Rights to the wire

With the acrimonious industrial dispute over TV money settled, John Harding sifts through the wreckage and concludes the PFA have retained important principles

On the surface this year’s PFA dispute seemed an eerie rerun of the TV cash row of a decade ago, when a similarly rock solid vote gave Gordon Taylor a mandate to secure a deal with the newly formed Prem­ier League. However, this time around it’s been a dar­ker, murkier struggle. In 1991, Taylor was football’s White Knight, who had never put a foot wrong, was the saviour of small clubs, a doughty opponent of Thatch­er and so on. There were no “dirty tricks” and no club chairmen firing off vitriolic broadsides.

At that time the PFA felt marginalised by the FA and the Premier League and, like others working at the grassroots, had been worried about where the game was going and what the future held for lower division players. The 95 per cent mandate for action the Association received at that time was, according to Taylor, one of the highlights of his career. With such solid backing, he went on to re-establish the principle that the PFA was entitled to a percentage of TV cash.

In a sense, the current struggle has primarily been to secure that same agreement again, a determination by the PFA to “draw a line in the sand” against repeated attempts by the Premiership clubs to swap the percentage principle for “ball-park” figures that can change according to who’s currently on the pit­cher’s mound. It’s arguable whether the PFA can claim a clear cut victory or not. However, the two-month saga has cer­tainly revealed just how wisely the Association has us­ed its cash allocation since the early Nineties. And it’s a measure of that success that so many chairmen ap­peared seized with the notion that it was time to curb the PFA’s burgeoning influence.

The PFA has grown dramatically in the past decade. It now has offices in Manchester, Birmingham and London. It employs 50 full-time and 250 part-time staff working in coaching and education, financial management and Football in the Community. It runs its own website and has fingers in a variety of media pies (such as an International Hall of Fame). The PFA also boasts a collection of memorabilia and art, including the famous Lowry painting, that is un­rivalled outside Pres­ton’s National Foot­ball Museum. It’s certainly a union unlike many others, though whether that makes its external activities suspect, as the chairmen often im­plied, is another matter.

What’s more, as the president of FifPro, the um­brella organisation for all Europe’s players’ unions, Taylor has moved on to the European stage with some skill. His outmanoeuvring of the Premiership and FA over the new Eur­opean Contract of Employment came as a shock to many (particularly those presently en­gaged in attacking him personally).

Thus, from being virtually unrecognised, though never unregarded, Taylor is now a senior administrator in the British game. Not surprisingly, therefore, he be­came the prime target for abuse: his “inflated” pay, the “extravagant” Lowry, his mannerisms and even his girth were all subjected to unpleasant scrutiny. He responded angrily at times, but, sig­­­nificantly, was able to rebut the smears and misinformation via a carefully orchestrated publicity cam­paign spearheaded by the PFA’s GiveMeFootball web­site.

This publicity arm has been crucial because, for the first time in such a dispute, not only Taylor himself but the very nature of the PFA has been questioned. Its apparently bulging assets, its role as a “commercial” operation rather than a “traditional” union, even its honesty have all been put under the spotlight. How much does it really spend on old pros and their hip-joints? The latter arguments were made against a back drop of “revelations” concerning top players’ salaries, and underpinned by doomsday scenarios concerning the way broadcasters had over­reached themselves in paying for screening rights. The clubs, in an ambiguous position since it is they who are funnelling the cash into players’ pockets, wondered why their wealthy em­ployees couldn’t pay for their own replacement hips.

Top players’ salaries are not the PFA’s con­cern or responsibility, but ever since professionalism was allowed in football, the public have preferred to believe that all players were well paid, if not overpaid. Even when the maximum wage existed, fans failed to grasp that the majority of players didn’t receive it. The “greedy” player has always, therefore, been a useful stick to beat the union with (to which we can now add the “greedy” union leader).

Unpleasant though it has been, the dispute has nevertheless been a good opportunity for the PFA to high­light its role in supporting players at the end of their career – whether that comes prem­aturely through injury or via retirement. This work has been greatly expanded, for example by funding re­search into play­ers’ long-term head injuries, but it has become increasingly expensive, as has insuring players against such fates. Much of Taylor’s anxiety for the future stems from these rising premiums, and contrasts with the short-term, almost gauche approach of relative new­comers to the scene such as the Premier League chief executive Richard Scud­amore, who pointed to mon­ies spent in years past and drew irrelevant conclusions.

Despite last-minute claims (and David James) to the contrary, most commentators conceded that the PFA won the publicity battle hands down. This was one major strand of their campaign. The other was the de­termination of Taylor to establish critical “rules of engagement”. The PFA’s relationship with football’s governing bodies and employers has been at the heart of most disputes ever since the old Players Union staggered into existence in 1909. To state the obvious, the PFA is not a client of the Premier League nor of the FA. It is a free-standing organisation that owes its ex­istence and its status to its members alone.

The money it receives from the TV share-out is owed to it by right. When television first offered money for highlights, the players claimed, through their un­ion, that their appearances before the cameras were worth a share of the revenues. In the Fifties and Sixties, players appearing in TV matches were paid individually, a practice long since voluntarily abandoned but still rel­evant to today’s arguments. The players ag­reed to give their shares to the PFA. Thus, the much disputed percentage isn’t a donation from the clubs or the Premier League. It’s a payment from the players as a whole to the PFA.

If that principle were to be abrogated and the idea established that the Premiership was hand­ing over a cut of “its” money, then club chairmen like Doug Ellis could feel free to poke their noses into PFA business whenever they liked, checking up on where “their” cash had gone. (Ironically, it might do them some good, as they might learn something about what kind of animal the PFA really is.)

It’s this latent, stubborn paternalism towards play­ers that affords men like Ellis and David Gold the lee­way to moan about how much Taylor is paid or how much they think the PFA has in its coffers. None of this is their business. If the PFA is relatively rich, it’s because it has known what to do with its cash, not to men­tion its shrewd marketing of the PFA “brand”. If the Premier League finds it­self with no assets (as Scu­damore ad­mitted may be the case), whose fault is that? Greedy players? Or greedy chairmen?

Foot­ball isn’t an industry in the traditional sense for one crucial reason: the player is both worker and product. Thus, the PFA is and isn’t a union. It is when it looks to the welfare of its members. That’s what all unions do. But it isn’t when it creates a massively influential department to deal with the ed­ucation and training of all young professionals entering the game, in the new terminology, as “scholars”. What other union devotes so much time and expertise towards helping lazy em­ployers train their fledgling employees? It is a union when it offers financial and legal help to members where contracts are con­cerned, despite dark mutterings about conflicts of interest and union “agents”. But it isn’t when it implements sophisticated coaching schemes and pro­grammes that raise the level of performance and expertise of those players TV com­panies are so anxious to feature.

The PFA has also worked long and hard to improve the quality of the game in the widest sense – witness its pioneering role with initiatives such as Football in the Com­munity and anti-racism campaigns. Tradit­ion­al unions leave such crucial salesmanship to the employers. Fortunately, the PFA didn’t sit back and allow football to be promoted by clubs alone during the years when the game seemed to be dying on its feet.

We should be thankful, too, that the present dispute resulted in a reassertion of the prin­ciple of PFA independence and financial security. Otherwise, the game’s future might look much bleaker than it does.

From WSC 179 January 2002. What was happening this month