The Encylopedia of British Football
Football and Trade Unionism
The Football Association was established in in October, 1863. Percy Young, has pointed out, that the FA was a group of men from the upper echelons of British society: "Men of prejudice, seeing themselves as patricians, heirs to the doctrine of leadership and so law-givers by at least semi-divine right."
In 1885 it was decided by the FA that clubs could play professionals in the FA Cup competition. It was not long before football clubs had large wage bills to play. It was therefore necessary to arrange more matches that could be played in front of large crowds. In March, 1888 it was suggested that "ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season."
The following month the Football League was formed. It consisted of six clubs from Lancashire (Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Everton and Preston North End) and six from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanders).
Professional football was extremely successful and after a few years had over 30 members. The Football Association was determined to keep professional players under its control. In 1893 a regulation was introduced that compelled all professional players to register annually with the FA. No player was allowed to play until he was registered, nor was he free to change clubs during the same season without the FA's permission.
The Football League then introduced a new rule that stated that any professional player who wished to move on to another club had to obtain the permission of his present club. The Football League also insisted that once signed, a player was tied to his team for as long as the club wanted him. Therefore, if a player refused to sign a new contract at the beginning of the season, he could not sign for no one else unless the club gave permission.
This measures introduced in 1893 created the transfer system that still exists today. However, in 1893, the players were not free to negotiate a new contract on anything like equal terms with their employers. The Football League had in fact abolished the free market and clubs could now reduce player wages without losing their services.
One of the consequences of these measures was that several top players moved to clubs in the Southern League. The Football League responded by trying to persuade these clubs to join their cartel.
In September, 1893, Derby County proposed that the Football League should impose a maximum wage of £4 a week. At the time, most players were only part-time professionals and still had other jobs. These players did not receive as much as £4 a week and therefore the matter did not greatly concern them. However, a minority of players, were so good they were able to obtain as much as £10 a week. This proposal posed a serious threat to their income.
Some of these top players joined together to form a trade union. This included Bob Holmes and Jimmy Ross of Preston North End, John Devey of Aston Villa, John Somerville of Bolton Wanderers, Hugh McNeill of Sunderland, Harry Wood of Wolverhampton Wanders and John Cameron of Everton. Other players who took a leading role in the union included Tom Bradshaw (Liverpool), James McNaught (Newton Heath), Billy Meredith (Manchester City), John Bell (Everton), Abe Hartley (Liverpool), Johnny Holt (Everton) and David Storrier (Everton).
In February 1898, these players announced the formation of Association Footballers' Union (AFU). Jack Bell became chairman of the union. The secretary of the AFU, John Cameron, announced that the union had 250 members. Cameron pointed out that their main objective was that they "wanted any negotiations regarding transfers to be between the interested club and the player concerned - not between club and club with the player excluded".
The AFU was badly wounded by the decision of several members of the committee to seek higher wages in the Southern League. This included the AFU secretary John Cameron, who joined Tottenham Hotspur for the 1898-99 season. Tom Bradshaw also joined Spurs, whereas other leading figures in the union who left the Football League included Harry Wood and Abe Hartley (Southampton), Johnny Holt (Reading) and Jack Bell and David Storrier who joined Celtic.
Bob Holmes, who became the chairman of the AFU, gave an interview to the Lancashire Daily Post where he admitted the union was in serious trouble: "I am not quite sure that we shall succeed in attaining all the objects with which we set out; it is not a certainty that we shall carry any... The break-up of the Everton team as we knew it last season may have a good deal in influencing the future of the Union. With John Cameron, Jack Bell, Robertson, Holt, Stewart, Storrier, Meecham of Everton as well as Hartley and Bradshaw of Liverpool gone, our centre has lost strength. Liverpool was our headquarters, you know, and our registered offices were there. But the secretary, John Cameron, has gone to London and Bell the chairman will not, as far as I know, play for anybody."
Charles Saer, who replaced John Cameron as secretary of the AFU. A former player with Blackburn Rovers, Saer now worked as a schoolteacher. His negotiations with the Football League ended in failure and in December, 1898, Saer resigned as secretary "as his scholastic duties precluded the possibility of his devoting the necessary time to the office".
In May 1900 the Football Association passed a rule at its AGM that set the maximum wage of professional footballers playing in the Football League at £4 a week. It also abolished the paying of all bonuses to players.
In the 1903-04 season Manchester City finished in second place in the First Division. They also won the FA Cup in 1904 when they beat Bolton Wanderers in the final at Crystal Palace. The only goal of the game was scored by the great Billy Meredith.
The Football Association was amazed by Manchester City's rapid improvement and that summer they decided to carry out an investigation into the way the club was being run. However, the officials only discovered some minor irregularities and no case was brought against the club.
The following season Manchester City again challenged for the championship. City needed to beat Aston Villa on the final day of the season. Sandy Turnbull gave Alec Leake, the Villa captain, a torrid time during the game. Leake threw some mud at him and he responded with a two-fingered gesture. Leake then punched Turnbull. According to some journalists, at the end of the game, Turnbull was dragged into the Villa dressing-room and beaten-up. Villa won the game 3-1 and Manchester City finished third, two points behind Newcastle United.
After the game Alec Leake claimed that Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game. Meredith was found guilty of this offence by the Football Association and was fined and suspended from playing football for a year. Manchester City refused to provide financial help for Meredith and so he decided to go public about what really was going on at the club: "What was the secret of the success of the Manchester City team? In my opinion, the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week... The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied."
