On 26 September 1921, at the Grand Hotel, Manchester, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA – it was originally called the Association Football Players’ Union; the name change occurred in 1958) held its Eleventh Annual General Meeting. Amongst other things, Charlie Roberts, who had been a stalwart of the PFA, being present at its inaugural meeting, chaired by the “Welsh Wizard’ Billy Meredith, on 2 December 1907, at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester and PFA Chairman from 1919 to 1921, announced his retirement as a player and, as a result, his resignation from the PFA. He subsequently became the manager of Oldham Athletic. After receiving expressions of gratitude from his peers, his final words as Chairman were, ‘I would like to think to myself that in the future I can say, “Charlie, you have done your duty to your fellow players”’.

Besides his extensive committee work for the PFA, Charlie Roberts is probably best remembered for the courageous leadership role he took in resisting an attempt by the Football Association to destroy the PFA in 1909. As captain of Manchester United he was conspicuous in leading his team mates in refusing to sign a document which would have resulted in the demise of the PFA. There is a famous photo of the players of Manchester United, and player Coleman from Everton, at a training session under the banner of ‘The Outcasts F. C. This photo is reproduced in John Harding’s Football Wizard: The Story of Billy Meredith, Breedon Books, Derby, 1985.

On 2 December 2007, the PFA celebrates its centenary. It is the oldest continuous players’ association in the history of professional team sports. Two earlier attempts at formation in 1893 and 1898 failed. The next oldest players’ association is the Major League Baseball Players’ Association which formed in 1954. For a hundred years the PFA has been performing to the maxim so clearly enunciated by Charlie Roberts in 1921. All has not been plain sailing. The PFA has had its ups and downs, especially in establishing a bargaining relationship with the Football Association and the Football League, particularly before World War II.

The PFA has acted as a port of call for players who have received arbitrary treatment from their clubs, the Football Association and the Football League. In times when it found it difficult to develop a bargaining relationship, besides representing members in contractual disputes, it also provided them with various welfare benefits. For example, following its formation the PFA was active in representing members in workers compensation claims and during the 1930s and after World War Two it funded an insurance scheme for players who suffered career ending injuries.

Mick McGuire – Deputy CEO of the English PFA and new FIFPro Vice President, during his October visit to Australia for the FIFPro Asia divisional congress.
With the advent of television and broadcasting, the PFA negotiated an agreement where a share of such revenues negotiated between broadcasters and football authorities would be allocated to joint welfare programs for players, managed by the PFA. Possibly the most important of these is a second career training scheme for players when they retire from the game.

Such schemes, in effect, involve star and high profile players from the ‘Premier League’ subsidising the welfare and future career and earning prospects of players in lower leagues. At times, the PFA has threatened the use of strike action when either the Football League or Football Association has attempted to reduce funding for these schemes. For example, in 2001 it threatened such action in obtaining ₤17.5 million a year for ten years to fund its operation and benefits for members.

In addition, the PFA has also acted to provide financial help for struggling clubs to ensure that members receive their contractual entitlements. Monies provided to the clubs have been repaid to the PFA from the respective clubs’ broadcasting entitlements negotiated by the Football League.

The PFA has proved to be the most stable element in English Football. Despite the various crises that have engulfed the game, and numerous changes in the organisation of the Association, League and clubs, the PFA has consistently acted to strengthen the growth of the game in seeking to enhance the income and rights of its members. Since 1953 the PFA has been blessed with two outstanding leaders.

Cliff Lloyd was the PFA Secretary from 1953 to 1982. He was instrumental in leading the campaign to abolish the maximum wage in 1961, and the successful challenge to the retain and transfer system. In the 1963 Eastham case, Justice Wilberforce found this system to be an unreasonable restraint of trade. Subsequent changes to the rules governing the employment of players were negotiated which increased their economic rights and freedom.

Throughout its history, the PFA has been asked by former members who have moved overseas to play, and from players in other lands, for advice and help on how to form player associations in seeking to resolve various problems they have experienced with their respective clubs and leagues. The PFA, under the leadership of its Chief Executive Officer, Gordon Taylor (1982 – the present), has not only consolidated the gains achieved by Cliff Lloyd, but has also been active in spreading the benefits of unionism to players across the globe.

Since the mid 1990s, Gordon Taylor has been President of the International Federation of Professional Footballers’ Associations (FIFPro), a federation of football player unions. Its website reports that it has 43 members. FIFPro provides financial and moral support to nascent player associations across the globe. In recent years it has been active in Africa and South America, and is taking steps to promote player associations in Asia.

In the 1995 Bosman case the European Court of Justice found the compensation system which governed football’s employment rules (the payment of fees for out of contract players who changed clubs) to be inconsistent with provisions in the European Treaty guaranteeing the freedom of movement of workers within Europe.

Following Bosman, FIFPro has been involved in negotiations with the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of world football and the European Commission which have extended recognition to football player associations across the globe, afforded them an important role in the governance and administration of matters pertaining to the employment of players, including the development of a system of football jurisprudence for the resolution of such disputes.

The PFA has much to be proud of as it celebrates its centenary. It has seen itself and indeed has been a force for ‘the good of the game’ in steadfastly adhering to the maxim enunciated by Charlie Roberts, at that Annual General Meeting in Manchester, long ago in September 1921, of ‘doing your duty to your fellow players’.