George Eastham is not bitter. He doesn’t want any accolades from his playing days either. For starters, he has a 1966 World Cup winner’s medal – one of only five surviving members of that squad.
“I want to be a footballer in my next life,” he told Mail Sport. ‘They are very lucky. They are taken care of, they are cared for.
After retiring in 1975 from an illustrious career in England, Newcastle, Arsenal and Stoke, he was back on wheels and trading, selling clay, fixing windows. Footballers today would wrinkle their faces at such a prospect, but it was Eastham who paved the way for them to be paid properly.
His seismic lawsuit against Newcastle employers and the FA overcame an archaic retention and transfer system that had held players to ransom since the early 1900s.
It’s 60 years today since Eastham sat in the High Court for a three-week trial that would change English football forever.
George Eastham played for Newcastle United, Stoke, Arsenal and England during his career
Eastham (second from left back) was part of the England team that won the 1966 World Cup
“You were a club slave,” he said. ‘Going to court had to be done. We had to come out of the shadows. Players had to get the money they were supposed to get. Everyone gets the right rewards now.
In his home in Cape Town, the 86-year-old plunges back into the summer of 1963.
Eastham was an inside striker for Arsenal. A star in a team hovering outside the top six.
The court case was because of what happened at his former club, Newcastle. Eastham had requested a transfer in 1959 as his contract was soon to expire.
Newcastle resisted and thanks to the retention and transfer system, they were able to keep him registered while paying minimum wages. The concept is unfathomable these days.
“They didn’t let me go,” he said. “Once you signed a contract, that was it. It wasn’t like now where you get two, three or anything. You just signed the contract and it was you. You are obligated to the club.
“I said I wanted a transfer and they said, ‘No, we’re not happy with that’ and they’d rather I not play than play for someone else. But then there was quite a fuss about it in the newspapers. It was then that everything came to light.
Eastham went on strike for eight months, earning more cork selling than playing in the top flight.
He says: “I was playing for small clubs just to keep going. It was crazy. I worked for a friend of my fathers in the cork trade.
“I was still well known in England, so when I went to people to sell stuff I could see the people that mattered. And I was okay with being paid that way. Money was better than me doing nothing.
In October 1960 Newcastle gave in and sold him to Arsenal for £47,500. But the damage was done. The PFA asked Eastham if he would legally challenge the club over unpaid wages, bonuses and, above that, the retention and transfer system.
Three years later, he had his court date. The PFA helped him pay his legal costs.
After wanting to quit his contract at Newcastle, he went on strike selling cork
Eastham (bottom row, third from left) found himself in a court battle with Newcastle who would not release him from his contract, but instead won the court hearing
Eastham (right) explains: “I was quite happy to go. If they (Newcastle) wanted me out of the game, that was it. They were going to lose their money, so I was pretty happy. I was in the law. They kept me out of the game and they didn’t pay me. The trial was only scheduled for one week but lasted three.
The verdict fell on July 4, 1963: Eastham lost its claim for unpaid wages, but the holdback and transfer system was declared a restriction of trade and illegal. Eastham and the PFA had won.
He felt relieved. He had won for himself and his colleagues.
“I was just glad it was over,” he says. “I wanted to keep playing. Going without football for so long was not pleasant.
“It went from maybe £20 to £30-35 a week. It wasn’t a huge leap. But that meant players could ask for a raise. It didn’t necessarily mean they had one but if they didn’t like it they could request a transfer. Before, the clubs did not care. I’m sure everyone was very happy. At least it was a start.
He was a Jean-Marc Bosman of his time. The Bosman decision in 1995 allowed players free travel at the end of their contracts, while Eastham’s victory stopped forcibly retaining players at minimum-wage clubs. Apart from that affair, Eastham is remembered for being part of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning side. He joins Sir Geoff Hurst, Sir Bobby Charlton, Terry Paine and Ian Callaghan as five still present. to tell their story of this historic final.
“Thank God there is someone left! he remarks. “I remember when we won the thing and Alf (Ramsey) came over and said, ‘£25,000 for the players’. At that time there were 22 players, then there was Alf, Les Cocker and Harold Shepherdson, so it was a big everyone to have won the World Cup. That wouldn’t prepare you for life, would it?
England’s quarter-finalists in Qatar last year had £15.2million to split between the team, or at least £450,000 each.
This tournament remained with Eastham, however. He still dreams of 66 and his beloved teammates in a team that “you would be proud to play in”.
He continues: “Oh, that was fantastic. The only bad memory I have is that I didn’t have a match.
“I played in two World Cups. They had drawn the sides. There were no injuries, so what were they going to do?
“The other 12 are the second team so to speak. The only games we had were when we faced the first team in practice matches.
“It was a good group of players. I wasn’t upset then, and not upset now. It was an honor to be there to win something like that, it was fantastic.
“You just have to be sure not to upset the manager, and none of them did. I had a few gripes from Alf, but that was part of the trip!
Goalkeeper Gordon Banks and Charlton are particularly close to his heart. Banks played with Eastham at Stoke, where the midfielder ended his career after 194 league appearances. He then spent 10 months as a manager.
He says: ‘Banksy was my mate. We stayed together, and he was also my great mate in Stoke. He was a good guy. He was the best without a shadow of a doubt. He was a good keeper and he was modest, a gentleman.
‘Bobby was my main man. He’s a good guy, a very good player. These are the players you miss.
They had said Newcastle’s trade restriction, keeping him at the club was illegal
Eastham’s victory ended the forced detention of players at minimum-wage clubs at a time when contract lengths did not exist
Before retiring to the sun outside his house, it’s only fitting that Eastham offers his thoughts on the flow of money that circulates in the modern game.
“It’s amazing,” he adds. “There are so many things to be gained outside the game. There are people who want to invest in clubs. There is a lot of money around.
“I could never have seen it (like this). But if you’re worth it, you’ll get it. The club won’t feel anything, they don’t get paid by giving you your salary.
“Players can now play for 10 years and retire, instead of finding a job scouring the streets.”