Football in the Digital Age – Chapter 4

4. The players’ perspective

Gordon Taylor

The great strength of football is the extraordinary passion it excites in its followers and supporters. It is tremendous that we all feel so passionately about it. Everybody feels they own a part of it and have an opinion on it. And so they should. Football, after all, is the world’s greatest spectator sport.

Some observers argue that in purely financial terms football is still a very minor industry. However, it is important to remember that its central role in people’s lives lends it an importance in national life over and above the financial value of the clubs themselves. That is why people like Alan Sugar and Sir John Hall are attracted to owning clubs, because the publicity value of such ownership has a value beyond any direct financial profit made. So I believe football is and always has been big business. That is why it is so important that it is governed and regulated in an appropriate way.

Players’ Wages

Two major interlocking themes in the current debate about football are the huge scale of the infusion of television monies which has recently come into the game and how this has been distributed, and the recent dramatic increase in players’ wages. As chief executive of the players’ union, the PFA, representing over 4,000 professional footballers in England and Wales, I have some views on these issues. The first point I would like to make is that football is a tough game and has not always been financially rewarding for players. By way of illustration: I remember when I played at Bolton Wanderers in the early 1960s just before the maximum wage was removed. The tough-tackling full-back Roy Hartle used to say, ‘Never mind the ball, let’s just get on with the game.’

A recurrent theme in the writings of many commentators on recent developments in football is that players are being too well rewarded. I think that it is worth remembering at this point that ultimately the game is about players, and they should get some credit for this. I detect, sometimes, an undercurrent of envy about players earning good money, while at the same time there is no envy of our top film, TV or popular music stars earning a lot. I recall the fears when the maximum wage was removed in 1961 about how this move would damage the game. It had to be removed because it was infringing basic rights and freedoms, represented a restraint of trade, and was beyond the law. Five years later England won the World Cup. It is therefore quite ironic that nearly four decades later we have the Bosman ruling (which ensures freedom of movement of players who are out of contract) which in the essence of the spirit of its judgement only reflects what Judge Wilberforce said back in 1963 when judging the retain-and-transfer system to be illegal. Now clubs and governing bodies are saying that the Bosman ruling has unleashed unsustainable wage inflation to the extent that some form of salary-capping is being seriously discussed as a counter-measure. I would see such a measure as also a restraint of trade and the PFA would oppose it vigorously.

I can recall the regional meetings about removing the maximum wage and one particular delegate stood up and said, ‘I don’t see what the problem is with a maximum wage of £20. My father works down the pit and earns a lot less than that.’ And Tommy Banks, in his broad Lancashire accent, replied: ‘Yes, I hear what you say. I admire your father’s profession. In fact I’ve been down the pit, I’ve done his job. But you try and tell your father to come up out of that pit and mark brother Stanley Matthews next Saturday.’ The point I want to make is that being a footballer is a very special skill and it is only right that the players should be rewarded fairly for that.

On the other hand we are trying to introduce a sense of responsibility amongst the profession along with other interested parties in the game such as supporters, the FA and the government, through the PFA in England and the International Players Association (FIFA-PRO). We are trying to develop a recognition that the problems of football cannot be solved by one interested party alone, but only through a coming together of what other authors in this collection might describe as stakeholders. By way of illustration, if you think back to the 1980s when the game reached its nadir and we had the Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies, it is important to note that football on its own could not have resolved these problems. It would therefore be naïve of me, as a football administrator, to think that we, or any other interested party, can operate purely on the basis of the pursuit of their particular constituency’s self-interest. You need to be aware of both global and local perceptions of your organisation and its members. You need to keep abreast of legal developments: government has to be actively involved in the football industry, for example with respect to such issues as health and safety, particularly at stadiums; or in relation to the granting of work permits to overseas players, a particularly important issue for the PFA.

The Role of Supporters’ Groups

The importance of the involvement of a wider range of interested parties is nowhere better illustrated than by the very positive influence brought to the game when, after Heysel and Hillsborough, football supporters started to get themselves better organised. This had the effect of reasserting the central role of supporters in the theatre of the game. By way of example: as a player you used to think you were responsible to the manager, who you perceived as having the easier job as your situation was very insecure. The manager was responsible to the board and it stopped there; there was no sense of any network of obligations beyond that. But of course it doesn’t stop there, because every board of directors is responsible to its supporters if not to its shareholders (and both if its supporters are also shareholders). And I would not like to think that the game could ever be taken away from the influence of its supporters. The game has to be about packed stadiums. The way supporters responded after Heysel and Hillsborough should never be forgotten. The fact that since that time supporters have been involved, together with the Football Trust, local authorities, the police and many other bodies in addressing the issues of ground safety and improving the quality of the experience at football grounds, has been very important in laying the foundations for football’s renaissance. It is important to remember that in 1986 Margaret Thatcher would have closed down football quite willingly, and a sizeable minority of the public would have supported her in doing so. But it was the work of the aforementioned fans’ groups and other interested parties which has contributed to the game’s rebirth and to making it so popular today. This success is the reason why there is so much interest in the game today. As a consequence, everybody feels they have a piece of it and everybody wants to mould it in their own particular way. But they all have to remember that to maintain the current level of success we need to continue to treat the interests of all these interested parties in a balanced way so that no one group’s interests dominate. For example, we cannot and should not ignore capital coming into the game, via individuals like Jack Walker at Blackburn Rovers; on the other hand you do not really want any particular club to become too dependent on one individual, which is unhealthy.

