Ken Jones: Six-figure wages destroy reason and self-restraint

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The Independent Football

For the past 60 years I have been immersed in football; the son of a professional player, nephew of two Welsh internationals, journeyman pro myself, sometime coach, long-time sports journalist.

For the past 60 years I have been immersed in football; the son of a professional player, nephew of two Welsh internationals, journeyman pro myself, sometime coach, long-time sports journalist.

During that time I have seen many changes; an end to the maximum wage and the collapse of an iniquitous retain-and-transfer system that bound players to their clubs for life, little more than chattels. Along with others of my generation in this trade, I campaigned for change. I was proud of my former profession. I was there to be counted.

Now I'm no longer sure. If never more popular, it seems that a wonderful game, the best team game ever invented, is descending into a twilight of reason and language. It's not just recent sordid events and the furore about Rio Ferdinand's failure to take a drugs test, it's the whole damn business. Who can we trust, who's on the take, what can be done to reverse disgraceful behaviour?

A bombardment of subjective television hyperbole and wide-angled, immature posturing of supposedly mature followers of the game ­ the incident in which three Arsenal players roughed up Ruud van Nistelrooy, of Manchester United, was pathetically dismissed by one occasional critic this week by saying that everybody enjoys a ruck ­ conceals truths few are eager to address.

These include greed, probable corruption, profiteering, the pernicious influence of agents and management companies, and the absence of a decent ethic that can discipline the the sport for an audience which has its mind more on the game than the money.

Six-figure salaries, I suggest, are some sort of turning point in the career, and too often the character, of a young player. A 20-year-old who earns more in a year than people get for running countries is encouraged by the media to see himself as a movie star entitled to adoration, the pamperings of luxury, and few searching questions about behaviour off the field.

This week Sir Tom Finney, a player of immense gifts and a pillar of correctness, stressed that hero-worship is not a modern phenomenon. "We were idolised in our day... but the difference is that there was a responsibility to behave in a proper manner." Finney, who never earned more from football than £20 per week, blamed the present ills on an excess of money.

It is pretty absurd to suppose all the players from Finney's era conformed to his impeccable standards. There was a drinking culture then, as there was in later generations leading up to the present day. Most of the men who made up Tottenham Hotspur's classic team of the early 1960s regularly went from home matches to a pub barely five minutes' walk from White Hart Lane. "The best football team and the best drinking team in the First Division," one of them used to say. But, and I speak from the experience of participation, there was never an occasion when they embarrassed the club.

On Sky TV this week, the former Arsenal and Scotland captain Frank McLintock spoke about post-match drinking sessions. The great Celtic manager Jock Stein, a teetotaller, reckoned that extending the career of his brilliant outside-right Jimmy Johnstone surpassed the feat of winning the European Cup. "The Big Man's got spies everywhere," Johnstone complained. "Why do British players drink so much?" the Italian football agent Gigi Peronace asked me 25 years ago.

A clue to the future came when Tony Adams and Paul Merson had to seek help for drink-related problems, extending in Merson's case to drug abuse and gambling.

What we have to face is that the football bubble will one day burst and leave the game in chaos. This should surely give an aching urgency to investigations into squalid behaviour.

Gordon Taylor, of the Professional Footballers' Association, is probably right in the assertion that the majority of his members lead unblemished lives. However, there is less sympathy here with his argument that Ferdinand was hung out to dry by the Football Association's refusal to cooperate with Manchester United.

The response of United's new chief executive, David Gill, to the action taken against Ferdinand, thinking it wrong for the player and wrong for England, was reprehensible. It leaves us to wonder if an attempt was made to bully the FA into submission. Who is running the game anyway?

Set to work underground when he was 14, my father eagerly awaited the chance to become a professional player on his 17th birthday. When an agreement could not be reached between his father and Merthyr Town, then in the Third Division South, he went home in tears. The difference, settled later that day, was 10 shillings. "I cried not just because I wanted so much to become a professional," he said, "but the thought of going back down that hole, not seeing daylight for three months of the year."

Thankfully, those days are long gone, but gradually the values imposed by privation and social injustice followed them into history. Now, a game that has occupied much of my life no longer seems to be worth the candle.