When England's footballers had to fight for their pay

Wembley Stadium in the 1950s.

When Footballers Were Skint: A Journey in Search of the Soul of Football
Jon Henderson
Biteback Publishing, 2018
308 pages

Bill Leivers, who played for Manchester City from 1953-1964, wryly recalls to the British journalist Jon Henderson in When Footballers Were Skint about how the football club owner once rewarded the players on the train home from a successful away game, not with a fistful of sterling for a few drinks all round, but with a packet of Polo Mints.

His contemporary, Tom Finney, who played for England and Preston North End, reflects tartly on the £50,000 gate-takings which the English Football Association received from one international fixture at Wembley Stadium — of which the 11 England players shared just £550.

The chasm between the earnings of football’s bosses and players was at its widest in the wage cap. Instituted in 1901 at the urging of the smaller, poorer clubs who feared being unable to compete for high quality players against the bigger, richer clubs, the maximum wage had crawled from a modest £4 a week to a still-middling £20 by 1961. This was not much more than the national average male worker’s weekly wage.

Tight-fisted employers and modest wages were the norm for England’s professional footballers as they were for the working-class from which most players came. On humble wages, the machinists, sheet metal workers, plumbers, joiners, stonemasons, builders’ labourers and coal miners who found new careers on the football pitch shared the humble lives of their fans. They used the same public transport to get to matches, and lived in nondescript terraced housing next door to their fans.

Trolley-bus conductors might waive the occasional fare but that was the extent of their perks, except for the bigger names who could eke out a little more from extra-curricular activities such as (ghosted) newspaper columns, advertising and endorsements.

The businessmen who owned the clubs were only too ready to exploit the players’ love of the game and their club bonds.  They airily dismissed wages gripes as unworthy compared to the “big honour” of signing for a First Division club, or the “priceless honour” of national team selection, or remaining a loyal one-club player by sacrificially turning down attractive offers from overseas clubs.

The footballers, however, had one traditional working-class value they could call on to shake loose from the wage cap – withdrawal of their labour. The players had carried their trade union principles into their new workplace as members of the Professional Footballers’ Association.

Under the aggressive leadership of Fulham’s Jimmy Hill, the footballers’ union members voted to strike in 1961 against the maximum wage.

The Trades Union Congress, Britain’s peak labour body, backed the strike by calling on the public (then largely unionised workers) to boycott any games that went ahead. The TUC let it be known that any footballer contemplating strike-breaking might find it hard (under no-ticket, no-start union principles) to find work once their playing days were over.

Just a few hours before the scheduled Saturday afternoon kick-off, the Football League caved and the clubs all agreed to abolish the wage cap. This workers’ victory was, says Henderson, on a par with other labour struggles in Britain for fairer wages. 

Since then, adds Henderson however, “things have gone awry” in the descent of English football “towards the bloated monument to Mammon it would grow into by the close of the century”.

Henderson’s interviewees, all veterans from the wage-cap era, are unanimous that present day footballers’ wages are “immoral”, “barmy”, “ridiculous”, “outrageous”. The average salary of an English Premier League (EPL) footballer has just topped £50,000 per week with the superstars coining north of a quarter million each week. Transfer fees have reached obscene levels, with Brazil’s Neymar’s record-breaking sale from Barcelona to Paris St-Germain for £198 million in 2017 is now an aspiration not an aberration.

Supersonic wage inflation was turbo-charged by the billion-pound deluge of media money for television broadcasting rights for the EPL, following the revamping of the old competition structure in 1992. TV money has made large financial rewards possible for all 20 EPL clubs, much of which goes to purchasing the most talented players from all corners of the globe to ensure top flight survival and it continuing monetary rewards.

What the clubs have lost in this mad march of money, say Henderson’s interviewees, are the community bonds between the players and their working-class supporters. The EPL’s “plutocrats of today” are footballers who are “not close to the fans at all”. They are an elite stratum of international round-ball mercenaries with more regard for their tax-dodging, off-shore accounts and luxurious lifestyles than any economic egalitarianism or wealth-levelling that might benefit their fans.

In hindsight, the few dissenters in the players’ union in 1961 who argued for significantly raising, but not abolishing, the wage cap in 1961 may have been on to something.

The entire class of ’61, however, were on to something bigger, and still politically relevant — the power of trade union combination against the tiny few who profit from football, whether they did so in the past by keeping wages shackled or by overpaying today’s super-rich players to keep the TV-rights revenue in the stratosphere. The 1961 wage cap struggle is a needed reminder that it is only the skills of the working footballer that make the football industry possible.

Henderson’s book, despite its page-padding self-indulgent nostalgia, shows that it is the remorseless logic of capitalism that drives the contest for the soul of football between working-class community and the profit-seeking forces of commercialism. It is a contest between those who truly love the game and those who see it as just another path to get rich.

Football is a class game in more ways than one.

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