The Role of TV

Similarly, with reference to Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB’s attempt to take over Manchester United, you have to acknowledge that while there were problems with this particular case, the influence of satellite TV money on football has largely been beneficial. In the 1980s, when the game needed television money, it was completely dependent on contracts with the terrestrial networks. At one point the FA and the Football League thought there were too many televised games and that this was affecting attendances. For a period of some months, between contracts, there were no televised games and at this point the FA, the Football League and the clubs realised they needed the TV money. They then had to go cap in hand to the BBC and ITV (this was in the era before the introduction of satellite TV) for a £1 million a year deal, a very small sum of money indeed.

While it may be an unpopular thing to say in some circles, I feel you do have to give some credit to the satellite TV companies for the way they entered the televised football marketplace. They took a gamble on football. At the time BSkyB was not trading profitably. Rupert Murdoch saw what a lot of his competitors, as well as nearly all the commentators on the game, did not see at that time, which was the value of sport as a television spectacle because of how much it meant to people, how important it was in our social fabric. And BSkyB’s dedicated sports channels have been particularly successful, a success they deserve.

However, while acknowledging the contribution of satellite TV to football’s rebirth, I am not in favour of BSkyB achieving an undue, monopolistic dominance over the running of the game, similar to that which they currently enjoy over football broadcasting; particularly through taking over a football club. There were many people who felt it was inevitable that BSkyB would be allowed to take over Manchester United and that such a development was not problematic. But the PFA made clear at the time, through its submission to the MMC enquiry, that it felt that such a move would be unhealthy. Firstly, it would have dramatically increased the competitive power of one club, Manchester United, to the point of an unhealthy unchallenged domination, a point I discuss in more detail in the next section. Secondly, a TV company controlling a very desirable club would have a totally unfair advantage over its rivals, and for all intents and purposes would dominate any future negotiations over TV rights and the division of TV revenues. This would soon result in many small clubs either having to be wound up or being absorbed as nursery clubs into the dominant clubs in their particular areas. At present, football is a social sport enjoyed by large numbers of people every week; the fear was that it might become a TV sport where people wishing to view top-class football had no option but to stay at home and watch the same dominant clubs playing each other each week. We therefore welcomed the recommendation of the MMC, and the decision of the government, to block the bid.

The Restrictive Practices Court Case and the Importance of Competitive Balance

A key reason that the MMC gave for rejecting BSkyB’s bid for Manchester United was that it would increase polarisation within the Premier League by opening the door to a handful of clubs with financial links to media companies to become much more powerful than the rest, an analysis with which I would agree. It is therefore doubly ironic that it is another government agency, the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), who, through their decision to challenge the right of the Premier League to negotiate collectively on behalf of its member clubs by taking a case to the Restrictive Practices Court (RPC), came very close to undermining the ability of football to try and maintain the fairest and highest level of competition within the game. The OFT proposed that the Premier League’s exclusive rights to negotiate broadcasting rights for all its members was a restraint of trade and that individual clubs should be free to negotiate their own deals. If they had been successful in their case, they would have unleashed a free-for-all which would have created an imbalance in resources among the Premier League’s membership and destroyed competitive balance. Thankfully the RPC rejected the case.

If you are serious about regulating football efficiently, your top priority has to be to ensure that competition is as healthy as possible so as to create maximum uncertainty in results. Now that particular job is becoming more difficult. England is unique in the world in that it has 92 full-time professional clubs. We also have the highest aggregate attendances. More people watch football live in the Football League than in the Premier League. You cannot ignore those statistics, which are a credit to our game. The reason supporters go to our games in such large numbers is because both the Football League and the Premier League are so competitive.

We would not be doing our job in sport if we allowed the erosion of uncertainty of results; if we undermine a system that, prior to the formation of the Premier League, in the last 30 years saw 50 different clubs in the top division; if we allow to continue a system where the three clubs that get promoted into the Premier League from the Football League each season are odds-on with the bookmakers to go down after one season in the top flight. In that case I would not be doing my job as a sports administrator and neither would the FA, the Premier League or the Football League. Such a scenario is not in the best interests of the game because it is counter-productive. The only way we are going to maintain an interest in football is by keeping high level of uncertainty of results. That is why it is doubly important that we do not see the Premier League dominated by a handful of clubs and where there is no effective and long-lasting mobility from the Football League to the Premier League. In this respect, the recent blanket dominance of the domestic game by Manchester United does raise the question as to how healthy the competition levels are in the domestic game when United are able to consistently dominate the main domestic competitions.

