How money took over football… in 1879

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No turnstiles, no tickets, no huge wage demands. Late 19th-century football was a serene place… until money came along and turned it into the monster we love and loathe today.

The first recorded outbreak of ‘professionalism’ occurred in Lancashire when Darwen employed two Scots, Fergie Suter and James Love, in 1879. Though it caused a minor scandal, players had been secretly paid – in cash, fish, beer, whatever – for years. In 1885, professionalism was legalised and in 1901 a £4-a-week wage limit introduced.

The FA tried to cling to amateur ideals, but in 1905 Middlesbrough broke the bank, buying Sunderland’s Alf Common for a record £1,000. Boro had been languishing near the relegation places in Division One, but with Common on board, they leapt up to mid-table anonymity and languished there for a bit. Who said you can’t buy success?

In January 1908, the FA set a transfer fee limit of £350. But even then, clubs could outmuscle the FA: by April, the new law had been withdrawn.

By 1922 the maximum wage had grown to £8 a week (£6 in the summer), and clubs also gave a loyalty bonus of £650 after five years. The money no longer came from the club owners either – since Small Heath (Birmingham City) set the trend in 1888, clubs had been turning themselves into limited companies and directors saw football as a money-spinning pension plan.

The first £10,000 transfer came in 1928 when Arsenal bought David Jack from Bolton (none of the money going to the player or his agent), but by the time Jimmy Guthrie took over as chairman of the Players’ Union in 1947, the maximum wage was still only £12 a week (£10 in the summer).

David Jack: Cost a bob or two, but not in wages 

While his namesake, folk singer Woody Guthrie, sang at the time, “Your pastures of plenty must always be free,” Jimmy was determined to get a better deal for players. Guthrie wanted not only to provide health care, insurance, legal advice and pensions for players, but to turn the idea of wages and contracts on its head. Unfortunately many of the players thought he was an untrustworthy ‘leftie’ and Guthrie made little ground.

The same year, Notts County bought England striker Tommy Lawton for a groundbreaking £20,000. County were in Division Three but the maximum wage gave all clubs roughly the same pulling power. True, higher crowds meant there was an income differential between clubs in Division One and Division Three, but in 1950 it was just 2:1. By 1995 it was 10:1 and rising.

Where Guthrie had stalled, Jimmy Hill triumphed in 1961. As the PFA’s new chairman, Hill championed the case of George Eastham, who challenged Newcastle United’s right to refuse him a transfer even though his contract had expired.

The retain-and-transfer system had long shackled players to clubs, but after a costly court battle, Hill released Eastham and opened the door to market forces. How could Hill have predicted that 40 years later there would be complaints that players’ wages were so high that a salary cap should be re-introduced?

No sooner had the maximum wage been abolished than Fulham handed their superstar Johnny Haynes £100 a week. By 1964 Manchester United’s Denis Law was the best-paid player in the UK. As the booze-fuelled ’70s arrived, commercial sponsorship grew alongside the profile of football’s new superstars. Previously, footballers had earned the same as ‘normal’ people, now they had cash to splash.

Keegan: Ooh, yer brut(e) 

In 1978, Liverpool became the first British club to have a shirt sponsor (by the early-’80s it was commonplace) and the same year Gordon McQueen became the first £500,000 player when he moved from Leeds to Manchester United.

That record was doubled the following year when Trevor Francis joined Nottingham Forest, but it was 1988 before the first £2m transfer with Paul Gascoigne’s switch from Newcastle to Spurs.

Then came the Bosman ruling of 1995, allowing out-of-contract players and their shadowy representatives to negotiate higher and higher wages as a transfer fee between clubs was no longer required.

Before Bosman, the wages to turnover ratio at Premiership clubs was  a reasonable 47 percent. Five years after Bosman it was 63 percent – perilously close to a critical level. Spending shot up by 50 percent in the same time, as clubs went for broke in an attempt to live the dream.

In 1995, Dennis Bergkamp was the best-paid player in the country, having just joined Arsenal from Inter for £7.5m, but his salary would soon be eclipsed as the so-called ‘foreign invasion’ gathered pace.

In 1999, for the first time, more was spent on foreign stars than homegrown players – £182m compared to £158.2m. That season also saw Britain’s first high-profile Bosman departure as Steve McManaman left Liverpool for Real Madrid for free.

Just as transfer fees rocketed between 1994 (Chris Sutton £5m, Norwich to Blackburn) to 1996 (Alan Shearer £15m, Blackburn to Newcastle) and on to 2002 (Rio Ferdinand £30m, Leeds to Man United), so wages went through the roof.

In 2000, Roy Keane became the country’s leading earner with a new £52,000-a-week contract. Ex-Wales and Man United midfielder Mickey Thomas, jailed for making fake money, made light of it: “So Keane is on 50 grand a week? So was I until the police found my printing machine!”

At the time, £52,000 a week seemed ridiculous. These days pretty average Premier Leaguers can be pulling that much in while the top players have long since crossed the £100k-a-week barrier.

Recession? The 19 players in FourFourTwop’s Football Rich List 2009 probably think that’s a nightclub.


For the full Rich List, see FourFourTwo magazine, out now. If quoting, credit FourFourTwo magazine and link to

The new issue of the magazine includes exclusive interviews with Robinho, Dimitar Berbatov, Russell Brand and Woking boss Phil Gilchrist, among many others.


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