Football: Vinnie Jones should count himself lucky but, foolishly, he is now threatening the system that made his overblown status possible
Thursday 01 May 1997
Guthrie, who led Portsmouth to a famous 4-1 victory over Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1939 FA Cup final, achieved greater prominence as a troublemaker, leading a struggle for the pay and conditions enjoyed today in English football even by players of Jones's limited ability.
What I am coming to quickly is the consternation Jones has caused by threatening to challenge legally the transfer fee system that applies if players want to move between English clubs at the end of their contracts.
As it is a system supported by the Professional Footballers' Association, who shared concern expressed generally over the controversial Bosman ruling that allows players to move freely to other countries, you have to wonder if there are people other than Jones involved in the issue. In other words, who put him up to it?
In fact, total freedom of contract was exactly what Guthrie sought 42 years ago when addressing the Trades Union Congress. "I stand here," he said, "as the representative of the last bonded men in Britain - the professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which, now in this year of 1955, human beings are being bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballer's employment are akin to slavery ['Slaves in Chains' was the headline placed above reports of Guthrie's oration]."
Guthrie went on: "They smirch the name of British democracy. I have been accused by the football bosses and in the press of exaggeration in talking about 'slavery'. Let the bitter facts speak for themselves."
They were that a professional footballer's contract ended on 30 June each year when he was either retained for a further 12 months, placed on the open-to-transfer list or given a free transfer. A retained player who did not agree terms received no money and could not move elsewhere. Similarly, a player on the open-to-transfer list was no longer on the payroll and could not move until a fee was paid for his services.
Considering that it was six more years before things began to change we have come a long way in a relatively short time. In 1960, when on tour with the England Under-23 team, George Eastham told me that he was determined to get away from Newcastle United even it meant going on strike. There was no great cause in Eastham's mind but the stubbornness that brought about his transfer to Arsenal inspired a well-organised campaign, led brilliantly by Jimmy Hill, that put paid to the maximum wage and the retain and transfer system.
Nevertheless allowing clubs to put a price (subject to arbitration) on unsettled players who were out of contract made sense. It still does, protecting most obviously the smaller clubs and, therefore, the unique structure of English league football.
This week, in an interview he gave to the Sun, the PFA's chief executive, Gordon Taylor, expressed fears that would never have occurred to a man of Guthrie's militant nature. "The system is not out of date because it works," Taylor said. "Of course we will refine it because of Bosman. But don't tear up everything and start again. There is security for players in this country. They cannot be sacked. Contracts have to be honoured... We do not want freedom across the board because my members realise it would affect the clubs they came from and often go back to."
When I was a member of Taylor's union and a delegate to its annual conference I felt the need for radical change as much as anyone. Later on newspapers provided me with an opportunity to campaign for improvements in the working conditions of professional footballers.
Jones should count himself lucky. There was a time, I think, when he would have been advised to seek alternative employment. Stick to lugging cement, raising chickens. Foolishly, he is now threatening the very system that made his overblown status possible.
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