Heart of the union: Why the modern game should be grateful to George Eastham

PFA centenary. The guinea pig in a landmark legal case for football returns to the roots of his brave stance
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Whether or not their salaries stretch to a Baby Bentley, professional footballers driving home from training last Wednesday lunch-time should have been offering a prayer of thanks to the dapper little 70-year-old being applauded to his seat in Manchester Town Hall's impressive Great Hall. The occasion was the launch of the Professional Footballers' Association centenary, and those who had drawn up the guest list were well aware of the significance of George Eastham in the union's history.

As it happened, Eastham was a player of considerable ability, a beautifully balanced inside-forward who could open up a defence with his immaculate passing and who appeared 19 times for England. His name is even better remembered, however, for the cause célèbre that led to football's iniquitous retain-and-transfer system being abolished.

In 1959, any player declining the offer of a new contract for whatever reason, as Eastham did at Newcastle United, was in a uniquely weak position. The club simply retained his registration and were no longer obliged to pay him. They could sell him to whoever they chose, but if the player refused to go he would again not be paid.

The PFA, under their new chairman, Jimmy Hill, decided to challenge the system and the existence of the equally abhorrent maximum wage, which at that time was £20 a week during the season and £17 in the summer (when living costs were somehow assumed to be smaller). Predictably, they met fierce resistance from the Football League, who eventually gave in on wages but in June 1961 reneged on an agreement to reform the transfer system.

By that time, after holding out for seven months without playing, Eastham had moved to Arsenal for a substantial transfer fee of £47,500. He had what he wanted, but unlike the protagonists of the popular movie satire of the time on management-union relations, I'm All Right Jack, he took a less self-centred view and agreed to continue being the guinea pig in a case that went all the way to the High Court.

Eastham's original motivation for leaving Newcastle had, he admits, nothing to do with altruism. "I wanted to earn more money, so I asked them to get me a job outside football in the afternoons," he recalled on Wednesday. "We only trained in the mornings so I wanted something to occupy me rather than just wasting money or becoming a better snooker player. They said they'd get me a job but nothing was forthcoming, so I went down to London and started selling cork."

His new employer - offering better wages than £20 a week - turned out to be Ernie Clay, who would later become chairman of Fulham: "I opened a few doors for him, as my name was in the headlines at the time, and he helped me out." In the meantime, Eastham trained with the amateurs of Reigate and Redhill, and played, incongruously, for the TV All-Stars XI alongside Tommy Steele and Mike and Bernie Winters: "The FA objected strongly to that, so we told them what to do as well. I had no contact with Newcastle at all. The manager was Charlie Mitten, and his attitude was: 'If you don't play for us, you won't play for anybody.' In the end they just came up to Highbury to sign the transfer forms. There was no signing-on fee, but you were supposed to get a bonus of £150 for each year with the club, so I was due £600, which was omitted from the contract. They said it would be sorted out, so I signed, stupidly, and that was £600 down the drain."

The PFA were also concerned about losing money. Their secretary, Cliff Lloyd, and Jimmy Hill had been advised by lawyers that the chances of having the transfer system declared a restraint of trade on the back of the Eastham case were no better than 50-50, and funds were running low. Gordon Taylor, the current chief executive, believes that the union would have gone bust had the case been lost, but in 1963 Mr Justice Wilberforce declared that rules restricting a player out of contract from taking up employment elsewhere were a restraint of trade.

"They thought I'd give it up once the transfer went through," Eastham says, "but the PFA had spent a lot of money, just about all the funds they had, so I said I would see it through." That involved a gruelling session or two in court with the Newcastle chairman. "It was absolutely terrifying. Alderman McKeag was a criminal lawyer and he gave me a hard time. And after he'd finished with me, I thought I was the criminal."

Eastham stayed at Arsenal for six years, playing more than 200 games and taking over Johnny Haynes's No 10 shirt in the England team. Had a World Cup been due in 1964, he would have been in the side. As it was, he fell between the stools of 1962 in Chile and 1966, a squad member each time without playing for a single minute. Later, there would be six more seasons at Stoke, where he scored the winning goal in the 1972 League Cup final against Chelsea and briefly succeeded Tony Waddington as manager.

Moving to South Africa in 1978, he did some coaching before retirement, and still lives in Cape Town, where televised English football is in abundant supply. He particularly admires one of his successors in the Arsenal midfield, Cesc Fabregas, and does not begrudge present-day players the rewards earned in part off the back of his celebrated case: "They get in a week what I got in a career. So you can see how it's escalated over the years. But everybody's worth what he can get, so long as they play to their ability and give what they've got to give."

And the legacy of the Eastham case? "I suppose it opened the way to challenge the retain-and-transfer system and help players to a better living." Sitting behind him in the grandest of settings, the modern Manchester icons Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney nodded their approval and - one would hope - their gratitude.