Gordon Taylor: The players' champion

James Lawton
Saturday 24 November 2001 01:00 GMT
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As a boy growing up in Ashton-under-Lyne Gordon Taylor played football for John Wesley, enrolling in the Methodist Sunday school so that he could turn out for one of the best youth teams in the neighbourhood. Now, as the passionately committed chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association who for the last few months has been slugging it out with the money men of the Premiership, he plays John Wesley for football.

"I do believe this battle has been about a lot more than just money," said the former Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City winger before announcing yesterday a compromise deal heading off a potentially shattering strike against televised football on 1 December.

"What I've been fighting for is the strong being forced to give some consideration to the weak. It has been about old, crippled pros getting looked after and kids who have had their dreams shattered having some kind of future. When I talked about what the game meant, how it would be destroyed if you completely separated the interests of the rich from those who do not make it to that level, the people in the opposite camp told me they were not interested in the history of the game, only market forces. From where I was coming, that just wasn't good enough."

Taylor has been branded an "Arthur Scargill" by his most ferocious critic, Chelsea's entrepreneurial chairman Ken Bates, but he dismisses the charge with some contempt. "I'm not trying to wreck an industry," he insists, "I'm trying to protect its tradition, its roots – and its future."

Yesterday's agreement represents a substantial victory for the evangelical Taylor. Though in the past few days there were some signs of erosion of the massive strength he established with a vote of 99 per cent in favour of strike action, he has eloquently explained the basis of the PFA's demand for 5 per cent of television revenue. It was not, he argued, a matter of greed but simple recognition that in such a rapaciously competitive sport the welfare of the game's inevitable casualties had to be protected.

It was the classic instinct of a union man, and in Taylor's case it was something in the blood. His father Alec was a motor engineer for British Railways, a fastidious, old-school tradesman and a branch representative of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. "After tea," Taylor recalls, "my dad would go to work on his union papers, and I would go off to play football on a field behind the Tram Shed in Ashton. That's where we played out our dreams, and when it was dark my dad would come to call me in. He then went back to his papers. I've thought about him a lot these last few weeks, when I've been running more or less on empty and relying heavily on adrenaline.

"My dad followed me everywhere, up hill and down dale on his bike, when I was a kid playing football, and he was in the shadows at Maine Road in Manchester in 1975 when I finally knew my greatest dream of getting to an FA Cup final would never come true. I was with Birmingham City and we lost a replayed semi-final with Fulham.

"After the game, I came out on to the street and the Fulham coach was all lit up. They had Bobby Moore playing for them then, and their players were overjoyed. I felt very low; this had been my great chance to get to Wembley. I said, 'Sorry, dad', but he got hold of me and said, 'Lad, you'll never know how much pride you have given me with your football all these years.' He died soon after that."

Despite his obsession with football, the young Taylor did well in the classroom and won a place in the local grammar school. "My parents insisted I take my GCEs and when I joined Bolton Wanderers at the age of 16 I also had to promise them that I would continue with my education So when I wasn't training or cleaning boots at Burden Park, I was at Bolton Tech studying, and then I took an external University of London degree. But I was always dominated by the game. I remember how buildings gradually ate up the fields where we played behind the Tram Shed, and how one of the bricklayers showed us the FA Cup-winners medal of his father, John Roscamp, who scored twice for Blackburn in the 1928 final. The medal just glowed in my imagination for many years."

At Bolton he was agog for the stories of the club trainer Bert Sproston, who had played for Manchester City and England before the war. "Bert told us about his travels, how he had to give the Nazi salute when playing for England in Germany. I couldn't get enough of his stories. They opened up a magical world."

But it is one that offered its inhabitants less financial security than could be promised a good tradesman. The point was made forcibly by Taylor's clubmate Francis Lee, a precociously gifted performer who made the Bolton first team at the age of 16 and was a regular member by the age of 18. Lee would become one of the great stars of the game for Manchester City and England – and a multi-millionaire. "I told Gordon," recalls Lee, "that while we all loved the game, and loved playing it, we were going to get to the age of 30 and really have nothing. We'd have another 30-odd years to live without any real prospects of a decent income. He was a bright lad and I offered him a job in a business I was starting. The business was toilet paper. Gordon said he'd promised his parents that he would continue his education, so that was that."

