In September 1955, Jimmy Guthrie, chairman of the Association Football Players and Trainers Union (AFPTU), rose to speak at the Trades Union General Congress in Southport. For Guthrie, it was a proud moment. In 1909, the AFPTU had been forced out of the wider labour movement as a condition of its being recognised by the governing body, the Football Association. Now it was back, with Guthrie determined to make the most of his moment in the national limelight. His speech would cause outrage and catapult him onto the front pages of much of the national press. It would also lead fairly swiftly to his demise as the players’ leader. 

By 1955, Guthrie had been the union’s outspoken chairman for almost 10 years. Born in 1913 in the country village of Luncarty, near Perth, Scotland, he was signed by Dundee aged 17, the club chairmen handing him an envelope containing £100 for his mother. In 1936 he was sold on to Portsmouth after demanding from Dundee an unrealistically large pay rise. A season earlier he had led the Dundee players in a successful struggle to obtain summer wages when the club had tried to cut player remuneration across the board.  

A tough, uncompromising half-back, he was also a good leader on the field, captaining Portsmouth to a surprise FA Cup win over Major Frank Buckley’s young Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1939, in the last final before the war. Two years later, his Portsmouth side reached the London War Cup Final at Wembley but were beaten by Brentford. During the match, Guthrie missed a penalty and conceded an own goal, his concentration suffering perhaps from the fact that he’d earlier raliled the Portsmouth players to a last-minute dressing-room confrontation with the club’s directors, demanding various outstanding payments.

After the war, he coached at Crystal Palace before devoting himself full-time to union matters. He’d joined the AFPTU Management Committee in 1943, having pressed for tough action on behalf of the players for some time. Immediately after being elected chairman in 1947, he embarked on a determined and often controversial campaign of confrontation with the all-powerful Football League. 

Guthrie placed a great deal of store on cultivating friendships with influential people: MPs such as J P W Mallalieu and Ellis Smith and lawyers such as Terence Donovan and Walter Moncton would all prove useful to the union.

On one level such lobbying was practical: as Guthrie put it, “For the price of a round of drinks I got the best legal advice and my friendships meant that when work was required for the courts we were represented at the lowest possible fees.”

But such increased contact with lawyers, MPs and trades union officials also had, for Guthrie, a more serious purpose. He felt that professional footballers had to break out of the closed football world in which they were at the mercy of their employers, the Football League and their rulers, the Football Association. Whereas the latter organisations strove mightily to keep government, trades unions, the Football Pools, the public and even the press at bay, the Players Union should, according to Guthrie be determined to win their cooperation.

In short, Guthrie wanted the Players Union to become more politically orientated than it had hitherto been. He thus set about trying to reform the way the union worked, particularly by challenging the traditional AFPTU rule that only the Secretary should be paid. The FA and the FL were represented by salaried men who could devote their energies full-time to their organisations while the AFPTU, established on a part-time basis, relied on unpaid playing members to fight their cause This placed the union at a considerable disadvantage. Guthrie justified his claim for remuneration thus: “So long as we have playing members taking a leading part on the management committee we will have the danger of victimisation… your union spokesmen should be able to sit around the conference table and ‘say their piece’ without fear of their livelihood being endangered.”

Some AFPTU Committee members remained unconvinced. George Swindin, the Arsenal keeper, had to be persuaded not to resign on account of his opposition to the idea of paying Guthrie. As a condition of granting him a salary, therefore, the union insisted that Guthrie give up his role as player-coach at Crystal Palace, a decision that would come back to haunt him.   

Even more controversially, Guthrie felt that the official AFPTU offices should be moved to London but this was sternly opposed by the Union’s secretary, Jimmy Fay, who made it known that when and if they moved the offices from above his shop in Southport where they had been situated for more than a decade, they must to return to their roots, to Manchester. 

In May 1948, in spite of the controversy, Guthrie was granted a regular weekly remuneration of £12 and was allowed to operate from London where he was responsible for looking after the union’s Block Accident Scheme in addition to maintaining contacts with MPs and lawyers during what was considered to be a crucial period where football reform was concerned.

Guthrie continued to meet opposition from his own ranks, however. In 1950, when he succeeded in obtaining money to rent an office in London, Swindin and Billy Elliott challenged the legality of the meeting that approved it and persuaded playing collea-gues at Arsenal and West Bromwich Albion respectively to withhold their union subs. At a special committee meeting, though, Guthrie prevailed. 

