How unionism in football elevated the game but paved the way for today’s crippling greed

How unionism in football elevated the game but paved the way for today’s crippling greed

A steady rhythm of coughs, yelled instructions and the metallic clink of picks hitting rock rang throughout pits all over the United Kingdom as miners worked daily in dangerous conditions to unearth the valuable black gold that powered an era. Coal paved the road for many a nation’s path to industrialisation and was, alongside other heavy industries like steelworks and shipbuilding, a way for men to make just enough money to provide for their families. It was also killing them.

After shifts, the majority of workers would sleepwalk, half-dead and dragging their aching bodies, into their local pub, stupefying themselves with alcohol, a way to socialise in the vague light of day and without the ringing noise of life underground. Phantom sounds still echoed around the room, becoming a permanent piece of their hearing apparatus. Conditions were unimaginably difficult by today’s standards. If the mining companies and government had it their way, workers would be born in the mines. Instead, they had to wait until they were in the earliest years of teenage life. 

Working age, maximum hours, working conditions and a subjectively ‘fair’ wage were the main points of contestation for the earliest trade unions. In Democracy in trade unions, democracy through trade unions? Rebecca Gumbrell McCormick and Richard Hyman state: “There is an inherent contradiction between capitalist wage-labour and democracy.” Overcoming this contradiction is the mediating force of the trade union, a voice for workers, in mining and beyond.

A Far Cry

Upon signing his latest contract with Barcelona, one that will effectively see him play out the rest of his career in Catalonia, Lionel Messi became the highest-paid footballer of all-time. His wage, estimated to be £500,000 per week, brings his total weekly earning to roughly £1.7m, which includes bonuses, add-ons and endorsements. To be a football player now, even at levels considerably lower than the truly wondrous Messi, is sure to provide a handsome income. 

It’s hard to imagine it any other way, such is the culture of big money being a part of the contemporary game, but really, football’s meteoric rise into chess for oligarchs is a fairly new phenomenon. If you look back just over a decade, when someone like Zinedine Zidane was playing in his prime, he would earn around £160,000 per week, including endorsements. Look back a bit further and there’s Trevor Francis, the first million-pound signing in British football, back in 1979.

It’s not always been glitz and glamour in football. Its metamorphosis from headbands and short shorts to divers with diamond earrings was rapid. It is now a global sport and as such, difficult to consider as operating within the framework of and facing similar plights to other working-class occupations. 

But like other occupations that now enjoy more favourable conditions, football’s came with a long, thankless fight. Countries and societies of the world developed along the fault lines of capital, growing fastest and with the most support and backing where power resides. Money and the art of acquiring it dictates who gets the most attention. Football’s growth stuck to the same script, growing fastest in places where fans from factories would pour through the gates, swelling crowds to surreal levels. Cultural osmosis meant that football picked up more than numbers from its neighbourhood industrial workers.

The Necessity of Unionisation

In 1907, the Professional Footballers’ Association was formed and is still operating today as the oldest professional sports’ union in the world. Created from the ashes of the Association Footballers’ Union, a failed first attempt for footballers in England to organise, the PFA sought to advance on their predecessor’s mission. It was in response to football’s restrictive ‘retain and transfer system’ that the earliest union was born, aiming to reform the nasty rule that prohibited a player’s freedom of movement.

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Only in 1885 were players granted the right to be paid for their services – and wages quickly began to escalate as the most valuable players were in high demand. The formation and codification of league football was a necessity to generate enough revenue to sustain these increasing wage packets when early signs of inequality began to emerge in the market. Smaller clubs struggled as more successful ones thrived and an increasing gulf between top and bottom stretched exponentially. Competition was born.

Responding to this, the Football League sought to democratise talent, spreading it around more equally in order to retain a fair spirit. Their answer was the 1893/94 ‘retain and transfer system’, where a player could not leave their club without their explicit permission. If a club unearthed a new talent, they didn’t have to worry about him leaving. He couldn’t. The power had shifted from the wealthiest clubs to all clubs – at the expense of their players. 

The new legislation was a difficult compromise for the men making their way in the sport who, if they began their careers in a traditionally poorer side, would hit a glass ceiling. Even if the club didn’t play them – meaning they also wouldn’t have to pay the player – they still couldn’t leave until their registration had been relinquished or another team coughed up the money to make their owners reconsider. This was the precursor of today’s transfer system.

