Time to put a bung on footballers’ wages

NORMAN GILLER thinks he has the solution to football fans’ credit crunch

Too late for Alistair Darling’s Budget but, Baldrick-like, I have come up with a cunning plan to put lots of pounds back into the pockets of thousands of people. It calls for another raid on the rich. Simply, cap footballers’ wages at £20,000 a week.

When I first came into the football reporting lark, players were on “slave labour” wages of £20 a week. The NUJ minimum in Fleet Street at the time, circa 1960, was £21 a week. Jimmy Greaves was one of only three players at Chelsea who owned a motorcar.

Now, to quote Greavsie: “The geezer who cleans Frank Lampard’s Bentley gets more than I ever earned at the Bridge.”

When Jimmy Hill negotiated the kicking out of the maximum wage in 1961, Fulham chairman Tommy Trinder immediately made Johnny Haynes Britain’s first £100-a-week footballer.

Trinder – Cockney comedian famous for his “You lucky people” catchphrase – was lambasted by leader writers. The Times thundered: “Haynes has gone from ‘slave’ wages to obscene earnings in the blinking of an eye. Who is going to pay for this sudden rise? It can only be the supporters. You unlucky people!”

And it is the fans who continue to be soaked today. Even with Premier League clubs promising a freeze and some cut-price season tickets, the game has become too expensive for many pockets. Just look at the increasing number of empty seats at non-crucial games.

If I were a sports editor, I would be taking up the cudgel on behalf of young fans. A recent survey showed that less than 1 in 10 supporters going to the ground to watch games are under the age of 24.

The tradition of father introducing son to his club is dying, simply because they cannot afford to take them to the game, ending that long-time family bond. Where are tomorrow’s supporters going to come from? Allegiance to clubs needs to be in the blood. Why don’t clubs let under-15s in free to fill all those empty seats? Think of the number of supporters they will create for the future.

In modern parlance, I “started a thread” on Facebook this week on the theme of overpaid footballers. It attracted more than a hundred surfers, who almost to a man (and woman) agreed that – using that Times word of 1961 – footballers’ wages were “obscene”.

By capping footballers at £20k a week – a week! – clubs would be able to pass on the savings to supporters by chopping the price of tickets. They would then have more money in their pocket, and this would kick start a revival of dads taking their sons (and daughters) to the games.

The only screams of protests would come from over-paid, over-rated and over-here players and their parasite agents, who mirror the galloping greed that has dragged our nation (okay Mr Brown, the globe) into trillions of debt.

One visitor to my Facebook discussion group said that cutting wages would drive the best players to places like Spain and Italy. Hello, they have just as big financial worries as us. A Europe-wide cap at £20k a week would stop the criss-crossing of players, and might even bring some loyalty back into the game.

With the growing campaign for a maximum of six non-native players per team, this close-season would be as good a time as any to start renegotiating contracts.

But you know and I know that it has as much chance of getting off the ground as Alistair Darling residing at No 11 Downing Street after the next General Election.

The agents will gang up and not let it happen, because their take from transfers and salaries would be torpedoed. I ghosted George Graham’s The Glory and the Grief – the story of his ban from the game for accepting “an unsolicited gift”. It opened my eyes to the power and persuasion of football agents.

We negotiated a serialisation deal for the book with The Sun, stressing that we had been legally advised not to use the word “bung,” but to stick to “unsolicited gift”.

On the day they launched the series, the entire front page was taken up with a photograph of a suitcase full of money and the headline: GEORGE GRAHAM CONFESSES: “I TOOK £475,000 BUNG”.

When I contacted Sun Editor Stuart Higgins – an old pal – to protest on George’s behalf, he told me with tongue deeply buried: “Well, Norm, it’s like this … ‘unsolicited gift’ didn’t fit.”

Another contributor to my Facebrook thread said we should not forget that footballers are paying huge amounts to the Revenue & Customs in tax.

The cynic in me wonders just how much of the £100,000 a week wages finds its way to the taxman. There will be teams of clever-trick accountants making sure that it as little as possible.

Now there’s a good subject for an investigative sports journalist with a grasp of balance sheets and tax rates: How much tax do footballers pass on to Alistair Darling’s dwindling coffers? How much of it disappears abroad? If you think MPs are good at massaging expenses, football agents make them seem like finger-counting novices.

I am something of a hypocrite, because after tunneling my way out of the Daily Express in 1974, I tried my hand at being an agent. But I was nowhere near cunning enough to make it pay for my clients, and I gave it up when Jimmy Greaves sacked me … just because I sent him to Lyme Regis for an after-dinner speech when I thought it was Bognor Regis, a little difference on his drive of 250 miles and five hours.

And I never did learn the art of negotiating an unsolicited gift. I was not one of you lucky people.

Read more from Norman Giller by clicking here.

Click here for more sports journalism links

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form