The danger would always be, of course, that he would move too fast for his Management Committee colleagues, perhaps even for the membership at large, and that he would lose contact with the realities of the game and find himself isolated. It’s certainly the case that his regular outspoken attacks on both the League Management Committee and the FA in print and during Joint Negotiating Committee meetings were disliked by those union members who saw no mileage in what they considered merely bombast and insult. In March 1949, for instance, Guthrie wrote in the union’s magazine: “We cannot go on any longer under this football dictatorship. I personally believe that we would fare much better under state control, with a Minister for Sport, a role which would be well-filled by Sir Stanley Rous, Secretary of the FA, who has progressive ideas and whom we, the players, trust and respect. …we are fed up to the back teeth with the League Dictatorship. We are tired of the humiliations and the planned procrastinations of this body. Professional football today is a stinking racket and the time has come for drastic action.”

Secure in his London base, however, he was able to ignore his Management Committee critics if he felt the need. When complaints were made about Guthrie’s predilection for using taxis rather than public transport or for sending out memos to be typed at expensive agencies rather than doing them himself, Guthrie’ s dismissive replies revealed a definite disdain for those he considered ‘provincials’ meddling in affairs they could not possibly understand. With the Law Courts, Fleet Street and Westminster just a taxi ride away, he preferred to spend his days and nights rubbing shoulders with men and women more to his liking, people who had power, ‘top’ people. His attitude to the rest of the union was summed up in his book Soccer Rebel: “Most of the action in those vital days was centred on London where I was in constant contact with MPs, solicitors, barristers and insurance brokers, whilst [Jimmy] Fay [the AFPTU secretary] and his two girl typists looked after the day-to-day administration. Most of their time was spent in receiving and acknowledging subscriptions because players had begun to contact me directly instead of going through channels whenever they had a grievance to air.”

Guthrie certainly earned his remuneration. Never in the history of the AFPTU would so much be attempted in so short a time. His energy and reforming zeal won the union significant gains in the years immediately following the war: several wage increases, the establishment of a provident fund, a union magazine, while his Players’ Charter, drawn up in 1947, caught the spirit of the time: with a Labour government pushing through a massive programme of economic and social reform, he had a perfect example to guide him.

The wider political scene soon began to change, however. In 1951, the Labour government was voted out, while the outlook engendered by the Cold War rendered calls for state control, closed shops and strikes increasingly contentious. Guthrie’s press nickname, the ‘Ball Game Bulganin’, derived from the Soviet Union’s premier at the time, although essentially frivolous, nevertheless had the effect of making him look out of step, even out of date. His protests in the union magazine that he was “no Red” underlined his difficulty.     

The Players’ Union had rarely, if ever, associated itself closely with party politics or ideology and Guthrie’s drive towards trade unionism proper during a period when the rest of the country appeared to be settling down for a period of cosy prosperity looked progressively more unattractive to members of a profession who, particularly at the top, liked to see themselves as upwardly mobile. 

Paradoxically, it would where bread-and-butter issues were concerned that Guthrie would find himself most seriously out of step with the union he served.  As mentioned, one of his chief responsibilities in London was to handle the Union’s Block Accident Insurance policy, established immediately after the war. In 1952 the premium became too expensive so Fay, the secretary, switched the policy to a cheaper company, only to find Guthrie unilaterally ignore this decision and place the business elsewhere, causing considerable confusion. This resulted in players’ injury claims being held up and even put at risk. He was instructed to do as the committee had originally told him and was unanimously criticised. 

There was also the uncomfortable fact that Guthrie’s various campaigns had gradually drained the union’s scant resources, relying as it did in those days almost entirely on members’ subscriptions.  Pressure inevitably came for Guthrie’s London office to be closed. At the same time, with the imminent retirement of Jimmy Fay there was a need to find new permanent premises for the main union offices as Fay was selling his Southport shop. The question was: where would the new offices be, Manchester or London?  

Guthrie insisted on London, Fay on Manchester – and Fay won. He moved quickly in early 1953 to secure two rooms in the Corn Exchange Building, Hanging Ditch, the very same building in which the union had been situated before the war. “It would,” he declared, “be impossible to find offices in London to compete with them.”

By early 1954, after much prevarication and ill-feeling, Guthrie was forced to work from Manchester as his London office was eventually closed. Complaints concerning his slap-dash working habits came to the fore: poorly worded, sometimes inaccurate circulars sent out to the membership, a lack of reliable record-keeping and documentation regarding his expenses, plus a perceived inactivity regarding his club visits. 

In August 1954, an Emergency Meeting of the Management Committee was called, “for the purpose of considering the chairman’s action with regard to matters relating to insurance”. Guthrie had once again interfered with the placing of the Block Accident Policy and Cliff Lloyd, the new AFPTU Secretary, had had to sort out the mess. In the event, Guthrie was suspended for a fortnight and his position appeared increasingly untenable. It was just this crucial juncture, however, that he reached his personal apogee.

