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

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
Ronahi Serhat, a PKK fighter, in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan
Arts and Entertainment
Poet’s corner: Philip Larkin at the venetian window of his home in 1958
booksOr caring, playful man who lived for others? A new book has the answer
Arts and Entertainment
Exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Metz - 23 May 2012
Matthew McConaughey and his son Levi at the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Houston Astros at Fenway Park on August 17, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts.
advertisingOscar-winner’s Lincoln deal is latest in a lucrative ad production line
Life and Style
Pick of the bunch: Sudi Pigott puts together roasted tomatoes with peppers, aubergines and Labneh cheese for a tomato-inspired vegetarian main dish
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape