Players' right to defend their corner

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The Independent Football

When the Professional Footballers' Association wrote to League chairmen last week about the television money dispute I thought about the word '' league". Its original meaning is "an association to promote the interests of members" and I suppose that was what was in the minds of the merchants who formed the Football League in 1888 when they could no longer sustain the wages of the professional players they had hired without the regular income that a fixed programme of matches would accrue.

Those early pioneers fought some doughty battles in some very murky times. First, it was the nobs of the Football Association, who looked askance at professionalism, who had to be appeased.

Then, consciences having been salved, the club rulers made common cause with the FA in the early days of the last century to enact legislation which was to keep those professional players, whose arrival had been the catalyst for the League's formation, in slavery for 50 years. They imposed a maximum £4 weekly wage (often exceeded by some chairman), they ruled that a player must stay with his club until the club wished to dispose of him and they prevented players from litigating disputes. They sure knew how to promote their interests.

The players were less adept at protecting theirs. Led by Billy Meredith, the former Welsh miner who was the Best or Beckham of his day, they formed the Players Union and threatened to go on strike against their iniquitous terms of employment. They were backed by the forerunner of the Trades Union Congress and had a real possibility of succeeding, but were brought to their knees by treacherous hypocrisy.

While the leaders of the Football League were denouncing the players as greedy and selfish, the moral guardians of the game at the FA devised a clause for the player's contract requiring club and player to disown the Players Union. Those clubs and players signing the contract would be granted an amnesty over the illegal payments that had made widespread mockery of the rules and the owners' attempts to pay even the biggest crowd- pullers a mere pittance.

The outcome was a players' ballot which failed their leaders and granted the Union a token existence without affiliation to the General Federation of Trades Unions. Meredith was the final player to sign the agreement, he and his Manchester United FA Cup-winning colleagues of 1909 having been suspended indefinitely without any official notification from the FA. In a bizarre apposite parallel to the current dispute, in which the chairmen are questioning the PFA chief executive Gordon Taylor's judgment in buying a Lowry, the banned United players were refused their wages, took a picture off the wall and put it on sale in a local pub.

In modern times, with the players having achieved their rights, the Leaguers themselves, or at least those at the top level, began to be accused of greed and selfishness. According to the prevailing creed, greed became good, and the worries of the owners at the highest level about continuing to subsidise what appeared to be a contracting industry were compounded by their collective inability to sweep out the hooligans and retain television's interest. In a perverse way you could almost argue that the modern Leaguers have been more honest than their forebears, in at least admitting that they could no longer carry their weaker brethren along on their coat-tails. Almost.

Taylor, though, says that the Premier League is trying to wipe out the PFA and, given Ken Bates' argument that the players, with their agents, lawyers and accountants, no longer need a union, who's to say Taylor is overstating his case? Can anyone show me any lasting contribution the agents have made to the game? Does any qualified observer believe that a committee comprising Gordon Taylor's main disputants, say Bates and Arsène Wenger, who says his players are more than happy, could set up educational and health schemes better than the ones already in place for less than the commission they happily pay to agents for foreign imports of average talent?

When I look at the big picture, I'm very proud of what we have in English football, even if the path we've trodden hasn't always been as honourable as some claim.