George Eastham, a member of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad, walked out on Newcastle United in 1960 – and made more money as a cork salesman than he did playing in English football’s top division.
His actions were a major news story. ‘Everywhere I went was an open door because I was in the newspapers. So I got more money selling cork than for playing football.’
Eastham’s was one of scores of stories I heard from a wide cast of players while researching and writing When Footballers Were Skint, published this month by Biteback.
I wrote the book for two reasons. First, before it was too late, to capture the reminiscences of the country’s leading professionals who really were hard up, living on a meagre and strictly enforced maximum wage regardless of their status, while subject to a punitive ‘slavery’ rule.
And, secondly, to give perspective to the surreal changes that have taken place since, both to players’ lives and the character of the crowds who watch them.
Eastham was at the epicentre of the upheavals that would eventually transform the English game.
When he walked out on Newcastle – his playing career would resume at Arsenal – he was protesting at the club’s lack of help finding him a second job. This they had promised to do because he was about to get married and needed extra cash to spruce up the club house in which he lived. No player could afford to buy his own house.
Two things then happened in quick succession. In 1961 a threatened strike by Football League players forced the clubs to scrap the cap on wages, which had inched up to a princely 20 quid a week.
This was soon followed by a high court action, built around Eastham’s differences with Newcastle, that brought an end to the retain-and-transfer – or ‘slavery’ – rule. It was this rule that permitted Newcastle to withhold Eastham’s registration even after he was out of contract.
The immediate reaction to these changes was restrained. Most players settled for modest increases.
And for many years the rises remained steady and sensible.
What changed things dramatically was the coming together of the Premier League and subscription television in 1992, the new TV moguls judging correctly that this league was a potential money-spinner if only they could secure the rights to widespread live coverage.
This they achieved with a £304 million deal. It would prove the game-changer of all game-changers.
Very quickly agent-backed players achieved a hold over the game way beyond the imagining of their predecessors – and the working-class supporter, once such an integral part of the game’s soul, was priced out of regularly attending matches.
Amidst it all the reason behind what drove players to bring an end to the maximum wage was largely forgotten.
Eastham only wanted a bit more money so he could have a decent house – not untold riches paid for by television and by a wealthy clientele caring little for those whose places they have usurped in the stands.
When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson is published by Biteback Publishing, p308, £20