When Footballers Were Skint
Biteback Publishing 2019
Softback, 308pp, £9.99
Was it a halcyon era when footballers weren’t allowed to earn above a certain amount, travelled on buses, and had virtually no say in where their next place of work was going to be? In a hen, for many players, it’s the norm to live in gated estates, drive several cars, and choose which club they will sign for, then it can certainly seem like it. Much of football now would be unrecognisable to those who played (or watched) it 40, 50 years or more ago. Has the change altered the very nature of the game and the relationships between the various groups within it? Is it that by returning to the past we are on, as the author suggests, “a journey in search of the soul of football”?
The book is dedicated to Jimmy Hill, who as Chairman of the Professional Footballer’s’ Association, led the overthrow of the maximum wage (then £20 per week) in 1961. In force since 1901 (originally £4) it was a cushion for directors who could rest easy in the knowledge that players were unlikely to want to move clubs for financial gain. Of course, not every player achieved this maximum, and most were on reduced wages out of season, having to take temporary jobs whether it was labouring, decorating or whatever else was available. There is little bitterness about such a situation amongst the 23 former players the author interviewed. There seems to be an acceptance that expectations were lower and therefore less resentment is shown. Many footballers came from hard backgrounds, growing up in the 1930s and 40s, with job opportunities that were hard manual work. Pre-war many footballers were miners and the chance to play professional football, above ground even if for lower pay, was not to be turned down. Even later, in the 50s, Tommy Banks, Bolton and England full back, knew that he’d have earned more down the pit in Wigan.
The stories that are told by the players range from signing on to finishing their careers. Long before club academies and agents, lads came to the attention of clubs in circuitous ways. Don Ratcliffe (Crewe, Middlesbrough, Darlington, Stoke) was spotted playing in the street by a shopkeeper and recommended. Tony McNamara (Everton) was spotted in the Catholic Young Men’s Society League and Bill Leivers, later of Manchester City, got a trial with Chesterfield partly because the club’s groundsman went to the same church. Many continued with another job as well as playing football. Tom Finney was famous as a plumber, Cliff Jones (Swansea and Spurs) finished a five-year apprenticeship as a sheet-metal worker, whilst Dave Whelan (Blackburn) took up as a market stall trader when he was injured.
A financial and work environment such as this, allied to the experiences many underwent in the war, ensured that footballers were generally grounded in the communities in which they lived and played. They shopped, travelled, and drank locally, and tended to marry local girls. Football was the main entertainment for thousands of those whom lived nearby, accessible both in terms of location and cost. People didn’t have cars, there wasn’t a vast array of real or virtual leisure opportunities, and hence players of the town club were intrinsically part of the focus of the community.
The links are no longer there for many, football and footballers have a different relationship with many of us. Even away from the gilded palaces of the Premier League many players are only associated with a club for short contracts or loans. The soul may not have completely gone but this excellent piece of sporting and social history writing certainly tells of its radical change.