Two years ago, Gordon Taylor provoked a degree of controversy when, on behalf of the Professional Footballers' Association, he acquired a painting by L S Lowry for £2m. As it turned out, it was a rather appropriate purchase, for the kind of language that is emanating from the current dispute with the game's mand- arins reflects more the austerity depicted by Lowry's "matchstick men" than the reality of life as the rest of us understand it in 2001.
With the exception of London tube train drivers, strikes are about as typical of industrial relations today as the appeasement of union chiefs over beer and sandwiches at Number 10. Yet, we have arrived at a situation with Taylor being perceived as not too far removed from Peter Sellers' bloody-minded union official in I'm All Right, Jack and the Premier and Football Leagues the callous, uncaring bosses. All that is missing is the cry of "Everybody out".
For all the brinkmanship, you suspect the truth is that this dispute is less about providing succour and support for the unfortunate "brothers" whose careers have been terminated by damaged cruciates or sheer lack of demand for their talents and more about the PFA attempting to re-assert its influence and power, and in particular that of Taylor, its chief executive.
In his bid to maintain his and his organisation's status Taylor could be playing a dangerous game with his players' reputations and maybe their fortunes, too, even if his arguments were convincing, which they are not. If they did "withdraw their labour" from televised matches, as has been threatened in support of the PFA's demand for five per cent of television income, or in excess of £25m a year, it could provide the TV companies with the opportunity to seek to renegotiate the current over-priced product, which has been sold for £1.5bn over three years. In the long term that could inflict financial damage on clubs and players.
In byegone years the PFA's role as a source of aid for impoverished former members was an important one. It cannot claim the same today, with a considerable proportion of television revenue already finding its way into the pockets of the elite players and their agents. Over the last five years there has been an inflationary spiral in footballers' salaries, which has seen them increase by 188 per cent. Last year, the Premier League's salary bill alone was £319m – compared to the £242m they received in broadcast revenue.
That may explain why many of the football-following public find it difficult to stomach this demand – albeit for what is claimed to be the most altruistic of causes – for their employers to contribute yet more.
As for the cause itself, we have all watched documentaries when the callow apprentice is called into the manager's office and told: "Sorry, son... you're not going to make it." We all remember the horrendous injury suffered by Coventry's David Busst. And we are all too aware of the ex-pros who can hardly walk because of arthritis.
It is to their credit that the wealthy players believe there should be support for these ex-players. Yet though such compassion is noble, it would carry more conviction if they were prepared to pick up the bill – or at least contribute generously, which does not describe their current PFA subscriptions of £75 a year or one per cent of total PFA income – rather than expect others to do so.
There cannot be too many employers, let alone in an industry in which their workers are so handomely rewarded (even Third Division players receive an average of £37,000, which is well above the national average) who are expected to support their union as well.
If the PFA continues to have a prominent role – other than representing its members in individual disputes with their clubs – it is in ensuring that the former players, who did not profit from the recent goldrush, are looked after and that today's players are sufficiently advised and educated.
That would not appear to be a significant drain on its present resources. If it does so, Taylor should emphasise just how the money would be allocated. For the moment, the union maintains that it needs the same percentage of the TV money as it has done historically – regardless, apparently, of the astronomical nature of the current figure.
The Premier League is still offering not much in excess of one per cent, though sources suggest it could yield the five per cent demanded if Taylor identifies precisely how the money would be spent.
It will take significant acquiescence on one side to resolve an issue which is essentially a power struggle. That will be no facile task – even with the FA chief executive Adam Crozier's intervention as peacemaker – now that the union's matchstick men are on the march.
For the good of the game, they will hesitate before they burn their own fingers.Reuse content