“Referees respond to authority”

With footballers receiving unprecedented levels of public attention, Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers Association, talked to WSC about the things that keep him busy

There has been a series of violent incidents in high-profile matches lately. Are footballers getting out of control?
It’s always been difficult. We have tried all sorts over the years. We’ve worked to make sure that players know the laws of the game, we’ve got referees to visit clubs, we’ve tried to have ex-players as referees. One thing I was disappointed about over this past weekend [February 12 – involving the games at Chelsea v Wimbledon, Newcastle v Man Utd and Leeds v Spurs] is that referees lately seemed to have grasped that we were out of touch with the rest of the world and that not every foul deserved a caution. We saw some great games as a result, then the wheels came off. Someone asked me, where do you see football today, on Valentine’s day? I said, well, we don’t want any more massacres. But football is a microcosm of society. They’re saying to me “oh this is a really sad time for football” as though there is some­thing we could do to make sure it would always be on the straight and narrow. I said we’ve had prisons since civilised society began and we’ve haven’t got less now. You can fill the prisons up but it doesn’t mean to say you’ve got law and order.

It seems as though relations between referees and players are at an all-time low. Is this the worst it’s ever been?
Many spectators I’m sure want to see their players show a will to win, but we have to create a no-go area around referees. It start­ed with the Paolo di Canio business – the push was exaggerrated but players have got to have some respect for referees. We feel there should be more studying of video evidence, panels with not just FA the PFA and man­agers but supporters too, to say “yes, he’s got it right” or “no, he’s clearly missed this”. It’s a tricky one for us because we don’t want to be judge and jury, and they are our members, but Ben Thatcher was guilty of an elbow whereas Matt Elliott escaped for a similar challenge on Michael Owen. None of these fouls looks good but you’re getting different penalties.

Are referees trapped by FIFA edicts to the extent that they’re not able to use common sense anymore?
No matter what they say about the rules, referees respond to authority. They are quite militaristic in that if it comes from the top they’ll follow it. They’re nervous about getting it wrong because they can be promoted or demoted by assessors and generally they don’t feel as much a part of the game as they should. That’s where I felt it was quite a breath of fresh air that they be given opportunity to show more discretion. If players are going to see this as a sign of weakness it will only be counter-productive to the game as a whole.

Was football more violent 30 years ago or was it that referees were more lenient?
Yes, it was more physical. If you went past Tommy Smith or Norman Hunter you knew they were going to come in high and late. I had my nose broken by Denis Law when I was playing for Bolton. It was in the days before substitutes and I wanted to go back on after treatment but the manager said, “No, we’re losing 5-0 so it’ll look better if we can say we were down to ten men.” You’ll always get pressure on referees – Don Revie en­couraged it at Leeds when they never went up to a referee alone, always as a group. What’s different now is the amount of shirt pulling and diving. Davor Suker has been big enough to admit that referees have said to him “look, you’re not in Spain now” when he’s gone looking for free-kicks and he’s stopped. But we’ve created a melt­ing pot in English football so it’s difficult to expect a consistent approach with individuals from so many backgrounds.

Are you in favour of full-time referees?

A full time commitment to anything gives you a better chance of succeeding. If I wanted to be concert pianist or a golfer I couldn’t expect to improve much with two nights practice a week. The only problem is that they’re in established jobs and the age limit is coming down so we’d have to find other jobs for them to do after they’d stopped. Given that there’s millions of pounds in the game you’d expect be able to afford to employ a number of full-time officials. It seems ironic that you can be a schoolteacher then change your clothes, referee a Premiership game where the rewards for success are running into millions and then go back to your other life.

There is talk about the amount of pressure that today’s players are under but is it really any worse than that placed on previous generations?
No. There’s more money. But footballers are young men with an innate desire to succeed irrespective of whether they’re playing for thousands of pounds or 20p. My predecessor at the PFA, Cliff Lloyd, signed a contract at Liverpool for £3 a week in 1939. When I joined Bolton in the early 1960s the bonuses were £2 for a draw and £4 for a win but you were no less committed. You can create your own pressures. In the past famous players like Hughie Gallacher ended up committing suicide. Today you can have millionaires who lose all their money. There’s a pecking order in every football dressing room and it’s not easy to survive. That’s why the best players, the most skilful players, don’t naturally come to the top despite what people might say. Kevin Keegan, you don’t feel, was a born footballer, unlike, say, Trevor Francis, who had more skill as a 16 year old than any other player I’ve seen. Keegan worked hard at it . That’s down to strength of character. Managers will tell you they’re more interested in the character of the player than his ability.

