Andrew ThomasComment

There is power in union

Andrew ThomasComment

If the kids are united, they will never be divided.  Not the kids or the fans this time, a retrospective look at unity from professional players.  Here's Andrew Thomas.

The Professional Footballers Association can be a hard institution to love. Whether defending Marlon King ("we'll be there for him"), opposing stricter drug testing ("an invasion of privacy"), or electing two-time Moustache of the Year runner-up Gary Neville to the management committee, it is hard to shake the perception that representing some of the country’s most visible millionaires is somehow a distortion of the aims of trade unionism.

The PFA as we know it today emerged from the Association of Football Players' and Trainers Union, or AFPTU, generally known as the Players' Union. It was founded on 2 December 1907 at a meeting in Manchester's Imperial Hotel, with the specific and stated intention of challenging the restrictions on players' wages and transfers, in addition to providing legal and financial support for members and their families. Although initially welcomed by the FA and the press, within two years the nascent Union would be at loggerheads with the authorities, its members contemplating suspension from the game.

English football had dabbled with unionism before. In 1897, a number of high profile players -- including members of Preston North End's 'Invincibles' and Sunderland's 'Team of all the Talents' -- had sought to challenge the retain-and-transfer system, under which a player needed permission from his first club to play for another, even after the expiration of his contract. But a lack of interest from the players, coupled with an intransigent Football League, meant that the campaign was hamstrung from the start. Not only did retain-and-transfer remain in place until 1963, but the Football League was able to introduce, in 1901, a £4-per-week maximum wage. By this time, the first union had already folded.

Yet, strangely, the maximum wage laid the foundations of the Players' Union: clubs, technically prevented from buying success, simply went ahead and did so anyway. Unofficial bonuses, bloated signing-on fees, and misleading accountancy were rife. 1905 saw eleven directors of Middlesbrough suspended, and the club fined £250, after a raft of illegal payments were exposed. Then, at the conclusion of the 1904/05 season, a bribery scandal engulfed Manchester City, and changed the face of the game in England.

On the last day of the season, City, promoted as second division champions in 1903 and winners of the 1904 FA Cup, needed to win away to Aston Villa. They lost 3-2, conceding the title to Newcastle United, and a series of violent clashes throughout the match persuaded the FA to investigate. This investigation quickly moved beyond who-hit-who-and-why, announcing that Billy Meredith, City's brilliant Welsh outside-right, had offered an opponent "a sum of money" in exchange for throwing the game. Meredith was summarily suspended until April 1906.

Once it became clear that the club could not -- due to FA edict -- support him throughout his suspension, Meredith turned supergrass. He admitted attempting to bribe Villa's Alec Leake. Further, he said, the offer had been made with the full backing of City's management. Even more devastatingly, he revealed that City had, in search of success, "put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week". City's team was suspended, their directors banned, and the club fined into near-oblivion.

Meredith, along with four of his team-mates, moved across town to Manchester United (relations between the clubs were more amicable at the time, to the extent that a preferable deal may have been struck behind closed doors) and promptly inspired the club to its first league title. Gary James, historian of football in Manchester, characterises Meredith as a man with a strong sense of natural justice who, while serving his suspension in an industrial city bustling with debate about working conditions, came to consider the lack of support for players both during and after their careers as being a blight on the game.

James also notes that Meredith may have been influenced by the untimely deaths of two of his City teammates, Di Jones and former Preston Invincible and veteran of the first union Jimmy Ross. The official history of the PFA states that City refused any liability for Jones' death, though James considers this unlikely. Whatever the case, it was clear to Meredith, as well as to many other professionals and commentators, that the career of a footballer was brief and the prospects afterwards, for player and family, were often bleak. That Meredith earned less than the most notable music-hall stars of the day might also have been a sting to the pride.

So, the Union. Meredith, along with Manchester United captain Charlie Roberts (whose distribution from half-back inspired Vittorio Pozzo's world-cup winning W-W formation), and players from Newcastle United, Bradford City, West Bromwich Albion, Sheffield United, and others. Further meetings were held across the country; permission from the FA was sought, and granted, for a benefit match. By the end of the first year Meredith, writing in the Weekly News, put the paying membership at 1,300.

