How players won football's 100 years war

As the Professional Footballers' Association celebrates its centenary, Glenn Moore charts the history of an organisation that recovered from its early struggles to become the most successful trade union in the world


1907-09 Billy Meredith wins the battle to be in a union

It could be said that the unions helped make football since mass sports attendance and participation was impossible until union agitation prompted the Factory Acts allowing working men Saturday afternoons off. It may seem surprising, then, that it was more than a quarter of a century after the Football Association launched the FA Cup that players began to unionise. Yet the practice of paying players had only been legalised in 1885 and initially players were just happy to be rewarded for playing.

Unionism was, though, a powerful force in the working class of the time especially in Lancashire where the textile unions had gained significant concessions. Footballers soon came to realise that while they were better paid than most of the men who watched them, their employment rights were often worse. The most iniquitous aspect was the retain-and-transfer system. This tied a player to his club even after his annual contract had expired. If the club refused to sanction a transfer he could not play for anyone else.

This would later provoke the celebrated, but unsuccessful, one-man strike by Wilf Mannion, and condemn Tom Finney to a lifetime of plumbing. It was also a one-sided relationship because the one-year deals offered players no reciprocal security. Nevertheless, William Bassett, a one-time England international who, in a rare example of upward mobility became West Bromwich Albion's chairman, was to write: "We can dismiss from our minds all this silly talk of silly people that [the transfer system] is monstrous, a sin against morality, that players should be bought and sold like cattle. That is nonsense."

This view was not widespread among his former playing colleagues and, in 1898, the Association Footballers' Union was formed in Manchester with 250 members. However, neither the amateur gentry of the FA, nor the businessmen of the Football League recognised this fledgling body and it was wound up in 1901.

Nearly a decade on, on 2 December 1907, Manchester's footballers had another attempt at organising. Billy Meredith, the Manchester United and Wales winger, one of the leading players of his time, was in the chair as the Association of Football Players' and Trainers' Union was formed at a meeting at the city's Imperial Hotel. Alongside him were players from a number of northern and Midlands Football League clubs and, interestingly, from the south, Tottenham. Meredith had already sought to improve his income: he was among the players suspended by the FA and released by Manchester City in 1906 following his involvement in an illegal payments and match-fixing scandal.

He had been motivated to do this in part because the authorities had established a maximum wage, the issue which was to dominate relations between them and the union for more than half a century. This was initially set, in 1901, at £4 a week. That was twice the average pay of a works' foreman and four times that of a farm labourer, both occupations footballers, being working men, were compared, and compared themselves, with.

The authorities were initially amenable to the new union but when it challenged wage and transfer restraints in 1909, and threatened to join the Federation of Trades Union (the precursor to the Trades Union Congress), recognition was withdrawn. After going to the brink of a strike, the union, uncertain of its power, settled for recognition and the allowing of bonus payments.

1918-1955 Decline, depression and division

Having pushed the maximum wage to £9 a week in 1920, they were stunned when the Football League unilaterally reduced it. Although the union successfully won a court case arguing that the reduction was illegal during the life of a contract, it could not persuade the League to restore the maximum for subsequent deals. By 1925, a union which had had 4,470 professionals on its books in 1914 could only muster eight delegates, representing 100 members, at its AGM. The union, weak and divided across clubs and by national geography, limped along between the wars failing to get the maximum raised once. The players' union suffered, like other trades unions, during the Depression.

Following the Second World War, in which many of its members fought and which cut six years off a short career, there was a new mood of militancy, especially when crowds flocked to grounds breaking records for attendance (and receipts) everywhere. Another threatened strike, then recourse to the wage tribunals set up by the Labour government, raised the maximum to £12 in 1947.

It was not enough, as the cases of Mannion and Finney illustrated. Some players, including England centre-half Neil Franklin, voted with their feet, accepting offers to play in a rogue league in Colombia. They returned to severe penalties from the FA.

1960-63 Jimmy Hill saves the union and frees 'the slaves'

Further agitation saw steady increases in the maximum, but while Britain "never had it so good", according to Harold Macmillan, footballers became frustrated at the union's failure to lift archaic restraints which made them "slaves" to the clubs. Then, in 1956, Jimmy Hill became secretary. He soon changed the union's name to the Professional Footballers' Association, changing a blue collar image to one in keeping with the new wave of working-class actors and entertainers.