Proof of the imperative to have aggressive regulatory structures in your league in order to maintain a high level of balance and competitive uncertainty is provided by that arch-capitalist country, the United States of America. I regularly visit US sports associations and see how they genuinely try to give the bottom club the very first choice of the college football draft pick system in order to make them more competitive; the way that the National Football League (NFL), for example, organises commercial income and then distributes it equally to the League’s member clubs to ensure that clubs have sufficient resources at their disposal to remain competitive. That is why it is imperative that football’s main world governing bodies, UEFA and FIFA, curb the political in-fighting that has bedevilled them and concentrate on the main job in hand maintaining a high level of competitive balance in the game at all levels.

The success of football depends on a strong infrastructure with effective and independent governing bodies. If financial and administrative control of the game were to be concentrated in the hands of a few clubs and TV companies worldwide, the game would suffer.

The Influence of the European Commission

It is imperative that UEFA concentrate on the problem of creeping imbalance within the game because of the stance that has been adopted by the European Commission in relation to the development of young talent. The European Commission believes that sport and football, in terms of competition legislation, should be treated exactly the same as any other business. But it never has been, and in my opinion, it never will. In order to be successful, sports leagues need to foster a high level of competition; in conventional business sectors the emphasis is on eliminating your competitors.

It was interesting to reflect on the outcome of a recent Belgian court case involving a Finnish basketball player playing in Belgium. The court decided that it was good for the competition to have windows of time when players cannot be bought or sold to avoid, for example, the richest club suddenly buying in a number of expensive, high-performance players in a desperate bid to avoid relegation.

It is also interesting that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the leading international court for sports issues, is still considering whether it is appropriate for football that one owner has more than one club in the same competition. This is in response to an appeal by ENIC, an investment vehicle, which combines interests in four clubs – a majority stake in Slavia Prague (the Czech Republic), a minority stake in Rangers (Scotland), and full ownership of Vicenza (Italy) and AEK Athens (Greece) (see also Chapter 8 by Adam Brown). ENIC challenged UEFA’s ruling that only one of its clubs could compete in the same competition. Now, I find this episode extraordinary. Look at what happens in Formula One motor racing, where it is not unusual to see a number-two driver on the point of winning a race take his foot off the pedal to let the number-one driver pass to win. Similarly, in horse-racing, you see what happens when an owner has two horses in a race and the outsider usually wins, to the extent that in France they quote the prices of the two horses together. The FA’s own rule prohibiting multi-club ownership came about because of the way in which Robert Maxwell took control of Derby, Oxford and Reading, and the consequent fears of the implications of this move. You would not think you would have a difficult job convincing politicians of the undesirability of having one owner with more than one club in the same competition. But because of politicians’ central role in determining competition policy, it is critical they are involved in this debate, as there are a number of siren voices out there who are arguing that multi-club ownership is not a problem, which it very definitely is. Politicians need to understand the imperative of maintaining competitive balance.

Similarly, administrators need to take on board the views of everybody – supporters’ organisations, business and television which, after all, has been the driving force of all this new income. Fortunately, because of the Taylor Report, that money has not been totally wasted. But I would say that any administrator needs to convince his club that a certain large percentage of any future income needs to go into capital projects for the future; in youth development programmes; in positive community work such as drug-awareness programmes where my players do their best to act as role models; in anti-racism programmes. And particularly that they concentrate their efforts on ensuring that the next generation of supporters will be able to afford to enter the grounds. We need full stadiums and we cannot afford to let football become an armchair spectator game. We need to address the issue of low-income fans, families with young children, the disabled, the unemployed being excluded or priced out of the grounds, because this is where a large section of the next generation of supporters is going to come from. We ignore this fact at our peril. We need live spectators in the grounds for a healthy game. A purely television spectacle will not work.

Conclusion

Finally, I would make this point: public companies say their first priority is to their shareholders. I don’t agree with this proposition in the context of football clubs. If a football club is a public company in a professional league then the FA must say to them that their first priority is to their football supporters and not to the shareholders. Ultimately the successful clubs are the ones which are centred in their local communities, and that is as it should be. That is why the football authorities should not allow schemes such as Wimbledon’s proposal to move to Dublin.

This link between football and community is what I think of when I remember living in Manchester at the time of the Munich disaster and all the sadness surrounding it. Yet that club, just a few days later, provided a team that still stayed in the FA Cup and still stayed in the European Championship. Contrast that with the 1999–2000 season when the same club was offered an exit for commercial and political reasons and withdrew from the FA Cup. If that illustrates the way the game is going, it is certainly not going down a path which I would want to travel.