The reports again this week that Wayne Rooney is considering a move to China to play soccer may be the usual speculative nonsense that passes itself off as journalism.
Equally, the story that Rooney is not actually going to China but is set instead on a return to his boyhood club, Everton, may also be pure invention.
The figures bandied about in terms of wages are fascinating, however. Backed by a booming Chinese economy and the state’s desire to make China a global soccer power, players being lured to the Chinese Super League are being paid extraordinary sums.
Rooney might not get paid the £615,000 (€713,000) that the Argentinian striker Carlos Tevez is said to be receiving each week, but it is not madness to suggest that he would command a not dissimilar fee.
If he moved to Everton, it is thought that he would have to settle for a mere £150,000 (€174,000) a week (about half of what he is currently on).
These figures are obviously staggering to the point of seeming unreal. They feed into the notion that too many modern soccer players are “not what they used to be”, that they are spoiled, disconnected from reality and essentially flippant about their trade.
This, in turn, feeds into raw anger if a player chooses to leave one club for another in pursuit of better wages, or a better chance of winning something.
But why would professional soccer players not follow the money? And why should they be apologetic about maximising their earnings from their trade when they can?
After all, the context to these modern wages are the decades of exploitation of those who played soccer professionally.
A brilliant starting point for understanding is Gary Imlach’s beautiful book My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes.
Imlach will be known to certain aficionados of American football on Channel 4 and cycling on ITV as a man who presented coverage of those sports.
While he is a superb presenter (fluent, knowledgeable, and wry, with no preening), he is also a brilliant writer.
And the world he opens to us in his book is the world of his father — Stewart — an outstanding international soccer player, who played in the 1950s.
How good was Stewart Imlach? Well, he was good enough to play professional soccer for 14 seasons, good enough to have played for Scotland at the 1958 World Cup and good enough to play on the Nottingham Forest team that won the FA Cup in 1959.
The tone of the book is set at the very beginning. Growing up, Gary Imlach’s father had a trunk in the attic filled with some soccer memorabilia from his career. There were the jerseys he wore and his cup winner’s medal and an official souvenir magazine published in the weeks before the 1959 cup final.
This magazine — The Forest Cup Story — holds the usual details about height and weight and families and favourite food. But the best of it contains the answers of what the players would do once they finished playing football:
Chic Thomson, Goalkeeper: “Probably a return to the dry-cleaning business”; Bob McKinlay, Centre-Half: “Training to be a motor mechanic”; Tommy Wilson, Centre-Forward: “Become a shopkeeper”; Stewart Imlach, Outside-Left: “Return to the joinery business”.
As Gary Imlach wrote, his father and his teammates came from the same stock who packed the terraces every week and they knew that they were heading back into that community as soon as their playing days were over.
And the reality was, of course, that they had never really left that community: playing soccer gave them a particular status within their world, but the wages they earned told a whole other story.
When Stewart Imlach signed for Bury in the English Second Division in 1952, he signed a contract which saw him paid £7 a during the summer and £7 a week during the playing season. If he made the first team, he would be paid £14 a week during the season and £10 a week during the summer.
The thing is that both those figures were the maximum allowed in the league. Only 20% of players were on the maximum wage by 1955. In that year it was estimated that the average soccer player in England was paid £8 per week.
To put that in perspective, factory workers were earning close to £11 per week. There were other points that need making: The first is that no other industry in Britain had a maximum wage. As Gary Imlach notes: “Football clubs were alone in operating a cartel that imposed an arbitrary ceiling on the earnings of their employees.”
The second point is related to basic freedom of movement. When Stewart Imlach and every other professional footballer signed for a club, they signed over their rights “in perpetuity”.
This basically meant that although a club could release a player at the end of a season, or sell that player, or reduce his wages, should a player refuse to agree to what was decided they would simply be paid no wages: “Not paid no wages and sacked, but paid no wages and retained. If he walked out he couldn’t play anywhere else because the club held his registration.”
There were some benefits: Players could be given the right to live in houses owned by the club and long service at a particular club could also occasionally result in the payment of a loyalty bonus or the arranging of a benefit match.
It all meant that footballers took summer jobs to earn additional money. When he was at Nottingham Forest, Stewart Imlach — who had been apprenticed as joiner from the age of 15 and finished out his apprenticeship when playing at Bury — worked as a joiner on the maintenance staff at the Co-op. He spent his days doing the repair jobs that were needed.
Even during the regular season, he would spend afternoons mending seats at the City Ground in Nottingham and he and another player had a nixer going where they hung ice cream signs outside shops for Wall’s Ice Cream.
There is another thing with Stewart Imlach. After he played for a range of clubs across England, he was eventually released by Crystal Palace when he was into his 30s. He signed on and played non-league football for Dover and then for Chelmsford.
When he was asked by a local reporter whether all of it was not a bit of a comedown for an international, he was perplexed: Why would he not continue to play the game he loved for as long as he could anyway he could?
But his career had faded out when soccer players in England finally won the end of the maximum wage. There was a range of factors in the destruction of this retain-and- transfer system. Partly it was the fact that certain players in England were being offered huge money to go and play overseas, notably in Italy but also in Colombia.
The second reason was the arrival of the TV cameras. The meeting of Blackpool and Bolton in the first live league match shown on British TV took place in 1960.
Live league games proved a shortlived experiment, but highlights programmes soon began to change the place of the soccer player in English society, through ITV’s The Big Match and BBC’s Match of the Day.
More immediately, and more importantly, the Professional Footballers’ Association called in the ministry of labour in an attempt to get clubs in the Football League to find a new approach to pay and contracts. Led by Jimmy Hill, the PFA grew increasingly militant and players voted in favour of strike at a series of meetings in late 1960.
The prospect of strike was very real and ultimately forced a resolution which removed the minimum wage and — eventually — put in place a refined system in respect of contracts and freedom of movement. Nonetheless, it was only really in the 1990s with the Bosman Ruling that the last vestiges of the old retain-and- transfer system were cast away.
My Father and Other Working Class Heroes is a record of a dying age. It remains one of the best sports books ever written, its style and grace and emotional depth mark it out as being far above the usual pulp.
Beyond that, it provides a useful touchstone of the stories of modern footballers and their capacity to earn while they can.