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10 October 2016

Why is there so much greed in English football?

Tickets to the music hall and a guinea in your boots – now that’s a proper bung!

By Hunter Davies

There has always been corruption in football. In the first few decades after 1863, when it all began with the setting up of the FA, it was strictly an amateur game, which was how the public-school founding fathers believed that God and nature had intended it. Which was a laugh. The word “shamateurism” was immediately used to cover all the fiddles to get round the rules. A star player, after a game, would find a guinea in his shoe. Once clubs realised the surest way of winning was to attract the best players, underhand payments began.

In the FA Cup of 1879, a cotton workers’ club from Darwen in Lancashire astounded the football world by drawing 5-5 with the mighty Old Etonians. How had they done it? Turned out Darwen had recently acquired two Scottish players. After playing against Partick Thistle, Darwen had persuaded two of the best Scots to “go missing”. The bribes included a soft job at the cotton mills, plus money in their boots after every game.

In 1885 football bowed to the inevitable and professionalism became legal. Which did not stop the fiddles. Gate money, all in cash, was often massaged for illegal use. Even when for decades there was a maximum wage, which until 1961 was set at £20 a week, clubs got round it. Stanley Matthews always managed to earn a lot more.

When tempting a young player to join them, clubs would offer his parents money, cars, houses – which of course still goes on to this day.

The players themselves managed to come up with quite a few fiddles. They were not supposed to sell the six or so free tickets they got for most games – but if their side progressed to the Cup Final, these became hugely desirable and touts would offer them large sums. Being surrounded by touts, they mixed with various suspect characters who gave them stolen goods, got them into clubs, plied them with free drink. It encouraged their feelings of entitlement. If they got into scrapes, their club would pull strings among the local police and get them off.

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One of the pleasanter perks, back in the pre-war days, was being invited on a Saturday evening, after the game, to the best seats at the local music hall. If they’d won, the players were invited up on stage after the final chorus. The audience would cheer them wildly – and the lads had a good chance of picking up a chorus girl.

All these minor perks and privileges,which lasted for a hundred years or so, seem piddling compared to the billions swishing around in football today, but the culture of entitlement has passed down through the generations. A young player in the 1970s, the time when Sam Allardyce was at Bolton, would have expected to benefit personally from a good cup run.

The vast sums of money today have increased the number of hands in the till, but we rarely know whose hands. Where, for instance, did all the cash go from the world record fee of £89m that Man United paid for Pogba? There are so many middlemen, hidden payments and inducements.

A manager, either buying or selling, naturally thinks that he’s done all the real work, and usually has the final say in the deal, so is naturally resentful when agents, most of whom he despises, are taking a large cut for doing eff all. So why shouldn’t he accept a slice if offered? Or even demand it? Even revered managers such as Brian Clough, Terry Venables, George Graham were accused of tricky dealings.

Why does an England manager such as Allardyce want more when he is already on £3m a year? Greed, is the easy answer, and what everyone not on £3m immediately assumes. It could also be fear, that it’ll all dry up. Resentment that lesser people are making more. Or maybe it becomes a game, just to see if they can do it. Or they might become envious of their own players – young, naive lads who are on £200,000 a week, money they never dreamt of in their own playing days.

In a world with so much money, where financial morals have always been pretty lax, anyone near the top might think, “Me, me, me, I want my share, I deserve my share . . .” 

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph