FIFTY years ago today, the maximum wage was abolished – leaving footballers free to earn as much as the market decreed their skills to be worth.
But, rather than helping underpaid players gain the appropriate remuneration, did the pioneering efforts of Jimmy Hill and company serve merely to tip the balance fatally in the other direction?
One man who thinks so is Dave Whelan – and he is in the perfect position to pass comment.
Whelan was a 24-year-old full-back just recovering from breaking his leg in the 1960 FA Cup final when the maximum wage was abolished.
And, in his present role as Latics chairman, he has seen first hand over the past 16 years the extent of power that is now enjoyed by the players of today.
Speaking exclusively to the Wigan Observer, Whelan believes ‘sense and sensibility’ have been lost to the game, perhaps forever, in the quest for cash.
But, allowing his mind to wander back half a century, he agrees the abolition of the maximum wage was a vital necessity.
“Unfortunately, I was still in plaster with my broken leg at the time, and I couldn’t even negotiate because I was out of action,” Whelan reminisces.
“I was on £20 a week, which was the maximum wage you could get in the First Division back then.
“The contract was up to the club then, they owned you totally, and it had to change.
“I mean, £20 a week maximum wage was totally utterly unfair, and to go open was the fairest thing to do at the time,
“The trouble is, it’s gone absolutely barmy now.”
Now the boot is one the other foot, Whelan has seen clubs and the game increasingly playing second fiddle to players, many of whom have even been prepared to go on strike to get their own way.
And he places the blame in only one direction – the players’ agents.
“The football clubs and agents have driven it out of control – the agents are responsible for a lot of what’s wrong in the game today,” he explained.
“There are some good agents. I don’t want to criticise them all, because there are some very, very good agents and the game needs them.
“But there’s also an awful lot of agents who are just out for their own interests, which is not good for anyone.
“I think the players now take notice of the agents entirely. They give their whole playing career to the agent and leave it to him – very few players override the agent these days.
“I think a return to sense and sensibility would help bring it back. That would make it much, much fairer.
“And it’s got to happen sooner or later.”
Because of their size, Latics have always been at the bottom end of the Premier League spending since winning promotion to the top flight in 2005.
For instance, their record signing – Charles N’Zogbia – cost significantly less than Wayne Rooney now pockets in a single season.
But Whelan believes the time is finally coming for all clubs to get their spending on wages in check, to avoid a repeat of the financial Armageddon that has struck the likes of Leeds United and Portsmouth.
“Looking at this transfer window, there’s not going to be a lot of mass activity in it like there normally is,” he added.
“That’s because all the clubs have realised they’ve just not got the money and they’re not prepared to borrow any more.
“As time gets towards the end of the period for signing players on not signing them, things may hot up a little.
“But there’s not the same drive this year for clubs to sign players. I think everyone is coming to their senses and thinking ‘no, we’re not borrowing any more money’.
“Here at Wigan, there’s only money there if we sell someone, and I think you’ll find that’s the case for most of the Premier League clubs.
“Football clubs now, I think, are starting to come to their senses – no more borrowing, no more stupidity.”