Victorian Football


"Some people are under the impression that professional football players are bought and sold like cattle," reads the caption under this image from the 1905 Book of Football. This, the book explains, was an "erroneous idea". "There is no law of the Football Association to compel any man to go where he does not desire to go."

The accompanying article explains that the transfer system allowed a player to leave a Football League club for any non-Football League club whenever he wanted. "But," the article elaborates, "he cannot go to another League club without the sanction of the club which last engaged him. He is their player for League purposes forever, unless an arrangement is made for his transfer."

Should any reader believe the system placed unfair restrictions on players, the article's author, former England and West Brom forward William Bassett, is quick to point out that footballers are paid up to £4 per week. "There are plenty of deserving objects of pity," writes Bassett. "Professional footballers are handsomely remunerated men, and call for the commiseration of no one."

Public interest in the transfer system had been aroused by several big transfers, including Alf Common's record £1,000 move from Sunderland to Middlesbrough in 1905. "Of course, the old cry went up that no footballer is worth £1,000," writes Bassett. "Who can say whether Common was a cheap or a dear man? I should say that, under the circumstances, he was a cheap man. It is generally thought that he saved Middlesbrough from sinking into the Second League." Relegation, Bassett estimated, would have cost Middlesbrough four times the amount they paid for Common.

Common's transfer fee record would stand for six years - primarily due to the fact that the FA capped transfer fees at £350. "There can be no quibbling at this," writes Bassett. "There must be an end to the almost insane competition which has been going on for the possession of good men."

For reference, £1,000 in 1905 was worth the equivalent of around £110,000 in 2016. The current British and world record transfer fee is £85.3 million, paid by Real Madrid to Tottenham for Gareth Bale in 2013.

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