The Curious Case of Football Contracts


I’ve had it with your negative comments, I can’t take it. I quit!

Still here? Why? I quit didn’t I? Oh, that’s right I’m on one of those football contracts, the most bizarre of conventions in modern sports. Of course fixed term contracts are not unique to football but in what other profession except as an athlete are you forced to work for an employer you don’t want to?

Over the years Contracts in football have become increasingly convoluted and complicated. It initially began with a system whereby professional football players had to be registered with a particular club for a season before they could play. As the game became more popular so did the players who soon leveraged their personal appeal to sign annual contracts with a club of their choosing, giving themselves the option to sign with a new club the following season if they could get more money.

The problem with the above system was obvious, the bigger (and therefore richer) clubs could offer better contracts and would result in a system where there was a clear divide between the haves and the have nots. So in 1893 the FA implemented the ‘Retain & Transfer‘ system, where a player could only register with one club and then could not register with another without the permission of his current club. Soon clubs realised they could charge for the release of a player and thus the transfer system was born.

Since the inception of that system Football then had become a very moderate and widely accepted form of serfdom. As players can be forced into play for a club they don’t want to or be forced out of the game and a change was not implemented until 60 years and two world wars later.

The following quote from a famous footballer sums up the development:

“Our contract could bind us to a club for life. Most people called it the “slavery contract”. We had virtually no rights at all. It was often the case that the guy on the terrace not only earned more than us — though there’s nothing wrong with that — he had more freedom of movement than us. People in business or teaching were able to hand in their notice and move on. We weren’t. That was wrong.”
– George Eastham

The first successful challenge of the ‘Retain & Transfer’ system was made in 1963 as the High Court in England heard the case of Eastham V Newcastle United. In this case the player told Newcastle that at the end of his contract he no longer wanted to play for them and requested a transfer, a request that was refused. Eastham went on strike and found alternative employment because he could not play elsewhere. He eventually received his transfer but took the club (and the system) to the high court where the judge forced the Football League to change it’s system the retain element was removed but the transfer system remained.

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