2021 – Religious consideration

Soon after this, the Premier League saw another new rule milestone. On 26th April 2021, a match between Leicester City and Crystal Palace was paused to allow players of the Muslim faith to break Ramadan fast. This is believed to be the first time in Premier League history that a game had a scheduled stop to allow Muslim players to eat/drink once the sun had set.

2021 – Under-fire VAR changed

Having done very little to improve its popularity during the 2020/21 season, the use of VAR in the Premier League was in need of desperate attention. One of the big issues of the previous two years had been goals ruled out by offside because the attacker was a toenail’s length offside. Players, that looked perfectly in line with the second to last defender, were regularly being deemed offside by these dreaded, pixel-thin, red and blue lines. As such the Premier League announced it was making these lines thicker, which would give the attacking player a little more leeway.

Another big announcement was that VAR would be looking to end the practice of players ‘buying’ penalties. The 2020/21 Premier League season saw a record number of penalties awarded largely because of this. With players regularly rewarded for going down very easily, this kept encouraging them to do exactly that. In response to this, the Premier League’s head of referring, Mike Riley, announced they would be raising the threshold for what is considered a foul. This applied to tackles all over the pitch, including possible penalty shouts reviewed by VAR.