I always thought Gary Imlach’s haunting and touching memoir of his father’s career as a professional footballer in the bad old days was the benchmark to judge all such historical accounts of footballers in the days before the abolition of the maximum wage but now there is a new book that is just as good - which is high praise indeed.
Experienced sports journalist Jon Henderson spent four years seeking out the memories and views of what is quite literally a dying breed comprised of professional footballers who played the game between the end of the Second World War and 1961, which saw the previous maximum wage of £20 per week scrapped as well as the end of the slave-like retain and transfer system which allowed clubs to hang onto unwanted or recalcitrant players, refuse to pay them and also not allow them to play for anyone else - a clear restraint of trade. The efforts of Jimmy Hill and then George Eastham and the ironically and highly appropriately named Lord Justice Wilberforce did away with these iniquities and paved the way for the riches that can now be earned by footballers today.
Henderson knows exactly when to interject with a pithy and well timed comment and when to let the players speak for themselves. He gives them the freedom and space to tell their stories of the difficulties they faced, the appalling way they were treated by directors and management, perceived as they were as easily and cheaply replaceable assets.
What shines through is their pride and sheer love of the game and the dignity with which they made ends meet, played through appalling injuries and always gave of their best. The book contains a plethora of stories some of which I had heard before but most were fresh, amusing and wonderful to read, others made me deeply angry at the way gifted professionals were taken for granted and treated so appallingly.
Henderson picks a Stellar Paupers x1 made up of players who played in the First Division between 1945 and 1961 who would now be worth and be paid millions but were forced to scrimp a living because of the way the dice were loaded against professional players at that time.
Perhaps the tables have been turned too much nowadays, but every modern millionaire footballer should be urged to read this book and give fervent thanks to the players who came before them and whose efforts helped pave the way for the riches that can be earned today.
This is both an important historical record as well as an immensely entertaining book.