The Football Association was now forced to carry out another investigation into the financial activities of Manchester City. They discovered that City had been making additional payments to all their players. Tom Maley was suspended from football for life. Seventeen players were fined and suspended until January 1907.
Manchester City was also forced to sell their players and at an auction at the Queen's Hotel in Manchester. The Manchester United manager, Ernest Mangnal signed the outstandingly gifted, Billy Meredith for only £500. Mangnal also purchased three other talented members of the City side, Herbert Burgess, Sandy Turnbull and Jimmy Bannister.
Billy Meredith was upset by the way that the clubs treated their players. Jimmy Ross played with Meredith at Manchester City until his early death in 1902. Despite his successful football career, Ross had been unable to save any money for his wife and children.
Another of Meredith's friends at Manchester City, left-back David Jones, died in 1902, after suffering an injury during a pre-season game. The club claimed he was not "working" at the time as the game was a friendly, even though a paying crowd of 20,000 people watched the game. Jones's widow and children were left with no insurance cover and had to rely on the proceeds of a collection and a benefit match with Bolton Wanderers. According to Meredith, the game raised very little money for the family.
In April 1907 Thomas Blackstock, a colleague at Manchester United, collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St. Helens. 25 year old Blackstock died soon afterwards. An inquest into his death returned a verdict of "Natural Causes" and once again a football player's family received no compensation.
Billy Meredith portrayed as Guy Fawkes by the Manchester Evening News
when he created the Association Football Players Union (January 1909)
In 1907 Billy Meredith and several colleagues at Manchester United, including Charlie Roberts, Charlie Sagar, Herbert Broomfield, Herbert Burgess and Sandy Turnbull, decided to form a new Players' Union. The first meeting was held on 2nd December, 1907, at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester. Also at the meeting were players from Manchester City, Newcastle United, Bradford City, West Bromwich Albion, Notts County, Sheffield United, and Tottenham Hotspur. Jack Bell, the former chairman of the Association Footballers' Union (AFU) also attended the meeting.
Herbert Broomfield was appointed as the new secretary of the Association Football Players Union (AFPU). It was decided to charge an entrance fee of 5s plus subs of 6d a week. Billy Meredith chaired meetings in London and Nottingham and within a few weeks the majority of players in the Football League had joined the union. This included Andrew McCombie, Jim Lawrence and Colin Veitch of Newcastle United who were to become important figures in the AFPU.
The AFPU also got support from administrators of the clubs. John J. Bentley (president) and John Henry Davies (chairman) of Manchester United joined the campaign to abolish the £4 ceiling on wages.
When Frank Levick of Sheffield United died aged 26 in 1908, the AFPU sent his family £20. They also entered into negotiations with his club about the compensation to be paid to his wife. The AFPU also explored the ways that football players could make use of the Workman's Compensation Act (1906).
At the 1908 Annual General Meeting the Football Association decided to reaffirm the maximum wage. However, they did raise the possibility of a bonus system being introduced whereby players would receive 50% of club profits at the end of the season.
In November 1908 Thompson's Weekly News announced that several leaders of the AFPU, including Billy Meredith, Jim Lawrence and Colin Veitch, would be writing regular articles for the newspaper. For the next six years, this newspaper with a circulation of 300,000, provided a forum for the views of union officials.
The AFPU continued to have negotiations with the Football Association but in April 1909 these came to an end without agreement. In June the FA ordered that all players should leave the AFPU. They were warned that if they did not do so by the 1st July, their registrations as professionals would be cancelled. The AFPU responded by joining the General Federation of Trades Unions.
Most players resigned from the union. All 28 professionals at Aston Villa signed a public declaration that they had left the AFPU and would not rejoin until given permission by the FA. However, the whole of the Manchester United team refused to back down. As a result they were all suspended by their club. The same thing happened to seventeen Sunderland players who also refused to leave the AFPU.
The players put their careers in jeopardy by staying in the union. As Charlie Roberts, the Manchester United captain pointed out: "I had a benefit due with a guarantee of £500 at the time and if the sentence was not removed I would lose that also, besides my wages, so that it was quite a serious matter for me."
John J. Bentley the president of Manchester United and the Football League and vice president of the Football Association, who had earlier supported the abolition of the maximum wage, now attacked the activities of the AFPU. "The very suggestion of a strike of footballers shows the meanness of the motives behind it and in my judgement cannot be too strongly condemned."
Colin Veitch, who had resigned from the AFPU in order to carry on negotiations with the Football Association, led the struggle to have players reinstated. At a meeting in Birmingham on 31st August 1909, the FA agreed that professional players could be members of the AFPU and the dispute came to an end.
Billy Meredith saw the decision as a defeat for the Association Football Players Union: "The unfortunate thing is that so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to do just what they are told ... instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class."
Charlie Roberts agreed with Meredith: "As far as I am concerned, I would have seen the FA in Jericho before I would have resigned membership of that body, because it was our strength and right arm, but I was only one member of the Players' Union. To the shame of the majority they voted the only power they had away from themselves and the FA knew it."
When the Manchester United team played in the first match of the season on 1st September, 1909, they all wore AFPU arm-bands. However, it took six months for the players to receive their back wages. Charlie Roberts never got his benefit match and several union activists were never picked again to play for their country.