by Stuart Moriarty-Patten
2 December 1907: The Forming of the Professional Footballers’ Association
Before the First World War conditions for professional footballers were unrecognisable to the luxury that today’s footballer enjoys. There was a maximum wage of £4 per week, which in truth only applied anyway to the very top players, with many players having a full-time job as well as playing football. Also there was also a registration system in place that Manchester United captain Charlie Roberts had described as seeing players being “relegated to the position of slaves.” This restricted the freedom of the players to move away from the club that they first signed for. Once they had signed for a club the player could only leave if the club no longer wanted them and agreed to release the player’s registration. Contracts at this time were often only on a season by season basis and clubs would often use the registration system to impose pay cuts on their players by offering them contracts for lower wages. If the club insisted on holding onto the player’s registration then he had little choice but to sign if he wished to continue to play football.
On 2 December 1907, in an attempt to rectify the situation a group of players met at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester, and formed the Association of Football Players’ Union (AFPU), commonly referred to as the Players’ Union. The union was to be known by this name until the 1960s when, under the stewardship of Jimmy Hill, it was renamed the Professional Footballers’ Association in an attempt to take it away from its blue-collar roots. This was the second attempt to form a union after the Association Footballers’ Union which was formed in 1898 but had collapsed in 1901 after several leading players debunked to the Southern League, which was then in competition with the Football League and paying above the maximum wage.
At the centre of the organisation of this new union was one of Manchester United’s star players Billy Meredith, who over the previous decade he had become increasingly concerned as to the way some of his fellow professionals had been treated. In 1902, while then playing for Manchester City, he noted how a team mate Jimmy Ross had died at the age of 36 and how he had been unable to save any money despite having had a successful career that covered over 15 seasons and saw him star in the legendary Preston North End team that won the first two ever English League titles. The death of Ross, who had been instrumental in the attempt to set up the first union in 1898, saw his wife and children left destitute. Another of Meredith’s team mates, David Jones, had also died in 1902 after being injured in a friendly game by cutting his knee on a piece of broken glass on the pitch. The cut became infected and he died several days later. Manchester City refused to pay his wife and children any compensation as they considered him not to be working at the time as the game was just a friendly, despite the fact that it was watched by a paying crowd of 20,000, a sizeable number in 1902 when the league average was only just over 7,000. Another player’s death reinforced Meredith’s view that something needed to be done to improve players’ conditions. In April 1907, Thomas Blackstock had collapsed after heading a ball when playing for the reserves of Meredith’s new club Manchester United against St. Helens. He died soon afterwards in the changing rooms. His team mate Frank Buckley who had carried him from the pitch was of the opinion that Blackstock had suffered a heart attack, but the inquest returned a verdict of natural causes meaning that again a footballer’s family received no compensation from the player’s club.
Spurred on by their working conditions, Meredith, seven other Manchester United players, and two Manchester City players, plus representatives from Newcastle, Bradford City, West Bromwich, Notts County, Sheffield United, and Spurs were all present at this first meeting. Shortly after the Manchester United goalkeeper Herbert Broomfield was given the job of the first full-time secretary of the Players’ Union with a salary of £150 per year. Over the next few weeks Meredith toured the country holding meetings in Nottingham and London and within a few weeks the majority of professional players had signed up to the new Players’ Union.
In December 1909 Meredith wrote in Thompson’s Weekly News, a newspaper that printed articles by Trade Union officials,
“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!”
However, the new union also saw its role as not just fighting for better pay and conditions but it also resolved to help its members with any welfare issues. For example, in 1908 when 26 year old Frank Levick of Sheffield United died after contracting pneumonia while recovering from a broken collar bone received when blocking a shot from a Newcastle player, the AFPU sent his family £20, and helped them negotiate compensation from the Sheffield club. The Union also began to explore ways that players could claim under the Workman’s Compensation Act, which gave employees the right to compensation for injuries suffered while working.
The FA became increasingly concerned about the growing strength of the AFPU and when they affiliated to the National Federation of Trade Unions, the FA had had enough. They demanded that every player withdrew from the union with the threat of suspension for those that did not. Most players in fear of their jobs resigned, but all of Manchester United’s players, led by captain Charlie Roberts, refused and were suspended by the club, as did 17 of Sunderland’s team.
The Manchester United players, barred from their own ground, continued their pre-season training at Fallowfield, the Manchester Athletic Club ground. These sessions were routinely attended by journalists and when one bought a photographer with him, Charlie Roberts quickly grabbed a piece of wood and scrawled The Outcasts F.C. on it then lined the players up for a team photo proudly behind their new name.
League clubs turned to amateur players to replace those who had been banned, but with Man United looking unlikely to be able to form a side for the first game of the season, a compromise was achieved in time for the beginning of the 1909/10 season. This saw the FA recognising the AFPU and agreeing to the principle of bonus payments, but at the expense of the union’s fight for the abolition of the maximum wage and the retaining of registration system.
Meredith poured scorn on this decision seeing it as a defeat for the AFPU writing, in terms it would be hard imaging a footballer using today,
“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 stating, “To the shame of the majority they voted the only power they had away from themselves and the FA knew it.”
The Manchester United players all wore AFPU armbands when they took to the field for their first game of the 1909-10 season, but it was a futile gesture, the union had been effectively rendered toothless, and although the union remained active in providing advice in disputes and support to injured and retired players, it wasn’t to be until the1960s before they finally achieved their initial ambition of overturning the maximum wage and the restrictive registration system.