PFA is the shield for football's infantry

The role of the players' union has become more important than ever as Premiership clubs enjoy the lion's share of the game's television money
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The Independent Football

Ken Bates' rhetorical style has long sounded like a breathless pastiche borrowed from a small army of tin-pot dictators but on the off chance that the Chelsea chairman was interested in an answer to his latest question – "What is the Professional Footballers' Association's role?" – we could do worse than start with Jim Montgomery.

For younger readers Montgomery's name might not ring bells immediately but less than 30 years ago the Sunderland goalkeeper embodied much of the romance of the game. At Wembley, Montgomery defied the might of Leeds United in one of the great FA Cup final turn-ups. The nation was dazzled and Montgomery's manager at Sunderland, Bob Stokoe, performed a manic dance across the old turf before embracing the hero.

Montgomery, who works as a goalkeeping coach at Darlington, is 57 now and, like the majority of former professional footballers, was until recently paying a high physical price for his days in the game. Faced with National Health waiting lists and private health costs which require a minimum £10,000 for the kind of leg operation he required, Montgomery turned to the PFA for help. It was swiftly granted. "If Jim had gone to his old club they would no doubt have referred him to us," says the PFA's deputy chief executive, Brendan Batson, "and that would have been right. We accept the responsibility."

The PFA also accepts a moral obligation to help out all those little clubs who employ most of the nation's football players and whose very existence was threatened when the the Premiership was formed with no greater ambition than guaranteeing the rich got richer and the poor had their backs placed firmly against the wall. The list of those clubs for whom the PFA was the last refuge before extinction includes Swindon, Hartlepool, Scarborough, Chester, Hull, Bournemouth, Northampton and Millwall. Ironically enough, four current Premiership clubs, Charlton, Derby, Middlesbrough, and Fulham, all received vital help from the PFA when they were faced with potential closure at various points over the last two decades.

It is also true that of all the 16-year-olds who are drawn into football after feeding on the fantasy stories of David Beckham and Michael Owen, 75 per cent are bruised, rejected and utterly unprepared for the demands of real life by the age of 21. The PFA accepts the need to retrain and, in some cases, psychologically reassemble these often heartbroken young men. One of them, rejected by Newcastle, is currently settling in at Oxford University. There is also the small matter of on-going research as an investigation into the neurological effects of constantly heading a football.

Of course a broader issue is raised by the spectre of a players' strike of television games starting in November, but it is one that is being grotesquely simplified by Bates, and, rather more surprisingly, the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger.

Bates and Wenger talk of the lavish rewards available to leading players, which are indeed huge even when set against nearly a century of ruthless, and legally untested, exploitation of the players. Wenger worries about the public perception of players waxing fat, but a man of his erudition – someone who biked to Cambridge on his summer holiday in order to learn English – would have done far better to question the whole moral basis of the Premiership and its elevation of greed.

When he discussed all the money that is flowing into the pockets of the leading players he might also have broadened the debate to include the enrichment of football investors like his friend David Dein in the Arsenal boardroom, Martin Edwards at Old Trafford and the Hall family in Newcastle.

If the prevailing strike issue is greed, whose greed are we really talking about? The Beckhams and the Owens have nothing to gain and much to lose from a strike. In fact, by supporting the PFA position – that the Premiership is reneging on a previously accepted standard by proposing a drop from 5 per cent to 1 per cent for the union's share of TV revenue – they are merely moving full circle. When the PFA first challenged the pernicious control of the players by the Football League, the star players, the likes of Johnny Haynes and George Eastham, received the full-hearted backing of the lower division players who knew they had no chance of significant benefit.

A poignant reminder of those days came at a recent Sotheby's auction when Nick Hancock, the presenter of the gutter-level TV comedy show They Think It's All Over, paid £20,000 for the Cup-winners' medal of the late Sir Stanley Matthews. The great Matthews swung a vital PFA meeting behind militant action 40 years ago. His family instructed that the proceeds of the sale went straight to the union.

Who could seriously dispute that the single most emphatic reinforcement of the need for a union was the formation of the Premiership with is transparent and shameless motivation of getting its hands on the vast bulk of the TV money? Did the big clubs rally when the Cobblers of Northampton, now re-housed and thriving, were so close to the wall and somebody needed to pay the wages at Hull City?

Maybe there is an argument that the PFA levy of the Premiership fat-cat players should be sharply increased from its currently derisory £75 a year. There was no doubt much support for the criticism that came when the PFA bought a Lowry painting for slightly less than $2 million and when the chief executive Gordon Taylor's salary of £450,000 pushed him to the top of the union leaders' league table. Not all that censure will be dissipated by the argument that the Lowry classic, Going to the Match, was a superb investment and a magnificent enrichment of the game's culture and that Bates would cheerfully double Taylor's wage if it brought him a coach who could be guaranteed to bring some fleeting success to Stamford Bridge.

One of the great ironies is that the "greedy" players have totally surrendered their TV performers' rights, a fact that should not be forgotten when questions are raised against their union subscription rate. When they forfeited their individual TV rights, it was on the presumption that their union would continue to receive a just share of the TV money. Can we imagine a group of pop stars guaranteeing the blockbusting TV audience of a World Cup final taking the stage without any ancillaries? If Sir Geoff Hurst wanted to make a video of his performance in the 1966 final it would cost him something in the region of £10,000. The moment he scored them, they were no longer his goals.

Bates wonders about the role of a union. It is to perform vital husbandry of the game. It is to protect it from the grab-all mentality that conceived the Premiership and abrogated in one swift, crass action all the responsibilities implied by the word "league". It is to enable an ageing hero like Jim Montgomery to walk down the street without excruciating pain – and a broken young football dreamer to re-make his life beneath the spires of Oxford.