Jon Henderson on why he found writing When Footballers Were Skint such a rewarding experience...
Like a conductor without an orchestra, a writer without anything to write about is a lost soul.
A few years ago, I’d finished a biography of the footballer Stanley Matthews and my novel was going nowhere. What to do next?
The answer arrived when a friend mentioned an American sports book written by Lawrence S. Ritter in the 1960s. It was called The Glory of Their Times.
A work that remains popular, it traces the history of baseball during its formative years as an organised sport through a series of interviews with former players.
Straightaway it struck me that football lent itself to a similar exercise. There was only one problem. No one was still alive from football’s earliest days.
The solution soon came to me: make the defining moment of my book that profound event in the game’s development – the abolition of the maximum wage.
Up until January 1961, when the maximum – then standing at 20 quid a week – was scrapped, the game had changed very little. If anything players had become relatively more skint than they had been in the early days of the century.
At first, the new age looked very much like the old one. Players’ wages increased only slowly. The tide really turned when television began to tap into the possibilities offered by such an immensely popular entertainment. Nowadays the professional footballer’s life, sustained largely by television money, is as far removed from it was in the 1960s as a hermit’s is from a hedonist’s.
As I hoped, the several interviews I did with players who had started their careers before the limit on pay was removed – one, Colin Collindridge, who died only recently aged 98, started his before the Second World War – provided me with rich material, tales that seem scarcely believable today.
Even the greatest players, men such as Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney, who were both to be knighted in due course, were too impoverished to own a car, lived in the same rows of terrace houses as the fans and thought nothing of travelling to matches on public transport.
Almost without exception they had to find summer jobs. Building sites were the favourite where players could ‘keep up their strength and get a suntan’, as one of my interviewees, Terry Allcock of Norwich City, put it. Many others had a day job running alongside their football careers.
In Finney’s case, he continued to work as a plumber while for many seasons thrilling the supporters not only of Preston North End but England, too. Tommy Banks, of Bolton Wanderers and England, did work on a farm and kept his own chickens. ‘I had 100 hens who used to lay for me,’ Banks said. ‘I sold eggs all over Farnworth and in the Bolton Wanderers dressing room.’
I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did writing it.