Examining the balance of power in Football between the clubs and the players

Many will likely remember Cristano Ronaldo’s comments prior to leaving Manchester United for Real Madrid, that there was “too much modern slavery” in the sport. I am sure I was not the only person who scoffed at this. I am sure most people would not mind being a slave if by definition they earned millions of pounds a year in wages and endorsement deals. Many believe that players in the modern game have far too much power to wield over clubs and their contracts, as a result, are but paper to be flushed down the drain the moment a bigger club with a bigger wage structure comes along. But how did football get to this point?

Eastham v Newcastle United [1964] Ch. 413 is a legal case involving restraint of trade and unpaid wages of a footballer.

In 1956, George Eastham signed for Newcastle United on a rolling one-year contract. However, during his time at Newcastle United Eastham fell out with the club, disputing whether the house the club had supplied him was habitable, and the unsatisfactory secondary job that the club had arranged for him. At the time maximum wage rules forbade clubs from paying the market rate. Eastham was also somewhat annoyed at Newcastle and their attempts to stop him playing for the England U23 team.

With his contract due to expire soon, in 1959, Eastham refused to sign a new one and requested a transfer to Arsenal FC. Unfortunately for Eastham Newcastle refused to let him go. The Football Association’s draconian “retain and transfer” system allowed the club to prevent him from moving. The rules allowed clubs to retain players as long as they were offered terms that were “reasonable”, effectively tying a player to one club until it agreed to release him while refusing to pay them if they had requested a transfer.

Eastham later recounted on the issue; “Our contract could bind us to a club for life. Most people called it the “slavery contract”. We had virtually no rights at all. It was often the case that the guy on the terrace not only earned more than us — though there’s nothing wrong with that — he had more freedom of movement than us. People in business or teaching were able to hand in their notice and move on. We weren’t. That was wrong.”

As he was unable to leave Eastham decided to go on strike at the end of the 1959-60 season and moved south to work for an old family friend, Ernie Clay (who incidentally later became the Chairman of Fulham FC), selling cork in Guildford, Surrey. Finally in October 1960 Newcastle relented and decided to sell Eastham to Arsenal for £47,500. This could have been the end of the matter but Eastham considered the issue worth standing up and fighting for. Backed by the Professional Footballers’ Association who provided £15,000 to pay for Eastham’s legal fees, he took Newcastle United to the High Court in 1963.

In the High Court Eastham argued that it was an unfair restraint of trade, and that Newcastle United owed him £400 in unpaid wages and £650 in unpaid bonuses. The judge, Mr Justice Wilberforce, ruled partly in the player’s favour, stating that the retain-and-transfer system used by clubs was unreasonable, although he also ruled that as Eastham had refused to play for Newcastle, that any payment of wages for the disputed period was at Newcastle’s discretion.

At the conclusion of the case, although Eastham did not gain personally, he succeeded in reforming the British transfer market. The “retain” element of retain-and-transfer was greatly reduced, providing fairer terms for players looking to re-sign for their clubs, and setting up a transfer tribunal for disputes. It was an incredibly important case and enabled footballers in England far greater choice and freedom when it came to their careers. Was it the beginning of a slippery slope? Perhaps. Has the power that footballers now wield spun out of all control? Most definitely in my humble opinion. There must be a happy medium though. A point where the balance of power between club and player does not tip more in one direction that the other. A point in which power is equitable to both. Whether or not that will ever happen remains to be seen, but it is certainly worth hoping for, for the good of the game.

As an aside, Eastham made his Arsenal debut against Bolton Wanderers on 10 December 1960, and scored twice as Arsenal won 5-1. Later that same season, he scored the equaliser against Newcastle United at St James’ Park, in a 3-3 draw. During the game he was called “Judas” and pelted with apples. I suppose some things in football never change. Throughout his six seasons at Arsenal, he was a regular for the side although far from being a prolific goalscorer. He is also remembered for scoring two goals in a 4-4 draw in a North London derby match against Tottenham Hotspur at Highbury in October 1963. He was also Arsenal Captain between 1963 and 1966.

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the writer and this article does not constitute legal advice.

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