The retain-and-transfer rule was more accurately described by its alternative name, the slavery act. It lasted until the 1960s when Eastham and the Professional Footballers’ Association took legal action...
‘When you think about it,’ George Eastham says, ‘it was a silly sort of situation. All I was looking for was a job in the afternoons because footballers did nothing in those days. You finished at lunchtime and then the rest of the day you became a good snooker player or whatever, a good golfer – but you didn’t have anything to do.’
From his home in South Africa, he is talking about his time as a Newcastle United player from 1956-60.
An England under-23 international, who would be a member of England’s World Cup winning squad in 1966, Eastham was approaching his twenty-fourth birthday. His wedding was coming up. It struck him that rather than potting snooker balls all afternoon it would make more sense to find a second job and save some money.
‘In those days, when you married they gave you a club house to reside in, you paid your rent and that was how it worked. There was no buying your own house because you couldn’t afford it.’
The house he had been given was on the shabby side. If he could earn a little more he might be able to do something about it.
‘But I couldn’t get a job and I couldn’t come to any agreement with Newcastle,’ he says. ‘They told me, “Oh, we’ll get you a job, no problem, no problem.” But nobody ever did anything.’
So one day he told them: ‘I’m off to London to find a work.’
In London he went to see Ernie Clay, an army friend of his father’s, who had a firm in Reigate, Surrey. Thanks to Clay, later the chairman of Fulham football club, Eastham started work as a cork salesman. His career as a footballer was placed on hold because Newcastle had withheld his registration.
The club were entitled to do this under football’s retain-and-transfer rule – aka the slavery rule – despite Eastham’s contract with them having come to an end. What is more, in accordance with the rule, Newcastle stopped paying him and refused to release him to play for anyone else.
The upside for Eastham was that everyone wanted to buy cork off the man whose photograph and story were all over the front pages. ‘Everywhere I went was an open door,’ Eastham says, ‘nobody said they didn’t want to see me because I was in the newspapers. So I sold a bit of cork and I was getting more money selling it than I was playing football.’
Eastham hung on for seven months before Newcastle relented in October 1960 and allowed his transfer to Arsenal.
But Eastham wasn’t finished yet.
It was around this time that the players, threatening a strike, forced their employers to scrap the maximum wage, which by 1960 had reached £20 a week. This successful show of player power emboldened the Professional Footballers Association. With Eastham’s help, the association now resolved to carry on and remove the scourge of the slavery rule.
‘Newcastle were probably hoping that after I eventually signed for Arsenal the dispute over the retain-and-transfer system would fall away,’ Eastham says. ‘But the PFA were looking to me to be the man to take the fight forward, to bring an end to the system.
‘They were coming to the end of their resources – they weren’t a big PFA in those days, they were a small PFA, the money wasn’t coming in like it does now – but they offered to pay my expenses if I carried on.
‘I said, “Yes, let’s do it. Let’s go the whole hog.” I wasn’t happy with the way things had gone with my transfer. So the case went to High Court and that broke the retain-and-transfer system.’
It was an historic triumph that could hardly have been concluded by a more appropriate figure. The judge appointed to try the case in 1963 was Mr Justice Wilberforce, whose great-great-grandfather, William Wilberforce, led the movement that resulted in the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807.
It seems almost too neat to be a mere coincidence that 156 years on Richard Wilberforce would be the one to abolish football’s so-called slavery rule.
Little could Richard Wilberforce or anyone else have known that his landmark decision, even though loudly hailed at the time, would eventually transform the game by quite such a multiple.