Michael Walker: Defoe blinded by football’s bright lights

Sunderland striker wants to create global brand – George Eastham was far more modest

 

George Eastham needed help. Eastham and his wife had moved into a new club-owned house in Newcastle but the garden was a mess, the grate on the fireplace didn’t work and there was something wrong with the kitchen sink. None of which made Eastham feel particularly welcome.

Fast forward through the decades and Jermain Defoe also needs help. According to the Sunderland striker, he needs an assistant to perform a list of tasks ranging from stocking the fridge to liaising with sponsors to buying Mother’s Day cards and, also, “to create a global brand for the Jermain Defoe name” – a bit of a leap from watering the plants.

Apparently the branding exercise could include creating a “clothing line/fragrance.”

Defoe posted his punctuation-free advert this week and even on planet football, which often seems to inhabit a galaxy far, far away, people gasped. How did it get to this?

It’s a legitimate question and unfortunately for George Eastham, it comes back to him.

Not that Eastham meant this outcome. Back in 1959, the domestic faults Eastham was encountering were not the reasons why he decided to hand in a transfer request at Newcastle – and from there to go to court and revolutionise the status of footballers. But domestic details were in the back of his mind.

In Eastham’s view, the slovenly house was a reflection of the antiquated relationship between players and directors, the maximum wage and the retain-and-transfer system. Eastham effectively went on strike. He was 22, a one-man band.

After much personal aggravation, Newcastle United agreed to sell Eastham to Arsenal five months later but, by withholding money owed, Newcastle stoked Eastham’s anger. With the support of the players’ union, he took Newcastle to court and in 1963 the retain-and-transfer system was ruled illegal. Professional football was changed forever.

Clubs, sensing a mood of change, had already agreed to abolish the maximum wage. Eastham, a future England international, became as important a figure in the history of the game as Jean-Marc Bosman 32 years later. Defoe owes them each a debt.

Far from outrageous

Eastham’s demands were far from outrageous. One concerned a job outside football, though not in the Defoe sense.

Back then, the ‘other job’ in football was common. As a teenager with Ards in the Irish League, where his father George Eastham snr was manager, Eastham had worked in Harland & Wolff as an apprentice toolmaker. “Fifty shillings a week; I stuck it for six weeks.”

The ‘other job’ was organised football’s way of getting around the maximum wage. Players would be given a supplementary job in order to get a supplementary income. It was a charade and everyone knew it was a charade.

As the 1950s wore on, players became increasingly vocal. One of Defoe’s predecessors in the number nine role at Sunderland was Trevor Ford. When Ford joined Sunderland from Cardiff in 1950 for £30,000 he became “the costliest player in football” due to previous fees paid for him, a total of £69,500.

But Ford saw none of that and as he asked: “Can you blame me for trying to get a cut for myself? Can you blame me for turning a scornful eye on the £10 signing-on fee? When I have apportioned all the outgoings, I haven’t enough left to keep me in smokes.”

Backhander

Ford wrote a book, in 1957, called I Lead the Attack. In it he excoriated the authorities and, four pages in, used the term ‘backhander’. He writes of “envelopes on the doormat”, and with admiration of the “famous forward” who had just received £5,000 in one.

“Four-figure persuaders,” Ford called these illegal payments and he was outraged, not by their existence, but by their need to exist.

The 1964 betting scandal that saw three Sheffield Wednesday players go to jail for match-fixing was another manifestation of the poverty of players’ pay. Wednesday’s average attendance in 1960 was 32,000; the maximum wage was £20 per week. Players saw vast, sometimes under-reported attendances, and minimal reward.

Sunderland were then known as the ‘Bank of England club’ and Ford says they were efficient at the ‘other job’ business, and at club-housing. But Ford was disappointed the players’ union did not do more – “They need some militant Welsh miners.” By 1963, however, when Eastham was in court, the union was on board.

Still, as we know from George Graham’s sacking by Arsenal in 1995, the backhander culture lasted three more decades, at least. You still hear tales.

The Bosman ruling came the same year as Graham’s dismissal. John Jensen and Pal Lydersen were the names embroiled in the Graham affair but Bosman’s cross-border contract change meant a foreign influx into England. Jensen was one of just 13 foreigners in the inaugural Premier League season – 1992-93. By 1996-97 there were 132 listed in Rothmans Football Yearbook playing in either the Premier League or Football League.

Bergkamp, Gullit, Solksjaer added to the gaiety of the league and it mushroomed. Sky TV built itself on the back of it and we have reached the stage where Premier League television deals are measured in billions. That in turn has enriched players beyond George Eastham’s imagination.

Defoe is one of them. For someone who has constructed a career on awareness – of defenders, of space, of the bounce of the ball – Defoe’s crass advert shows a limited appreciation of anything outside football. It certainly shows a lack of knowledge about Wearside, where the average salary is £24k (€32k) – £462 a week before tax.

Richest league

It also shows a lack of awareness about the club he plays for. Despite being in the richest league in the world since 2007, Sunderland made a loss of £16m in the last financial year, on top of £13m the year before.

Chairman-owner Ellis Short felt compelled to say publicly last weekend that he covered those and previous losses personally. This does reflect well on the running of the club, which is not Defoe’s responsibility, but you could be mildly aware of it.

No, Defoe wants to be a one-man brand, about 15 years after David Beckham.

Even those of us who instinctively feel sympathetic to players because of what went on in the past can’t be doing with this.

Once upon a time there was an abundance of talent under-rewarded; today there is scarcity of talent, particularly British/Irish, over-rewarded.

Some now have a distorted sense of reality.

During his five-month strike George Eastham got through by working for a cork distributor in Reigate. Jermain Defoe wants to create a fragrance.

Look what they’ve done to our game, Ma.

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