Four years later, Hill began a well-planned, PR-friendly campaign looking for the abolition of the maximum wage (now £20), a share of transfer fees, longer contracts and the reform of the retain-and-transfer system. The first was conceded after six months, Johnny Haynes soon becoming the first £100-a-week footballer. A strike threat won the next two demands. But it took a 1963 High Court judgement to break retain-and-transfer. George Eastham, who was backed by the PFA, successfully took Newcastle to court pleading restraint of trade after they initially refused to allow him to move to Arsenal.

1980 onwards Gordon Taylor demonstrates power of the union

After Hill's victories, the PFA became part of the fabric of football governance. His predecessor, Jimmy Guthrie, had successfully argued that players should be paid for television appearances and won funding which enabled the union to develop the educational, medical and insurance benefits provided for members. Under Gordon Taylor, the chief executive since 1981, the PFA has continued to expand and is involved in community programmes, anti-racism initiatives, acts as a player agent, and even loans clubs money to pay wages.

Television funding underwrites much of their activity but six years ago it came under threat after Sky's arrival pushed TV fees to stratospheric levels. The governing bodies, provoked by Taylor's £2m purchase of Lowry's painting, "Going to the Match", threatened to slice the PFA's percentage share. Taylor responded by organising a strike ballot which, even with the influx of foreign players, delivered 99 per cent backing.

Emboldened by this, Taylor secured a deal guaranteeing the PFA £175m over 10 years with total discretion over how it spends the money. The union's income was also protected in the longer term. Taylor and his union sometimes take a misguided stand, as with the Rio Ferdinand drugs test incident, but they more often serve as "the conscience of the game" and are now focusing on community involvement and the need for players to be role models. A century on from that first, tentative meeting, said Taylor yesterday, "nothing can be done to affect players in England without the approval of the PFA".

Boot on other foot: Heroes of yesteryear who were exploited

Wilf Mannion

Middlesbrough's website describes Mannion as the club's finest player, which explains why they were loath to lose him in 1948. Mannion, a gifted inside-forward, had refused to re-sign his £10-a-week contract and wanted to move to Oldham, where he had been offered a good job outside the game. Boro refused to release him, initially at any price, then only for a record £25,000 fee. Mannion, who had a new-born child, took a job selling chicken coops. He gave in after five months. After retirement he worked as a labourer. Boro gave him a testimonial in 1983.

Sir Tom Finney

In 1952, while touring Italy with England, Tom Finney was approached by the millionaire president of Palermo. He offered Finney, then 30 years old and earning £14-a-week at Preston North End, a £7,000 signing-on fee, £130-a-month wages, bonuses, a house, car and free travel. On his return he put the offer to Preston's board. Palermo had also offered a £30,000 transfer fee but Preston rejected it. Finney subsequently went on holiday to Blackpool. After retiring from playing Finney went full-time in the family plumbing business.

Brothers in arms: The PFA by comparison

Footballers

Union: Professional Footballers Association (PFA).

Founded/Membership: 1907/4,000.

Subscription: £75 (non-contract); £95 (professionals).

Benefits: Non-contributory pension, disability insurance, six month's severance pay, education grants, private medicine, hardship fund, collective bargaining for conditions, financial and legal advice.

Cricketers

Union: Professional Cricketers' Association (PCA).

Founded/Membership: 1967/400.

Subscription: £25 (academy) rising to £110 (capped players).

Benefits: Collective bargaining for pay and conditions, financial and legal advice, insurance and credit card deals.

Actors

Union: Equity.

Founded/Membership: 1930/37,000.

Subscription: One per cent of annual pay.

Benefits: Negotiation of minimum terms and conditions with employers across industry, welfare and legal advice, insurance and pension scheme.

Teachers

Union: NUT (National Union of Teachers).

Founded/Membership: 1870/30,000.

Subscription: £33.75 to £135, depending on time in job.

Benefits: Regular campaigns for better pay and working conditions for all teachers, legal and professional facilities such as insurance and financial services.

Train Drivers

Union: Aslef (Associated Society of Locomotive Steam Enginemen and Firemen).

Founded/Membership: 1880/18,500.

Subscription: £111.80 or £2.15 a week (annual earnings under £16,000) to £257.40 or £4.95 a week (over £21,000).

Benefits: Health and safety training, pursuit of equal opportunities, range of legal services and credit card offers.

All subcriptions are annual unless otherwise stated

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