There is a huge disparity in income between PFA members. Is this a problem?
It’s perceived to be but we’ve always had a spread of earnings since the abolition of the maximum wage. Average earnings at the top level are £250-500,000 a year, in Division One it’s £50-75,000, Division Two £30-40,000, Division Three about £25,000. So yes, you would wonder if players have common interests but in 1992 when we polled them about the Premier League breakaway, 92 per cent were in favour of supporting players in lower divisions to make sure that agreements on pensions and standard contracts held together. Obviously there’s much more worry about job security lower down, whereas at the top level players have never had more self confidence in their ability to maximise their earnings. To some extent that’s what the PFA from the days of Billy Meredith onwards has always want­ed to achieve, that the latest trainee could make it to the top. But you worry that those days are gone because clubs are no longer looking for rough diamonds lower down, for a Lee Sharpe at Tor­quay or an Ian Rush at Chester, they’re looking at the players from abroad.

Would lower division clubs not be better off being part time?
We try to encourage lower division clubs to insure against players getting injured so if they are out they will get an insurance package that that will protect their wages. The Football League would like to see more players on month-to-month contracts. Clearly that is not a good thing from our point of view or, we believe, for the status of the League. I’ve never been able to see football thriving on a part-time basis. If you get part-time players you get part-time quality and you never break out of the circle. The Conference clubs are doing OK but in reality it’s com­paring your local rep to the opera house. They can prosper among other part-time clubs but they couldn’t keep it up in the League. That’s why I hope a club like Rushden will succeed, because they’re prepared to put players on full-time contracts. But it’s hugely ironical at a time when the game has never had more money that we should be talking about clubs like Portsmouth, Palace and Swindon facing huge problems.

Is there another way found of channelling money down?
Yes, the way we used to do it in the 1980s with a pot of money distributed from the centre. There had been an equal spread, then gradually everything was taken away. First they removed the away club’s share of gate receipts, then they reduced the levy that went into a central pot on all games, then they wanted more of the TV money and commercial money. In 1986 we gave them 50 per cent with the bal­ance spread around the other leagues, then two years later they wanted 75 per cent. So you were holding back the dam.

Were you disappointed with the FA for their role in creating the Premier League?
Yes, I was. It was wrapped up that this was good for the national team and the FA would have a stake in the Premier League but the reality is that it’s the tail that’s wagged the dog. And it’s now happening on an international level – the Berlusconis of this world and the G14 group of clubs will turn domestic leagues into deserts. It’s the same battle on a global scale. FIFA are worried about international football, there’s a fear that club football is taking over. And you get the feeling that if there was a European super league it would be two min­utes before it was a world league. I can recall playing in the USA in 1977 when the Americans were saying “oh the trouble with you is that you’re hamstrung by tradition and we’ll sell soccer the way we have baseball and gridiron”. But the fact is that those other sports thrive precisely because they have a long tradition and they’re not promoted in a gim­micky way. Ironically for a capitalist country, what Americans do in their sport is to go against anti-trust laws and spread the revenue money so the bottom clubs get first draft of players. They’re working against a monopoly on success and, much as I hesitate to say it, we have a lot to learn from that.

Is a 92 team professional league still sustainable?

It should be because we’ve sustained it in the past with a lot less money. It’s the distribution of the money that has made it harder. When the top 20 clubs are going to get income that is ten times what is going to go to the other 72, it’s very hard to square that circle. But it is still possible. We need to create a new compensation system for smaller clubs. At the moment they will get paid if they lose a player up to the age of 24. That may have to come down to 21. We can’t have the big clubs just picking off their best players at will. Sport does need some restrictive practices to protect those who are most vulnerable otherwise you could end up with a system where there’s just a handful of big clubs and all the rest are feeder clubs. Could this trend be changed? Yes. Why shouldn’t sport be treated differently to businesses? Businesses look to eliminate competition, sport looks to create it. The Premier League have put £5 million into the Football League and they’re talking more from the next TV deal but it’s very much like the poor waiting for handouts rather than saying “look we’ve provided your players, we’ve given you good opposition in cup competitions, we should be given a better chance”.

Gianluca Vialli said that a quota on non-EU players would damage English clubs chances of success in Europe.

