When in 1961 Fulham came under pressure to sell their prize asset to Italian giants AC Milan, their chairman showed there was more to him than a gag or two.
Tommy Trinder is probably the funniest man ever to be chairman of a Football League club.
Born in 1909 in south London, Trinder deployed his rubber features in a double act with his quick wit. He started working in music hall in the 1920s and went on to become one of the country’s best-loved comedians, renowned for his catchphrase, ‘You lucky people’. He was also well known for his association with Fulham Football Club, serving as their chairman for nearly 20 years.
In the 1950s, when Trinder was appearing in a show on the south coast, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, the president of Portsmouth FC, asked him to watch a match at the Portsmouth ground.
Although Trinder accepted Monty’s invitation, he was more interested in the match Fulham were playing elsewhere that day. In fact he was even more interested than usual because it marked an early appearance by Fulham’s notable young prospect Johnny Haynes. When the result came through, a Fulham win in which Haynes had scored two goals, Trinder told Montgomery that Haynes would one day captain England.
Montgomery seemed less fascinated by this than by how old Haynes was and Trinder told him off-guardedly that the player was only 18.
‘Shouldn’t he be doing national service?’ Montgomery said.
Back on guard, Trinder’s razor repartee came to his rescue: ‘That’s the other thing about him – he’s a cripple.’
Legend has it that some years later the performer in Trinder and his high regard for Haynes steered him towards another corner. The problem stemmed from his constant eulogising to anyone who would listen about just how good a player the Fulham and, by now, England forward was.
Crucially, he eulogised to Haynes himself. ‘If I could pay you more than 20 quid a week, Johnny, you know I would,’ Trinder supposedly told Haynes, confident that football’s wage cap was set in reinforced concrete. ‘With your skills you’re worth 100 quid a week. Easy.’
And not only did he tell Haynes, he told the press – and Haynes kept the cuttings to prove it.
But there is much more than this to why Trinder ended up paying Haynes over the odds when maximum earnings disappeared and pay bargaining arrived in 1961. It was far more an act of pragmatism than a consequence of an arm being wrung.
The fact is that at the end of the 1960-61 season, three months after the demise of the regulated wage, the Italian club AC Milan were trying hard to sign Haynes, as well as Jimmy Greaves, then of Chelsea, for a record-shattering transfer fee of £100,000. Milan were prepared to pay Haynes a £15,000 signing-on fee and a weekly wage of more than £200.
Trinder’s offer to Haynes was made in response to this. The size of the salary he promised the Fulham captain varied according to which newspaper you read: anywhere from £4,000 a year to £100 a week. And the London Evening Standard reported that by staying in England Haynes could top up his annual income to £7,000 with a few a little earners on the side: ghosted newspaper articles, advertising – Haynes replaced the cricketer Denis Compton as Brylcreem’s shiny-haired pin-up – and business interests.
Haynes himself confirmed that reasons beyond football were what were keeping him in London, among them a 22-year-old cabaret dancer called Eileen Farmer.
Inevitably, other clubs moaned about Trinder’s largesse. Bill Jones, the Cardiff City manager, for example, wondered sourly how his generosity would be funded. ‘Gates are the only income clubs receive,’ he said, ‘and these are dropping.’
On the other hand, the press generally praised the Fulham chairman for being more than just a funny man. At last someone was recognising that if clubs did not start to pay wages that were competitive with other countries the English game would fall further behind than it was already.
J L Manning, the Daily Mail’s trenchant and influential columnist, described Trinder’s action as a ‘bold, brave and sensible application of soccer’s New Deal’. Manning warmed to his theme: ‘It took the issue of strike notices by the players’ union and the whip of Parliamentary and public condemnation of our football system to wring from the clubs the concessions that now help to keep England’s captain here.’
He might have added that Trinder was not as daft as he looked.