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Who Was the First £100 a Week Footballer?

In 2023 Forbes magazine announced that the three highest-paid athletes in the world were all footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo topped the pile, with Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe next. All three earnt more than £100m in the preceding 12 months which is not too bad when you stop and think about it. We mean, we’d quite possibly be tempted to kick a ball around for £275k per day!

But our focus in this article is not on the mega-rich superstars of today. Instead, we are going to look back to when football was a sport, not a business and when players could look forward to owning a pub, or perhaps a sports shop once their playing days were over. No yachts, no £1m posts on social media and not even a job alongside Gary Lineker spouting cliches, just a move into the normal world with a standard job.

Johnny Haynes – Football’s First £100 Per Week Player

Johnny Haynes Statue
Image: Laurence Mackman, Wikimedia Commons

The year is 1961. A pint of beer will set you back 2s½d (whatever that is – we think it’s around 10.5p!). The Beatles are a little-known five-piece band yet to record anything of note. The average house price is £2,440. And Johnny Haynes is about to become the first football player to earn the princely sum of £100 per week in wages.

Johnny Haynes died in 2005 at the age of 71 and The Guardian described him as a “perfectionist in an imperfect football world” in their obituary. They added that for a period of “seven seasons he was England’s best creative player” but he could do little to help a poor England side at the two World Cups in which he appeared (1958 and 1962).

Haynes was a Fulham legend, playing for the west London outfit between 1952 and 1970. In 1961 he came third in the Ballon d’Or but aside from a South African league title with Durban City in 1970/71, honours eluded him. Whilst he was a superbly cultured footballer, to many he is best known simply as the first £100 a week football player in England.

1961 – Football League Wage Cap Abolished

Fountain Pen and Blurred Paperwork

The advent of the first £100 footballer was a big deal because it marked the end of the Football League’s wage cap. At the time of writing it seems that hardly a day goes by without doctors, nurses, railway workers or teachers being on strike but the notion of footballers striking would certainly seem rather alien. However, they do still have a union, in the shape of the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association), and this was originally called the Players’ Union, though even that dates back further to the Association Footballers’ Union, which was created in 1898.

And indeed the union for footballers, the PFA, led by Jimmy Hill, who many know primarily as a pundit but who played for Fulham at the time, was central to enabling players to earn higher wages. Hill began his career at Brentford in 1949, was appointed chair of the PFA in 1957 and ended his playing career in 1961, not long after perhaps his most enduring win, that of abolishing the wage cap.

Hill died in 2015 aged 87 and many younger players, especially those raised outside the UK, may not even know who he is. But they certainly have much to thank him for. Hill raised the issue of a strike as he sought to see the cap on what players could be paid removed. Known as the maximum wage at the time, it was a salary cap in modern terms. This limited players’ pay to £20 per week and just £17 per week in summer, when, of course, they weren’t actually playing.

For reference, in 1961 a regular soldier was paid around £7 per week, with a platoon sergeant earning slightly more than double that; a doctor earned around £46 per week in 1962, whilst MPs were paid less than £20 a week in 1960 (though they did receive around £15 per week in expenses on top of that). Most people at the time were employed in manual labour, however, and in 1961 the average pay for a male employee was around £15 per week.

We should note, however, that whilst the maximum pay for a footballer was capped at £20 per week, many earned less. Most players earned between £10 and £15 per week, with off-season pay sometimes £8 or even less. So, footballers were certainly not poorly paid, compared to soldiers especially, but they were far from being rich, or even especially well off.

The Historic Battle for Wages

Old Leather Football on White Desk

The issue of the maximum weekly wage was nothing new and players and their advocates had, unsurprisingly, long battled against it. In the 1900/01 season, Liverpool won their first league title and their players were paid £7 per week on average. The Football League promptly introduced a maximum pay of £4 per week. By 1920 that had increased to £9 but went down to £8 shortly after, whilst even by 1953 that cap had only grown to £15 (and £13 in the close season).

Many of these changes had been opposed by players and their union but over time the cap became disproportionately low. It meant that the very best footballers in the country were only being paid around the same as many “normal” jobs. Some may feel that is not such a bad thing but it was at this time that the game was starting to get richer. The European Cup had been founded in 1955/56, whilst television was also in its early days.

Players felt something had to be done and a strike was agreed upon, scheduled to take place on 21st January 1961. Some clubs felt that abolishing the ceiling altogether was a viable option and indeed, the richer teams believed this might give them an advantage. Others, for example Jim Wilkinson at Blackburn, felt even an increase to £30 could finish off many clubs.

The Trades Union Congress got involved too, asking supporters to boycott any games that did go ahead during the strike period. Just three days before the planned action, clubs eventually agreed to remove the pay cap. However, the PFA decided to continue with the strike as they also opposed the retain-and-transfer system that allowed clubs to keep out-of-contract players against their will – and on a reduced salary to boot!

This latter issue was fought through the courts and was a forerunner of the Bosman ruling that would come decades later. There were other issues being battled at around the same time but with regards to the £20 weekly maximum, the players had won. The maximum wage was removed with immediate effect.

Johnny Haynes was the right man at the right time and instantly saw his pay jump to £100 per week. In 1961 he was arguably the best player in the country (this was the year he would go on to finish third in the Ballon d’Or). Moreover, he was at a relatively wealthy club and one that was very much at the heart of the move to ditch the maximum wage. So, Johnny Haynes was the first £100 a week footballer!