How much were Victorian footballers paid? The answer, up until the mid-1880s, was nothing - officially, at least. Professionalism was banned, and it was illegal to pay players. But many clubs made unofficial payments, offering new signings undemanding employment at local firms, time off to play football, inflated expenses, and – in some cases – illicit signing-on and match fees.
Two key incidents forced the issue of payment of players into the open. The first was the punishment of the Sheffield ‘Zulu’ team, which had received payments for playing exhibition matches. The second was the expulsion of Preston North End from the 1883-84 FA Cup for overt professionalism. FA secretary CW Alcock (right) recognised that football was changing, and he pushed through the legalisation of professionalism in 1885.
After payment became legal, the wages paid to Victorian footballers varied widely. In the 1880s, some early professionals were being paid as little as 4s per week (around £10 in today's money), while by the end of the 1890s, star players at top teams could earn up to £10 per week (around £500 today).
In the main, footballers were much better paid than general workers. By 1890, the average footballer was earning four times more than a general labourer, and more than many skilled workers. Footballers’ wages increased at a much faster rate than those of general workers as the popularity of the sport grew. By 1900, footballers earned 10 times more than general labourers.
Win bonuses were common, as were additional payments for extra games and expenses. Players were typically paid a reduced wage over the close season. Even after professionalism was legalised, many footballers retained their old jobs, and therefore had two streams of income.
However, there were restrictions placed on professional footballers. From 1893, any player registered with a Football League club could not move to another club without the initial club’s permission. This became known as the ‘retain and transfer’ system.
The introduction of this rule, plus proposals to introduce a maximum wage cap, moved leading players such as John Cameron of Everton and Jimmy Ross of Preston to form the Association Footballers’ Union. The AFU had 250 members, but wasn’t recognised by the FA nor the Football League.
Despite the AFU’s efforts, a maximum wage of £4 per week was introduced in 1901.
This is an edited extract from The Victorian Football Miscellany, available now from all good book shops.