The struggle for justice in professional football began 88 years ago, its leader and inspiration, the great Billy Meredith, a man of principle and rare intelligence, the founding father of the Professional Footballers' Association. Last week the last of those original demands - that professional players be treated reasonably under the laws of the land - was granted. Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian player, had been bought by RFC Liege for pounds 66,000 in 1988. After his two-year contract expired, the club demanded pounds 500,000 for his body and set up a transfer deal with the French club, Dunkerque. But Dunkerque refused to do business at that price; Bosman was forced to stay with RFC Liege and accept a 75 per cent cut in his wages to pounds 500 a month.
The player took his club, the Belgian FA and Uefa, the European football ruling body, to the European Court of Justice, arguing that the transfer system restrained him as a trader in his skills. Advocate-General Carl Otto Lenz, in an interim ruling last Wednesday, agreed. Once a player has completed his contract, he should be a truly free agent, with total freedom to move to a new employer, without any regard to his present club.
Bosman has been rather condescendingly described in reports as a mere journeyman. Once, I too fitted that description. In 1967, I was a 22-year- old playing for Millwall, dreaming of something better. Playing against Spurs in an FA Cup tie, I impressed Bill Nicholson, their manager. He offered Millwall pounds 45,000 for my services. For me, it was the chance of a lifetime to join one of England's great clubs, to play alongside Jimmy Greaves and Dave Mackay. Millwall said no. I had a notional two-year contract but, as far as they were concerned, it was for life, or until they no longer had any use for me. They had the option. I had none. They could casually change the course of my life, and do so with impunity. I belonged to Millwall and, in effect, to its chairman, Mickey Purser, a car salesman from the Old Kent Road. So a mere journeyman I remained.
Billy Meredith, by contrast, was a great footballer. The brightest star of his generation, Meredith was known throughout Britain as the Wizard. Born in the south Wales coal-mining village of Chirk in 1874, Meredith went to work at the coalface when he was 12. Aged 20, he joined Manchester City. He played until he was 50, making 857 League appearances, scoring an incredible 281 goals. Meredith played 51 times for Wales. Much to the disapproval of football's rulers - then, as now, a desperate lot - the Wizard also appeared in films, on the stage and in advertisements endorsing everything from football boots to Oxo and herbal remedies.
Meredith founded the Players' Union because he had identified professional football's ills through his personal experience of them. He came from a devout Methodist family and, when first lured to Manchester, he did not like the idea of playing football for money. He was a Corinthian in spirit, believing that football was a game that should be played for pleasure. Billy informed his putative employers that he would prefer to find work in the real world and play his soccer for fun.
They insisted that he turn pro, devote his whole life to the glory game. This Meredith reluctantly did. He was extremely dedicated, achieving great fitness, working hard and long through the afternoons, perfecting his technique to become the supreme professional. He drew vast crowds ... and won great matches. And began to wonder why at the end of every week his wage packet was the same as that of lesser men. Meredith lodged his claim for more money with his employers. They laughed scornfully, arguments about justice and principle falling on deaf ears.
Meredith argued passionately that football was now his business, his life. Why shouldn't he be rewarded according to his talent and commitment and be free to ply his trade wherever he pleased once his contractual obligations were honoured? It was, after all, the men Meredith contemptuously described as "the little shopkeepers who rule our lives" who had persuaded him that football was a business in the first place.
Authority's response was angry and dismissive: Mr C E Sutcliffe, an FA Council member, observed that "the strong feature of the players' demands is self-interest". And (you will recognise this from the comments on last week's events) "this spirit of selfishness threatens to ruin the game". The players' demands (for justice, dignity, access to the law) were, Sutcliffe asserted, "but the outward and visible signs of inward greed".
Throughout its history, professional football has been governed by little shopkeepers and denial of basic human rights has been their weapon. Whenever justice forced its way on to the agenda, the talk has been of greed and chaos, the reactionaries' traditional slogan being that "the game will never be the same again". What Sutcliffe said in 1907 was echoed in 1963 when the maximum wage - pounds 20 a week, roughly what an electrician on overtime could then expect - was abolished. It was during that year that George Eastham further extended the rights of players when he took Newcastle United to court over the retain and transfer system. It was echoed again, 15 years later, when freedom of contract was introduced.
Last week, sadly, we heard the same view from Billy Meredith's heir Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association. He said that, after Bosman's victory in the Court of Justice, "the game would probably never be the same again". Others spoke of "greed" and, echoing the shopkeepers of long and not-so-long ago, of "things spiralling out of control" because professionals were to be dignified with the kind of conditions enjoyed by, well, journalists, lawyers and shopkeepers
"The game would probably never be the same again." The same as what? Professional football in England is cancerous with corruption, not because of players' greed, but because of the injustice of the transfer system. The "bung" culture, whereby players and managers get under-the-counter payments when a transfer goes through, was conceived by fundamentally honest professionals who understood that they would never be fairly rewarded over-the-counter. The revelations of recent times about corruption in English football are merely the tip of a very dirty iceberg. Many famous men sleep uneasily in their beds at night, knowing that they would be finished if the agents who processed their bungs revealed all to the newspapers.
As a result of Bosman's hard-won crusade for justice, the transfer market - the trade in talent that is the wellspring of all football corruption - will finally be capped. Yes, football will never be quite the same again and good men everywhere should raise a glass to that.
The most disingenuous argument against reform allows the likes of Gordon Taylor to evoke the "little clubs", the Crewes and Colchesters of this seedy world which, it is claimed, nurture young talent and maintain a glorious aspect of English heritage. As someone who spent enough time at the little clubs to know a thing or two about them, let me assure you that the idea that the multi-million-pound slave trade should be continued to ensure preservation of the small shopkeepers' small clubs is the worst joke of all. RFC Liege is the Belgian equivalent of the glorious small- town club. All that is nurtured in such places is the vanity of the little man who's big in Rotary. Players travelling from Torquay to Darlington in a day, eating fish 'n' chips in motorway "caffs" and fired out when old or injured ... it's a hell of a way to honour a nation's heritage. Better to honour Billy Meredith, the Wizard, who will smile wryly at this week's news. Forget the frowns of football's established order. Their power has been diminished, the money tap turned off. Mr Taylor will have fewer members, less muscle behind his Luddite campaign to keep things as they were.
Of those things, of the power of injustice, how it erodes the souls of the best of men, the epilogue to the Wizard's story speaks eloquently: 11 years after this wonderful man turned pro he was suspended for eight months for offering an Aston Villa player a bung to fix a match. The man of dignity and principle had learned the ropes, been corrupted by the glory game. Now at last, the game really will never be the same again. Good.
Ian Ridley, page 25Reuse content