Capitalists in football shirts
Tuesday, 18 January 2022 13:22

Capitalists in football shirts

Published in Sport


Alan Dent argues that football has become a game which legitimises the radical inequalities of capitalist Britain

One of Britain’s most highly regarded footballers is Tom Finney. Born into the working-class town of Preston in 1922, he spent his playing years at his home club, Preston North End, and represented England seventy times. He earned relatively modestly as a player, yet helped attract crowds of thirty thousand to Deepdale. Offered a contract as a junior in 1937, his pay was to be two pounds ten shillings per week. His father insisted he complete his apprenticeship as a plumber before signing. His professional career began in earnest in 1946 when his pay was fourteen pounds a week. The average male manual wage (according to ONS statistics) was six pounds.

In his early days, he was working part-time as a plumber while playing for the club: up the ladder with a blow-lamp on Saturday morning, pulling his boots on in the afternoon, as the story goes. He was praised highly by other professionals. In his day, he was one of the best players in the world. Today, he would be a multi-millionaire. He wouldn’t spend his career at one club – it wasn’t loyalty which made Finney do so, but absence of opportunity.

As his pay in 1946 suggests, he was reasonably rewarded, but fourteen to six is nothing like the proportions which prevail today. The average wage (ONS) in February 2020 was £511 in nominal terms and £471 in real terms. According to media reports, Gareth Bale is currently (September 2020) paid £600,000 a week. Finney’s pay in 1946 was a little more than twice the average, Bale’s more than a thousand times.

The so-called free-market account is that players are paid the going rate. No one makes a decision: it is the abstract market which distributes resources. What is sought after in the market attracts a greater price. Is Bale a better player than Finney?  The question of exorbitant rewards is, according to the free-market ideology, beyond moral judgement. The market is amoral: it acts according to the laws of the economy. Footballers are paid what the market will tolerate.

That this is propaganda is self-evident. Markets don’t make decisions any more than algorithms. That is anthropomorphism. Dogs make decisions, as do bees and ants, within very narrow limits laid down by biology; but only people make moral decisions, though there is some evidence that other primates make proto-moral choices. What makes a moral choice possible, however, is the same kind of attribute that provides language. All animals communicate, but only we have language. It is part of our biological inheritance. So is morality. There’s an important point here: we are linguistic  by nature. We have no choice. Try not to be linguistic. You can no more do it then you can wish one of your legs away. The same is true of morality. We don’t have a choice. We have evolved for moral decision-making. Which is why those who want to excuse their bad behaviour claim some abstract force is responsible.

Finney retired in 1960, the year before Jimmy Hill’s successful campaign to lift the £20 cap on player’s pay (during the summer the maximum was £17). In 1900 footballers’ weekly pay averaged £7, in 1924 £8 and in 1953 £15 (£13 during the summer). In 1961 average male manual pay was fifteen pounds two shillings a week. Thus, footballers had long earned above the average, but by 1961 they were only marginally ahead. Educated professionals could earn more.

The Professional Footballers’ Association’s campaign was supported by the TUC. At their 1955 Congress, Jimmy Guthrie, the ex-Portsmouth player accused the football league of a “Victorian business ethic” and described the condition of footballers as “akin to slavery”. George Eastham, the Newcastle player, took his case to the High Court on the grounds of “restraint of trade”.

Stanley Matthews, at first resistant, changed his mind and voted for the cap to be removed out of loyalty to his fellow players and because he had done well out of the game. When he started as an office boy at Stoke City in 1930, Matthews was paid £1 a week. On his seventeenth birthday he signed as a professional and was paid £5 (£3 in the summer). By 1950 he was earning the current maximum of £12 per week and when he made his final move to Stoke in 1962 he was paid £50, twice what he had been earning at Blackpool. When the maximum pay cap was lifted in 1961, Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week footballer. Yet Matthews felt his financial rewards had been good. The salary on which he finished his playing career was about two and half times the average wage, at today’s values something like £1,250 a week.

The simple conclusion to be drawn from the above is that there is no absolute correlation between the skill of a player, the excitement he or she brings to the fans and the level of pay. Fans didn’t refuse to watch Matthews or Finney because they weren’t millionaires. The prevailing assumption that the astronomical salaries paid to footballers today is the necessary outcome of their talent, effort and fan-pulling power can’t be correct.