Careers could be ruined in a system shielded by law. If the Football League hadn’t done this, though, players could just ‘retire’ and then return to football with their contracts nullified. The logic is evident, although its solution left much to be desired. If players didn’t like it, they could either move to the semi-professional English Southern League, the lower paid league in Scotland, or just return to regular employment.

Clubs now had the leverage to dictate wages, only having to pay enough to tempt players there in the first place, not taking into consideration the demands throughout their career’s progression – where else could they go? Competition between clubs to buy a player almost didn’t exist at all. Already imbalanced, the Football League cemented this with the maximum wage law and abolishment of bonuses in 1901, the year that the initial union disbanded, unable to mount a significant challenge to the system. 

Theoretically, the league had become egalitarian. Players’ bargaining powers were eroded to almost nil and all clubs were operating on an even field in terms of financial freedoms and limitations. Success would come from within: the training, the chemistry and the tactics. This forced equality came at a cost. Players had no rights. 

Both rules – the transfer system and wage cap – were to prove impossible to counter. Creating the union in the face of these draconian – even for the time – labour laws was noble yet ineffective. This treatment continued unchallenged for the six-year period until the PFA was formed, becoming entrenched in the early part of the sport’s culture and existed in some form well into the 1960s when low wages were still the norm.

Forming a Union

Welshman Billy Meredith and Englishman Charlie Roberts convened in Manchester’s Imperial Hotel, with both playing for Manchester United at the time, to form the Association Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union as it was first known, before being shortened to the slightly simpler Professional Footballers’ Association. Their goals would continue from where the AFU had left off, particularly targeting the maximum wage which has been set to £4 per week, the equivalent to just over £450 now. 

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Wages like this necessitated a career outwith football, hindering the development of the sport as a whole. It was United, steered by Meredith and Roberts, that led the way in protests, gaining their side the ‘Outcasts FC’ moniker in the press of the day. When the Football League outlawed membership of the union, clubs all across the country relinquished their cards, choosing to show gratitude for their involvement in football, however corrupted it had become, rather than risk losing it entirely.

United’s squad didn’t abate, though, threatening strikes during the 1909/10 season, bolstered by Everton’s Tim Coleman, a figure whose inclusion seemed to galvanise the rest of the league, breaking the illusion of United working in isolation. Although change was minimal, bonuses were eventually granted as a means of supplementing the base minimum wage – a rule that clubs used as liberally as possible to retain talent and circumvent the restrictions.

Although the spirit of resistance maintained, the laws didn’t budge for almost 50 years until one figure introduced himself at a time when trade unionism and strikes in industrial Britain would regularly make front-page news. Jimmy Hill, London’s footballing Renaissance Man, had been player, coach, pundit, analyst, director, chairman and referee. Although a multifaceted character, humble to the bone, his mannerisms and demeanour lent themselves to one facet of his footballing persona – trade unionist.

Joining the union in 1956 as secretary, he became president a year later, bringing the PFA’s identity and culture into a new era. First was the renaming of the organisation to the PFA, a more palatable and accessible acronym for the public eye; then came better organisation from within, outlining clearer pathways to achieve their goals, the same ones that stood for the last half-century. 

Meting out agreements between stakeholders with various and conflicting interests was his goal, a mediator in an important fight. In 1961, Hill drew first blood with the abolition of the capped wage. It was with the looming threat of imminent mass striking that progress was made. Wielding the power of the players of the game, Hill bargained and the first player to reap the seeds of his efforts was his former teammate and England captain Johnny Hayes, who took home £100 per week. This occasion, name and figure was momentous. 

For perspective, the average household would earn around £1,000 per annum at that time. Hayes managed about four times the average, a notion that now seems absurd, with players earning the average annual income in one week playing in Europe’s top flights. The very highest earners are on significantly more than that still. 

Clearly a visionary when conceiving football’s future, Hill also masterminded the Sky Blue Revolution as manager at Coventry City, creating a holistic identity for the club that included their kit colours – Sky blue, as the name suggests – a song, club mascot, club radio and hospitality treatment, transforming the way football club’s interacted with the world around them.

Although not exactly on the same line as trade unionism, it gave football a further degree of professionalism and legitimacy in the eyes of the public, increasing attendances and prompting deeper engagement with the relationship between people and their clubs. In turn, this reflected in players’ wages and their own relationships with clubs, acting as a springboard for the same objectives he used his union to advance. 

