The Encylopedia of British Football

Footballer Wages

In January, 1884, Preston North End played the London side, Upton Park, in the FA Cup. After the game Upton Park complained to the Football Association that Preston was a professional, rather than an amateur team. Major William Sudell, the secretary/manager of Preston North End admitted that his players were being paid but argued that this was common practice and did not breach regulations. However, the FA disagreed and expelled them from the competition.

It was well-known that Sudell improved the quality of the team by importing top players from other areas. This included several players from Scotland. As well as paying them money for playing for the team, Sudell also found them highly paid work in Preston.

On 20th July, 1885, the FA announced that it was "in the interests of Association Football, to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions". Clubs were allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground.

Blackburn Rovers immediately registered as a professional club. Their accounts show that they spent a total of £615 on the payment of wages during the 1885-86 season. It was revealed that top players such as James Forrest and Joseph Lofthouse were being paid £1 a week. Records show that West Bromwich Albion paid its professional players 10 shillings a week, with no bonuses or expenses.

In 1888 it was reported that Nick Ross was receiving £10 a month after he was transferred from Preston North End to Everton. It is estimated that this was nearly twice that of most top players. By the early 1890s leading clubs such as Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Sunderland were paying their best players £5 a week.

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 Association Footballers' Union (AFU) 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 the 1895-96 season William Foulke of Sheffield United had his wage increased to £3 a week, which included a retainer wage over the summer. Foulke and his team mates were also paid a ten-shilling (50p) bonus for an away win, and five shillings for a home win or away draw. Records show that for key games the players were paid £5 for a win. At the time, the average wage of a working man was about £1. However, someone with specialist skills could earn up to £2.50 a week.

Clubs owned by industrialists like Arnold Hills might also provide players with a high-paying job with the company. Others joined the club on the understanding they would be paid a generous signing on fee. This was the case with David Lloyd of the 3rd Battalion Guards. As he was a soldier he could work for Thames Iron Works and play for West Ham United. This six foot four inches defender played his first two games at full-back. He was switched to centre forward for his third game and he rewarded the club by scoring a hat-trick. The disadvantage of this scheme was that players rarely stayed long with the club. For example, in a four year period, 1896-1900 he played for four different clubs. This only came to an end when he was sent to South Africa to fight in the Boer War.

The AFU managed to persuade the Football Association and the Football League not to introduce maximum wages. When Liverpool won the First division championship in the 1900-01 season their players were on £7, which with bonuses could reach £10.

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. This was double what a skilled tradesmen received at this time. At the same meeting they also voted to outlaw match bonuses. To encourage men to play for clubs for some time, players were to be awarded a benefit after five years. It was claimed at the time that this was an attempt the curb the power of the wealthier clubs. This new rule was brought in at the beginning of the 1901-02 season.

As some players had been earning as much as £10, they decided to join Southern League clubs where there were no restrictions on wages. As John Harding pointed out in For the Good of the Game: The Official History of the Professional Footballers' Association (1991) "In effect, the Football League abolished the free market where players' wages and conditions were concerned... there were 'escape routes' to clubs and countries where a player could ply his trade freely and earn a reasonable (indeed, where some Southern League clubs were concerned, highly lucrative) wage.... Southern League clubs began enticing Football League stars to defect with promises of up to £100 signing-on fees."

In his book, West Ham United: The Making of a Football Club (1986), Charles Korr has carried out a detailed investigation of the wages paid by West Ham United. "In 1906 the average wage for the whole team (a pool of 30 players) was £2 10s per week over the whole year. At least 12 were paid between £4 and £4 10s during the season and a minimum of £2 10s during the summer... Veterans who had been with the club since 1900 filled the reserve and third teams and their wages ranged from £2 during the season to as little as 15s per match. The directors insisted that all players earning more than £2 10s during the season should not take another job; they were full-time professional footballers and were being paid as such."

Charles Korr goes on to compare wages of footballers in 1906 with other occupations: "In 1906 casual dockers earned between 5s 6d and £1 2s 7d for a 44-hour week. Tram drivers made £2 3s for a 60-hour week and men employed in the building trades averaged £2 8s for a 44-hour week."

