Strike vote will force League to negotiate

Action threatened within four weeks as 99 per cent of union members back Taylor in dispute with Premiership
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Even before Gordon Taylor announced the result of the Professional Footballers' Association strike ballot yesterday, the Premier League had been on the phone asking to talk. "We're meeting them on Monday," Taylor, the union's chief executive, said, safe in the knowledge that his members, having voted 99 per cent in favour of a strike, have armed him with a mighty stick for the negotiations ahead.

Taylor insists he will not budge from his stated aim of securing five per cent of the game's annual £550m television income, or £27.5m a year. In all likelihood, he might, but his members have strengthened his hand to ensure it will not be by much. The authorities' latest offer was £10m a year, a figure that is likely to have to double to avoid a shutdown.

When talks restart, the PFA may find themselves facing different negotiators. A Premier League spokesman last night denied suggestions that Richard Scudamore, the chief executive, was going to be pushed to the sidelines for his ineffective handling of the matter, but it is believed that David Richards, the League's chairman, will now head representations for the 20 clubs. There is also talk that Adam Crozier, the chief executive of the Football Association, will be asked to mediate.

More than 99 per cent of the 2,315 players who voted on the issue – a turn-out in itself of 92 per cent – said they supported strike action. The specific question put to them asked: "Are you prepared to take part in strike action consisting of a refusal to play in any matches after 23 November 2001 at which television cameras are present and in use?" The reply, expected beforehand to be a big "yes", was emphatic. It is probably no coincidence that the PFA chose 23 November as the date on which action might start. Manchester United play at Arsenal on Sunday 25 November, and some of the country's most high-profile players will be involved. That they have nailed their colours so firmly to the PFA mast will have sent a powerful message to the game's governing bodies.

"I'm absolutely delighted in the vote, which indicates the strength and solidarity of all the players through the divisions," Taylor said. "The vote confirms our belief that maintaining a five per cent share of television income is fair and equitable.

"This dispute is about those who don't make the grade, the 75 players who go on to a pitch each season and don't play again and the 50,000 former players who sustained injuries during their careers. In the past we've been dealing with those who respect the history of the game – and that has not been happening of late."

Taylor was at pains to stress that a strike need not necessarily stop matches being played. "There's no reason why games shouldn't take place," he said. The rider, of course, is that no television cameras would have to be present. Given that there are cameras at every professional game in every division (for live broadcasts or for highlights shows), it is unlikely any games would go ahead during a strike. "Our door remains open," Taylor said.

Quite what strategy the PFA will use if talks fail remains to be seen. Taylor could either target individual high-profile matches (such as the Highbury fixture), or groups of games (Sunday and Monday Sky games, perhaps) or games in one division each week. "Or we could do something that shows the overall solidarity of the players," he said, indicating that a total refusal to play is still an option.

The mechanics of any strike are straightforward enough. Now that the players have given a mandate, a strike must start within four weeks. This could be stretched to eight weeks if a negotiated settlement is close. Either way, any action would probably tear into the Christmas and new year programmes.

If the PFA does go ahead with a strike, it must give the clubs a week's notice of intention to do so. If and when a strike is called, the Premier League will try to gain an injunction from the High Court to deem it illegal and stop it. The League will argue it is unlawful because it is not a trade dispute between employers (clubs) and employees (players). The PFA says it is has received legal advice to the contrary. A court wrangle could delay a strike, but the union is confident it would not prevent it. Both sides say that they hope things do not get that far.

"We feel we have acted properly and all our procedures have been correct," Taylor said. "Players love playing and we like to see them playing. That's what we are about. But we are also about a fair and just cause. We're being told we are part of a football family and don't want to be that part of the family that only gets invited now and again to weddings and funerals."

The Premier League and Football League said last night they were still determined to reach a negotiated settlement and had always expected the players to back their own union.