Less than two weeks ago, Arsenal legend George Eastham celebrated his 75th birthday, in comfortable retirement in South Africa. He is best remembered by his peers as a skillful inside forward with an exceptional eye for a pass. Qualities that led to 19 England caps and selection to the 1966 World Cup squad.
Eastham, is however, far better remembered for his singular contribution to the abolition of the maximum wage that paved the way for players receiving the extraordinary wages they now take for granted. Fifty years ago, this was not the case with clubs owning the players like indentured labour. Their wages: £20 a week during the season and £17 in the summer. If the players rebelled by not signing a new contract with the club, the football league would simply refuse to pay him, while retaining his registration.
In effect, the rules chilled all prospects of player mobility. Eastham, playing for Newcastle wanted a move to Arsenal but the club refused. He went 7 months without playing, supporting himself by selling cork till the league finally relented and he moved to Highbury in 1960 for a record transfer fee of £47,500 and better wages (yes, Arsenal was a generous benefactor contrary to modern opinion). In 1961, the maximum wage was abolished.
Eastham did not end his quest there but with the help of the Players Football Association took the matter all the way to the High Court. In his testimony, Eastham argued that the transfer system in its present form constituted an unfair restraint on trade. His logic obviously left quite an impression on Justice Richard Wilberforce and in 1964, the court ruled that the retain and transfer system was unreasonable. A few years later, he refused to play for Arsenal, on the grounds of a wage increase, and the club threatened to transfer him. Due to his reputation and his skills as a player the matter was resolved in his favour. Over the years, the Bosman rule and the Turner clause have added more clout to player’s rights, to the extent that clubs are now scrambling to find innovative ways of retaining their stars, including trigger clauses in their contracts.
The former Arsenal midfielder does not begrudge players receiving today’s inflated salaries
“They get in a week what I got in a career. So you can see how it’s escalated over the years. But everybody’s worth what he can get, so long as they play to their ability and give what they’ve got to give.”
I suspect he would have something stronger to say about Carlos Tevez’s self centred act of mutiny. Tevez receives £250,000 per week to make him one of the highest paid players in the world. It puts into perspective the decades long struggle waged by players like Eastham to force the clubs and the league to giving them a fair wage and the right to play for whomever they wished. But Eastham accepted this better day also came with responsibilities and the first obligation was to the club. For every Tevez, there are hundreds of players with their livelihood threatened by the inability of clubs teetering on the brink of financial ruin to pay them their salaries. The La Liga and Serie season were delayed as player unions resorted to collective bargaining and strikes to seek assurances that their players would be paid wages owed to them. It’s a world still fraught with danger for the less fortunate. Sepp Blatter raised quite a chuckle when he defended Cristiano Ronaldo calling him ” a slave” a few years ago. He wasn’t so quick on the uptake with Tevez. One of City’s redresses could see FIFA getting involved in deciding the Argentinian’s fate.