The historic decision by the AFPTU to re-join the TUC in 1955 had been greeted relatively calmly, although both the FA and the Football League representatives had expressed concern at the Union’s action. Guthrie, however, was keen to exploit the new situation and his appearance at the TUC conference that September hit the newspaper headlines, made television news and was featured on a special Pathé newsreel. It was a defining moment in British football history. 

Guthrie, on behalf of the AFPTU, put forward a motion to conference that concluded, “Congress calls upon the Football Association to arrange a conference of all interested parties to consider arrangements for a complete and comprehensive new deal for professional footballers.”

Guthrie’s speech was a powerful one, citing various cases of injustice and attacking the “heartlessness” of the retain-and-transfer system. His opening paragraph set the tone: “I stand here as the representative of the last bonded men in Britain – the professional footballers. We seek your help to smash a system under which now, in this year of 1955, human beings are bought and sold like cattle. A system which, as in feudal times, binds a man to one master or, if he rebels, stops him getting another job. The conditions of the professional footballer’s employment are akin to slavery. They smirch the name of British democracy. I have been accused by the big football bosses and in the press of exaggeration in talking about ‘slavery’. Let the bitter facts speak for themselves.”

He then outlined the intransigence of both the Football Association and the Football League where discussion on the transfer system and pay were concerned, the refusal of the governing bodies to allow a player union or legal representation on matters affecting his livelihood, the curtailments on free speech endured by players, as well as the inability of players to choose for whom they might work and how much they might be paid.

He cited the recent cases of various top players such as Trevor Ford and Jackie Sewell, noting the contrast between what clubs paid for them in terms of transfer fees and what the players themselves actually earned. He compared their situations with that of Eddie Firmani, who’d been transferred to an Italian club and received not only a sizeable signing-on fee but contractual freedom after two years. He also claimed that Frank Brennan, a talented Newcastle United player, had been forced out of the game because he refused the club’s terms. 

The situation was worse for lesser players: “The heartlessness of the clubs in the transfer market is hard to believe. A player and his family may starve while the clubs chatter about the fee to be paid for his transfer and what cuts the manager would receive when the transfer was completed.” 

He concluded in ringing tones. “Is that not a fantastic situation? Is that not like slavery? Does it not reek of the Dark Ages to claim that, whether paid or not, a man’s working ability, his skill or flair, his services belong to a club which may not even have him under contract? We have had enough of human bondage – we seek your assistance to unfetter the chains and set us free!” 

The popular press put Guthrie on their front pages. The Daily Herald reported the big moment in dramatic terms: “Television arc lights snapped as ex-soccer international Jimmy Guthrie ran up the rostrum steps at the TUC yesterday to make a scathing attack on the Football Association and to defend professional footballers – ‘the bonded men of Britain’. Jimmy literally stole the limelight at the afternoon session – flashlights popped, movie cameras whirred under the great floodlights.”  

Guthrie exploited the situation to the full, posing somewhat incongruously with comedian ‘Wee’ Georgie Wood who’d seconded the PU motion on behalf of the Variety Artists Federation. It was a publicity coup and ought to have seen him hailed by his profession as a prophet. 

Needless to say, top managers were outraged by the suggestion that they received ‘cuts’. Sunderland’s Bill Murray commented, “This makes one’s blood boil. It is a dastardly attack. Of course managers don’t get a cut from a transfer.” Arsenal’s Tom Whittaker declared himself “staggered that such a terrible statement should have been made by a man who has been in the game. I have never heard any suggestion of such a thing happening in football.” Newcastle United’s chairman Stan Seymour was equally scathing: “Mr Guthrie is wrong about Brennan. Brennan is now getting £15 a week while he is playing in the first team. He signed on for £8 a week during the close season as a part-time player. He was quite free to refuse our terms and go elsewhere…” (Brennan in fact left the game entirely the following year).

What’s more, many usually friendly journalists were also scathing. The Yorkshire Post’s Eric Stanger wrote, “I feel rather sorry for the players. They have to put up with the chaff and banter yet so few of them appear to be wholly behind Mr Guthrie in his demands.” 

More worrying for Guthrie, though, was the fact that his performance caused great confusion within the playing profession’s ranks. While acknowledging the truth of what he had to say about the restrictions curtailing their freedoms, there was a definite undercurrent of resentment that footballers should have been presented in such a sorry light. Guthrie had seriously erred in the overuse of slavery images such as “bonded men”, “shackles”, “fetters”, “chains”, “being sold like cattle”. These were much too strong for a profession earning a comfortable living compared to the majority of working folk. He was quick to spot the reaction: “The press headlines all carried the word ‘slavery’, a designation that was not appreciated by all of my colleagues.”

