Loyalty for royalty. Retain me and pay me.
Imagine a world where our players had summer jobs to boost their income. Imagine a world where working class people played for the love of the game. Can you imagine a world where working at the foundry could be more lucrative than the pitch? Well, that was how it was for fifty years. We hark back to that era of footballing heroes who were loyal to their club. We bemoan the journeyman players who wander from club to club in search of their own personal El Dorado yet before 1963 the loyalty to the club was achieved by the rather draconian “retain and transfer” system.
It took some 22 years for the Football Association to allow players to be paid. This was only achieved through the setting up of a rival association and which would ultimately encourage the professionalisation of the game. They were really determined to control their players and restrict their wages but as far back as 1893 money was changing hands for players when Everton bought Blackburn Rovers star player Jack Southworth for £400. He certainly was worth the money in modern day terms as he won the golden boot or both clubs and two FA Cups for Blackburn Rovers. Good players were in demand and the FA wanted to control and limit this by insisting on annual registration for players before they play. That seems reasonable as most professions require such rigours. This, however, meant that players couldn’t move clubs without permission.
Maximum wage – Minimum joy
1893 was a pivotal year as Derby County suggested that £4 should be the maximum wage which didn’t affect most players especially as they had real jobs. The tiny minority who were earning £10 per week felt this strongly and decided to do what all working folk do and form a rival association called the Association Footballers Union which was there to represent the players. The only real course of action players who wanted higher wages could seek was to either play for the Southern League or the Scottish League. Some players did just that. Or you could leave the game altogether in search of a job that gave you rights and decent terms and conditions.
Working Class Zeros
Most players were working class and would have been apprenticed to other more traditional trades and were familiar with the terms and conditioned offered by Trade Unions. The Association Footballers Union was not a success as workers need to keep the status quo. They “wanted any negotiations regarding transfers to be between the interested club and the player concerned – not between club and club with the player excluded” according to secretary John Devey. This would have helped end the retain and transfer system but in the absence of strike action, this was going to come to nothing. Players did need a strong representative body but this was only going to be formed out of the ashes of a crisis or two.
Welsh wonder rallies the troops
The player who unionised football clearly had to be charismatic and enigmatic. It was Billy Meredith, a favourite at both Maine Road and Old Trafford, who managed this superhuman fete. Billy Meredith was a champion of players rights. He had been embroiled in the Manchester City financial misadventure scandal. In an act, that feels like history is repeating people were surprised at City’s rapid improvement. When Meredith was found guilty of bribing Alec Leake to throw a match he was suspended and fined. City refused to help him out financially so he turned whistleblower.
Manchester City auctioned off 17 players and Manchester United took the best pickings. This action is indicative of the value of humanity. This sort of behaviour reminds me of the triangle slave trade where the finest human specimens were purchased for a life of indentured labour. Meredith must have thought so too. It took the untimely demise of two colleagues to cause militant minded Meredith to rally the troops and band together to fight for players rights.
Disaster and Tragedy
When David Jones died after being injured in a pre-season game his wife and family were left without insurance provisions. Manchester City claimed that as it was not during the season he was not actually working so any cover was invalidated. 20,000 people had paid to watch the match so like Merscith I’m quite bamboozled by this claim. I am similarly surprised that when Thomas Blackstock died after heading a ball during a match Manchester United returned a verdict of death by “natural causes” thus rendering his widow penniless. Meredith became militant and the Association Football Player’s Union became a force to challenge the system.
One aim was to abolish the £4 maximum wage. This just made the FA reaffirm the wage cap but with the possibility of player bonuses. By using the Workman’s compensation Act of 1906 the AFPU sent Frank Levick’s family £20 on his death. They also investigated ways to get Sheffield United to pay his widow compensation like other employers would have done.
The state of the union
The FA continued to negotiate with the AFPU until it decided to order the players to withdraw from the union or risk having their registration cancelled. Manchester United refused to comply and the whole team lost their rights to play and they became the rather marvellous “Outcasts FC”. Despite the eventual acquiescence of the FA to the union, it was never quite strong enough to stand up to the might of the FA. Meredith didn’t see it as a victory as players were at the mercy and whim of their club and the FA.
Charles Core wrote about the wages of the West Ham players “in 1906 the average wage for the whole team (a pool of 30 players) was £2 10s per week over the whole year. At least 12 were paid between £4 and £4 10s during the season and a minimum of £2 10s during the summer… Veterans who had been with the club since 1900 filled the reserve and third teams and their wages ranged from £2 during the season to as little as 15s per match. The directors insisted that all players earning more than £2 10s during the season should not take another job; they were full-time professional footballers and were being paid as such.” In his 1986 book, he compares the wages of the football team to other jobs. “In 1906 casual dockers earned between 5s 6d and £1 2s 7d for a 44-hour week. Tram drivers made £2 3s for a 60-hour week and men employed in the building trades averaged £2 8s for a 44-hour week.”
It hardly seemed worth playing professionally. Those comparable jobs offered union security, long term prospects and community respect. Yet those who play the beautiful game usually play for love as much as the pay. Jobs at the foundry don’t scream satisfaction. There is not another profession that capped its wages or prevented employees from moving to a different company. These were austere times and after World War One the maximum wage was set at £10. It was reduced by a pound the following year and again the year after leaving it at £8 for 37 weeks and £6 during the summer season. Very little changed over the years with increases in 1951, 1953, 1957 and 1958. It would definitely be prudent to finish your apprenticeship so you have something to fall back on as Stewart Imlach did.
Stewart Imlach’s story
When Lossiemouth’s favourite son went to Bury there was a transfer fee of £150 in May 1952. He was to earn £7 a week during the playing season and £6 during the summer. If he makes the first team he may get as much as £14. The average factory worker earned £8 13s. Stewart’s son Gary noted “football was a game of the working class, by the working class. One thing it wasn’t was a golden passport out of the working class.” This retain and transfer policy made sure of that.
Once you were signed up it was for 12 months at a time. If the club wanted it didn’t want to it didn’t have to renew your contract but it could retain you indefinitely without pay. If you wanted to leave it was up to the club to approve your move and negotiate your terms and conditions. The FA controlled your wages and your soul. Why would you stay in such a profession? A full-time player might be earning less than a part-time player. Now that’s not going to boost morale!
The game is clearly important and has the potential for worldwide domination or why would the FA want to contain it and control it? However, if the wages are capped you could earn as much playing for the top flight as the lowest division. Yet playing under Matt Busby would have been an amazing honour so there is the imperative.
Imlach impressed him enough to get the nod to play for Scotland but not enough for a place at Old Trafford. Even if he was offered a place at the seat of football he would be the last person to know. He found out about his impending move to Luton by reading the papers. He certainly wasn’t the only one who experienced this humiliation. Imlach was eventually sent to Coventry. The manager of the third division club was Jimmy Hill and he was the one who had campaigned to remove the maximum wage thus ending the retain and transfer system. Football will never be the same again.