Football: The death of loyalty and respect in football

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The Independent Online
THIRTY-EIGHT years ago this week George Eastham reaffirmed a decision that helped transform working conditions in English football. "No matter what they say, no matter what they do, I've played my last match for Newcastle," I remember him saying at the home of a friend in Surrey.

Eastham's case, brilliantly exploited by the Professional Footballers' Association's legal adviser, George Davis, led to the removal of the maximum wage and freedom from an iniquitous retain and transfer system that was described in court as a relic of the Middle Ages.

Something for today's heroes to think about is that the cause from which many now draw great benefit was supported by sportswriters of the day. And few of us paid much account to the Football League's fear that to allow players to have too great a say in how much they should be paid and for whom they should work would open professional football to anarchy.

What one has to concede now is that there was as much substance as prejudice in a warning issued all those years ago by the League's splenetic secretary, Alan Hardaker. "The more power players get the more trouble there will be for the game," he said.

No mere reactionary, Hardaker saw dangers in wage escalation, the influence of television, agents and sponsorship.

The anarchy Hardaker feared has been highlighted this week by Pierre van Hooijdonk's announcement that he would not be returning to honour his contract with Nottingham Forest because he claims that the club's board lacks sufficient ambition to keep him interested.

Sadly, this is nothing new and, of course, there is no comparison between Eastham's case against Newcastle in 1960 and Hooijdonk's outrageous rejection of Forest and their supporters.

From time to time, I speak with Eastham who is retired at 62 and living in Cape Town. Recently, I put it to him that football now suffers from the results of his action.

In truth, he did not have a cause in mind when standing out against Newcastle but went along with the moral justification. "It was impossible for any of us to know what the future held," he said, "but I blame the clubs more than the players for what has happened in football. It's the clubs who agree to ridiculous salaries out of all proportion to ability, the clubs who have failed to fix some sort of a ceiling on wages, the clubs who give in to the demands of agents. Change had to come, and now you have that Bosman ruling, but the change hasn't been well managed."

Nevertheless, sympathy is held out here for Forest's manager, Dave Bassett, who admitted this week that he will probably find it impossible to prevent Hooijdonk from moving. "I don't feel particularly let down," he said in an interview given to Midlands football writers. "I might have been a few years ago but nothing really surprises me now. I just think that football is a completely greedy game. Unfortunately, I don't see things getting any better, just worse."

Wage restrictions in English football (a pounds 20 weekly maximum with meagre bonuses of pounds 2 per for a win and pounds 1 a draw until the PFA voted to strike in 1961) forced players abroad but for signing-on fees and bonuses not guaranteed salaries. John Charles received pounds 10,000 when joining Juventus from Leeds in 1958, but received pounds 2 less in his weekly wage packet than at Elland Road. "We had to earn the big money," he said. "It was all in bonuses."

Ajax find themselves in a similar situation to Forest over the De Boer brothers - Ronald and Frank - who are refusing to take part in pre-season training despite being ordered in court to honour their contracts.

Going back to the event that provoked all this meditation, it seems very unlikely that Eastham and his advisers knew what they were letting the game in for. Not, I imagine, for the attitude that sees loyalty as a weakness.

The bond between footballers and the communities in which they work grows ever weaker. It is the age of the mercenary, here today and gone tomorrow.

Honesty, loyalty, respect for the fans. What do most big-time players today know of things that ran strong in so many of the 100 who were named this week as the legends of the English Football League?