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Women's football was once more popular than the men's game

Football began as a game of the common folk, of men, of course, though women did make their mark quite early – though the bureaucrats, as bureaucrats will, intervened to stop them on the usual specious grounds. Probably the most famous women’s team was Dick Kerr’s Ladies founded in Preston in 1894. On Boxing Day 1920 they played St Helen’s Ladies before a crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park and in the same year, the first women’s international, against a French side, which they won 2-0. 25,000 watched that. A year later, the FA banned women from playing on football league grounds, arguing that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Note the Victorian tone. It wasn’t till 1969 that the Women’s FA was founded. As ever, it takes a long time to rectify the historical mistakes of bigots.

Football is an essentially working-class game

Football’s history goes back as far as 1170. In modern times, the prototype game was developed in the private schools as a typical character-building activity for boys who were intended to rule the Empire, but the game as we know it dates from 1863 when the Football Association was founded. In 1888 there were twelve clubs, by 1950, 92. What brought the growth was the popularity of the game with working-class spectators – not only working-class, of course, but principally.

Football is an essentially working-class game in two respects: it enjoys great popularity among the common folk and many of its players come from the working class: Bobby Charlton’s father was a miner, as was Matt Busby’s. Bill Shankly’s father was a postman, Dennis Law’s a fisherman, Tom Finney’s a local government clerk, Stanley Matthew’s a boxer, Paul Gascoigne’s a hod carrier, Gary Lineker’s parents were grocers and Wayne Rooney’s mother was a dinner lady. There are, of course, exceptions but they tend to prove the rule. Few, if any footballers were privately educated.

When Ted Hill, Chair of the TUC, supported the PFA in its demand for an end to maximum pay, he was identifying footballers with employees in general. In fighting for the right of footballers to improve their pay, he was accepting that the right should be general. The implication was that players were exploited. They ought to enjoy their share of the wealth the game generated. In adopting this position, the TUC failed to appreciate the difference in status between footballers and most employees: footballers are entertainers. They don’t make anything. They are part of an arena of escape from work. That is, after all, the point of sport: it is an activity aside from the work-a-day world.

Football is the opposite of work

Bill Shankly was entirely wrong when he said football is more important than life or death: what makes sport attractive is precisely that it isn’t important. It’s a relief from importance. It was that which attracted so many people across the centuries to the kicking the ball games which prefigured the game proper: it wasn’t work, but the opposite of work. The creation of professional footballers was a result of the game being embraced by the ethos of capitalism. This made footballers employees, but of a very different kind from miners, clerks, hod-carriers, postmen, dinner ladies. What capitalism spotted in the game and its practitioners was the possibility of profit and big fortunes. That the big fortunes were not initially offered to the players doesn’t alter the trajectory. What Jimmy Hill recognised in 1961 was that clubs’ revenues was sufficient to allow players to be better rewarded. What he didn’t see, however, was how the business model of football clubs would develop.

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Bill Shankly, lifelong socialist

According to David Conn writing in The Guardian on 22nd May 2019, for the year ending 30th June 2018 Manchester United had a turnover of £590m, a wage bill of £296m, a pre-tax profit of £26m, a gate and matchday income of £110m, debts of £254m, paid dividends to shareholders of £22m, mostly to the six Glazers who sit on the board, and remunerated its highest-paid director with £4.1m. Regardless of the debts, the shareholders get their dividends, the directors get their enormous emoluments, the Glazers own a high-value asset and, of course, the players get exorbitant salaries.

What kind of business model is this? It’s often argued that football clubs are businesses which don’t make money: they need rich owners and generous directors. Far from it. The owners and directors aren’t altruists. Abramovich may argue he doesn’t own a football club to make money, but as a hobby; but if that were true he could give it to the fans. How would that get in the way of it being a hobby? Whether or not Chelsea makes a profit, Abramovich owns an asset of enormous value. The billionaires who buy the big clubs know they can’t lose.

In the same article, Conn writes that Everton, for the same period, had a turnover of £189m, a wage bill of £145m, a pre-tax loss of £13m and paid its mostly highly rewarded director £927,000.  An interesting set of figures: the club loses money but the wealthy director gets nearly a million. Bournemouth had a turnover of £135m paid wages of £102m, had a pre-tax loss of £11m and paid its leading director £1.3m. The club is owned by AFCB enterprises registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. It is part of the Opalus Trust, an instrument of the Russian oligarch Maxim Denim’s family.

In the Championship, more than half the clubs spend more on wages than they raise in revenue. Can you think of any other enterprise where this would be the model? Whether run on capitalist lines or as a co-operative, any undertaking which paid its workers more than it brings in would be considered a head-case. A hairdresser, a restaurateur, a joiner, a plumber, a nursery provider, anyone applying to the bank for a loan to get an enterprise started who presented a business plan which included paying in wages more than they take in revenue would be considered insane or incompetent.

