Clubs and Players

It’s Only a Short Career
More than 40,000 professional footballers have appeared in The Football League since 1888. Phil Shaw looks at how the relationship between professional football clubs and their players has evolved over the last 125 years.

Without the players, there’s no game. That, in blunt terms, was the rationale behind the formation of the Professional Footballers’ Association, which began as the Players’ Union and had even deeper roots in the Association Footballers’ Union, formed in 1898 after The Football League’s first decade.

The bottom line of this maxim is that professional footballers can, if they are so minded, withdraw their labour. And in the early years of The Football League there were occasions when, in any other “industry”, the workers would surely have downed tools. 

In 1902 the Manchester City and Wales player, Di Jones, cut his knee on a shard of broken glass during a pre-season match. The wound became infected and he died. City refused to accept liability because it was a friendly. Jones, they maintained, was “not working.” There was no insurance cover in place, so his wife and children received nothing.

The original players’ union had all but folded, but Jones’ team-mate Billy Meredith, the fabled Welsh winger, said the memory drove him to set up the Players’ Union in 1907.

In modern times, players have effectively threatened to strike by stating, in some cases, that they would walk off the pitch in solidarity with a colleague being racially abused by opponents or spectators.

The spectre of industrial action is not, however, new to football. In 1961, under the leadership of Fulham player and future TV personality Jimmy Hill, the PFA called out its members. The aim was to force the Football League and the clubs to abolish the maximum wage – a salary cap in today’s parlance - which meant players could be paid no more than £20 a week during the season. In the summer they received £17.

Jimmy Hill (stood up) at a meeting of Midland footballers who agreed to strike action over the maximum wage

The decision to strike was the culmination of a campaign that had been going on almost since the League kicked off 125 years ago. When Liverpool first won the championship, in 1900/01, the average wage of their players was £7 a week. The following season the Football League introduced a maximum weekly wage of £4. 

In 1920 it stood at £9, but four years later it was down to £8. Fast forward to 1953, the year of “the Matthews final”, and the upper limit was still only £15, reduced to £13 over the summer. 

Before the Second World War a footballer’s pay was above that of the average worker. By 1960, despite the advent of television and European competition, the gap had closed.

Stanley Matthews, who spanned both eras, was unsympathetic towards the union’s position as the dispute flared again. Yet in '61, at a new-year rally of 190 players in Manchester it became clear Blackpool’s Wizard of Dribble had changed his mind. “I’ve done well out of the game, but could I ignore the injustice to my colleagues?” he recalled. “Loyalty to the players won. My hand went up."

To the consternation of the Pools companies, the strike was scheduled for Saturday, 21 January. There were signs that the clubs’ resolve was weakening, with a handful of wealthy clubs alert to the advantage they might gain from being able to attract their rivals' stars. Even Bob Lord, the outspoken Burnley chairman, suddenly conceded there should be no wage-ceiling. In contrast, his counterpart at nearby Blackburn Rovers, Jim Wilkinson, argued that even a £30 maximum must be opposed as “it would be suicide for many clubs.”

The chairman of the Trades Union Congress, Ted Hill, appealed to the public to boycott matches that went ahead. He also warned darkly that the labour movement would “remember the blacklegs when they finish in football and want to come back into industry.”

Then, with 72 hours to go before the master winger became a striker and picket lines were manned at grounds around England, the League management committee persuaded the clubs to agree to abolish the maximum wage. 

The PFA, emboldened by the news, opted not to call off the strike.  There had been no mention by the League of the union’s other historic bugbear, the retain-and-transfer system, which, as the redoubtable League secretary Alan Hardaker put it candidly, “enabled a club to retain a player against his will at the end of his contract and, not only that, to pay him less money while doing so.”

Hill and two union officials were summoned to the Ministry of Labour to negotiate with Hardaker, League president and Barnsley chairman Joe Richards and Chelsea chairman Joe Mears. The PFA again prevailed. The strike was off.

At that time, George Eastham, the silky schemer who would be part of Alf Ramsey’s England squad when they won the World Cup in 1966, was challenging the archaic retain-and-transfer system through the legal system. 

Eastham wanted to leave Newcastle United, who refused to let him go. Even after the contractual issue had been resolved, the PFA bullishly urged him to continue the case, which he did even after Newcastle sold him to Arsenal. The case spluttered on until 1963 when the High Court ruled in his favour, saying the League regulations and FA rules amounted to restraint of trade.

The highly emotive word “slavery” had come to be bandied about when players described their conditions.  This was perhaps an injudicious choice: the lot of a Fourth Division footballer, let alone Matthews, Billy Wright or Bobby Charlton, was hardly comparable with the cruelty, brutality and loss of basic liberties and human dignity to which, say, African slaves were once subjected.

It was, nevertheless, a term which, for the players and their union, served its purpose in publicising their fight for a higher minimum wage and the end of the maximum wage.  Hill’s predecessor as PFA leader, ex-Portsmouth forward Jimmy Guthrie, who relied less on PR and more on old-fashioned militancy, thrust it into the heart of the debate over pay.

When he was in his pomp at Pompey, before the War, the maximum wage was £8 during the season, £6 in the summer. Injury or demotion to the reserves meant £2 a week less.  

Guthrie bemoaned The Football League’s “Victorian business ethic” and targeted the clubs. The Scot was no stranger to such tactics; when he captained Portsmouth in a wartime Wembley final his team were still unchanged in the dressing-room as kick-off loomed. He had told the directors they would not play unless the players were paid wages docked at the start of the War.   

 “Just eight minutes before kick-off,” said Guthrie, “our masters rather ungracefully surrendered.”

He became the first full-time PFA chairman. In 1955, addressing the TUC Congress in Blackpool, he propelled the twin issues of wages and contracts on to the front pages of the press. 

“I stand before you as the representative of the last bonded men in Britain,” he told delegates. “The conditions of the professional footballer’s employment are akin to slavery.”

Jimmy Guthrie speaking to the 87th Trades Union Congress

Meanwhile the introduction of floodlights, while thrilling for the public, was in Guthrie’s opinion adding to the players’ workload. He viewed it as evening work, or overtime. With that in mind he made a well-publicised trip to Molineux to meet Billy Wright and other Wolves stars. After a dressing-room ballot, a game against Athletic Bilbao had to be cancelled.

Even so, the concept of “player power” was still years away. Coincidentally, Hill’s Fulham colleague Johnny Haynes was the most high-profile beneficiary of the lifting of the maximum wage, becoming the Football League’s first £100-a-week man in 1961.

Today the balance of power has shifted towards the players. Pay levels within the higher reaches of the English game mean that certain individuals earn more in a week than Matthews and his generation made in a lifetime.

The Bosman ruling of 1995, which gave the footballers freedom to move without a transfer fee when their contracts were up, further strengthened their position.

However, as the League celebrates its 125th birthday, the old, mutually antagonistic roles adopted by itself and the PFA have been largely consigned to history. In 1979 a new collective bargaining agreement was signed and this was followed in 1985 by a private contributory pension scheme for full-time players.  Just a year later The Football League and PFA combined again to launch ‘Football in the Community’ to help deepen the relationship between clubs and people living in their local area.  And in 2004 the two bodies collaborated, once again, to create ‘League Football Education’ which delivers educational programmes to apprentice footballers on the books of League clubs.

At the Football League Awards ceremony in 2010, Gordon Taylor, the union’s chief executive who today serves on the Board of The Football League Trust, received an award for his “outstanding contribution to League football”, which would have been unthinkable in Guthrie's time.

Twelve months earlier, in the surest sign of old antipathies being laid to rest, the same award had gone to Jimmy Hill.