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). 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 main objective of the AFPU was to get an increase in the maximum wage.

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.

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.

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.

After the First World War professional footballers received a maximum weekly wage of £10. In 1920 the Football League Management Committee proposed a reduction to £9 per week maximum. Buchan was one of those who called for the AFU to resort to strike action. However, large numbers of players resigned from the union and the Football League was able to impose the £9 maximum wage. The following year it was reduced to £8 for a 37 weeks playing season and £6 for the 15 weeks close season.

Despite the efforts of the Players' Union, there was no other change until 1945 when the maximum close season wage was increased to £7 per week. Two years later a National Arbitration Tribunal was established. It decided that the maximum wage should be raised to £12 in the playing season and £10 in the close season. The minimum wage for players over 20 was set at £7.

The maximum wage was increased to £14 (1951), £15 (1953), £17 (1957) and £20 (1958). The union argued that in 1939 the footballers' £8 was approximately double the average industrial wage, by 1960 the gap had narrowed to £5 with these figures standing at £20 and £15 respectively.

The players made further wage demands in 1960 and when these were backed by a threat to strike on 14th January, 1961. The Football League responded by abolishing the maximum wage. Johnny Haynes, the England captain, became the first £100 per-week player. However, some clubs such as Liverpool attempted to enforce unofficial wage ceilings. For example, Manchester United paid a maximum wage of £50 a week.

Newcastle United also tried to impose a maximum wage on its players. It also refused to sell George Eastham to Arsenal. The Players' Union took the matter to the High Court and in 1963 Justice Richard Wilberforce declared that the retain-and-transfer system was unreasonable and Newcastle's refusal to sell Eastham had amounted to a "restraint of trade". The following year 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.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Billy Meredith, Thompson's Weekly News (December 1909)

What is more reasonable than our plea that a footballer with his uncertain career should have the best money that he can earn? If I can earn £7 a week, why should I be debarred from receiving it? I have devoted my life to football and I have become a better player than most because I have denied myself much that men prize. A man who takes the care of himself that I have ever done and who fights the temptations of all that can injure the system surely deserves some recognition and reward!

They (the players) are, as a whole, an over-generous careless race who do not heed the morrow or prepare for a rainy day as wise men would. This trait in the character of the players has been taken advantage of over and over again by club secretaries in England. Many a lad has been tricked into signing on by vague verbal promises deliberately made to be forgotten once the ink was dry on the form. It is only recently that with steady improvement in the class of men playing the game as professionals the players have seen the folly of the careless life and have realized that they have too long put up with indifferences and injustices of many kinds. The only way to alter this state of things was by united action hence the formation and success of the Players' Union with its 1300 paying members at the end of the first year...

What opens the door to irregular payments is the rank injustice of the £4 per week limit and of the transfer system which gives a club £1000 for a player and allows the latter - one really ought to call him the goods -£10. If the £10 went to the club and the £1000 to the man whose ability it is the agreed value of, there would be more justice in it.

(2) Charlie Buchan, A Lifetime in Football (1955)

At the end of the first post-war season - 1919-20 - trouble broke out concerning players' wages. I was on the Players' Union Committee at the time and we wanted the weekly wage stabilized at £10 per week maximum.

The League Management Committee, the mouthpiece of the clubs, proposed a reduction to £9 per week maximum. The Union held a delegates' meeting in Manchester at which it was unanimously decided to call a strike.

The delegates were instructed to go back to their teams and vote "yes or no" on strike action and come back to another meeting on the following Monday.

In the meantime, however, several teams re-signed en bloc. So there could be no strike. The upshot was they had to accept the League's terms £9 per week maximum.

Worse followed at the end of the following season, 1920-1, when the wages were reduced to a maximum of £8 for a 37 weeks playing season and £6 for the 15 weeks close season.

All the time, the Union were pressing for the abolition of wage restrictions. They called for a "no limit" wage but the clubs would have none of it.

If the players had pressed their claims in the summer of 1920, I am sure they would have got their terms. As it was, they failed to get together as a body and were overruled.

