By Robson Sharuko
When Arsenal and Leicester City open the 2017-18 English Premiership season on Friday night, the clock will show that exactly 25 years have passed since the clubs started an ambitious adventure to break away from more than 100 years of Football League affiliation to chart their course in a new billion-dollar world.
After striking a lucrative television rights deal worth £1 billion a year, the English clubs flexed their muscles and gambled for independence and, a quarter-of-a-century down the road, they have just signed a deal worth more than £5.1 billion which will run until the 2019 season.
Amid the celebrations that will mark the stunning evolution of the world’s richest football league as it waves goodbye to its first 25 years on Friday, and enters a new era, it’s unlikely that a lot of attention will be attached to the historic appearance of Peter Ndlovu in the colours of Coventry City on August 19, 1992.
On that August night, the baby-faced forward who would grow to become the captain of his country and the greatest Warrior of all-time, leading his nation to two Nations Cup appearances in 100 appearances for Zimbabwe, made history as the first African to play in the English Premiership.
His countryman Bruce Grobbelaar had featured for giants Liverpool for years, playing a huge part in the Anfield side’s dominance of the old First Division in the ’80s, but on the night the Premiership show came to town, the Jungleman was not part of the cast of players who paraded their skills.
Instead, Liverpool fielded the newly-acquired David James in their first match in the English Premiership against Nottingham Forest.
That gave Ndlovu the honour to make history as the first African footballer to play in the English Premiership revolution that would see the league’s value soar incredibly, in its first 25 years of existence, and its appeal spread across the globe.
It’s now the most watched top-flight league in the world and such is its huge impact that it has virtually destroyed the viewers-hip figures in countries like Uganda where the majority of people prefer to watch the English Premiership than their top-flight league matches.
Ndlovu made a huge impression at Coventry City where, at the height of his athletic powers, he transformed himself into one of the most sought-after players in the league, attracting the interests of such giants like Liverpool and Arsenal.
He became the first visiting player to score a hat-trick at Anfield on March 14 1995 since 1961 and his record would last for 14 years until Andrey Ashavin scored four goals for Arsenal at the same stadium in April 2009.
The influential football magazine, FourFourTwo, this year named Ndlovu among the best 100 foreign players to grace the English Premiership.
“While the name might mean little to today’s generation, Ndlovu brought class when foreign players were a Premier League rarity,” the magazine said.
“He’d go on to win 100 caps for Zimbabwe, but even as a teenager, he was key for Coventry City (another name which will resonate with few Premier League fans today).
“In a struggling side, Ndlovu was a constant nuisance, if not a prolific one, to opposition defences.
“The striker was largely responsible for maintaining Cov’s 34-year residence in the top flight, before dropping a division in 1997 to improve Birmingham, then Sheffield United. He’s still remembered fondly in the Midlands.”
Two years ago, the mass circulating Daily Mirror tabloid named Ndlovu among some of the best forwards to grace the English Premiership with his partnership at Coventry City with Dion Dublin, who would play for Manchester United, and Darren Huckerby being named the 17th most prolific partnership to grace the league.
“We picked the three best forwards from each of the top 20 Premier League participants and ranked them from 20-1,” the newspaper said.
“The Premier League has been blessed with some of the sharpest of sharpshooters the game has ever seen over the last 20 or so years. But which teams have boasted the best ever in their ranks in that time?
“We’ve picked the best three strikers to play for the 20 teams to have played the most seasons in the Premier League. They are then ranked 20-1 based on those strikers.”
This saw Ndlovu gracing such illustrious company like Luis Suarez, Robbie Fowler, Fernando Torres, Thierry Henry, Ian Wright, Dennis Bergkamp, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ruud Van Nistelroy, Alan Shearer, Less Ferdinand, Didier Drogba, Gianfranco Zola, Carlos Tevez and Sergio Aguero.
“Coventry were mainstays of the Premier League in its early days with talisman Dion Dublin their main man,” the newspaper said.
The tall target man smashed in 61 in 145 games between 1994 and 1998 and remains one of the Sky Blues greatest ever players.
“Darren Huckerby was a cult hero at Highfield Road while Peter Ndlovu was another who made hay in the earliest days of the Premier League.”
Local newspaper, The Coventry Telegraph, ran their own poll based on votes from the club’s fans.
“The Mirror suggested Dion Dublin, Darren Huckerby and Peter Ndlovu were the three sharpest shooters for City during the nine years in the Premier League,” the Telegraph said.
Dublin won that vote, Robbie Keane came in second place, Huckerby in third place, Micky Quinn taking fourth place while Ndlovu finished in fifth place.
Time has certainly moved on, since Ndlovu made history in the colours of his beloved Coventry City, but the impact that he made on those shores lives on and, 25 years to the month he made his bow, they are still talking about our Flying Elephant.
It’s a pity we don’t make them this good anymore. The Herald