In February 1995, Gordon Taylor, then in his 14th year as chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association, was interviewed for the New Statesman’s Influences column. Since discontinued, the series invited public luminaries to name the people and works that had inspired them.
Twenty-three years later, Taylor’s then thick brown hair has receded, thinned and greyed, but little else on the page would need revising. He is still at the helm of perhaps the most successful trade union in British history. His answers in that interview make for intriguing, even amusing, reading today.
In among the predictable nods to the footballing heroes of his youth in 1950s Lancashire (Nat Lofthouse, Duncan Edwards, Stanley Matthews) are tributes that hint at a cultural hinterland (Ernest Hemingway, Henrik Ibsen, JRR Tolkien, Leo Marx, AJP Taylor) and a keenness to emphasise his Christian faith (his “most influential book” was the Bible, while the scene from history he most wanted to visit was the Last Supper).
The final question was a hypothetical one. If Taylor could pass any law, what would it be? Having already paid tribute to the late Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell and denounced John Major’s Conservative government, his answer was unsurprising: “A law that guaranteed a decent standard of living for everybody.”
Today, an increasing number of PFA members would greet that remark with hollow laughter. The one person guaranteed a decent standard of living by the PFA is of course Gordon Taylor, who is now into his 37th year as chief executive. His salary has risen from £900,000 in 2009 to £2.3m (plus expenses and other benefits) last year; totals that far exceed what the PFA spends, for example, on research into links between dementia and heading footballs (a meagre £100,000) and benevolent grants to former players (£530,000).
What explains his longevity and unchallenged dominance? The Bible, so often invoked by Taylor, provides the pithiest answer: Mammon. As English football has grown hugely rich through television and sponsorship deals, so too has its trade union – and its leader. In 1992, Taylor threatened to call a players’ strike if the PFA did not receive a cut of the many millions paid for the inaugural Premier League’s television rights. That cut now stands at £27m a year.
There are signs, however, that the PFA may not remain Taylor’s personal fiefdom for much longer, because he is in open conflict with its chairman, the Walsall defender Ben Purkiss, who has called for an independent review into its culture and opaque practices. More than 300 current and former players demanded Taylor’s resignation in an open letter dated 18 November.
Born in Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, in 1944, Gordon Alexander Taylor is an unlikely beneficiary of the transformation of English football into perhaps the purest expression of free-market globalisation. His footballing provenance, however, could not be more archetypal of the English game: the son of a railwayman, he grew up on a council estate before signing for Bolton Wanderers, the club he had supported as a boy, in 1960. From there he had a solid, if unspectacular, career as a burly winger with Birmingham City and Blackburn Rovers.
A stint in North America with the Vancouver Whitecaps followed, before Taylor ended his career in the lower leagues at Bury. He retired in 1980, aged 36, having studied for an external degree in economics while playing.
By the end of his career, Taylor was already PFA chairman – a position occupied by a player – and within a year became its first full-time chief executive. On his watch, the union rapidly became professionalised and astutely attached itself to the gravy train of the breakaway Premier League.
But club chairmen have long resented his largesse. In 1999 the PFA spent £1.9m on LS Lowry’s Going To The Match, and, in 2002, David Gold, then chairman of Birmingham City, accused Taylor of building a “mausoleum to greed” because of his PFA salary, which he does not personally set and has always defended. “I wouldn’t want any of my members and neither myself to be embarrassed about it,” he said in 2011. “Every labour is worth his hire, that’s going back to the Bible.”
Taylor, who has had a complicated private life, lives with his wife in Wiswell, in the Ribble Valley. He likes fine dining at nearby Michelin-starred restaurants and exotic holidays. In 2013 it emerged that he had run up £100,000 in gambling debts, and, in 2015, he compared Ched Evans, the former Sheffield United striker convicted of rape, to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
Until now, Gordon Taylor – derided by his foes as football’s fattest cat – has survived, protected by his overweening power and the indifference of his membership. But as scrutiny of his role intensifies, the title of the novel he urged everybody to read in this magazine 23 years ago seems nicely apposite: For Whom the Bell Tolls.
This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis