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Soccer slavery

Image: Jimmy Hill led the way with the abolition of the maximum wage

Jimmy Hill will forever be synonymous with the abolition of the maximum wage. Here's his story.

Jimmy Hill will forever be synonymous with the abolition of the maximum wage. Here's his story.

When Wayne Rooney picks up his reported £200,000 pay packet this week he might care to spare a thought for the men who made such riches possible. For all those footballers, in fact, who, in the week John F Kennedy became the 35th president of the United States, stood full square behind their own union and ushered in a new era. An era which on January 18, 1961, saw the abolition of football's maximum wage which had capped players' pay at £20 a week. 'League agree to end the soccer slave contract,' was how one newspaper headline described it. 'Hill's Hour of Triumph,' screamed another, focusing on Jimmy Hill's role as the players' union leader in the negotiations which saw the clubs and the league back down to the demands of the players. Some might say footballers, in the half-century which has passed, have gone from 'slaves' to pampered millionaires who no longer have a relationship with the fans who help to pay their wages. Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, citing the 34,000 visits by PFA members to charities and good causes over the past 12 months, puts it another way. "It created a greater mobility of labour," Taylor said.

No regrets

"And I wouldn't have a single regret. (The maximum wage) put an artificial ceiling on a player's unique ability. A football player is as entitled as an artist, a musician or an actor to get the reward he deserves. Many players have brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people." You would expect no less from a staunch union man who was himself an early beneficiary of football's revolution, even if his first professional contract with Bolton in 1962 was a mere £12 a week. In the 1950s when England winger Tom Finney famously juggled playing with plumbing and went to the match on the local bus, unrest had been simmering for some time, mostly at the unjust transfer system. It culminated in George Eastham famously going on strike at Newcastle when they refused to grant him a transfer to Arsenal at the end of his contract. In those days there was a 'retain and transfer' system which allowed clubs to retain the registration at the end of a player's contract, preventing him from moving while under no obligation to pay him. It was known by players as the 'slavery contract' and it fuelled disaffection, especially among the top stars. It is why Brian Clough, then a prolific striker at Middlesbrough, was a staunch supporter of the strike action over the maximum wage, saying: "I would expect the right to negotiate my contract the same as any person in any profession." There were high-profile critics of the strike threat, including then Manchester United manager Matt Busby. But the future of football effectively was changed forever at a meeting in December 1960 when some of the most down-to-earth players in the country in the north met and voted by 254 votes to six to withdraw their labour. Hill and the union had their mandate to smash a system which had seen businessmen owners bank massive gate receipts from huge crowds without putting back a penny into football's infrastructure and little more into the pockets of the stars who attracted the spectators. Once it was smashed players such as Blackpool's Jimmy Armfield saw their wages double overnight while Johnny Haynes, in a publicity coup by Fulham chairman Tommy Trinder, soon became the first £100-a-week footballer. The genie was out of the bottle and no one, apart from greedy chairmen, begrudged the nation's top footballers their newly-won fortune.
Genie free
But that was in the days when a player might earn twice the average weekly wage if he was lucky. These days, with Rooney reportedly on £200,000 a week and Manchester City's Yaya Toure estimated to be on £40,000-a-week more than the England star, and with City's wage bill standing at around £500million a year, players operate on a completely different planet from the fans who scrimp to watch them. Taylor, who admits such players owe a "massive debt" to Hill and then union secretary Cliff Lloyd, said: "When you think of the money the game had to manage on in the time prior to the maximum wage being removed, nobody could have dreamed of the money that has come into the game." Not that Hill is without misgivings. "It was an injustice," he said recently. "There was no reason for it. But it has gone too far the other way now with players in 90% of clubs being paid far more than their clubs can afford. That's just as ridiculous as having a maximum wage." Former England manager Terry Venables concurs. "It's made the player really powerful in a way that wasn't envisaged," he said. So much so that there are some who believe there should be a salary cap, even if that is aimed at the total amount a club can spend on wages rather than how it remunerates individuals. It would have prevented the financial conflagration at clubs such as Leeds and Portsmouth. For now, 50 years after the abolition of the maximum wage, football ploughs on with a spending spree which seems to know no boundaries. One thing is certain. Wayne Rooney and co are slaves no longer.

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