Transfer tales: How the transfer system started

transfer system

If asked the question, “Who was the first 1 Million pound player?” there is a fair chance that many would know the answer. Should you not, it is the legendary Trevor Francis, sold from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest in 1979. On the other hand, if asked, “who was the first player to be transferred,” this would stump most of us.

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Yet transfers are a significant talking point, from the surprising to the bizarre, the worst kept secret, to the “how did we sign that player.” Then there’s the ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda,’ been, and those who cross the dividing lines, going from cult hero to enemy number one in a blink of an eye.

Creating a system

In the first few years that football turned professional, there was no transfer system. Players were free to play for whom they wanted and when they wanted. The term “club-hopping”, was used to describe players who regularly moved around, but the FA was becoming increasingly agitated by it. 

It is worth mentioning that while football had turned professional in 1885, it was illegal to pay players. If a player were unhappy at one club they would move to another one. In turn, clubs realised if they wanted to attract players or retain them, money usually solved that problem, albeit in the form of underhand payments. The whole situation had turned into a fiasco, and the FA decided that action needed to be taken and a system introduced. 

They proposed that players needed to be formally registered with a club. While this was to be renewed every year, the club actually held a player’s registration indefinitely, tying them to the club. Once fully registered, players could not move from one club to another for free. Instead, the FA believed that clubs needed to be “compensated for the loss of service” and a fee negotiated, As a result, some players were stuck in the system. Unwanted at their registered club and unable to command a fee from any others. This sadly prevented them from playing football elsewhere.  

To complicate matters further, the Football League got involved. It was decided that to transfer players between clubs, prior approval from the FA would also be required. Even if both clubs agreed to the transfer, but the FA did not, the transfer would not go ahead.

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The idea behind this system was that it should benefit the smaller clubs, which would inevitably have their best players poached from them. Ultimately it meant that clubs held power over the players. However, the FA insisted that it was saving the “integrality of the football league and the associated competitions”. This became known as the “retain & transfer” system and was in place from 1893 to 1963. 

Another part of the “retain and transfer” system was a cap on player wages. The Derby chairman had been instrumental in campaigning for this measure, proposing a £4 cap. While this was above average for many players, it was a blow for those earning £10 a week. At this point, some players felt the new system along with the wage cap, was too restrictive and unfair. Many high-profile players moved to the Southern League, where these rules were yet to be brought in.  

The transfer system

It is not entirely clear who the first transfer was, but Jack Southworth is one name mentioned and was considered to be the first official transfer using this system. He switched from Blackburn Rovers to Everton for a reported figure of £400 in 1893. Southworth had spent the previous five years at Rovers, notching up an impressive 97 goals in 108 league appearances.

His transfer came about when negotiating a new contract at Rovers. Southworth asked to be paid £3 a week during both winter and summer months, along with a £10 signing-on fee. On top of this, he specified a clause be included, allowing him to leave at the end of the season. Rovers declined, and negotiations broke down. Meanwhile, several other clubs were more than willing to meet his demands. Everton was one of them, and although Rovers initially rejected Everton’s request to speak with Southworth, in the end they backed down. 

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While Southworth appears to have been the first to utilise the system properly. Willie Groves is widely considered to be the first, yet his transfer was marred in controversy. Groves was a Scottish international who played for both Hibs and Celtic before moving south of the border. It was while playing at West Brom that the new system came into place. 

West Brom was hoping to cash in on Groves who had been a prominent player for them. They were hoping to sell him to Everton. Meanwhile, Groves himself was in talks with Aston Villa. It is unknown if Groves had misunderstood the new system where only the clubs could talk with each other, or if he purposefully ignored the new rules. Both West Brom and Everton lodged complaints, and the FA decided to make a spectacle of the situation. Villa was fined £50 and ordered to pay West Brom £100 (equal to £12,000 in today’s money) for the services of Groves.   

With a transfers system now in place, clubs were free to do deals as it suited them, but not all was well. 

By 1898 the AFU or Association Footballers Union (which would later be known PFA /Players football association) was set up. With 250 members signing up straight away. The purpose of the union at this specific time was to now involve players during transfer negotiations.

The union got its way, and players were to be included in transfer talks. Ultimately this led to higher wage demands and rising transfer fees. As a result, there were many prolific signings, and just like in today’s game, they also made headlines.

Concerning issues 

Alf Common was considered the best young goalscorer in England during this time and was becoming a sought-after player. During the 1900-01 season, Sheffield United paid £350 to Sunderland to secure his services. In 1904, Sheffield re-signed him for a record fee of £520. The following year Middlesbrough bought him for the hefty sum of £1000 (roughly £140,000 in today’s money), creating massive amounts of criticism.  

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As transfer fees increased, the Football League took action. In 1908 they introduced a £350 limit on the cost of a player. The decision was hugely unpopular, with players having sold for considerably higher amounts. 

