"I would give my age away if I said they don't know how lucky they are these days." Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, may be joking but it is unlikely that too many players making lucrative moves during January's transfer window will realise the debt of gratitude they owe their forebears of 50 years ago.
Never mind a window of opportunity opening, when the new year of 1961 was ushered in, English football's focus rested on a possible shutdown with the nation's players threatening strike action. Their aim was to achieve the so-called "two freedoms" – the abolition both of the old retain-and-transfer system and the maximum wage.
Player power then was confined to the pitch, prompting The Times to declare that while footballers, in their fame, were similar to "the stars of Hollywood, in contract of service they resemble the apprentices of some ancient guild". A player could earn no more than £20 a week, reduced to £17 in the off-season. Moreover, once registered with a club, he could not sign for any other without the permission of the one holding his registration. If he requested a transfer, his club could block the move and retain his registration provided his wages remained at least at the level of his former deal.
Jimmy Armfield, the former Blackpool and England defender, offers a personal reminiscence of how the system worked. "The thing was the clubs still held your registration even when your contract ended so you couldn't move. Manchester United came in to buy me in 1957 and the manager Joe Smith said, 'We've decided you can't go and that's the end of it'. You had no agent to help you, so most of us were happy to be where we were," says Armfield, now a technical consultant for the PFA's coaching department and match summariser for Radio 5 Live.
Armfield cites Jimmy Hill, then the PFA's progressive chairman, as "the inspiration" in a campaign for change which gathered momentum after a Manchester meeting of club delegates in January 1961. Armfield recalls how a young player from a lower-division team got up and declared how lucky he was to be earning more than his father, who worked down a mine.
"Tommy Banks from Bolton stood up, and in this broad Lancastrian accent, said: 'Son, we can all have a dabble in your father's job but you come and ask him to play against Brother Matthews in front of 30,000.' Everybody burst out laughing but that could have swayed the meeting. We all agreed then to go for it.
"If you look at Stanley Matthews, Blackpool had the best away gates for six years because people came to see Matthews," adds Armfield. "Consequently, he deserved more money – but he couldn't get any more than somebody like me."
A strike was averted when, on 18 January, Hill shook hands on a deal with the football authorities signalling the end of the maximum wage. For Armfield this meant "my wage the next season went from £20 to £40. I thought I was a millionaire until I went to play for England and Johnny Haynes had got £100 a week".
However, the retain-and-transfer system first established in the 1890s stayed intact until George Eastham's PFA-sponsored legal fight finally had it declared an "unjustifiable restraint of trade" in the High Court in July 1963. Eastham had gone on strike to force a move from Newcastle to Arsenal, with the PFA then persuading him to undertake his successful action against Newcastle, the Football League and Football Association.
Further progress followed in 1978, the year Taylor became PFA chairman, with players given the right to move when their contracts expired, albeit for a transfer fee.
Reflecting on a change begun five decades ago, Taylor says: "There was no point in moving [before then] so as a result the talent was spread. A lot of people said it would be the downfall of the game but five years later we won the World Cup. It did become a more attractive profession. When I played, many players had jobs throughout the summer and there were quite a number of part-timers. It became a profession to dedicate yourself to and the rewards were there if you succeeded."
The Football League had warned that in a brave new world post-Eastham, powerful clubs would take all the best players and destroy competition; if this fear has largely materialised today, though, it is rather a product of the 1995 Bosman ruling ensuring Europe-wide free movement at the end of a contract and the influx of big money from satellite TV. "The clubs in the first 80 to 90 years of football held the power and suddenly, particularly since 1992, it's the players who've held the power – or at least up to a point," says Armfield.
As for the impact on players, Taylor says they "have coped well in general" and cites the PFA's community programme, which produced 35,000 visits from players last year.
Fifty years after a meeting in Manchester helped precipitate the end of the £20 maximum wage, the city is home to at least one player earning £200,000 a week. Taylor would not advocate salary-capping but argues "a club should live within its means – one can't deny that financial propriety is good for any business". He laments how Fifa "put up the white flag" with regards to the control of agents and admits to concern about third-party ownership which "can cause great instability" at clubs.
One notable worry is that the antics of players like Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez are damaging the link between players and fans. "I never thought the PFA would have so many millionaires. It is right they should share in the income but with that comes a responsibility and that is why the [disputes between] Rooney and Man Utd and Tevez and Man City are not good for the game.
"We have to be very careful that we don't disillusion the public because we need the public both to be watching football on TV and filling grounds. Without full capacities it is nowhere near as enjoyable a game."Reuse content