Much the same is going on today. The Union are pressing for the abolition of the maximum wage and new contracts for players. They will never get them unless they work together in closer harmony.

(3) Len Shackleton, Crown Prince of Soccer (1955)

The professional footballer's contract is an evil document. Of that I am certain, so certain, in fact, that I am quite amazed that such a hopelessly one-sided document has survived the tremendous amount of criticism hurled at it by so many people in these enlightened days. Questions have been asked about it in the House of Commons. Public indignation has been voiced, yet the canker remains with us - causing unrest and dissatisfaction to spread through soccer, season after season.

We have often heard such words as serfs or slaves applied descriptively to footballers but until every player in the game has suffered soccer serfdom and raised his voice against it, I am afraid these descriptions will never be taken seriously. Let's face it - the average pro appears to have a pretty good life, with a possible £15 a week wage, plus bonuses, the hope of a £750 benefit (less tax) every five years, a nest egg of nine per cent of all his football earnings when he retires, a house in which to live, and a congenial working day.

That seems reasonable enough up to a point, but on closer examination many flaws may be spotted in the set-up. In the first place, no more than twenty-five per cent of League players draw the maximum £15 wage. Benefits are unheard of in many clubs, while in others they are halved, or even more drastically mutilated at the whim of the directors. Eviction from club houses is automatic when clubs decide to dispense with players' services, and the "pretty good life" is over usually long before a man's fortieth birthday-providing injury has not curtailed it even earlier. It was, in fact, stated once that the average playing life of a professional footballer is seven years, causing more than one of us to comment, "That's a career, that was."

Estimating the average retiring age at 35, the professional footballer finds himself, in the prime of life, jobless, homeless, with a few hundred pounds from the Benevolent Fund and no training for a trade or profession. He sometimes queues up for his turn on the guillotine of a managerial career, or for the menial duties of a team trainer, but there are obviously not enough jobs in football to accommodate every player wishing to stay in the game.

It is all very depressing to anyone hoping for security - and who does not? - but these are the sole "rewards" of the successful players; those who have remained free from injury and been permitted to serve their allotted span as good club servants.

What happens to the unlucky ones? The contract they sign when joining a League club ties them to that particular club for life, if that is the desire of the club, yet it can be terminated without notice if the manager or directors wish it. No more one-sided agreement was ever fashioned in the mind of man.

Professional players are no better than professional puppets, dancing on the end of elastic contracts held securely in the grip of their lords and masters. Sometimes the elastic is severed... always from above, never from below.

Assuming a player has good grounds for wanting a move from his club-his manager may have a particular grudge against him, he might have fallen out with his playing colleagues, or perhaps he detests the town in which he lives-he asks for a transfer. Then the fun starts.

The application may be treated favourably, to all intents and purposes, and the club agree to transfer the player to any other prepared to pay, say, £15,000 for him. To most, that figure is prohibitive, which means our disgruntled soccer star must stay put. On the other hand the Board Room verdict could be, "We are not parting with you," meaning, once again, that he stays where he is.

No other form of civil employment places such restrictions on the movements of individuals, while, at the same time, retaining the power to dismiss them summarily. If a man is able to better himself in a job elsewhere, he should be free to take that job on providing he has fulfilled his contract. It happens in every walk of life, but not in football. Tom Finney, Preston North End's international outside-right, was told he would be a rich man for life if he spent five years playing football on the Italian Riviera. Whether or not Tom was keen to accept this offer-made by an Italian prince - it would surely have been a waste of his time to consider it because Preston would hardly think of allowing him to say "Yes".

Another Italian club, Juventus, were anxious to sign the Teesside marvel, Wilf Mannion, and went so far as to propose to lodge £15,000 in Wilf's banking account on completion of the transfer. Mannion could not capitalize on his ability, because he was tied to Middlesbrough. I could have made a lot of money, much more than is dreamed of in English football, by joining a club in Turkey, but even after the expiry of my seasonal contract, I would not have been permitted to sample this particular Turkish delight.

