James Lawton: PFA victory puts forces of greed on the back foot

Taylor's success offers epic resistance to idea that football's poor are being inexorably pushed over cliff edge
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The Independent Football

Reminders of the extent, and the value, of the Professional Footballers' Association trouncing of the Premiership in their bitter negotiations have come at breathtaking speed.

Reminders of the extent, and the value, of the Professional Footballers' Association trouncing of the Premiership in their bitter negotiations have come at breathtaking speed.

Even before the ink is completely dry on the deal which gave the PFA £53m over three years – and 10 years of security – it is plain that the campaign led by the cheaply vilified Gordon Taylor must go down as epic resistance to the idea that the process of the football rich getting richer – and the poorer finally being pushed over the cliff edge – is inexorable.

Certainly if the trash talk of such as the Chelsea chairman, Ken Bates, in his branding of the players' chief as the "Arthur Scargill of football," so enthusiastically abetted by large sections of Fleet Street, had paid off, if the extraordinary development of players like David Beckham and Ryan Giggs supporting their impoverished cousins struggling at the bottom of the food chain had been broken, today's picture of the game would be one of seamless greed.

Consider it, briefly, as the ITV chiefs, particularly, desperately reflect on the generosity of their football deal and the relatively fat cats of the old Second Division – Manchester City, Coventry, Wolves, Bradford City, Birmingham and Sheffield Wednesday – seek to cut adrift fellow members of a Nationwide League they clearly consider doomed. Consider the prospect of Celtic and Rangers eviscerating the appeal of their own national league by joining in the scramble for what might be left of the television largesse. Contemplate also, the meaning of Leeds United, already dangerously extended financially, adding another £11m to their debt with the stockpiling of still another leading striker, Liverpool's Robbie Fowler.

If the deals goes through, it means that Fowler will have moved from one rotation battle with Michael Owen, Emile Heskey, and Jari Litmanen to another with Mark Viduka, Robbie Keane and Alan Smith.

In the world's most successful professional sports league, America's National Football League, the imperative, based on the immutable truth that any chain is only as strong as its weakest link, is to maintain a reasonably equitable flow of strength. It means that the league's poorest performer gets first choice of the most valuable talent in the annual draft of college players. Practically, such a system cannot work in English football, but even the smallest nuance of such a policy would help.

Another truth is that when the NFL was formed, in a car showroom in Canton, Ohio, with franchises costing $50 a throw, the biggest individual threat to the progress of the league was identified as the "blow-out," the game which at no point gives an impression of serious competition. Thus, the idea of a team like Leeds choosing from four strikers of high and roughly equal talent while their opponents might struggle to produce one of even vaguely comparable ability would have struck the league's organisers as utterly counter-productive.

In the end it comes down to a question of the attitude of those in power. While the American sports hero, like the the first NFL superstar, Red Grange, who made his name on the college field, has never been subjected to the humiliations heaped upon the big names of English football before the court battles of the 1960s and the lifting of the £20 per-week maximum wage, nor has he been able to hold his club to ransom in the way of current Premiership players. The contempt for his contract which the Nottingham Forest player Pierre van Hooijdonk displayed a few years ago, to the complete indifference of the rest of the league, simply could not have happened in America. He would have been obliged to kick his heels and rot.

The problem, which reared up so sickeningly in the tone of some of the most influential Premiership figures when they treated so dismissively the principle of a union protecting the interests of the weaker members, who form the vast majority of the player population, is deeply ingrained and easily traced. Indeed in the excellent, recently published, biography of Dixie Dean, The Inside Story of a Football Icon (Robson Books, £17.95), the author John Keith unearths a hundred examples of a masterful footballer treated pretty much as an inhabitant of Slave Row might have been by some old cotton lord. At a time when the heart-stopping runner Grange could have booked the time for an appointment in the President's Oval Office, Dean, the scoring sensation of England's national game, was having his head patted so patronisingly it is almost beyond belief.

Keith, a magpie of a football historian who has already delivered definitive studies of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, most tellingly records the shadow over one of the great Dixie's supreme achievements, a two-goal wrecking of Scotland at Hampden Park in 1927, which broke a 23-year period of home domination.

Dean recalled: "My second England appearance was against Scotland and that was when we quietened Hampden Park. Before the game we were all sitting in the lounge of the St Enoch Hotel in Glasgow when Tom Paton, who was [appropriately enough] a Bradford cotton millionaire, sent his valet down to see me. The valet said: 'Would you ask the lads if they'd come upstairs to see Mr Paton?'

"When we got there Paton said to us: 'I've been travelling about with the England team for so long and I've never seen them win in Scotland. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll give you a tenner a man if you win, and whoever scores a goal gets a extra tenner.'

"At that time we got six quid for playing for England, and it was only six pound. When you told the FA where you'd travelled from to meet up – in London it was the Euston Hotel – the treasurer feller knew to a half-penny how much you were due. I got paid £8 a week by Everton, who under the contract did not have to pay me when I was on England duty."

Perhaps wisely Everton did; Dean was on his way to a probably unique 60 goals in a season, and would come under heavy pressure to sign for the other giants of the English game, Arsenal. Interestingly, Dean played before an official Hampden crowd of 111,000. He put his extra tenners into the pool, and brushed aside the anger which came to him briefly when an England selector approached him in the winning dressing-room. "He asked me who I was," reported Dean. "I told him my name but it didn't seem to register, so I added: 'I'm the player who scored the goals.' Finally, he said" 'Oh yes, but you didn't do much else, did you'?"

Dean, it has to be remembered, was the great magnet of English football, a figure of such prestige in the streets that when an Italian prisoner was taken in North Africa in the Second World War he cried defiantly: "F... a ya Winston Churchill, F... a Dixie Dean."

But then for the men who ran football in England he was a commodity, someone who just might inspire charity from a well-heeled fan. It must leave you asking what, apart from the market forces and the desperate need for success which has created ever more fantastic rewards for the top players, has really changed? Nothing, basically, and it is another reason to cheer the victory of the PFA.

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