One of the more extraordinary facts to be thrown up by last night’s Premier League match between Blackpool and Manchester United was that one Manchester United player, Wayne Rooney, earns more every week than the entire Blackpool squad does between them. Such are the vagaries of modern football. It wasn’t, of course, ever thus. Until the early 1960s, footballers existed in a peculiar form of serfdom, unable to work where they wanted to and with a savage salary cap that didn’t even seem to take into account the harsh fact that players, often uneducated and having only ever known one way of life, would usually see their careers grind to a halt by the time they were forty years old.

The story of football’s maximum wage is a story that spanned the first eighty years of professional football in England. Darwen FC had been the first club to pay players to pay for them, the Scots Fergie Suter and James Love in 1879, and as clubs became more and more aware of the commercial benefits of having a winning team, this practice became more and more commonplace until the widely ignored FA rule banning professionalism was lifted in 1885. The lifting of this rule opened the floodgates and within ten years clubs were already requesting that the the Football League introduced a maximum wage for players. Most players were not full-time – many took jobs working for companies owned by directors and were paid a part-time wage – but at the top end, the very best players were able to command what was by the standards of the time big money.

Records from 1896, for example, show that the Sheffield United goalkeeper William Foulkes was earning £3 per week, a retainer wage during the summer for when he wasn’t playing and bonuses of ten shillings for each away win and five shillings for each home win or draw. This was three times the average wage before the bonuses were taken into account, and Foulkes, not a man afraid to do what he had to two to earn a bit extra, became a wealthy man by the standards of the time. In addition to this, players had become unionised for the first time with the creation of the Association Footballers Union. The AFU was founded in 1898, but it foundered for two main reasons. Firstly, it was supported primarily by those already earning the most money from the game, which meant that any form of industrial action that they could take would be limited.

The other reason for its lack of success that it was the smaller clubs that were pushing for a maximum wage. The bigger clubs could afford to pay greater wages, but the smaller clubs were greatly concerned by the growing disparity between the wealthiest and the rest. It was Derby County who made the first appeal for a maximum in wage in 1893. It wasn’t brought in at the time, but the Football League introduced one in 1901 it was at the behest of Stoke City. In a thrice, the highest paid players in England had their wages savagely cut. Bonuses were banned, and the maximum wage was set a £4 per week. This figure in itself was enough to do for the AFU. The vast majority of players still earned less than this amount (which was double what a skilled tradesman – ie, somebody earning a good wage – was paid at the time), so were unconcerned by talk of strikes.

The AFU, having failed in its mission to prevent the introduction of a maximum wage, folded later on in 1901 and it wasn’t until 1907 that the Association of Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union (the AFTPU – now known as the PFA) was founded by Charlie Roberts and Billy Meredith. They threatened strike action over the abolition of the maximum wage and union members were threatened with expulsion from the game, which led to Manchester United and Sunderland starting the 1909/10 season under the threat of mass expulsions after their players refused to give up their AFTPU membership. Compromise was reached but  Billy Meredith, one of the founders of the AFTPU, however, saw this – in words that still ring true today – as a defeat for the union:

The unfortunate thing is that so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to do just what they are told… instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class.

The compromise reached saw players allowed to retain their union membership and the reintroduction of certain bonuses but the maximum wage (which some players had escaped by joining the professional Southern League or returning to Scotland, where such a rule didn’t at the time exist) was to remain for another fifty years. Charlie Roberts (who had already caused consternation within the FA through his insistence upon wearing shorts that were actually short, leading to a 1904 FA rule requiring all shorts to cover the knee) was similarly disappointed with the compromise reached, the after-effects of which saw union activists overlooked for places in the England team:

As far as I am concerned, I would have seen the FA in Jericho before I would have resigned membership of that body, because it was our strength and right arm, but I was only one member of the Players’ Union. To the shame of the majority they voted the only power they had away from themselves and the FA knew it.

The maximum wage was enough on its own to ensure that most footballers would never be wealthy, but the creation of the retain-and-transfer system in 1893 tied players to clubs in a manner that would be unheard of in almost any other industry. Introduced to prevent larger clubs poaching players from smaller clubs, it established a rule by which a club could keep the registration of a player at the end of the player’s contract had ended without them having to pay him. This tied a player to a club indefinitely and led to the system by which clubs could be paid “compensation” (which came to be known as transfer fees) and effectively meant that a player was tied to a club until they chose otherwise by “retaining” his registration.

The one significant attempt to overturn the rule ended in disaster for all players. Herbert Kingaby had been a normal journeyman player during the first decade of the century but, when he sought to leave Aston Villa in 1910, he was told that they wouldn’t release him without a fee being paid. As was the convention at the time, he therefore left the club for Fulham, then of the Southern League, which at the time of his arrival didn’t use the retain-and-transfer system. After a year he left the club for Leyton Orient, but in the meantime the Southern League had reached agreement with the Football League over the former recognising the latter’s use of retain-and-transfer and, under the agreement, Kingaby’s registration had reverted back to Aston Villa, meaning that Leyton Orient now had to pay Villa a fee of £350 for his services, which they couldn’t afford. Kingaby’s case against Aston Villa, however, fell apart in court. He argued that Villa had prevented his transfer as an act of revenge for his departure to Fulham, but the law is clear that  motives cannot render a lawful act unlawful. In other words, Villa had no case to answer. Had he argued that the system of retain-and-transfer was an unfairly restrictive practice, it may have been abolished. He didn’t, though, and retain-and-transfer would also be with us for another half a century.

