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From the NS archive: The great football racket

26 November 1960: Practical suggestions to help the corrupt and failing game back on its feet.

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In 1960, the magazine’s sport’s writer JPW Mallalieu looked at the current world of league football and saw a corrupt and failing game. Backhanders were common, players – even seasoned internationals – were limited to a maximum wage of £20 a week, the Football Association and the Football League were at administrative odds, the transfer system was a mess (when Denis Law was sold by Huddersfield to Manchester City for £50,000 the player himself received just £20). What’s more, the standard of play was falling and as a result crowds were diminishing. Mallalieu was no mere bemoaner, however, and delivered a range of practical suggestions to put the professional game back on its feet.

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Some towns today hardly need those extra police and special buses on a Saturday afternoon. The flow that used to disorganise traffic, and swamp even the smoke-blackened side streets, on its way to the football ground has fallen to a trickle. Compared with this time last year – which itself showed a big drop on 1958 – some two and a half million fewer spectators have troubled to watch Football League matches and, as a result, 60 out of the 92 League clubs say that they are now losing money.

It is at this moment that, by accident rather than intention, the Professional Footballers Association has brought the players' longstanding grievances to a head, grievances about the maximum limit set to their earnings, about the form of their contract, which binds them to an employing club even when the contract has expired, about the persistent refusal of the employers to set up a disputes committee at which grievances could be quickly aired and possibly settled, instead of being allowed to fester. Unless some agreement is reached, there is to be a strike on 13 December – the first in the history of the game; already this week the row has flared in the House of Commons, and conciliators at the Ministry of Labour have begun to work overtime.

Nor is this all. For many years past there have been hints of corruption in football. This season some players have been publicly accused of fixing matches to provide themselves and their backers with assured pickings from the fixed-odds coupons. These charges are still being investigated by the football authorities. Ten days ago, the manager of what I would call one of the six most glamorous clubs in the country made another charge to me personally. “National newspapers,” he said, “are bribing my players to ask for a transfer in order to create a story. Worse, at least one player in every first and second division club is being paid by one newspaper or another to sell not only dressing room tittle tattle, but also such secrets as the tactics we intend to use in a particular game.” This manager is not a has-been who has turned sour. Nor is he inexperienced and hot-headed. Through the 20 years I have known him as player and manager he has been intelligently devoted to his game. Yet he could say: “I have lost heart. I get hold of good youngsters and try to bring them on. But within two years, they're corrupted.”

Obviously, English professional football is in a mess; but before one can begin to understand how it has got into this mess one must first get clear some facts about its organisation. There are two controlling bodies. The supposedly supreme Football Association generally supervises all football, amateur and professional, except the break-away Sunday leagues. It is responsible for changes in the rules, and for seeing that the rules, both of play and of administration, are obeyed. It runs “the Cup”. It represents England in football dealings with other countries. It chooses and runs our international teams.

The second controlling body is the Football League, which, through its management committee, is responsible, broadly, for running professional football through the 92 League clubs. The existence of these two bodies is a cause of increasing friction, even though representatives from the League serve in the councils of the Association. Most of the money which reaches football comes through the League; and the League, providing most of the cash, resents surveillance from a body which it is itself helping to subsidise. The League cry for a breakaway from the Association comes louder each year.

Such friction at the top does not make for peace below. What makes things worse is that the players, in any negotiations they may have, must deal with both bodies; and a continuing players’ complaint has been that, if one body agrees to a proposal, the other will turn it down. There is difficulty moreover in getting both bodies to sit down for negotiation at the same time. The complications, however, do not end there. Although a player is employed by an individual club, the principles on which he is paid and serves are laid down by the League – under the supervision of the Association. But the League is itself really controlled by the votes of its full members, the 44 First and Second Division clubs, plus four “associates” from the Third and Fourth Divisions. To be accepted by this body, any proposal requires a two-thirds majority, and this means that the poorer clubs can veto – as they did veto last month – any proposal by the richer clubs for an improvement in players' conditions. Thus a man who is employed by Arsenal or Spurs finds that in fact his pay and conditions may be controlled, not just by Stoke or Ipswich but even by Accrington Stanley or Aldershot.

