'This is not about millionaire footballers wanting more money. It's about supporting a union that funds lads who don't make the grade and need to retrain, and 60 year old ex-pros who need a heart operation but can't afford it.'
So said Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville last Thursday, before the compromise between the Football League and the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) that averted this week's threatened strike.
Class is central to professional football. The Murdoch press, predictably, turned its guns on the PFA for getting a 99 percent vote for strike action. The issue at stake is the money coming into the game's coffers from the screening of games. The biggest player in that game is one Rupert Murdoch. The Sun has focused on the amount players like David Beckham get. Last season 100 players earned over £1 million. But they are a tiny minority of players.
Many, many more are simply dumped by their clubs after their childhood has been distorted and they have been left with no other training than to be a professional footballer. Many great players of the recent past left the game with little or nothing to show but injuries.
The dispute has been about the amount the PFA gets from the £1.6 billion the Premiership will coin in from television contracts. The PFA runs three programmes to help former players. It also sponsors anti-racist and anti-drugs campaigns. Until recently the PFA believed it had a gentlemen's agreement that it would get a 5 percent share of the television royalties. But the game is not run by gentlemen. The owners tore up that agreement.
Once upon a time even top football clubs were run by local businessmen. Their income came from the spectators who squeezed through the turnstiles. Few clubs turned in a profit. Today spectator revenue is a minor part of a club like Manchester United's wages. The bulk of their income comes from TV rights and marketing.
Clubs fleece the fans quite openly. This Christmas parents will pay out a fortune for replica shirts produced for pennies in Third World sweatshops. Recently I received an email from Celtic. It said the following: 'On any match day at Old Trafford, there are over 20,000 occasional punters walking around, savouring the atmosphere, visiting the museum and patronising the club shops. They spend, on average, £7.50 per head. At Celtic Park, the figure is around £1.20. Certainly, when I am broadcasting before any match at home, I am seated in the studio for two hours before kickoff and can see the whole stadium via two large TV screens. At 20 to the whistle, the ground is only one third full. That means 40,000 rush in during the last 20 minutes...so how can they find the time to buy anything?'
The last time footballers threatened a strike was 40 years ago when the PFA, led by Jimmy Hill, threatened to strike against over the maximum limit imposed on player's wages. Then players were treated like bonded labourers.
Today's owners would love to return to those days. The fat cats controlling football are always looking at ways to squeeze more money out of the fans. It's time they felt the squeeze.