The maximum wage increased for players over time, but as the years wore these increases didn’t keep up with the rest of society, meaning that, by the 1950s, players weren’t even even earning a massive amount compared to ordinary workers. By way of comparison, we can consider the amount of amount of the maximum wage in comparison with average wages of the time. When the maximum wage was introduced in 1904 at £4 per week, it was a comfortable living wage – twice the average wage of a skilled tradesman and a wage that most players didn’t earn anyway. By 1960, however, this had changed. The maximum wage was by this time only £20 per week at a time when the average industrial worker was earning £15 per week. Something had to give, and this came in January 1961.

Cracks in the combination of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer system had been showing for some considerable time. Neil Franklin was arguably the finest centre-half of his generation, yet, like all other players in post-war Britain, he was tied to a maximum wage that paid him £12 per week during the season and £10 week during the close season with win and draw bonuses of £2 and £1 respectively. On top of this, he was eligible for a £750 lump sum benefit payment every five years. Concerned at the quality of life in Stoke-on-Trent, he signed for Indepentiente Santa Fe of Bogota in Colombia in 1950, breaking his contract with Stoke City for a £5,000 per year contract with £35 win bonuses and free accommodation. He even went to the trouble of withdrawing from the 1950 England World Cup squad, earning himself a ban from the FA at the same time. It wasn’t even as if FIFA could act – Colombia’s FA was considered a “rebel” organisation and was not within their jurisdiction.

Franklin’s time in Bogota was short-lived and miserable. He arrived there – along with fellow former Stoke player George Mountford – to find the country politically unstable and an early evening curfew in place, Santa Fe were unable to keep their financial promises to him. He received just one week’s wages in the two months that he was in Colombia, played just six matches for Santa Fe and his ban by the FA lasted until 1951. His lateral view of how he could develop his career, however, was an indicator of a stable door that was bolting and the maximum wage looked more and more anachronistic as the decade wore on. The reality was that almost all players earned this amount, meaning that famous international players were taking home no more than players a division or two below them. Moreover, this system only encouraged under-the-counter payments which, if exposed, could seriously damage the reputation of the game and, of course, left players easily susceptible to bribery.

Even those that wanted to pretend that all was right with the world couldn’t avoid the beginning of a drain of talent from the English game to clubs who had no maximum wage and could ignore the retain-and-transfer system. Juventus signed John Charles from Leeds United for £65,000 in 1957, and he spent five years in Turin earning £25,000 per year. By way of comparison, Roger Byrne of Manchester United and England earned around £1,600 during the 1956/57 season. Others followed and, in 1960, the PFA, under the leadership, voted to strike over its abolition. At the very last minute, the Football League capitulated and in January of 1961 the maximum wage was abolished. Amongst those to benefit was Fulham’s Johnny Haynes. Prior to the abolition of the maximum wage, the club’s chairman, the notoriously tight-fisted comedian Tommy Trinder, had boasted to the press, without expecting to see the rule go, that Haynes was worth £100 per week and had to pay up once it did. Other young pros weren’t quite so lucky, though, as young Fulham player Alan Mullery explains of his attempts to get the same from Trinder:

He [Haynes] was only in the boardroom a minute. He came walking back into the dressing room and all the young lads were looking at him, really excited at the situation. He took this piece of paper out of his top pocket and said, “TT, you’re true to your word. I’ve just got £100 per week, lads”, ripped up the piece of paper, threw it up in the air and walked out of the club. I sat there, seventeen years of age, thinking, “£100 per week! Yes please!”. So, I was called in, sat at the end of the table and Frank Osbourne [the Fulham general manager of the time] said to me, “This is going to be the greatest day of your life! I’m going to give you… £28 per week”. I said, “What? You just gave Haynesy £100 per week”, and he replied, “Well, you’re not Johnny bloody Haynes, are you?”. We eventually settled on £30 per week and I signed the contract.

With the maximum wage gone, the times were a-changing and the days of retain and transfer were also numbered. In 1959, George Eastham had submitted a transfer request to his club, Newcastle United, and then refused to sign a contract with them and left to find work elsewhere. Newcastle eventually agreed a fee with Arsenal of £47,500 for Eastham’s services, but Eastham, with the backing of the PFA, took the matter further, stating that:

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.

The case was heard before Justice Wilberforce in 1963, and the judge found partially in favour of Eastham, stating that Newcastle’s decision to retain his registration had amounted to an unfair relationship but that he was not entitled to wages from Newcastle because he had refused to pay for them. As such, Eastham did not personally gain from the case, but the retain and transfer system was fundamentally altered. Transfer tribunals were introduced for end of contract disputes and players received better tersm for agreeing new contracts. This system remained in place until the Bosman ruling, in 1995. Coincidentally, Jimmy Hill didn’t benefit much either from the abolition of the maximum wage – he retired from playing in November 1961 and took over as the manager of Coventry City.

The risks that the likes of Eastham, Hill, Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts and Herbert Kingaby took should not be forgotten by today’s players. Without them, the likelihood of £100,000 per week contracts or the right to leave for another club would have been that bit more remote, and it is also worth remembering that football isn’t all about the multi-millionaires at the top. Players from the bottom of the game have benefitted from the ending of the practices that curtailed the earnings of so many players over the years, and those that blazed the trail for them should be remembered for their sacrifices.

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