James Lawton: Players' free-for-all would shackle national game to madness of market

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It wasn't too surprising to see Ashley Cole, the persecuted refugee from football's slave row, lurching out of a nightclub early one morning this week. However, the fact that his reaction to a fine of £100,000 was to go on a champagne spree with some of his cabin-mates put into rather nauseating perspective his lawyer's reference to football's master-slave relationships.

It wasn't too surprising to see Ashley Cole, the persecuted refugee from football's slave row, lurching out of a nightclub early one morning this week. However, the fact that his reaction to a fine of £100,000 was to go on a champagne spree with some of his cabin-mates put into rather nauseating perspective his lawyer's reference to football's master-slave relationships.

The comment invited speculation on quite which planet solicitor Graham Shear inhabits.

Certainly, he can have no serious knowledge of the history of the game his client has come to at a time when, as the ditty goes, it has lost even that little bit of sense it ever had. Shear's comments were nothing so much as a gross insult to all those great players who made the game and the mystique Cole and his mates have inherited so profitably.

Players like Wilf Mannion, who helped fill Hampden Park to its rafters when playing for England, then travelled home in the corridor of a third-class rail carriage while sitting on a case made of cardboard. Players like Tommy Lawton, who was soaked when the passing Rolls-Royce of the club chairman drove through a puddle as the great centre-forward stood at a bus stop. Players like Nobby Stiles, who left Manchester United penniless and with shattered knees after becoming only one of two Englishmen - Sir Bobby Charlton was the other - to win both the European and World Cups.

Shear should be more careful with his language. Mannion, Lawton and Stiles represent merely the tip of a mountain of justifiable rage.

Why, you may wonder, is it that so many great old players refuse to rail against the greed and the irresponsibility of many of today's players? It is because they remember how it was when the clubs still held their power; when they did indeed treat their players like slaves, however much they were revered in the streets and however superbly they played as they filled the stadiums. So, if the veterans mourn the fact that much of today's wealth is so cheaply earned, and often with such a dismaying lack of high talent, they cannot bring themselves to regret a single penny paid out by an industry that for so long treated its employees so miserably, and often cruelly.

If there is any benefit to be drawn from "Colegate", it is the apparently dawning sense that football cannot exist in any vague resemblance to its past if the regulations of "freedom of trade" are applied across the board. No one emerges with credit, though Arsenal were plainly most wronged. When the Chelsea chief executive talks about tweaking rules, and wonders what it was that his club did that was so wrong, he gives us a shocking insight into the thinking of the most powerful men in English football.

There has been just one point of redemption. It is in the recognition by Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association, that the game occupies a special place in the nation's affairs, one where the laws of employment do have to be balanced against the need to preserve some order and continuity. For this step back from the barricades - for this flash of sanity - we have to be grateful in a week when all else teetered on the edge of madness.

Comments