Players to vote for Premiership strike

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The Independent Football

An unprecedented strike by England's footballers moved a step closer yesterday when the Professional Footballers' Association announced it will ballot its members on action over what it says is an unfair distribution of television income.

An unprecedented strike by England's footballers moved a step closer yesterday when the Professional Footballers' Association announced it will ballot its members on action over what it says is an unfair distribution of television income.

Given the support for the union, a "Yes" vote is likely and would throw the domestic game into turmoil. Players would be asked by the union to refuse to take part in televised games, thereby embroiling them in prolonged and bitter disputes with their clubs. It now appears that the only way a strike can be averted is if the PFA's demands are met or if the Premier League makes a successful appeal to the courts to deem a strike illegal.

The PFA has traditionally relied on the Football Association, the Football League (and since 1992, primarily the Premier League) for much of its income. This dates back to 1955, when the PFA agreed with the FA and the League that players would not be paid for television appearances but that the governing bodies would pay an annual sum to the union instead.

The system has remained almost unchanged since, and, although the authorities have never committed a fixed percentage of their income to the PFA, five per cent has been the standard. In 1997, the PFA accepted £7.5m annually from the Premier League's TV deal which was worth £150m a year. This time the League is not offering a percentage and will not say publicly what share of its £550m-a-year TV income it is willing to give the PFA. Gordon Taylor, the PFA's chief executive, says the Premier League is offering £5.2m – less than one per cent. He believes five per cent should be paid – £27.5m.

''We have confirmed this morning that the next step will be to ballot the members," Barry Horne, the chairman of the PFA, said yesterday. "We'll do that in our own time when we feel everything is in place We will ensure that it is in accordance with all union legislation."

The PFA's main argument for funds is that most of its work is for the benefit of the game's needy players, especially those who are retired, sick, injured or in need of help because their clubs are struggling financially. The football authorities say they have offered to continue funding the PFA, but want the union to be more accountable about their spending. The authorities also argue that they contribute widely to the game already, not least through the Football Foundation, which receives five per cent of the Premier League's income. That deal was announced, cynically some would say, on the eve of the League's court battle with the Office of Fair Trading a couple of years ago when the League fought successfully to retain the right to sell its matches collectively.

''The blunt facts are that the authorities are receiving £1.65 billion in TV money and we are receiving £5.2m," Taylor said yesterday. "They are trying to go back on agreements we've had for 46 years and deny they have ever existed.

''This is about the 50,000 former members and the hundreds of youngsters who are told they have no future in football who we have to retrain on university or college courses. What other union would pay for that?

"We have paid out over £1m on former players, like Peter Osgood and Tommy Smith, who need new hips and new knees. Last year our expenditure was over £12m and what the Premier League is offering is less than one per cent. They have told us it was their final offer and we've been left with no alternative than to consult our members and achieve solidarity."

It is understood that PFA representatives at individual clubs – including Phil Neville at Manchester United and Graeme Le Saux at Chelsea – have already held meetings with team-mates and many have come back with support for the PFA. The union was backed in similar disputes in 1992 and 1997 – neither of which led to strikes – by more than 90 per cent of its members.

The Premier League will not agree to the PFA's demands without a fight, and has threatened action in the High Court, where it will argue that the matter is not a legitimate trade dispute as players' contracts are with their clubs, not with the leagues. The Premier League will also stress that many players today are millionaires, that they can afford a levy on their wages to fund the PFA which has £20m in assets. The PFA counters that its assets are tied up in funds for pensions.

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