Graham Kelly: Beckham should consider fate of 'Golden Boy' Mannion

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The Independent Football

Viewers tuning in to BBC One for the England-Slovakia match last week amid the news of David Beckham's dismay at Manchester United's statement concerning their negotiations with the Barcelona presidential candidate may have caught a glimpse of a statue erected in honour of a former player who actually went on strike against football's feudal employment system.

Gary Lineker presented his opening standing alongside a bronze bust of Wilf Mannion, the greatest ever Middlesbrough player, known as the Golden Boy for his blond hair, a diminutive inside-forward who scored 110 goals in 368 matches.

Gordon Taylor, the chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, may have had grounds for complaining that Manchester United's treatment of Beckham was akin to that of handling a piece of meat. But the words of David Jack, the Middlesbrough manager, following his resignation in 1952, long after Mannion's first reconciliation with the club he so spectacularly fell out with in 1948, have a hollow ring when set against Mannion's subsequent job as an ICI teaboy and the refusal for many years of the Middlesbrough board to grant their illustrious former player a testimonial match.

"Mannion now knows that he need have no worry when his playing career is over," Jack said. "The club has made arrangements to look after him."

The Golden Boy was a player of superb vision who added thousands to attendances. He scored a hat-trick on his England debut, against Northern Ireland in Belfast in a 7-2 win in 1946, and won 26 caps in all.

Mannion's story is told in the acclaimed biography Golden Boy by the freelance journalist Nick Varley. He recounts in the paperback edition how his subject was mobbed Beckham-style in Middlesbrough on the publication of the original book in 1997. A similar fate currently befalls Sir Tom Finney in Preston city centre on book signings. Sir Tom, now 82, first came across Mannion during the Second World War, in the Middle East, where they were opponents entertaining large crowds of troops in specially arranged matches.

When they teamed up later in the England forward line he regarded Mannion as the ideal partner. "He was a great finisher too," Sir Tom told me. "He thought about the game a lot."

He was thinking about how to secure his family's future, I guess, when he requested a transfer from Middlesbrough at the end of the 1947-48 season, seeking some sort of payment or ancillary job. As Middlesbrough were offering him the maximum terms - £12 per week in the season and £10 in summer - they were within their rights to hold him. His England colleague Tommy Lawton had reputedly fixed himself myriad outside arrangements - on his move from Chelsea to Third Division Notts County - a year earlier.

Clubs were in the driving seat then. Although a player was well paid by comparison with an average worker, he was tied for his entire career. Irrespective of the size of any transfer fee, the player only received the £10 signing-on fee.

During the summer of 1948 Mannion missed out on his £10 wages and when pre-season training began he was to be found wearing a tattered England training top juggling a ball at South Bank, his former junior club.

The story has some interesting modern parallels. The game was awash with cash from the post-war boom. The Boro dressing-room had become disaffected with Mannion because supporters had clubbed together to purchase their idol a bedroom suite as a wedding present. By the end of September Middlesbrough were prepared to consider taking players in exchange.

The dispute became a saga as moves were mooted only to fall through. Mannion went to live in Oldham, selling chicken coops for a businessman and, when he was quoted in the Oldham paper threatening never to play for any club which agreed a fee of more than £12,000 with Middlesbrough, it was assumed that he wanted to follow Lawton's example by dropping into the Third Division.

Come the New Year Aston Villa agreed to Boro's £25,000 asking price and, though they allegedly arranged a sweetener of £3,000 and a lucrative extra job, no deal was concluded. Arsenal eschewed any additional inducements but, as Mannion's pregnant wife, Bernadette, did not want to move south, their negotiations were pointless.

Suddenly, for Bernadette's health, Mannion returned to Middlesbrough and scored four goals in the final 13 matches of a successful relegation battle. He said he was scared of being branded a law-breaker for accepting money from his benefactor.

In reality, this happy-go-lucky introvert was in dire need of some good advice, but he never realised just how much he highlighted the imperfections of the system which was abolished following the actions of a subsequent rebel, George Eastham, who challenged and, unlike Mannion, defeated the might of the football authorities, paving the way for Beckham, Juninho and co to earn their mega-millions.

Maybe someone pointed this out to Mannion the day he brought the house down when they closed Ayresome Park on Boro's move to the Riverside Stadium in 1996. He died, aged 81, in 2000.

And, if Beckham should decide to hold out against the treatment he is receiving, the irony is that his magnificent forerunner made a stand shortly after starring for Great Britain against Europe in Glasgow before a crowd of 134,000 in a match to raise funds for the then bankrupt Fifa. And returned home sitting on his suitcase in a third-class rail compartment.