Contract and Black Pen

How Have Football Player Wages Changed Over Time? Tracking the Astronomical Rise in Football Salaries

Before the familiar days of the world’s best football players earning hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, the typical football wage in the UK in the “olden days” of the game was comparable to a normal job. Nowadays, not even rocket scientists or brain surgeons earn as much as the average professional footballer. In this article, we take a look at how football wages have changed over time and whether the current fees paid to people to kick a ball around can be justified.

The Early Years

Right at the very beginning, football was just a game of fun. However, it was not long after the Football Association was formed that players started to demand higher wages. Blackburn Rovers were reportedly playing their top players just £1 a week shortly after the club was formed. As football’s popularity grew, so did player wage demands.

In 1888, Nick Ross was paid £10 a month after his move from Preston North End to Everton, while other big clubs were reportedly already paying their top stars £5 a week. Of course, £5 back then is nothing like the £5 we know these days. England’s best football players were paid around £4 a week on average at the start of the 20th century, which is equivalent to around £480 these days.

The First Maximum Wage

Vintage Brown Leather FootballThe Association Footballers’ Union (AFU), which was formed in 1898, tried their best to persuade the Football Association not to introduce maximum wages at the end of the 19th century. When Liverpool won the league in 1900-01, their average player wage was £7 a week (around £866 in today’s money), but the Football League brought in a £4 maximum weekly wage the following season. The AFU was also dissolved around this time.

Despite two decades of protest, the Football League stood firm on these rules, with the maximum wage only being doubled by 1924. Even in 1953, the top earners were only taking home a maximum of £13, which works out to even less than what players were earning 50 years before in today’s money.

Maximum Wage Finally Abolished

Handshake Pinstripe Suits

After years and years of trying, the Association Football Players’ and Trainers’ Union (which filled the void left by the dissolution of the Association Footballers’ Union) finally won in their battle for the FA to abolish the salary cap. Although there had been a steady increase in wages in the previous decades, the Players’ Union, as it was commonly called, were not satisfied until there was no wage cap at all.

The FA caved in after the threat of a players’ strike in January 1961. Jimmy Hill, a former player, manager and later a famous football broadcaster, was a key figure in the change after becoming chairman of the Players’ Union in 1957 (which changed its name to the Professional Footballers’ Association), and it took Hill just four years to achieve his goal.

The Early Big Earners

Vintage Typewriter on Desk

After the cap was abolished, several of England’s best players were ready to negotiate their contracts. Brian Clough – who played for Middlesbrough at the time but would soon move to Sunderland – went on record to say, “I would expect the right to negotiate my contract the same as any person in any profession.”

In the early period after the abolishment, there were some dramatic increases in player wages, with Johnny Hayes, who was Fulham’s star man at the time, reportedly becoming the first player to earn £100 per week. It may not seem a lot nowadays, but it was an unprecedented amount in the English game at the time.

George Best Earns a Four-figure Weekly Salary

The United Trinity Sculpture at Old Trafford
Image: coward_lion, Bigstock Photo

George Best remains one of the best footballers the world has ever seen. The Belfast-born man would go on to have a distinguished career at Manchester United before moving around the world and racking up almost 40 appearances for Northern Ireland. Best is highly regarded as one of Man United’s greatest ever players.

Best made history in 1968 when he became the first player to earn a four-figure weekly salary. By this time, Best was a celebrity and certainly lived the celebrity lifestyle. A salsary of £1,000 a week, which is the equivalent to around £17.5k now, was unheard of at the time, but not many people could say that the Northern Ireland star did not deserve it. These days, that is not even the average salary in the EFL Championship. Man United were renowned for paying their superstar players big money back in the day, with the likes of Bobby Charlton and Denis Law also earning high wages during their time at Old Trafford.

First Million Pound Player

1 Million Red Stamp

Nottingham Forest broke new ground when they paid Birmingham City £1m for Trevor Francis’s services in 1979. Brian Clough made sure he got his man as Francis became the first-ever seven-figure transfer between two English clubs. Forest also paid goalkeeper Peter Shilton £1,200 per week, making him the highest-paid player in the country at the time.

Fast Forward to 1992, the Premier League’s Beginning

Liverpool FC Flag

It was the beginning of a new era for English football in 1992. The 1992-93 season was the first Premier League campaign and with big TV deals in the bag, it promised to create plenty of opportunities to offer big wages to players. It felt like a huge move at the time, but not many people could have envisioned just how big the Premier League would become.

As the league’s popularity grew every year, so did the players’ wages. Back in ’92, Liverpool’s John Barnes became the first player to earn £10,000 a week, which paved the way for massive wages in English football. A famous newspaper headline of ‘Football’s Gone Mad’ was printed just after Barnes signed the new and improved deal at Anfield. The England international had a successful career in the red half of Merseyside, netting over 100 goals for the club. But his ‘massive’ salary at the time pales into insignificance when compared to what would follow.

Modern Era

In many people’s eyes, the top professional footballers earn obscene amounts of money these days. Even players who ply their trade in EFL League One and Two are earning more a year than the average person could ever dream of. Some of the Premier League’s best players are earning up to a reported £20m per season.