Taylor chuckles wryly at the memory of the lost business opportunity. In the Eighties, after a spell as chairman of the PFA and then assistant secretary to the veteran Cliff Lloyd, he was appointed chief executive and was deeply embroiled in a battle to give the union new weight and influence in the game. One of his missions was to rescue the embattled Welsh club Swansea City. "I felt under great pressure," he recalls. "There never seemed enough time to get everything done. People from Swansea were saying, 'you've got to come down and give us a hand. We've got a big meeting in the Town Hall tonight.' The only way I could do it was to take a small private plane down to south Wales. The weather was bad and the pilot was concerned that we might get ice on the wings. I finally got home in the small hours and before going to sleep I glanced at the newspaper. There was an item on the business page which reported that Francis Lee had just sold a controlling share in his business for £8m. After the day I'd had, I wondered what I was doing."

Some of Taylor's critics in the Premiership, unfazed by their own share profits and director salaries, have been at pains to say that in fact the PFA chief has been doing quite nicely. With an annual package of £458,000, Taylor is the nation's best-paid trade union leader. But he says: "My members have put a lot of confidence in me, and they have given me a good salary. I don't have any problem with that, and I don't go pointing out all the rewards that go to people in the Premiership. These are on the record almost every day."

Taylor also drew criticism when he initiated the purchase of the classic Lowry painting, Going to the Game, at a cost of nearly £2m. "It was a superb investment," says Taylor, "and part of the culture of our game. The suggestion that we were throwing away money is absurd. The money the PFA has received from television revenues has been invested in all aspects of the game, coaching, care for old pros, education for the youngsters, the fight against racism. If we don't do it, who will?

"People like Ken Bates of Chelsea and Doug Ellis of Aston Villa have been particularly critical of the union, but who did their old players like Peter Osgood and Vic Crowe turn to when they needed help. They didn't go to the clubs for whom they put in such magnificent service for so long. They came to us.

"Those who have tried to destroy the union have been waging war on the very basis of the game and the people who down the years have made it live. Forty-odd years ago, when the union was fighting the maximum wage of £20 a week, a player got up in a strike meeting in Manchester and said that his father worked down the pit and didn't earn that kind of money. Tommy Banks, a tough full back of Bolton, got up and said that he too had worked down the pit and he knew how hard it was, but he added: "Tell your dad to come up on Saturday afternoon and try marking Stanley Matthews."

Taylor is especially proud of the fact that when the relatives of the late Sir Stanley recently sold off his Cup-winners medal won so unforgettably at Wembley – it was bought for £20,000 by comedian Nick Hancock – the family donated the full amount to the union.

As a leader of FIFpro, the international federation of player unions, Taylor believes that the PFA's fight has sent a message into all corners of the game. "At a recent meeting," he reports, "Hugo Sanchez [the former Mexico and Real Madrid star] told me that in his country the players have hardly any rights at all, but they have been watching what has been happening in England, and they have taken a lot of heart."

As the heat began to leave the battle yesterday, Taylor was contemplating his first unbroken night's sleep in months. He is an ultimately restless character who draws heavily on his roots and life with his wife Cathy – they have two grown-up sons – that survived a classic football crisis six years ago when he was caught on a foreign trip in the company of a lady who was not his wife. Taylor didn't hide then; indeed he fought for his professional and personal life with the energy which the czars of the Premiership have recently found so redoubtable.

Among his admirers is the world heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis. A few years ago, at a charity occasion on behalf of the Stoke Mandeville hospital, Lewis saw Taylor successfully badger the Prince of Wales for an autograph for a handicapped child. The Prince said it wasn't Royal policy, but the union man persisted and got the autograph. "Man," said the watching Lewis, "you have balls. Do you want to be my agent".

Taylor demurred. He doesn't like agents. But that's another story, and it may be time for the John Wesley of football to step down from the pulpit, however briefly.

Biography

Born: 28 December 1944 in Ashton under Lyne

Family: Married to Cathy with two grown-up sons, Simon and Jonathon

Playing career: Bolton Wanderers, Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers, Bury and Vancouver Whitecaps

Honours: Football League Division Two runners-up medal with Birmingham City (1972)

Post-playing career: PFA Chief Executive (1981-), Head of FIFpro, the international players' union

Heroes: Pele, Mary Peters, football manager Jim Smith

He says: We were here in the 80s when the game was on its knees under Margaret Thatcher. Now they're saying we've no right to strike. I'm saying we have. It'll be interesting, won't it?

They say: "He's becoming more like Arthur Scargill every day and if he's not careful he'll finish up like him." (Ken Bates, chairman of Chelsea FC)

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