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Bringing in television crews and opening up crowds to younger ages, Hill’s strategy for altering the footballing landscape, for helping to weave its fabric not only into our lives but to society at large, influenced many other clubs to adopt a similar approach. Thanks to Hill, we now have full matchday programmes, player interviews and entertainment besides just the football match itself.

His motivation, which was a clear love for the game, undoubtedly furthered the status of football players. More than just a sportsman, they were celebrities, and celebrities, of course, demand attention. From the mid-60s onwards, wages began steadily increasing and other incentives, in the form of sponsorships, became commonplace. 

Footballers being treated fairly reflected on the field and beyond. Unionism’s influence on the sport’s earliest period of growth was immeasurable, as was its knock-on effects witnessed in the industrial behaviours of cities. During the year that Coventry reached the top flight, historian Andrew Dawes noticed an interesting correlation in production. He evaluated: “Their success led to a feel-good factor in the city which led to increased productivity. The output of cars in Coventry peaked in 1968 to 351,100 after the club’s promotion to the top division of English football.”

Unionism’s goals aren’t purely for the worker, but the way business and industry operate for the people. By imbuing a club with a strong identity and cultivating community ties, it becomes symbolic of unity and struggle, of shared experiences both successful and not. Clubs provide employment for the community. Someone has to sell the merchandise, the pies and cut the grass. Unionism in football, from Hill’s tireless work, protected football, both at a club level and individual.

In the earlier stages of football’s commercial growth, the working-class element of the game went beyond just the players to an ethos of socialism in the way the sport functions within society. Bill Shankly’s philosophy was built in large part around this idea and his incredibly successful Liverpool side displayed attributes of left-wing political thought of which unionism and socialism belong.

Shankly once said of this relationship: “The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” It boils down to a club, often a cornerstone of its community, having myriad benefits to life around it. That everyone involved is treated fairly and viewed with respect is imperative.

The Familiar Path of Greed

Deviation from these ideas, which have seen schism become chasm in the decades following Hill and Shankly’s early visions, is disturbing to see. Fans are now no longer treated with the respect that they once were – their presence no longer a financial necessity to the running of a club. If fans were to stop going, most clubs in the top flight wouldn’t suffer in any way beyond reputation. 

Splinter cells of fans have flocked to non-league clubs, with some even forming their own. This reaction points to a sickness in football. It is a symptom rather than a statement. Hill’s efforts were hugely successful but had many unforeseen and unpredictable side-effects. Football stopped being seen as labour of love and became big business. Leagues were able to make huge money from television deals and players, and increasingly Machiavellian agents became able to extract eye-watering figures for their services.

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In football, as in life, what started out as an idea for good quickly became one of exploitation. Returning to the formative ideas could offer the only solution, yet this is hugely improbable. In football, beyond Germany’s 50+1 rule of majority fan ownership – which has been flouted in recent times-  there has been little success in initiatives being put in place.

If we are to salvage football from the oncoming abyss, looking further afield could provide the solution. In America’s National Football League, a business associated with mega-bucks as much as the Premier League, there are certain rules in place that help maintain a semblance of equality throughout the game. 

Until the mid-60s, the NFL and American Football League (AFL) were separate organisations, a fact that players could and did use to their advantage. College starlets would often pit the two leagues against each other, with veterans threatening to jump ship as a means of extracting the highest possible contract. By consolidating the leagues with a single draft system, this leverage was nullified and access to talent democratised. 

Beyond this, and with the help of President Kennedy, television channels weren’t permitted to broadcast the most in-demand games. With the introduction of the Cellar Bill, the NFL sold the league as a single televised package, with revenue spread equally between the franchises. The owner of each club, who agreed to sell their individual rights, arrived at the decision – both the ones making a lot of money and the others struggling to – with a utopian vision of competition.

Operating almost entirely different to the way the Premier League is run now, American Football managed to find the same results. At the time of the initial changes, baseball, horse racing and boxing were the most popular sports, but increasing levels of marketing and competitiveness in the NFL drove it to become America’s biggest sport within a decade, something Jesse Berrett, author of Pigskin Nation: How the NFL Remade American Politics observed: “Despite staging one of America’s biggest yearly capitalist bonanzas, is – if you own a team – actually a government-sanctioned socialist utopia.”

