Contemporary observers as well as historians have regarded the peculiar employment conditions within the Football League as somehow unique in British industrial relations. In particular, the twin pillars of the League structure – the retain-and-transfer system and the maximum wage – have been seen as tantamount to a form of wage slavery, denying the player the basic freedom enjoyed by any other employee to leave his or her employment when s/he liked, and to sell his or her labour to the highest bidder. Players' Union secretary Syd Owen remarked in 1912 that 'the professional player is the slave of the club and they can do practically anything they want with him'; decades later, in his autobiography, Jimmy Guthrie, a successor of Owen's, referred to the footballer as 'a bondsman, a serf, a slave'.1 The historian Nicholas Fishwick, meanwhile, chose to describe professional footballers in the first half of the twentieth century as 'obedient servants'.2 Yet this emphasis on player acquiescence and the master–servant relationship not only provides a rather distorted and partial picture of the complex ways in which the labour market operated until the Second World War, but also has the effect of isolating the experience of employees in the football industry from wider social developments. Hence a dominant theme of this and the next chapter will be the trend towards what Mike Savage and Andrew Miles have described as 'the bureaucratisation of the labour market' from the late Victorian era onwards.3 In the Football League this took the form of the gradual development of central regulation and formal control over conditions relating to the employment, pay, movement, discipline, standards and welfare of players. Moreover, we need to recognise that the most immediate employment relationship – between player and club – was in fact cross-cut by a complex and often contradictory set of connections involving the player, the Players' Union, the club, the FA and the Football League executive.
This chapter focuses on four important areas of the employment of League footballers: the recruitment of players and their movement