Sol Campbell Starts the Trend

Arsenal Highbury Facade
Image: seanbjack, flickr

Sol Campbell’s controversial switch from Tottenham Hotspur to rivals Arsenal at the start of the 21st century will always be a memorable one for several reasons. Firstly, Campbell decided to move to the club’s bitter rivals, which is contentious at the best of times. Campbell and Arsenal also took advantage of the Bosman ruling, which allowed the Gunners to make the defender their highest-paid player by quite some margin.

Campbell signed a £100,000 a week deal at Highbury, which was a monumental amount at the time and started the trend for players demanding huge wages in high-profile transfers. Nowadays, that £100,000 paid to Campbell would be worth around £166,000.

Tevez’s Massive Move to Manchester City

Manchester on Road Map

Nine years after the infamous Campbell move, Carlos Tevez became the first player to earn £1m a month when the Argentine moved to Manchester City in 2010. Tevez was involved in controversy when he first arrived in England with West Ham United a few years earlier, as Tevez and Javier Mascherano – who moved to Upton Park on the same day – were owned by third-party companies rather than football clubs.

Tevez made a splash throughout his career in England, especially when he signed for Manchester United’s noisy neighbours for a reported £47m fee. Tevez signed a deal worth a reported £286,000 per week at the Etihad Stadium, which earned him a whopping £1,144,000 every single month.

Huge Wages for the Likes of Rooney & Toure

At the peak of their powers, Wayne Rooney and Yaya Toure were among the best players the Premier League has ever seen. They were also among the league’s highest earners, breaking new ground with their yearly salaries. Rooney was reportedly earning £13m a year during his glory days at Old Trafford, while Toure was taking home a slightly less lucrative £230,000 a week, which works out to around £11.9m per year. Still not too bad though!

Since the big money has been pumped in at Manchester City, the Abu Dhabi owners have certainly worn out their chequebook. The likes of Toure, Sergio Aguero, David Silva – and no doubt one or two others – have all earned over £200,000 a week at the Etihad. At the time of writing, City’s Kevin de Bruyne is one of the Premier League’s highest earners with reports suggesting the contract he signed in 2021 allows him to earn well above £300,000 per week.

Neymar’s Crazy Deal in 2017

Neymar Transfer
Image: Antoine Dellenbach Flickr

Moving away from English football, Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 remains the biggest ever transfer deal in football history. PSG paid Barca a staggering £198m for the Brazil international. Along with his own trademarked brand and huge money sponsorship deals, Neymar is paid around £57m a year in wages.

Paris were up to their old tricks again just a year after Neymar’s switch to the Parc des Princes. This time, PSG paid fellow French club Monaco £163m for Kylian Mbappe, earning the French starlet over £15m a year in the process. With the world at his feet, it could be a matter of time until Mbappe is the highest-paid professional footballer on the planet.

World Football’s Current Highest Earners

The world’s best players are naturally the biggest earners. Over the past decade or so, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have been battling it out for the number one spot for the world’s best player accolade, but Messi is out on his own when it comes to earnings. At the start of the 2020-21 season, the Barca legend was the highest-paid footballer, bagging a whopping £67m a year in wages at the Camp Nou.

Ronaldo earns £51m a year before sponsorship deals and other ventures at Juventus. PSG’s Neymar is currently the second-highest earner behind Messi, with the French giants reportedly paying the Brazilian star £57m every season.

    1. Lionel Messi, Barcelona, £67m per year
    2. Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain, £57m per year
    3. Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus, £51m per year

*Correct as of start of the 2020-21 Season

Premier League’s Current Highest Earners

Although the current crop of the Premier League’s best players cannot get near Messi and Ronaldo when it comes to annual salaries, the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, David de Gea and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang are still paid a hefty sum each season.

De Gea and Aubameyang are the highest-paid players in the Premier League at present, with the pair reportedly getting £375k per week at their respective clubs. The likes of Raheem Sterling, Anthony Martial, Paul Pogba, Mohamed Salah and Sergio Aguero are also among the league’s top earners.

Are Footballers’ Wages Justified?

Businessman in Football Stadium

As with most professions, footballers are only ever paid what their employers think they are worth. Clearly the biggest clubs in Europe earn so much from TV deals, sponsorship, shirt sales, gate receipts and various merchandising tie-ins that they generally have plenty of cash to splash around. And given a club is only as good as the players in their team, it should come as no surprise that club owners feel it is more than justified to pay their players very, very well.

Of course, many people would point to the massive wage disparities between professional footballers and people who are nurses, carers, teachers and any number of more worthy occupations. Indeed, many professional sportspeople in less popular (or well-monetised) sports no doubt gaze enviously at footballers’ wages and wonder how they can be justified. But the fact is that football clubs are entities that live within a capitalist system in which wage disparities are a necessary evil and in which the relatively small supply of top quality players means that prices required to obtain their services go through the roof.

Ultimately, while football clubs are still coming out on top from TV deals and the like, which of course will keep coming as long as people keep watching football matches (and the adverts at half time), there is no indication that football player wages will do anything but continue to increase.

From £1 to £375,000

Since English professional football started way back in the 1880s, the weekly wage has increased from £1 to an astronomical £375,000. Since the Premier League began, player wages have shot up an enormous amount.

From John Barnes’s record-breaking salary to Sol Campbell’s £100,000 a week and well beyond that, the wages and transfer have continued to rise over the years. Will we see another wage cap introduced in England’s top division? Will the bubble burst in the English game? Will player wages continue to grow each year? We very much predict player wages will indeed continue to grow, but perhaps not at the sometimes exponential rate at which they increased in the past.