College basketball’s most promising young talent, Zion Williamson, who dreams of playing for New York Knicks, will have no choice but to move to New Orleans, based on the principles laid out by the draft of the NBA, a follow-on from the NFL system. Football had to overcome this same lack of agency for the individual during its formative years, but since finally moving beyond that, has struggled to reel it in, with players holding an unreasonable share of power in the game. One extreme to another is not the answer, but radical changes could prove the best solution to a decaying union system in the UK.

It’s hard to imagine all of the club owners getting behind a shared television package democratising their income, or a draft system in the name of equal access to talent. Fans, on the other hand, would, no doubt, be interested in a more competitive league – even if not through these exact means. Such rules wouldn’t be set out to revolutionise or invigorate the game, but rectify the issues that are becoming increasingly pronounced.

The Future of Unions

Unions are often the architects of their own demise, allowing protected old boys’ club members to devour each other internally in power struggles to maintain the established order. Hegemonic power, the very thing unions aim to combat across the board, always has a way of becoming part of unions themselves. 

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There are exceptions, though. In Ireland, the FAI has been entrenched in corruption scandals over the last decade or so; particularly funds being diverted from the league for personal use alongside other similar claims of financial mismanagement. Here, the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland is a union that still hold sway and still use their platform to hold power to accounts.

Calling for a “forensic examination” of the FAI board, the PFAI launched inquiries into chairman John Delaney’s financial management and to what degree the board were aware of, or complicit in, what was going on. The events, reaching back to 2017, came to the fore this year and have caused many prominent members to walk. This is another function that a players’ union should perform: a check-and-balance of the way the league is run. In England, much of the PFA’s funding comes from the Premier League itself, the organisation it is tasked with policing.

Recently, the PFA’s chief executive Gordon Taylor found himself under fire. An annual salary of £2.29m makes him the world’s highest paid union official, a job that Hill had done for free. Taylor eventually relinquished – or is in the process of doing so – his stranglehold on the movement, forced by the PFA’s chairman Ben Purkiss, who prompted an independent review. Sparking calls for reform, Purkiss emphasised his perspective that the organisation is stuck in the past: “Football is rapidly evolving, players are rapidly evolving and the PFA needs to evolve, too.” 

It’s a wonder the organisation has gone nearly four decades before someone spoke up. Beatrice Webb, a 19th-century sociologist and the lady who coined the term “collective bargaining”, wrote in her seminal text, Industrial Democracy, with husband Sidney Webb, that: ‘Trade unions are democracies: that is to say, their internal constitutions are all based on the principle of ‘government of the people by the people for the people’.” If this condition is not met, or lost, as evidenced by the PFA, it no longer serves its function. 

With reforms, though, and Taylor stepping down, the main aim is to reconcile their goals as a democratic body, returning to an effective form of governance with its members at the core. Sadly, Purkiss, the driving force in this modernisation process, has had to leave the organisation as part of Taylor’s departure agreement. 

Included in that agreement is a lengthy period of vetting a successor, a worrying idea that looks like a puppet regime, where Taylor will still wield backstage power. In light of what could be good news, the most overwhelming fact is how far the PFA has shifted away from its roots as a trade union serving the greater good of the game. Redressing this imbalance, as Purkiss urged, will likely require more than a cabinet reshuffle at the PFA. Incorporating more radical models evidenced in American sports, like drafts and caps, could be a start. It would go a long way in bringing fans back to the game; not in numbers, but in true involvement. 

People defecting to their local non-league side highlights the alienation and isolation a fan feels from the game, particularly in the Premier League. Players now are so far removed from their own social class that they are a take on the persona of a well-groomed media star or politician. Unions made the football we enjoy weekly a possibility, but also paved the way for self-serving greed, both for those they represent and those within the union structure. 

Protectionism and cronyism create an insular structure that is hard to penetrate, evidenced by the untouchable Taylor regime. Change is no doubt on the horizon, but it might not be enough. The future of trade unionism in football could well be a mirror of its present condition. If we are to put a stop to, or at least positively alter, the direction football is taking, it will require out-of-the-box thinking, the same that gave us Jimmy Hill’s trade union success and Sky Blue Revolution.

By Edd Norval @EddNorval

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