Home / Sports / How player power became a 'thing' – and why it's now terrifyingly acceptable in football

How player power became a 'thing' – and why it's now terrifyingly acceptable in football

By 1959, George Eastham's grievances were multiplying. She was dissatisfied with his contract at Newcastle United and unhappy with the condition of his club house. He was too no one on the nature of his second job either, and bristled at being told at Newcastle that he couldn't represent England's U23s. Frustrated, he informed the club that he wanted to join Arsenal.

Newcastle denied his request. This was the age of the ‘retain and transfer’ system, meaning that clubs could keep the registration of players even if they were out of contract. As long as he'd been offered ‘reasonable’ terms to renew, the player remained club property and his career at their mercy.

Eastham's response was to go on strike at the end of the 1

959/60 season. He spent his summer down in Surrey, selling cork for a family friend. The effect, eventually, was to force Newcastle's hand – and in October they reached an agreement with Arsenal, selling Eastham for £ 47,500. It remains one of the earliest and most famous instances of player power.

But its legacy lies in the aftermath. In 1963 – and with the Professional Footballers' Association paying the legal fees – Eastham took his forms employer to unpaid earnings and arguing that the ‘retain and transfer’ system represented in egregious restraint of trade.

Eastham won. It didn't make him rich, and the judging presidency did not award him the damages he was pursuing, but Mr Justice Wilberforce did conclude that "retain and transfer" was unjustifiable. As a result, he compiled the Football Association to modify their arcane transfer system and strip it of its more shackling elements.

The straight lines between Eastham's militancy and the freedom of movement within modern football are easy to detect, even if they are fully intended. Newcastle supporters may have appealed to him when he first returned to St James' Park in Arsenal colors, but his actions could easily be served on the greater good – a purpose beyond his own ambition.

And thats something lacking in the current slew or controversy. At the time of writing, Neymar and Antoine Griezmann are absent from their respective clubs and, on Thursday morning, Laurent Koscielny refused to take part in Arsenal's pre-season tour to the United States.

All three situations have their differences. Neymar is fed up with life in Ligue 1 and desires a move back to Barcelona. Griezmann publicly announced his decision to leave Atletico Madrid last season, but has reportedly reported for pre-season training on the basis that confronting his jilted team mates might result in emotional stress. The least likely of the trio, has reacted badly to Arsenal's refusal of early release from his contract and is doubling down on his determination to return to France.

SEE ALSO Arsenal's captain curse: how Laurent Koscielny exacerbates an already-embarrassing problem

The thread which binds, of course, is not any great principle, but rather a truism as to what happens when footballers aren't allowed to make unilateral decisions. There are some mitigating circumstances within those three cases, with Koscielny's years of service possibly entitling him to some leeway, but broadly they collectively represent the standard of behavior that's come to be expected.

Because this isn’t new. Even within the Premier League there are many examples of heads being turned on, not being in the right place and, in some severe cases, players are flatly refusing to play until their transfer requests are granted. Pierre van Hooijdonk, William Gallas, Yohan Cabaye, Luka Modric; The protracted contract is an established tactic which, at the very least, tends to result in a new contract.

The reasons for describing are more interesting than what the behavior itself describes. It's not original to write about entitlement and ego, because those forces have been pulsing through the sport for years. But as a study of what the top level footballers believe to be fair – how much they will tolerate before resorting to drastic action – these latest incidents draw a vivid picture of just how much the game's dynamics have changed.


Arsene Wenger spoke of this in Les Bleus the 2016 documentary charting the fall and rise of the French national team after the World Cup '98. Wenger was referring to the infamous players' revolt at the 2010 World Cup and said that now, in today's football, head coaches held only powers of persuasion. In effect, that authority only really exists when it's in a way that appears to serve a player's self-interest. When translated to the transfer market, that makes perfect sense. It would obviously be a hopeless generalization to claim that applies equally to every professional in the game, but it does broadly describe just how much of an inversion has taken place. While players of George Eastham's generation were oppressed by labor force, kept under figurative lock and key, their modern equivalents are terrifyingly free to act on the compulsions they wake up with. It is a culture of wanting and getting, and acting with pathological immaturity, when these impulses are indulged.

This time next week, Antoine Griezmann will probably be a Barcelona player, Neymar might have joined him and, fearing more acrimony during a difficult summer, Arsenal will presumably have agreed to let Laurent Koscielny depart. Football is too big to ever fall into a meaningful way – that's incontestably true – but it's also never felt quite so wild and unencumbered by order. Never has its shape so susceptible to the wild whims of its only true commodity.

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