Yet the clash with the FA, when it came, was not over the central planks of policy: transfers and wages. Indeed, the FA appears to have been sympathetic to the idea of modifying the widely abused wage-cap system, perhaps through more flexible bonuses, though smaller clubs were concerned that this might lead to economically inspired disparity. Instead, the tipping point was the decision of the Union to utilise the provisions of the 1906 Workman's Compensation Act, and take Reading FC to court on behalf of one of their players, injured during pre-season training.

The official history of the PFA -- For the Good of the Game, by John Harding -- states that litigation was only entered into after a year of waiting, and was intended as an attempt to "relieve the FA of what was rapidly becoming a technically involved process". Yet it is not hard to see how the clubs, and the FA, might have reacted to what appears, on the face of it, to be a challenge to their primacy. Very few governing bodies in any walk of life are happy to see their functions eroded, however innocent the intentions. Rumours of a strike began to circulate, and support for the Union in the press ebbed away.

The FA withdrew recognition of the Union on 8 March 1909, once it became clear that the clubs would support such a move in exchange for an amnesty on wage-cap violation. The Union was bereft of legitimacy and friends, and the FA sought to drive their advantage home by stipulating that a 'loyalty clause' -- that's loyalty to the FA, naturally -- would be inserted into future playing contracts. Then, following a meeting at the end of April that saw every one of the Union's proposals rejected, the FA issued a series of ultimatums, culminating in June with a demand that all players cease their membership, under threat of having their professional registration cancelled.

The majority of players complied; Harding notes that a number did so with an apology. However, the Manchester United squad, led by Meredith and Roberts, were determined to maintain their membership. Denied access to the club's facilities, they undertook their own pre-season training elsewhere in the city. Seeing these professionals in exile was a gift to the press, and it was after one of these sessions that the notorious 'Outcasts F.C.'  photograph was taken. The picture was on the front page of national newspapers the following day, and still hangs in the offices of the PFA.

It is not perhaps too fanciful to believe that the headline story of the Outcasts -- some of the country's finest footballers, title-winners and FA Cup holders, locked out of their own club on a point of principle -- was inspirational. Seventeen Sunderland players also maintained their membership, and professionals from Newcastle United, Oldham Athletic, Everton and Liverpool followed. As Roberts remarked, "union is strength, and that without it you can do nothing". Faced with the threat of a players strike, the FA returned to the negotiating table, and eventually a settlement was reached. Membership of the Union would be permitted, but the rules of the FA would be respected.

While it was by no means a victory for the Union, it did mean that the 1909/10 season began on time. Meredith, with a touch of bitterness, asked, "What's the good of belonging to a Union if one fetters one's hands like that?" It took six months for the Manchester United squad's back pay to arrive, and the FA even banned the AFPTU armbands worn by the team in their opening fixture against Blackpool. The Union had won the right to exist, but that was it. Wages, transfers, a greater recognition of the duty of care owed by club to player; nothing was to be done.

Yet in some respects, the existential struggle was the most important of all. By the end of the summer of 1909, it was generally accepted throughout professional football that it was legitimate for the players to unionise. The Union was able to continue its benevolent works, supporting the families of those players whose careers were cut short. Those that came later -- Jimmy Guthrie, Jimmy Hill -- would achieve the liberalisation of wages and the abolition of retain-and-transfer that Meredith and Roberts had worked toward. Looking back, it was enough that they had forced the FA to allow them space to breathe.

It was the first step on a long road, a road that has led, with a little help from European trade law and a lot from the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, to the post-Thatcherite moral wasteland of the Premier League. But while Meredith and his colleagues were in no doubt that they were personally undervalued, they also demonstrated a keen awareness of the wider needs of footballers at all levels. Ruing the settlement with the FA, he wrote: "The unfortunate thing is that so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to do just what they are told ... instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class".

Charlie Roberts, meanwhile, told the press "I would have seen the FA in Jericho before I would have resigned membership of that body". No doubt, he would have enjoyed seeing the FA increasingly irrelevant. He might not have taken as much joy from English football's slow descent toward Babylon.

Andrew is on twitter @Twisted_Blood and you can read more from him at the excellent Twisted Blood blog. To read more about the issues discussed here, please visit Gary James' website.