Well, he would say that. I’m an admirer of him but you expect him and Wenger and Houllier to take that view. I think he’s exaggerrating his point. In the Man Utd team that won the Champions League, I think the balance would be 50-50 between foreign and British. It’s delicate, this, because here’s Ken Bates, the Chelsea chairman on the international committee, yet his own team sometimes doesn’t have a single player from the UK. If I was a Chelsea fan and they won the Champions League, I’d be disappointed that there were so few English players apart from Dennis the Menace and maybe Jody Morris. You look at the players who’ve left – gone to Leeds, Man City. People say “oh, the cream rises to the top” but there’s a lot of ordinary milk there too. If England are not in the frame at Euro 2000 or at the next World Cup, people are going to want to know why. Youngsters coming though from school need to see other people who have taken the same path before them making it at professional level. They’re going to feel differently about a career in football if they see it’s blocked solid by foreign imports. Look at Aust­ralia – whatever sport they take part in they’re top rank because they do make sure their own youngsters get a chance.

What went wrong with the Football Task Force?

The fact that the two main supporters groups, the FSA and the National Federation, were prepared to come together was a good sign and it was just so disappointing when they named the chairman, an ex-Tory cabinet minister who was very much in the camp of the directors. We could even live with that were it not for the fact that he’d got his programme on the radio and his newspaper column. Pick a bandwagon and he’d be on it. As a result he wasn’t going to be sort of person who could pull together people from different walks of life. We were also worried that they’d put the crucial commercial issues on the back burner and instead took on the things that no one could disagree with – disabled facilities, anti racism and the community programmes. What stuck in my throat was that he got evidence from one club that didn’t treat their community programme as a loss leader because they wanted to make money out of it, and the manager wouldn’t let them use his top players. So they said “oh, overpaid players don’t do anything for the community”. In fact we set up our pro­grammes in 1986, players support it and give hours of time every week. I complained about him to Tony Banks who said, “It would be seen as a sign of weakness if I replaced him.” I said you’ll find the prime minister changes his cabinet and that wouldn’t be seen as a sign of weakness. But we stayed involved until the launch of their community programme report when we didn’t even get invited and I stood down. We continued to co-operate, where asked, with the government but I felt it’s been a good opportunity missed.

Is there an over-reaction to the use of recreational drugs by players?
Most of the positive tests have been recreational and we’ve only had one this season. If it’s a top player and he’s been taking drugs, or drinking, or battering his wife, it’s more likely that a humane approach will be taken because he has a market value. If it’s a player who hasn’t really made the grade he’s more likely to have contract terminated “to set an example”. We’ve got to try and make sure that it’s the same treatment for everybody. I’ve got sons who say it would be impossible to go through school and university without being offered drugs. Recreational drugs, some would say, are less damaging that nicotine or alcohol, so we try to treat them as separate issues, but with cocaine if you combine it with physical exercise it can cause death. We’ve also been informed that if you get an addictive personality starting on recreational drugs, that same outlook will encourage them to try stronger drugs which would be harder to come off.

Were you ever offered a job by the FA?
I got asked by Ted Croker to apply for his job as FA secretary when he retired. Then Bill Fox , the chairman of the Football League in the 1980s, wanted me to be chief executive to try to hold it all together when there was talk of the Premiership starting. But there was a body of opinion on the management com­mittee – Doug Ellis, John Smith of Liverpool – that didn’t want me. It was a fair old challenge but you do need to work for a united board and the atmosphere wasn’t right. In the end they appointed the chief executive from Notts County Council…
I was a qualified FA coach and I ran courses at Lilleshall but maybe I was most cut out for the job at at the PFA. I’d been on the management committee since 1970, took over as chairman in 1978 then Cliff Lloyd asked me if I’d consider being his successor as secretary.

The PFA spent £1.8 million on a painting by LS Lowry. Did you expect to get flak for that?
We’re big collectors of football memorabilia. Coming from the north west as we do we felt this was the definitive football picture. We wanted it to be on public view which it had not been previously and it would only have gone abroad. It’s a crowd scene outside the ground at Burnden Park in 1953. It says so much about what the game’s about. We were pleased by the response because at first I thought “we’ve done it now, this is really trouble” but it seemed to be a popular decision. A female weather forecaster said to me, “I’m not that struck on football but in this instance I think the PFA have done really well."

From WSC 158 April 2000. What was happening this month