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.
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.