The time when footballers were almost slaves
By Boris Mellor
March 26 2007
A review of Gary Imlach, My Father And Other Working-Class Football Heroes. And a rewiew of Derek Tapscott with Terry Grandin, Tappy from Barry Town to Arsenal, Cardiff City and Beyond
One of the most obscene things that Ashley Cole ever did was to compare his dispute over £5,000 a week with slavery. Slaves do not even own their own name, or children let alone shiny luxury cars to skid off the road with. The morality of footballers’ wages is often debated, but rarely does anyone challenge the wages of a film star. Whether we like it or not football generates enormous revenue and that revenue is created by football stars. But it was not always the case, there was a time when professional footballers earned the same wage as a skilled worker. Nobody wants a return to those bad old days, but it is worth remembering, or discovering what those days were like.
For as Gary Imlach points out in his elegiac memoir of his father Stewart Imlach players were in fact worse off than the average skilled worker. The reason for this was the notorious retain and transfer system that was in place until George Eastham (Arsenal and
If a player wished to dispute the wages offered, wanted to move, or had disagreements with the management their contracts could be virtually frozen; refused pay they could be retained against their will. George Eastham had asked to move from
George Eastham had a genuine grievance against retain and transfer and with the backing of the players union he launched a crusade against this iniquitous system. Having freed himself from
Stewart Imlach played for
At the end of the season following the cup victory the local newspaper heard before Imlach that he was being transferred to Luton, ironically the club
But this is not a story of victim hood but of men who enjoyed playing the game and were proud of their ability of achievements. Men that were heroes but lived in similar streets to their fans, with a standard of living no higher. Some of them had jobs in the summer, when wages dropped by several pounds, and some even during the season itself. Imlach comments on the fact that the head of the FA opened his door to a repair man who was a professional footballer. Nobody found this remarkable at the time. Perhaps it all helped to enhance schoolboy dream of playing in the winning cup final; players were heroes but they were working-class heroes.
Once again his world is a million miles away from that of Ashley Cole; on returning from his honeymoon he and his wife waited, early in the morning, at Heathrow Station for the first underground train to come into service. Can you imagine Ashley Cole waiting for a train after his honeymoon? True Derek was given a far better clubhouse to live in than Imlach's father ever had, but his wages were as low. On playing for
But like Imlach his career at the top would be short (1953 to 58), playing at his peak in 1957 he underwent a cartilage operation and the following season was transferred to
It is hardly surprising that Tapscott has little time for the elbowers and divers of the modern game. However he still loves the Arsenal and he attended the final salute, you may have noticed a frail white-haired man being led around the pitch.
Was it an era of slavery? Tapscott does not dwell on the issue, instead he believes he was lucky to leave Barry Town, and a family of 16 children, behind to play at the highest level; and he would have done it all for free. Amazingly he is still remembered by Arsenal and
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