Clubs quickly found a way around this, by selling several players as a deal. The idea being, they would sell the key player along with a few other lower-ranked players to the same club. If a club thought the key player was worth a £1000, they made it look like all three players were sold for £350. In reality, the lower-ranked players sold for around the £25 mark; therefore, the club got their full £1000 asking price. Not surprisingly, a year later, the Football League retracted the rule. 

By 1920, many of the football club’s chairmen were complaining. Insisting players were engineering moves to gain a bigger signing on-fee. As a result, the Football League voted in favour and changed the rules, ensuring players did not earn a penny from their transfer! 

Maximum wage policies were also still in effect and were now set at £8 a week. In 30 years since the wage cap was introduced, wages had only gone up moderately. By comparison, transfer fees were extortionately high. Some of the higher profile players inevitably wanted a cut of their transfer fee but were denied. But there were way also ways around this. 

Clubs could pay players a higher wage, but only if they took on other activities. Alex James was one notable player who did this. Upon signing for Arsenal, James was dissatisfied with his wage. To supplement this, Arsenal arranged for him to become a “sports demonstrator” at the Selfridges department store. 

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The supplement was hugely lucrative. It was rumoured that in the twilight of his career, and without being guaranteed a permanent place on the team, he could have signed for Derby. Derby could get around the maximum wage ruling by offering supplemental work too. Though it was no match for what was on offer from Selfridges and James stayed with Arsenal until he retired from playing. 

Due to player’s being barely involved in their deals along with no signing-on fees, many players were unhappy. Blackpool’s Peter Doherty would later go on to talk about this. He was transferred to Man City in 1936 for a club record fee of £10,000. Ultimately he would have like have stayed with Blackpool at the time and admitted that “his feelings were disregarded, and he might have well been a piece of merchandise” in regards to how the deal had been done. 

In 1938, rising transfers were debated in the House of Commons. This came about as a result of Bryn Jones’ transfer. Arsenal had signed him from Wolverhampton for a “world record fee” of £14,000! The transfer generated so much criticism in both the House of Commons and in the press, that Jones failed to live up to expectations. This is said to have been largely down to him being “a quiet, modest, self-evasive figure” and in all likeliness, he had struggled under the intense scrutiny, which impacted his playing ability. 

System changes

While the retain and transfer system stayed largely unchanged for over 60 years, a contract dispute broke out that would cause the “retain” aspect to be abolished, and a necessary change to the system.  

In 1959 George Eastham refused to sign a new contract with Newcastle and subsequently put in a transfer request, which was refused. In retaliation, Eastham refused to play, and as a result, Newcastle would not pay his wages. During this time, Eastham found work outside of football to make ends meet. By October 1960, Newcastle backed down and agreed that he could be transferred to Arsenal. He was sold for £47,000. 

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However, this was only the start. By 1963, Eastham was now seeking reparations, and with the financial support of the PFA, he took Newcastle to the High Court. Although he was seeking financial losses resulting in £400 in unpaid wages, with a further £650 in bonuses. Crucially he was lobbying for the unfair “restraint of trade” act, in how Newcastle had dealt with his transfer request. 

The restraint of trade act was a widely used law that protected individuals and businesses from enforcing “contractual restrictions”. Essentially allowing people and businesses to choose whom they do business or work with. The FA was essentially in breach of this by retaining a player’s registration.  

Eastham made the following statement:

 “Our contract could bind us to a club for life. Most people called it the ‘slavery contract’. We had virtually no rights at all. It was often the case that the guy on the terrace not only earned more than us – though there’s nothing wrong with that – he had more freedom of movement than us. People in business or teaching were able to hand in their notice and move on. We weren’t. That was wrong.”

Whilst the Court did not rule in favour of Eastham’s wage dispute, deciding that due to his refusal to play, the non-payment was entirely at Newcastle’s discretion. On the other hand, Eastham’s case exposed several flaws in the way transfers were conducted. The judge declared that the “retain” aspect of the Transfer system was “unreasonable” and highly criticised the process. 

As a result of the court ruling, the Football League quickly modified the system and removed the “retain” aspect. Players now had more rights to negotiate on their terms. Nonetheless, the “transfer” part of the system remained intact for another 30 years or so.

Perhaps the more pressing issue, is that a cap had remained on player wages. Even though the PFA had campaigned excessively against this ruling, the FA had not budged. Clubs were still free to negotiate huge transfer fees while the players were paid no more than an average wage. Effectively the system had been in place to deliberately keep player wages low, meanwhile transfer fees were high. The only ones benefiting and profiting were the Clubs, with player interests were rarely put first.

It feels as though we should know exactly who the first official transfer was, considering how much thought went into creating the system. However, there’s no doubt that 1883 was certainly a year that set a system in motion, one where even over 130 years later, transfers are still based around.