The Arsenal man who changed the transfer system

By Tony Attwood

George Eastham was not only an Arsenal captain but also the man who did more to reform the transfer system than anyone with the possible exception of Jean-Marc Bosman.

To understand exactly how important George’s stand was, we need to take in a little history.

At first, professional footballers were allowed to play for different clubs on different days.  However from 1885 players had to register at the start of each season with one, and only one, club.  The player could then change clubs only if his existing club agreed, (although all players could change clubs at the end of the season).

As a result successful players demanded pay rises each September when the clubs asked them to re-sign.

In 1893, with many clubs in financial difficulty the Football League changed the rules, so that once a player was registered with a League club he was “retained” by the club until the club released him, even if the club were neither playing nor paying him!

Additionally, to stop players wanting to leave, a maximum wage was introduced in 1901, and out of this the practice developed of clubs paying each other money to buy the contract of a player.  Thus the transfer system was born, and “retain and transfer” became the cornerstone of football contracts.

Inevitably some larger clubs quickly learned how to by-pass the maximum wage part of the contract, by offering other forms of payment, and so when in the 1950s George Eastham played for Newcastle United they provided him with a  house and a “secondary job” – a practice that was by then commonplace.

However George was reportedly unhappy with the arrangements and in 1959, he requested a transfer – which Newcastle refused (as they had every right to do under “retain and transfer”).  George then refused to play for Newcastle until eventually in October 1960, Newcastle agreed to transfer him to Arsenal for £47,500.

With the help of the PFA George then took Newcastle to court and in 1963 he won the case with the “retain” aspects of the system being declared illegal.

As George later said, “Our contract could bind us to a club for life.  We had virtually no rights at all.  People in business or teaching were able to hand in their notice and move on. We weren’t. That was wrong.”

George Eastham made his Arsenal debut against Bolton on 10 December 1960, and scored twice in a 5-1 victory and in 1963 he gained his first England cap against Brazil.

He was also in the 1966 world cup squad, and following a campaign to persuade Fifa to award medals to all the squad members, George was presented with his world cup medal by Gordon Brown on 10 June 2009.

George was Arsenal captain between 1963 and 1966 and scored 41 goals in 223 matches.  He then joined Stoke and played in the 1971 and 1972 cup semi-finals against Arsenal.

After a short period managing Stoke he emigrated to South Africa and set up a sportswear company, and, as an anti-apartheid campaigner was a football coach for local black children.   He is chairman of the South African Arsenal Supporters’ Club and gained an OBE for services to football in 1973.

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8 Replies to “The Arsenal man who changed the transfer system”

  1. Tony,
    Your heading was sufficient for me to immediately identify George E., a hero of mine from way back. His was the real story of David and Goliath.
    Unfortunately, Bosman came along later and player power escalated into the mess we have today.

  2. Alex, take your hate somewhere else mate… Interesting article Tony, it is just a shame that basic player rights have been taken to a whole new level now, whereby clubs are mere bystanders and are dictated to

  3. Thanks for the read quite interesting, certainly with all the talk of legal clauses in contracts and the whole Suarez saga etc.
    I wonder if Suarez can, legally, terminate his contract on the basis, he simply doesn’t want to be employed by the club any longer?

    If I got up now, handed in my notice and asked to leave my company, yes they’d want me to work my notice, but also allow me to leave if they could see I was causing issues amongst my colleagues.
    It’s about employment law looking after and protecting the employee.
    Sorry for going off point, but if Liverpool wanted to talk about loyalty and the lack of it from thier own players, perhaps they should take a step back and remember one Andy Carroll being shipped out on loan when thier new manager took over – what you got to say about that Brenda???

  4. Eastham was mentioned in the film version of “Fever Pitch,” and Paul says he was “before my time.” But that’s only as far as his Arsenal days are concerned. Presuming Paul’s experience matches Nick Hornby’s real-life version, both the first match he saw in 1968 and the 1972 FA Cup Semifinal (which Nick said his father did get a ticket for, unlike Paul’s), Eastham would likely have been in the Stoke lineup.

    A similar figure from the U.S. is Curt Flood, who in 1969 fired the first serious salvo against baseball’s version of retain and transfer, the reserve clause. He was a black player who was traded from St. Louis, where he was popular and accomplished and just starting a business, to Philadelphia, a city then with a history of mistreating black players. (North American sports usually has trades, with cash sometimes thrown in, rather than transfers as football/soccer does.)

    His case failed before the Supreme Court in 1972, but the wheels were in motion, and in 1975 the reserve clause was struck down. He died in 1997, but he spent some time in Europe, so he may have heard of Eastham, who I’m glad to see is still alive.

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