Next it is important to look at two points in the players' conditions of service. The first is that the profession is unique in having a maximum wage. No matter how great a star a man becomes, be may not be paid more than the £20 a week, plus bonuses, which can be paid to the least effective member of his team. Stanley Matthews, in his heyday, could put £1,000 on a gate; but his club, was not allowed to recognise his drawing power.

Two arguments are put forward in favour of this rule. One is that football is a team game, that the star is as dependent on lesser lights as they are on him. The other is that if they could pay what they liked, richer clubs would attract all the stars. Those against it point out that a differential system has worked well, not only in Scotland, but in every other football country in the world and that it provides a much needed incentive to footballers to improve their skill. Anyway even under the present system, the richer clubs tend to get their pick of the stars.

This brings up the second point in the players' condition of service: the transfer system. A player signs a contract for a year with his club. When that contract expires, however, he is not free to move elsewhere, unless his club is willing to let him go and unless (usually) another club is prepared to pay a substantial transfer fee to his existing employer. Hence clubs with poor support keep themselves alive by selling stars to clubs with big gates. The selling club retains the bulk of this fee. When a year ago Huddersfield sold Denis Law to Manchester City for some £50,000 the player himself was allowed to receive only £20 – as a signing-on fee. Players resent a system under which they are tied even by a contract that has expired; but if the authorities will not change this system, the players argue that they should themselves get a larger rake-off from it.

A final point needs to be stressed. There has been corruption in football almost from the beginning of professionalism. Many years ago one manager I know of was able to get his team into the League only by paying £100 to a very high League official. Since then, both directors and managers have paid cash under the counter in defiance of League rules, to induce a player to move from one club to another. Wealthy supporters of star clubs are known to pass round the hat and even offer inducements in kind, like sinecure jobs, to attract or retain the men their club wants. Players who see this being done by their bosses come in time to believe that no holds need be barred in the search for cash, especially when they believe that the rules which prevent them from earning more cash legitimately are unfair.

This, then, is the background, or most of it, to today's crisis. One must also mention the standard of play, which is generally thought to have gone down either because coaching and training methods are unsatisfactory or because, with full employment, there are fewer recruits to professional football or because, in the present atmosphere of the game, some players think more about cash than they do about enjoyment for themselves and the spectators. One should also mention the unattractiveness of most football grounds and the alternative attractions to football now available in postwar Britain.

What then should be done? I think that the limit on wages should be removed at once, leaving a player free, subject to a minimum, to negotiate by himself or through his union for the highest wage that a club is able and willing to pay. This happens in other professions. There is no reason why football should be an exception. It would mean that the best players would be concentrated, to a greater extent even than now, in the comparatively few clubs which are attracting support already; and this would be an excellent thing, not only for the star players themselves but for the quality of football. We should, in fact, get an elite of clubs playing in a super-league, which could provide football worth going miles to see and could also give potential internationals the chance of welding themselves into a team, either with their own club or (since these super-clubs would not all play in League football every Saturday) in trial international teams playing against clubs which had a vacant date. At the other end of the scale, some clubs that no longer attract support would have to drop out of League football and join regional competitions. I do not think that any club has a right to exist if it has insufficient support. Still less has it the right to hold back more successful clubs and prevent players from getting what are clearly their rights. Nor have indifferent players any right to a regular wage from football. They should find regular work elsewhere and play part-time football.

Secondly, I think that the present transfer system should be abolished. A player, free to negotiate on wages, should be free to negotiate also on the length of his contract – for one, three, even for five years. While the contract lasts, he should be held by it. Afterwards be should be free to move. The existence of the present contract, unfair in itself, has had more to do with corruption than any other single factor. Its abolition could well clean the atmosphere.

Thirdly, disputes committees – one for the super-League, and one for the lower grades of professional football – should be set up at once with powers to act, so that players can get in touch with their bosses the moment a serious dispute arises, and so that these bosses can take immediate action without being held back by the paupers clinging to their coat-tails.

If these requirements are satisfied, I believe that all footballers will once again put their eye on the ball instead of on the hand upturned behind someone else's back. The opportunities for watching League football might diminish, but the increased quality of what was available could more than make good the deficiency. Perhaps, above all, an industry which is now becoming distinguished for double-dealing would have a chance to become respectable again.  

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)