On 18 November 1960 George Eastham signed from Newcastle for £47,500. He went on to play 207 times for Arsenal before leaving for Stoke City in 1966.
If you are interested in the key changes to players’ contract law across the years you’ll think about George Eastham and how in 1963 he brought about the end of the long running “retain and transfer system” through going on strike until he pushed through his transfer to Arsenal, with the court ruling that the traditional system was fundamentally illegal.
And you’ll also probably consider the Bosman ruling in the European Court of Justice in 1995 which gave the same freedom of movement to footballers as everyone else within the EU. But when did it all begin?
Starting in 1885 players had to register at the commencement of each season, with one club. The player could then change clubs only if his existing club agreed, although players could change clubs freely at the end of the season.
However in 1893 the “Davie v Royal Arsenal Committee” court case, a case which Arsenal won, established a different contractual relationship between club and player.
Between January and November 1892 Davie made 58 senior appearances for Royal Arsenal and scored 39 goals – an astonishing return for a man playing on the wing.
His final game was 19 November 1892 in the FA Cup 3rd qualifying round against local rivals Millwall Athletic. At that point Davie was injured and a dispute between himself and the club escalated very quickly. It appears that Arsenal said that Davie, although injured, could still be engaged in what today we might call “light training” while the injury healed.
So great was the dispute that within two months of Davie’s last game, the case of Davie vs The Committee of Royal Arsenal FC was brought before the County Court. The matter by this stage however was not so much one of whether Arsenal should continue to pay Davie’s salary, even though he was not playing, but rather if Arsenal had the right to dismiss Davie over the issue of his refusal to engage in the club’s designated training regime, given that Davie had a contract until the end of the season.
That was in fact what the court stated was the case – the club could dismiss a player even though he had a year long contract. But what made the contract unenforceable in the eyes of the judge seems to have been the fact that the contract allowed the player to be paid whether he worked or not. Thus if not selected for the team through poor form, injury, or a breakdown in the employer-employee relationship he would, under the standard one-year contract, still be paid. The judge ruled this could not be valid, since such an arrangement could mean that the player could declare he was not fit to play, and yet could still demand to be paid. The judge argued that there had to be some checks and balances – even though it was Royal Arsenal who had created the contract!
As a result of the Arsenal Committee’s victory in the Davie case the League clubs devised a new system for the 1893-94 season, a system that very much put the players in their place at the bottom of the heap, and which lasted until the challenge of George Eastham.
Under the system introduced in 1893 once a player was registered with a Football League club, he could not be registered with any other club, even in subsequent seasons, without the permission of the club with whom he was registered. This regulation applied even if the player’s annual contract with the club holding his registration was not renewed after it expired, and it applied whether the player was paid or not!
And so retain and transfer was conceived and remained until the 1963 court case Eastham v Newcastle United where the High Court ruled that the retain and transfer system was unjustifiable.
In 1959, George Eastham did not sign a new contract with Newcastle, and requested a transfer. Newcastle United refused his request.
Eastham refused to play for Newcastle United in the 1960-61 season, and in October 1960, Newcastle United finally agreed to transfer Eastham to Arsenal for £47,500. Backed by the PFA, which provided financial assistance to pay for his legal fees, Eastham then brought proceedings against Newcastle United in the High Court. The case was decided in 1963. In his decision, the judge specifically criticized the “retain” aspects of the system.
In response, the Football League modified the system, dispensing with the “retain” elements of the transfer system. The ‘transfer’ aspects themselves however remained largely unchanged until the Bosman ruling and the Webster ruling changed everything once again.