Ken Jones: Football's freedom fighters could turn the people's game into pure anarchy

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The Independent Football

We have come a long way since it first became appropriate for the business and sports sections of most daily newspapers to be found in close proximity. The true tone of sport in this youthful century is set by the élite corps, the people who have sweated their way up to vast salaries and receive the same attention as pop idols and film stars.

I was mentioning this to a friend the other day and he reached out for a popular newspaper, turned to the sports pages and counted up the number of money-related tales, including four that had cash figures in a headline. "I have to think that people who aren't very good at sums would struggle to make it in sports writing," he said.

Because when hardly anyone today turns a hair when even moderate footballers are reported to be raking in more than people are paid to run countries, you have to wonder where it will lead, whether the bright skies over sport will one day darken and unleash a thunderbolt.

The impulse to take up a game is very often the impulse to share in sport's television-driven riches, which makes me think of a time when the biggest names in English football were being paid less than today's going rate for car park attendants.

Forty-five years ago this week, I sat by a pool in Tel Aviv listening to the former Arsenal and England international George Eastham state unequivocally that he had played his last game for Newcastle United. Recalling that others had tried and failed to defeat the Football League's iniquitous retain and transfer system, I advised caution. Under the system, Eastham was tied to Newcastle for his whole career unless they wished to transfer him or cast him adrift.

What I could not imagine was the chain of events that would spring from Eastham's stubbornness, events that revolutionised working conditions in English football. Taken up vigorously by the Professional Footballers' Association, the Eastham case developed into a crusade that brought the removal of the maximum wage (then £20 per week) and eventually the retain and transfer system, which was held to be in restraint of trade by the High Court.

Later on, the Bosman ruling established the right of a player to leave without a transfer fee if his contract had expired. As Terry Venables wrote in the News of the World last week, any further change would leave the clubs powerless: "If Ashley Cole were free to negotiate as he wished and leave when he liked, no club would offer the security of a long-term contract. The market built around high wages and transfer fees would collapse."

In the present circumstances, when players in the Premiership have contracts running into multiples of seven figures, to speak of "slavery" and "restraint of trade" insults the campaigners who fought for the rights players now enjoy.

The other day, in pursuit of a salient comment on the present state of affairs involving Cole, Arsenal and Chelsea, I telephoned Eastham at his home in Cape Town. Now 69, Eastham never thought of himself as a crusader. "All I wanted to do at the time was get away from Newcastle and because a friend of my father's employed me as a salesman I was able to stick out for five months until Newcastle sold me to Arsenal," he said.

"I don't envy what players are earning today, but from what I've read and seen on television it does appear that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. There has to be some form of control, otherwise you'd get anarchy.'

I applaud the fact that sport can be a highly profitable career and that the best performers are paid in accordance with star entertainers in other fields. But where will it end? Is the future of sport contained in a remark passed by Groucho Marx after pricing himself out of a television programme hosted by Alistair Cooke? "Like Sam Goldwyn, I believe in art," Marx said. "But my agent, a coarse type, believes in money. And who am I to argue with such a baboon?"