So what’s going on with football clubs?

In a video clip posted by the BBC on 12th December 2019, David Sharpe, ex-owner of Wigan FC expressed it fairly well: he described the football league, or at least the Premiership as “a billionaire gambler’s paradise”. Football has been turned into a casino. What was once a game of working people, played by them and watched by them, a relief from the burdens of work and inauspicious living conditions, has become a roulette wheel where some of the wealthiest people on the planet can toy with the culture of the masses.

Whatever happens, Abramovich will come out smelling of roses. Chelsea FC is his asset. Even if it goes broke, he’ll do fine. The people who lose out when a club fails, like Bury, are the ordinary folk for whom the club is a focus, a meeting place, a living part of their culture, not a scam to cream off money into directors’ pockets, to pump up the value of owners’ assets and to turn the players into multi-millionaires.

There’s an argument that goes like this: most players are working-class. Football gives them the chance to rise from their modest origins. Don’t knock them. They are talented and they work hard. They deserve what they get. It’s a good thing that a few lads and lassies from the mean streets get the chance to live the high life. That’s a culture of opportunity, so it’s fair.

No it isn’t

In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s estimated that some 70,000 children on Merseyside live below the poverty line. The confirmed salary for Mo Salah for the present season is £220,000 per week (£10.5m per year), for Alisson £150,000 per week (£7.2m per year), for Van Dijk £180,000 per week (£8.6m per year) – even some of the reserve players are paid £15,000 per week. Of course, the conformist response is that even if the players’ salaries were distributed across all the poor of Merseyside, poverty would not be eliminated. True, but that isn’t the point. What matters is a culture of exorbitant rewards.


Anti-FIFA mural in Brazil

Football has been cleverly used by the ideologues of capitalism to justify that culture. As with pop stars, film stars and other assorted celebrities, footballers are popular icons, adored and emulated by millions, and they are fabulously rich. The tacit argument is that if they deserve their rewards, so do all the rich. The result is £500bn and more in the hands of the richest one thousand. Extend that to the richest ten thousand and the wealth is unconscionable. A redistribution of wealth from the richest ten thousand to the bottom ten million would make a very real difference. By valorising extreme rewards, football assists in enforcing poverty, Marcus Rashford notwithstanding.

Capitalism can’t allow anything significant which isn’t made in its image, which cannot be measured by money. When the game proper established itself in the late nineteenth century, capitalism was entrenched in Britain. It would have taken great insight and resilience to keep the game as a game rather than a business. From the beginning of its professional manifestation, football began to be associated with wealth. The relationship between players and club owners is explored in David Storey’s 1960 This Sporting Life, set in the world of rugby league. Machin is the workhorse player who kicks (no pun intended) against the pricks (equally) of being made use of by the club’s big-wigs. The title is ironic: sport has been degraded by business whose ethos is anything but sporting.  

Who needs the fans?

The central issue is the nexus of relationships: players, owners, directors, fans and of course, today, media moguls. The only group which doesn’t make money out of the game is the fans. As coronavirus force games to be played in empty stadia, it would be easy to conclude the fans are dispensable. If the media moguls can beam matches round the world, why does it matter if fans turn up at Old Trafford or Bloomfield Road? Manchester United’s turnover in 2018 was £590m but only £110m was matchday income. It would be perfectly feasible economically to do away with the troublesome business of crowd control, turnstiles, transport to and from the ground and to rely entirely on income from television rights, merchandise and corporate hospitality. If football is a business, the fans aren’t crucial, given that some way can be found to replace the income their disappearance would entail.

Of course, this leaves aside atmosphere. Canned cheering and chanting have been employed to give some authenticity to matches in dead venues. Managers and players like to applaud the fans at the end of a game. Yet the interests of the fans are not paramount. If they were, the game would look very different. To put their interests first would mean setting ticket prices as low as is commensurate with keeping the game exciting.

Conditions at grounds have improved since the days Finney and Matthews were playing and fans should be willing to pay for that. All the same, in the mid 1960 a juvenile entry to Preston North End was one shilling and sixpence. The average manual wage was about £15. A youngster’s ticket cost about one two hundredth of that average. Today the cost is about £20 and the average wage, as noted above, about £500, ie about twenty-five times greater. Improvements in conditions can explain only a part of that discrepancy.

