George Eastham is not bitter. Nor does he wish for more accolades from his playing days. For starters, he has a 1966 World Cup winner’s medal — one of the five members of that squad still alive.
‘I want to be a footballer in my next life,’ he tells Mail Sport. ‘They are very fortunate. They get provided for, they get looked after.’
After retiring in 1975 following an illustrious career spanning England, Newcastle, Arsenal and Stoke, he was back out wheeling and dealing, selling clay, fixing windows. The footballers of today would scrunch their faces at such a prospect, but it was Eastham who paved the way for them to be paid properly.
His seismic court case against employers Newcastle, and the FA, defeated an archaic retain-and-transfer system which had held players to ransom since the early 1900s.
It is 60 years today since Eastham sat inside the High Court of Justice for a three-week trial that would change English football for ever.
George Eastham played for Newcastle United, Stoke, Arsenal and England during his career
Eastham (second from the left at back) was a part of the England squad that won the 1966 World Cup
‘You were a slave to the club,’ he says. ‘Going to court needed to be done. It needed to come out from the shadows. Players needed to be getting the money they were supposed to get. Everybody’s getting the just rewards now.’
In his Cape Town home, the 86-year-old takes himself back to the summer of 1963.
Eastham was an inside forward for Arsenal. A star in a team hovering outside the top six.
The court case was because of what occurred at his old club, Newcastle. Eastham had requested a transfer in 1959 as his contract was soon expiring.
Newcastle resisted and due to the retain-and-transfer system, they could keep him registered while paying a minimum wage. The concept is unfathomable in the modern day.
‘They wouldn’t let me go,’ he says. ‘Once you signed a contract, that was it. It wasn’t like now where you get two, three years or whatever. You just signed the contract and that was you. You’re obligated to the club.
‘I said I wanted a transfer and they said, “No, we’re not happy with it” and that they would rather see me not playing than playing for somebody else. But then there was quite a rumpus about it in the papers. That’s when it all came to light.’
Eastham went on strike for eight months, earning more selling cork than playing in the top flight.
He says: ‘I was playing for small clubs just to keep going. It was crazy. I worked for a friend of my fathers in the cork business.
‘I was still well known in England so when I went to see people to sell stuff, I got to see the people who mattered. And I was OK for getting paid that way. The money was better than me doing nothing.’
In October 1960, Newcastle relented and sold him to Arsenal for £47,500. But the damage was done. The PFA asked Eastham if he would legally challenge the club over unpaid wages, bonuses and, above that, the retain-and-transfer system.
Three years later, he had his court date. The PFA helped pay his legal fees.
After wanting a move away from his contract at Newcastle he went on strike selling cork
Eastham (bottom row, third from left) ended up in a court battle with Newcastle who would not release him from his contract, but instead he won the court hearing
Eastham (right) explains: ‘I was quite happy to go. If they (Newcastle) wanted me out of the game, that was it. They were going to lose their money, so I was quite happy. I was in the right. They were keeping me out of the game, and they were not paying me.’ The trial was only scheduled for one week but lasted three.
The verdict arrived on July 4, 1963: Eastham lost his claim for unpaid wages, but the retain-and-transfer system was declared a restraint of trade and illegal. Eastham and the PFA had won.
He felt relief. He had won for himself, and his colleagues.
‘I was just glad it was over,’ he says. ‘I wanted to get on with playing. To go without soccer for so long was not nice.
‘It went from maybe £20 to £30-35 a week. It wasn’t an enormous leap. But it meant players could ask for a rise. It didn’t necessarily mean they got one but if they didn’t like it, they could ask for a transfer. Before, clubs didn’t give a damn. I’m sure everyone was quite happy. At least it was a beginning.’
He was a Jean-Marc Bosman of his time. The Bosman ruling in 1995 allowed players to move for free at the end of their contracts, whereas Eastham’s victory ceased players being forcibly held at clubs on minimum wage. Aside from this case, Eastham is remembered for being part of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad. He joins Sir Geoff Hurst, Sir Bobby Charlton, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan as the five still around to tell their story of that historic final.
‘Thank God there’s somebody left!’ he remarks. ‘I remember when we won the thing and Alf (Ramsey) came and said to us, “£25,000 for the players”. In those days there were 22 players and then there was Alf, Les Cocker and Harold Shepherdson, so it was a grand apiece for winning the World Cup. That wouldn’t set you up for life, would it?’
England’s quarter-finalists in Qatar last year had £15.2million to split between the squad — at least £450,000 each.
That tournament has stayed with Eastham, though. He still has dreams of ’66 and his beloved team-mates in a team ‘you would be proud to play in’.
He continues: ‘Oh, it was fantastic. The only bad memory I had was that I didn’t get a game.
‘I played in two World Cups. They had the sides mapped out. There were no injuries, so what were they going to do?
‘The 12 others are the second team as it were. The only games we got were when we played the first team in practice matches.
‘It was a good bunch of players. I wasn’t upset then, and not upset now. It was an honour to be there to win something like that, it was fantastic.
‘You’ve just got to be sure not to upset the manager, and none of them did. I had a couple of telling’s off from Alf, but that was all part of the journey!’
Goalkeeper Gordon Banks and Charlton are particularly close to his heart. Banks played with Eastham at Stoke, where the midfielder ended his career after 194 league appearances. He went on to have a 10-month spell as manager.
He says: ‘Banksy was my mate. We roomed together, and he was my big mate at Stoke as well. He was a great guy. He was the best without a shadow of a doubt. He was a good goalkeeper and he was modest, a gentleman.
‘Bobby was my main man. He is a good guy, very good player. These are the players you miss.’
They had declared Newcastle’s restraint of trade, keeping him at the club was illegal
Eastham’s victory ceased players being forcibly held at clubs on minimum wage at a time when contract lengths did not exist
Before retreating to the sun outside his home, it is only right for Eastham to give his thoughts on the stream of money flowing through the modern game.
‘It’s incredible,’ he adds. ‘There’s so much to be got outside of the game. There are people wanting to invest in clubs. There’s a lot of money around.
‘I could never have seen it (like this). But if you’re worth it, you get it. The club won’t be feeling anything, they are not getting skint giving you your wages.
‘The players can now play for 10 years and retire, instead of finding a job scrubbing the streets.’