Founded in 1888, the Football League first imposed its controversial maximum weekly wage, of £4, in 1901. It was not until 1961 that the upper limit, by now £20, was scrapped – but Tommy Lawton couldn’t wait that long.
Player unrest over the maximum wage was never far from the surface but it was in the 1940s that it started to gain unstoppable momentum.
Tommy Lawton, a centre-forward who in today’s game would have made a fortune but throughout his Football League career (1936-55) earned a relative pittance, was one of the chief agitators for better pay.
A story told about him during a wartime international, when he was on Everton’s books, is that sitting in the England dressing room before kick-off he held up a £1 note in one hand and ten-shilling note in the other. ‘There are seventy-thousand spectators out there,’ he said, ‘and this is all we are getting for turning out today.’
In 1945 Lawton moved to Chelsea for a £14,000 transfer fee, although the player himself saw no more than the £10 signing-on fee.
The Scottish winger Johnny Paton was, briefly, a teammate of Lawton’s at Stamford Bridge. ‘When I joined Chelsea in 1946 I had a magnificent rise in wages from eight pounds a week for Celtic to £10. There were 40,000 every week at Stamford Bridge and we were getting paid ten quid, which caused a lot of trouble.
‘For star players like Lawton only getting a tenner a week was a big issue. The money was the reason, and I know this, that Tommy left Chelsea in 1947 and went right down the leagues. I mean he was the world’s greatest centre forward and he joined Notts County of the Third Division. I know he did it for money.
‘A lot of deals were being made in those days around transfers and one of Tommy’s best friends was the manager of Notts County, a man called Arthur Stollery, who had been the physiotherapist at Chelsea.
‘Stollery said, “Come to Notts County”, and Tommy Lawton ruined his career by going there for money when he was still in his twenties.’
Paton adds that Lawton ‘didn’t last too long at the top after that’, which is essentially true. Lawton did play for England again, the first player from outside the top two divisions to do so, but only four times, and had a brief spell at Arsenal towards the end of his career.
Lawton had retired as a player by the time the maximum wage was finally abolished in 1961 – and it was scrapped then partly as the result of a famous speech made by the Bolton Wanderers player Tommy Banks, who, like Lawton, had been born in Farnworth in Lancashire.
Banks’s impromptu oration at a player meeting in Manchester was widely regarded as having clinched the vote in favour of strike action if the Football League didn’t drop its opposition to restricted wages.
At the meeting a young player put the case for wages continuing to be pegged: ‘My dad’s a miner, earning £10 a week. I play in the lower division and I earn twice as much. I train in the open air and play football on Saturday – he’s down the pit for eight hours at a time, five days a week. That can’t be right. We earn quite enough as it is.’
This caused Banks to seek permission to make a speech that invoked having to play against the great Stoke City player Stanley Matthews, who happened to be at the meeting.
No one recorded Banks’s exact words but his biographer, Ian Seddon, himself a former Bolton player, credited him with saying the following (Boltonese first and then a helpful translation):
‘Ah think its neaw time ah spokk Mr Chairmon.
‘Ah’m tellin’ thee t’tell thee far’her ah’m on ’ees side, ah noes pits nar fun ah ’avebin theer misell but theer wonn’t be 30,000 watchin’ ’im dig owt coal cum Munday morn, theer will be 30,000 peyin gud munny on Setdi ut Burnden Park t’si mi tryter stop Brother Matthews ’ere.’
Now Seddon’s translation:
‘Mr Chairman, I think it’s now time that I spoke.
‘I’d like to tell your father I know the pits are a tough life having worked below ground myself. However, there will not be 30,000 people watching him extract coal on Monday morning, but there will be 30,000 paying spectators on Saturday at Burnden Park watching my battle with Stanley Matthews.’
No high-earning, massively qualified advocate could have presented a more compelling case or delivered it quite so consummately.
But it all came too late for Tommy Lawton.