If Ben Purkiss, chairman of the PFA, the professional footballers’ union, needs inspiration as he seeks to improve the lot of the modern player he should look no further than Jimmy Hill, Jon Henderson writes
The trouble stirring at the Professional Footballers’ Association over the circumstances of many modern players is a timely reminder that although a good number of them earn fantastic wages theirs can be as precarious an occupation as any other.
Ben Purkiss, the PFA’s chairman, drew attention to this fact last week when he said: ‘I would like to see a situation where they [the players] truly understand what we can do for them, not just in times of need but taking the proactive approach. Going into dressing rooms, talking to the younger players, helping them financially, so – for all the players who do fall by the wayside and have their dreams shattered – we are there, they know exactly who to come to and they can come to us straight away.’
He might have added that even those on fantastic wages are not immune from having their lives shattered. The pitfalls for the twenty-first century footballer are evident from figures broadcast recently by a charity for former players. These show that two out of every five of them are made bankrupt within five years of retiring from the game.
Reading Purkiss’s words immediately made me think of Jimmy Hill, the PFA’s chairman from 1956-61. There have been many admirable chairmen of the players’ organisation since Hill but the link between Purkiss and Hill is particularly strong.
It was on Hill’s watch that the players overthrew the maximum wage – rigidly enforced at £20 a week before it was abolished in 1961 – and cleared the way for their earnings to become commensurate with the highly skilled entertainment they provided for huge audiences.
And some might argue that what Hill did created the conditions that produced the sort of distress that Ben Purkiss is now having to deal with.
This would be a distortion. The fact is that Hill was first and foremost a player – if no more than modestly successful for Brentford (1949-52) and Fulham (1952-61) – and remained staunchly on their side through his years as a manager with Coventry City (1961-67) and celebrated TV pundit.
Also, his success in driving through the reform of wages was by no means the opening of the wages’ floodgates. For many years after 1961 the rate of increase proceeded at an orderly, pragmatic pace.
Where things went wrong was identified not long ago by Jim White writing in the Daily Telegraph: ‘What happened later, as post‑Bosman all the power leached into the hands of the superstar player and his agent, was not the fault of Hill. He may have released the genie form the bottle, but he cannot be held responsible for the subsequent failure to corral it. What Hill did was right, proper and decent.
‘The subsequent arms race in player salaries is rather the fault of those owners and administrators who have failed to exercise appropriate control. Just as it was when he was agitating against their parsimony.’
As a journalist myself I interviewed Jimmy Hill on two or three occasions and got to know what sort of a man he was. An anecdote tells its own story, remembering it is from the time when Hill had become a national celebrity through his trenchant punditry:
I asked him one day if he might give away the awards after a fundraising event for a medical charity. ‘Maybe you’d say a few words,’ I said. He came, he charmed, he spoke movingly, alluding briefly to his own mid-life medical problems that he had overcome. He waved aside the charity’s offer to pay for a taxi. But he did accept my offer to drop him off at Victoria Station.
I have a last image of him cheerily stepping out of the car into a windswept night. He had given freely of his services and turned what might have been a mundane evening into something a little special.
He was and still is – even though he died three years ago – an inspirational figure and I am confident he would be right behind Ben Purkiss in what he is trying to achieve.
Jon Henderson is the author of When Footballers Were Skint / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.