This year marks 125 years since the Football Association “legalized” professionalism in football.
I’ve worked out a time-line for the first 25 years on Tony Kempster’s Non-League Forum. It as as follows:
- 1885 – The Football Association relent and allow professionalism. They also introduce a player registration system.
- 1888 – The Football League is formed.
- 1888 onwards – Regular competitive matches in the league gives rise to increasing revenue for Football League clubs, primarily by way of increasing gate receipts. The bigger clubs can afford to lure the best players by offering them higher salaries and bonuses, knowing that having the best players in the team attracts bigger crowds.
- 1893 – Fearing that the league would become less competitive if all the best players were with only a few clubs, the Football League introduce the retain and transfer system, which restricts the freedom of players to move to another club, even after their annual contract with the club that holds their registration has expired.
- 1893 onwards – Smaller Football League clubs like Derby and Stoke also push for the introduction of a maximum wage of £4 per week.
- 1893 onwards – Faced with the above, players start moving to the Scottish League and from its formation in 1894, the Southern League, without their registration by their Football League club being released. Maybe not the top players, but those who might expect to be the top earners at smaller clubs, or who might expect to move from a smaller club to a bigger club for a higher wage.
- 1897 – The Scottish League agree not to employ players who are still registered with a Football League club.
- Feb 1898 – Faced with ever increasing restriction, the Association Footballers’ Union is formed by the leading players of the day. It is not recognized by either the Football Association or the Football League.
- 1898 onwards – Under pressure from their employers (Football League clubs), many of the players involved in the AFU move to the Southern League or the Scottish League.
- May 1900 – At the behest of Football League clubs, the FA introduce the maximum wage of £4 per week to take effect from the following season. Presumably, Football League clubs press the FA to introduce the maximum wage rather than doing so through their own regulations so that the Southern League would be covered.
- 1901 – Presumably at least partly due to the FA not enforcing the maximum wage, the Football League introduce the maximum wage of £4 per week in its own regulations, so that it can enforce it against its members.
- 1901 – The AFU is dissolved, having failed to achieve a relaxation of the retain and transfer system or to prevent the maximum wage from being introduced.
- 1904 – The maximum wage is removed from the FA’s statutes, but remains in the Football League’s regulations. Presumably, between 1900 and 1904, neither the FA nor the Southern League enforced the maximum wage.
- 1905 – After being suspended for attempting to bribe an opponent, Billy Meredith exposes corruption at Manchester City, including undisclosed payments to players in excess of the maximum wage. Several players are banned until Jan 1907, and Manchester City are compelled to sell players.
- Dec 1907 – The PFA is formed as the AFPTU. The players who had been banned, several of whom had been bought by Manchester United, were key movers of the re-formed union.
- 1909 – The FA threaten to withdraw the registration of AFPTU members. In response, the AFPTU threatens strike action. Strike action is averted with agreement on a bonus system.
- 1910 – The Southern League recognize the Football League’s retain and transfer system. The Kingaby action is subsequently commenced, but is lost.
That the Southern League managed to establish itself in 1894 at the second time of asking must be due at least in part to the first wave of players moving from the Football League. The success of Southern League clubs at the turn of the century was clearly due to another wave of leading players moving from the Football League.
I suppose the maximum wage was not an issue in the Southern League during this period, as fewer players earned more than £4 per week, and the difference in the wealth of clubs was not as great as in the Football League.
Two World Wars and the intervening Great Depression delayed any real progress on the issues of the maximum wage and the retain and transfer system until the 1960s.
I’ve relied heavily on the following:
- “One Hundred Years of Servitude: Contractual Conflict in English Professional Football before Bosman” by David McArdle, LLB, PhD,  2 Web JCLI
- “Football And Trade Unionism” article on “Spartacus” website
- “Footballer Wages” article on “Spartacus” website.
- Information provided by PaulC on the thread on Tony Kempster’s Non-League Forum.
I have sought to introduce the information on Wikipedia:
- I have created an article on the “Retain and transfer system”.
- I have re-written the article on the “Association Footballers’ Association”.
- I have substantially revised the history section of the article on the “Professional Footballers’ Association”.
- I have added a history section to “Transfer (Association Football)”.
- I have made significant changes to sections of the articles on “Billy Meredith” and the “Southern League”.