Gordon Taylor’s exit kicks open door for rise of a players’ union with bite | Barney Ronay

Farewell then, Gordon Taylor. Although not quite yet. And only, in the best union traditions, after due process has been completed.

The news that Taylor, and the entire committee of the Professional Footballers’ Association, will step down once an independent review has been completed will be greeted with a degree of triumphalism by those who have campaigned for his removal.

It has been the longest of goodbyes for the PFA’s 74-year-old chairman. Taylor is one of the great pachydermic survivors of sports administration, brought down in the end by repeated darts from the media – mainly about the size of his salary – and by the emergence finally of serious opposition from within his organisation.

There have been achievements. Most notably the establishment of player welfare systems. Links have been made with academic and training institutions to help retiring players, medical and physiotherapy assistance offered to retired players.

But the overall feeling as the news is digested will be a sense of some decisive wrong being righted, of change being effected, a problem solved. And yet as ever the real question is: will it make any difference? What is the PFA really for? And what could be achieved in its place by a players’ union funded by employees, not their paymasters, and properly configured to face the modern world?

This is perhaps a good moment to wonder what Jimmy Hill would have made of all this. It’s not clear what the PFA’s most notable chairman thought about his successor being paid £2m a year to perform the role Hill did for nothing. Although, it’s also not hard to guess given Hill was not shy of remarking on the source of the modern footballer’s financial good fortune whenever “the Darren Andertons and the Ian Wrights” questioned his pronouncements on Match of the Day.

What is striking is Taylor became chairman only 20 years after Hill had helped bring about what remains the only really significant act in the PFA’s history. This was the abolition of the salary cap and the junking of the retain and transfer system, giving players the freedom to move between clubs.

Gordon Taylor

Gordon Taylor is one of the great pachydermic survivors of sports administration brought down in the end by media darts. Photograph: Steven Paston/PA

In almost six decades since the PFA has supported various benevolent schemes, secured itself a vast stipend from the Premier League and provided a wonderful, well-paid, semi-permanent role for Taylor. But the fact remains Hill is still the architect of the main act of defiance in its modern history.

No doubt we will hear a great deal more about Taylor’s salary in the next few days, another great example of football’s ability to miss the point. Yes, Taylor is overpaid but on the relative scale of snaggletoothed operators skimming their cut from football’s great spurting money fountain he counts as a minuscule player and is at least engaged in good work in the game’s interest.

Far more interesting is the nature of his organisation, its masquerade as a union when in fact it is more a kind of outsourced HR organisation. This is the most interesting thing about the PFA: the fact it is funded overwhelmingly by TV money from its members’ paymasters.

Players pay an annual subscription but the PFA gets £23m from the Premier League as its cut of the TV rights deals. In effect it is funded by one of the chief organisations it should be protecting its members against.

And so: stasis, inaction, lip service, a series of projects that work away at certain needs and fund the Taylor fiefdom, but no real sense of significant action.

Much of the week has been spent wondering what to do about racism in football. Players and managers routinely feel disempowered by the lack of BAME representation in high places. Female footballers continue to fight for equal projection.

Clearly there is little onus on the sport’s governing bodies to act decisively or in a way that may be bad for business but imagine what a properly conceived and maintained union would be doing about this. Imagine a black Jimmy Hill on the case right now over racist abuse in stadiums.

Imagine the response of a players’ union fronted by the recently retired 37-year-old Raheem Sterling, who really should not be reliant on his own Instagram posts to make vital representations about player welfare.

Imagine what a properly configured union could do with the vital support services for retiring players, or the problem of work-related dementia; or how it could build on some existing fine PFA work on mental health support.

This is in many ways the last frontier. If anyone, anywhere is able to effect change in sport it is the hugely empowered, hugely visible group of actors at its centre. A union with a will to take on the way football is run would be a formidable force.

Not to mention a fanciful idea. Let us not hold our breath. It is player indifference, the basic lack of interest in anything beyond their own frontiers, that has allowed the PFA to exist simply as a chaperone to the game’s governing powers.

No doubt the conclusions of Thomas Linden QC will regear the organisation to a degree. Pragmatic change is the easiest option. There is rarely consensus among any group for radical action, or indeed any will to resist an industry that pays so handsomely.

But the door is ajar. The Taylor template can simply be ripped up. A players’ union does not have to be funded by TV money. It can instead be funded by the players themselves and empowered to act in their interests; made to look, believe it or not, like an actual union rather than an arm of the status quo.


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