The implied argument is that in order for fans to get what they want, the game has to be a business, managers and players have to be paid exorbitantly, owners have to see their assets appreciate, directors have to receive handsome rewards. Tell that to Bury FC fans. What fans want is a club to identify with, a team to cheer on, the excitement of competition, the chance of winning trophies. Clubs like Bury are part of the local culture, they help give the town a focus and to bind people in a common identity. Money isn’t what fans are after. Yet by and large they have been bamboozled into believing that money makes the game function.

Football and capitalism

Of course, the big clubs have fans all over the world. Football has been swept up in capitalism’s globalisation. Nevertheless, a Manchester Utd. fan in Beijing wants essentially the same as one in Salford. The contention they can have it only if football is a business is palpably false. Football as a business doesn’t run for the fans, but for those who make pecuniary gain. The notion that the fans are akin, say, to customers in a restaurant is misleading: a diner expresses no particular loyalty. They consume a product. Fans do something different: they make an emotional investment in their club’s fate.

It is this element of emotional investment which is exploited. The investment is in the game, the sport. What makes sport function is rules. Playing by the rules tests skill, discipline and determination. Which is why taking sport seriously means not cheating.  Finney and Matthews were gentlemen players. They didn’t pull shirts or engage in “professional fouls”. The latter concept is indicative: when money is at stake, cheating is acceptable. Winning domestic trophies which grant access to European competitions brings big money. If a player can be stopped scoring by shirt-pulling or tripping, managers, directors, owners, media moguls are in favour. Fans of the offending team, corrupted  by the culture, are too; but fans of the team offended against appeal to the rules. Such is the interface between sport and capitalism.

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When Jimmy Guthrie evoked a “Victorian business ethic” he hit the nail on the head. Not in castigating the backward nature of the ethos, but in recognising he was involved in a business. Businesses normally try to keep wages down. The defining factor of business is the relation between employee and employer. The employer’s advantage is the employee’s disadvantage.

When the FA capped players’ wages it was treating them as employees. Once the cap was lifted (ironically because of the TUC involvement) their status was transformed: they became stars in the capitalist firmament. Finney and Matthews were stars of the game, but not icons of capitalism. It is this cynical manipulation of the diversions of the masses to grant legitimacy to capitalist inequality which is the important matter.

Football as an amateur game of working men, prior to the incursion of business, created a space which belonged to the men themselves. The mine might buy their work fifty or sixty hours a week, but on the field they were free men. This capacity to escape the ethos of capitalism in their pleasures is what capitalism had to seize and exploit, otherwise it might have become a counter-culture.

Football turns its players into capitalists, against the interests of the fans. The notion that elevating a tiny number of working-class kids into the oligarchy is any form of liberation or even opportunity is perverse: millions remain in poverty, many get by. Liberation and opportunity for the very few is no liberation or opportunity at all.

Propaganda and diversion

There are two ways capitalism keeps the masses in thrall: propaganda and diversion. It has both down to a fine art, truly marvellous in its effectiveness. Of course, the semblance of democracy requires that propaganda be veiled and diversion be seen as choice. The view is very old that the meddlesome and ignorant masses should be shut out of decision-making. Orwell remarked in the suppressed preface to Animal Farm which was brought to light in 1972: “the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”. The way it works, he observed, is that the culture tacitly enforces what is “not done”. He provides the amusing analogy of the Victorian prohibition of mentioning trousers in the presence of a lady; it wasn’t imposed by law but by cultural pressure.

Thought control in contemporary Britain works in the same way. There is no law against discussing democracy in the workplace, it just isn’t done. No one knocks on your door at three in the morning if you argue that a minimum wage suggests a maximum. You don’t get poisoned by secret agents for pointing out that private schools still furnish the boys (and a few girls) who run the Establishment – but all these things just aren’t done, at least in the polite society of the Daily Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Sun, the Times, Sky News and most BBC broadcasting.


 There is lively debate, but within very narrow limits, and whatever exceeds them is not reported. As Orwell put it: “A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.” That ought to be enough to keep the masses in their place, but there’s always the chance that if they aren’t distracted, they might start attending to voices they shouldn’t hear.

They used to. Working-class “self-improvement” in the nineteenth century saw miners, dockers, steel workers, railway workers assembling home libraries of classics. The Mechanics’ Institutes encouraged working folk to find out and think for themselves. Working men and women read Pliny, Milton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Diderot, Thomas Paine. Naturally, this had to stop. The masses had to be fed a superficial culture of diversion to keep them from concentrating on what is important.

