Football: The game has forgotten value of loyalty

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ONE OF the few advantages a veteran sportswriter possesses over much younger colleagues is being able to consider great issues of today in the context of events that brought them about.

For example, 29 years ago this week I first heard of a plan that would cause no small amount of consternation in English football and lead to the fears of financial doom that many on all sides of the game are presently expressing.

At the time, 9 July 1960, and as a former Professional Footballers' Association delegate, I was fully behind George Eastham in the stand he was taking against Newcastle United's contractual right to deny him a transfer. Premiership salaries in excess of pounds 20,000 per week have become so commonplace since the Bosman ruling that even supporters in middle-age must find it difficult to believe that players of Eastham's quite recent vintage were still shackled by an iniquitous retain-and-transfer system and held under a pounds 20 per week ceiling on wages.

Significantly, this policy was thought so secure that my then employers, the Daily Mirror, had no faith in the possible effects of Eastham's stubbornness. "He's got a case," I remember the sports editor saying, "but it won't come to anything. Six paragraphs should do it."

I saw a lot of Eastham in the months that followed, sometimes at the home of his father's friend, Ernie Clay, who took him on as a salesman, sometimes when he came to stay with my family.

There was no crusade in Eastham's mind, simply the democratic right to work for whom he pleased and where he pleased.

Crucially, the PFA at last had a player who was prepared to challenge the authorities. Its chairman, Jimmy Hill, secretary Cliff Lloyd and an astute Manchester solicitor, George Davis, could see the implications of Eastham's stand and encouraged him to press a High Court action that continued after the immediate dispute had been settled by a pounds 45,0000 transfer to Arsenal in December 1960.

Not so long I went back over all this with Eastham in South Africa, where he has lived for a number of years. "I don't think any of us thought that things would develop in the way they have," he said. "But I don't blame the players. They are entitled to get what they can. It's the clubs who are at fault, the clubs who will be responsible if the game crashes. Some of the salaries are ridiculous, frankly out of all proportion to the ability I see on television."

Everyone should applaud the fact that sport can now provide a profitable career, and that those expert at games should be considered like any other star entertainer and paid accordingly.

Sadly, however, we have reached the point where the impulse to take up a game has become the impulse to make a great deal of money with no ethic that conforms to loyalty.

This week, when commenting on the pending transfer of Eyal Berkovic to Celtic and stories linking Rio Ferdinand with Roma, the West Ham United manager, Harry Redknapp, conceded that loyalty in football was a thing of the past. "You'll no longer see players staying with clubs for 10 or 12 years," he said.

But suppose - the day may not be far off - that sports watchers come to realise the futility of trying to establish a connection with the great heroes of games. Suppose that football in this country falls entirely into the hands of a few clubs who will have all the best players.

We are covering here an issue that appears to escape the understanding of Premiership chairmen, grasping agents and players who have been persuaded to believe that allegiance is an absurd quality.

Even with long practice it is not possible to forget that things were once different and the difference wasn't always what it is often cracked up to be. The working conditions of English-based footballers in Eastham's time and before nourished the rebellion of which he can be proud. Trouble is, and it can only get worse, the game is in danger of being knocked silly by a swing of the pendulum.