A week or so after Guthrie’s TUC ‘triumph’, Stan Mortensen, the hat-trick hero of the 1953 Matthews Cup Final and an England international, penned a newspaper piece entitled, “We Soccer Stars Are Doing All Right, Thank You.” Although declaring himself a supporter of the AFPTU, Mortensen felt that, “We could take more care with our shooting. We are off target so often.” The current Union proposal for five-year contracts and no maximum wage he considered “dangerous talk” which could “wreck the fabric of the game.” The complete contractual freedom at the end of each season that Guthrie demanded would, Mortensen felt, see soccer, “riddled with pay jealousies and the disruption of team plans.” As for being a “slave”, “I’ve never felt like a slave, not for a single minute in 19 seasons.”        

Guthrie failed to heed the warning signs, however. The final straw came when he pressed the union into backing the introduction of a ‘closed shop’ rule whereby only union members would be allowed to play professionally. It read: “No member of the Union shall be allowed to play with or against professional players who are registered with the Football League [but] who are not members of the Union.” Though the rule was never put to a formal vote by the membership (some of whom had voiced serious objections), a date was set for its implementation.

The move caused panic among Football League committee members, who refused to deal with the union until the rule was rescinded. The union backed down. Despite the fact that it had been the committee member Jimmy Hill who’d drafted the rule in the first place and the PU Management Committee that had approved it, it would be Guthrie who would take the blame for the debacle. Somewhat ironically it would eventually be Guthrie’s ineligibility to serve as a union official that would ultimately see him lose his job.

Due to the lack of enthusiasm amongst the playing membership at large to serve on the management committee, it had gradually come about that hardly any of the serving committee members were in fact still playing. Technically, this was illegal as only playing members of football clubs could be members of the union and only union members could serve on the committee. The situation had been tolerated or simply ignored for years but at the Management Committee meeting on the morning prior to the 1957 AGM proper, the AFPTU accountant suddenly stood up and announced that there were, “several points regarding the legality of the position of several members of the committee of management and the chairman” that needed addressing. “In the case of the chairman,” the accountant continued, “the situation is worse.” 

Guthrie was described as a ‘paid executive’ but as a non-member of the union (having left his post at Crystal Palace at the union’s behest back in 1948) he shouldn’t have been holding a chairman’s position on Management Committee which was for union members only. Rather dramatically, the Chair was immediately declared vacant, Guthrie losing two jobs at the same time.

He later wrote, “I was flabbergasted, breathless and the other committeemen – Jimmy Hill, Oscar Hold, Arthur Banner and Secretary Cliff Lloyd – sat like ventriloquist’s dolls saying not a word…”

Guthrie insisted that he be allowed to open the AGM, which he did, explaining the extraordinary situation and suggesting that the delegates must decide whether or not to elect a new committee there and then. It was decided to let the committee continue – but without Guthrie. With that, he left the hall and Jimmy Hill stepped into the Chair.

Interviewed immediately afterwards, Guthrie appeared shocked and subdued. Asked by press men whether he thought his sacking was pre-arranged, he replied, “I don’t think so. This is what the members wanted. That is all there is to it.” He held no grudges, he insisted, though according to one journalist, he cut a sorry figure, “almost in tears as he stood alone in the meeting-room while the delegates hurried to catch trains.”       

He would later claim that he was removed by an internal coup which had been orchestrated by persons unknown (and never subsequently identified), literally thrown out of his job because of a loop-hole in the system. 

His unexpected departure certainly shocked the wider football world. The Daily Herald columnist Steve Richards wrote, ‘The Player’s Union … without big, bold blustering Jimmy Guthrie. Unbelievable!’ while Desmond Hackett of the Daily Express said, “It’s a victory for the bosses.” Not all the players were happy at seeing Guthrie ditched in such brutal fashion: both West Bromwich Albion and Birmingham City players protested and had to be mollified by the new chairman Jimmy Hill before they agreed to continue as members.

There was a suggestion in the wake of Guthrie’s departure that the AFPTU (almost immediately renamed the Professional Footballers Association) recruit a paid organiser and that Guthrie would be in the running for such a job but his pride ruled it out. He later wrote, “The job would have made me nothing more than a messenger-boy. I can imagine the procedure for Guthrie, paid organiser – ‘Oh, Jimmy, wait outside while we talk business with the League, will you?’ I will never take such a job with the union.” In such strange and unsatisfactory fashion did the career of one of the AFPTU’s most charismatic and influential leaders come to an end. 

Guthrie remained on the football scene for many more years as a columnist with the Sunday People and he continued to lead the Saturday night choir of expatriate Scots at such celebrated Fleet Street watering-holes as the Cheddar Cheese and the Clachan. In 1976 he wrote a typically hard-hitting autobiography. He died, relatively forgotten, in a London hospital on 10 September 1981.