(4) Wilf Mannion, Sunday People (June, 1954)

I would be a wealthy man today if I had listened to even two or three of the black-market propositions put to me during my eighteen years as a player. One offer alone - from a famous first division club - would have put me in clover. It was made to me, unknown to anyone connected with my own club at the time, when I had refused to re-sign for Middlesbrough. And it took my breath away.

Besides paying my club what would have been a record transfer fee - some £25,000 - these money-is-no-object directors were prepared to hand me £3000 in ready cash the moment I signed. On top of that I was to get top wages, then £12 a week, as a player; plus a "job" - I put it that way because it was a job in name only as a salesman of something or other - which would have brought me another cool £25 a week. And, just as an incidental, I was to be given £25, to be slipped to me on the railway station, merely for making the trip to talk the offer over.

(5) Nick Varley, Golden Boy (1997)

"In comparison with the average working man," Tommy Lawton said, "you were doing very well. There was a lot of unemployment and even for those in work the average wage was about £1.50 a week. What we earned was a fortune compared to the man in the street, but you had to live up to it. You had to dress correctly, be seen in the right clothes, and not let the club down like that, which cost money. And you knew you wouldn't be doing it forever."

Middlesbrough, while paying the going rate, paid no more, unlike some other clubs. Some offered cash inducements, others jobs of various descriptions - many of them a mirage to fool the authorities - or backing for private ventures that players set up. It was an open secret but only amongst those in the know in the game. When Sunderland, the famous Bank of England club, were hauled up a couple of years later for practices which made them look like BCCI, fans were shocked at the under-the-counter payments, but few leading players, managers or officials were surprised.

Wilf found out about such scams on his trips with England, learning from other players what their fringe benefits were, how their clubs had 'helped' them to set up businesses or find a part-time, but lucrative, job. It was one of the reasons why clubs were not so keen on international call-ups for players - it gave them too much of an idea of their own worth.

"The chairmen didn't like players coming to play international football," Sir Walter Winterbottom admits, "because it meant them getting in touch with other professionals and hearing of what the others' deals were. After playing for England, they often went back and demanded more."

They might even ask for a transfer if they were really dissatisfied, but that's where the contrast with today's stars was even greater than on wages. Signing for a club could be a life sentence, for once a player put his name on the dotted line he belonged to the club. At the end of each subsequent season all they had to offer was a new one-year contract which, as long as the club offered maximum terms, the player was bound to accept. The only alternative - to reject the contract - would mean he could be kept out of the game. The club was allowed to keep his registration and refuse a transfer.

On the other hand, if clubs wanted to sell, they could so at any time. The only say the players got was in accepting or declining the prospective buyer found by the club. Even if the answer was yes, no matter how big the fee involved, the player's cut was the same: a £10 signing-on fee.

(6) Nat Lofthouse, Goals Galore (1954)

For me football is pleasure with pay and I can think of no other profession which offers so much to a youngster if he possesses fitness, a quick-thinking brain and a pair of nimble feet.

I know we often hear talk about soccer slaves-but strangely enough, it's not the professional footballer who does the complaining. More often than not it is someone who is in no way associated with the game.

Just think for a moment what a top-class man receives every week. During the season his wages are £15 a week. In the summer they come down to £12 a week. For a win he receives a bonus of £2. A draw means a bonus of £1. In addition to this, although the contracts say he "may" receive a benefit at the end of five years' service, most players are duly rewarded. The maximum benefit is £750, which works out at another £3 a week. Footballer's benefits, unlike those of cricketers, are taxable. Out of my last ,£750 cheque I had to pay £280, but that is beside the point. In addition to our wages and benefits, the Football League hands over to every footballer, on reaching the age of thirty-five, a sum amounting to 9 per cent of his wages during his career in League football. This is tax free. A footballer does not have to contribute anything towards the Provident Fund from which this money is drawn. It is all paid from the 4 per cent levy which clubs hand over to the League out of their gate receipts.

It is important that the people who follow football should know these facts, and it also applies to those who still look upon professional footballers as down-trodden individuals leading a hand-to-mouth existence.

In addition to all this, many professional footballers have first-class accommodation provided for them by their clubs. A number of clubs also provide a mid-day luncheon.