No need to think!

The irony is that as the population has become more educated, the culture of stupefaction has become more permeating. The education system assists by reducing education to exam-passing. Thinking is more or less unnecessary. The culture of football is part of this: the fans can’t be permitted to own and run the clubs; they are the ignorant and meddlesome masses of the game. Their role is to pay up, pass through the turnstiles, chant and cheer. But the clubs they support are no longer sports clubs, but businesses. Playing the game is much less important than winning because winning means money.

Sport is not an escape from the system, it is immersed in it. Nostalgically, Finney is viewed as a gentleman player, who never fouled and insisted on playing by the rules. It’s hard to imagine that being accepted today. Along with the professional foul comes the primadonna performance to try to win unfair free kicks or penalties. There is too much money at stake to be a gentleman.


A scam has been perpetrated on the fans. Their game has been stolen from them. It belongs to Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil magnates and media tycoons and it is run entirely in the interests of money. The claim, of course, is this is what the fans want. Just as the propaganda system claims the people freely choose (having been told every day that any other choice will bring plagues of frogs and thunderbolts), so the system of diversion perpetuates the fiction that the fans get what they want.

In fact, the fans have never been seriously involved in decision-making. Just as in the culture at large, decisions are made by people with money. The fans stay loyal to their clubs and their game, just as the people keep faith with democracy, but all the while, what they believe in is being taken from them in the interests of the rich and powerful.

What is at work here is the clash of innocence and cynicism. Sport needs to be re-enchanted by being taken out of the hands of capitalists and put into the hands of those it delights, charms and inspires. What rational, democratic argument is there against fans owning and running football clubs? Perhaps if they did the people of Bury would still have a team to support. As it is, the coronavirus pandemic may see clubs fail. Smaller clubs, that is. Clubs with less money. Creating a blueprint for the future of the game would be a mistake, as blueprints for the future always are. What’s required is principle. The essence is democratisation of “the economy”, as the pundits like to call it, as if it’s a thing rather than a set of relationships. This is no small matter.

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There is a heartening example, however, in the so-called “Preston Model”. The City Council, inspired by the American Democracy Collaborative and its success in establishing co-operative enterprises, has set up “anchor institutions” who pledge to keep as much of their spending as possible local. Under the leadership of Matt Brown, erstwhile Cabinet Member for equalities, the Council is now incubating a community bank and getting several co-ops off the ground.

Football clubs could be ideal anchor institutions: they are rooted in the community and have substantial budgets. That could be the first step in transforming them into fan-owned and administered, democratic co-operatives. Legislation could require clubs where fans put forward a plan for a takeover to engage seriously. An independent body could adjudicate and if the plan is viable and supported by a majority, a hand over required. Would that entail compensation for the billionaire owners? Maybe in part, but that could be legislated for too: as they have gambled in the casino that the game has become, shouldn’t they be expected to carry some losses? We need cultural democracy in football.

It's a racket

If football didn’t exist and it was your remit to get it established, would you set up something like today’s football league? Would you want a sumptuously rich upper league dominated by a few out-of-the-world wealthy clubs or would you want a people’s game, a game for the fans, a game the common folk can call their own? Football is popular because it’s a simple, beautiful game. To watch Finney, Matthews, Best, was to witness poetry in motion. Capitalism has turned this lovely common pleasure into a money-scam and its practitioners into capitalists in football shirts. The message they send to the fans is that huge disparities of wealth are normal, rather than a sign of a culture gone badly wrong.

Sadio Mané sets a good example, but what matters is never individual acts of generosity alone, but the nature of institutions. We create our institutions and they, in turn, create us. The ideologues of capitalism are very clever. They have worked hard to establish a culture of out-of-kilter rewards for a tiny minority, a culture which helps enforce poverty on millions, some of them football fans who can’t afford a season ticket.

To end where we began, with Preston North End. Its highest-paid player today is Scott Sinclair on £23,000 a week. That’s a little less than the annual average salary for Prestonians. PNE’s annual wage bill is £9,588,800 for a squad of 43. The annual total for 43 people on the average wage would be approximately £1,400,000. The average, of course, conceals that many are below it, especially when its distorted by huge earnings by a few. When Finney was at Preston, he didn’t come anywhere near earning in a week what the average worker earned in a year. The elaboration of football as a business hasn’t improved it as a game but what it has done is to permit the game to be used as a defence of radical inequality. Who would ever have thought having a bit of fun kicking a pig’s bladder could lead to such a bizarre outcome?