Date: 1st June 2008 at 1:59pm
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The next in the series of Arsenal’s trailblazers does not quite fit the conventional picture of club legend. His Arsenal career was solid, but indistinguished. In the 1960s, whilst England boomed and London swung, Arsenal sagged, crushed under the weight of their glorious ancestory, the Arsenal of the 1960s did not land a single trophy. Therefore, club legends were few and far between during Arsenal’s barren trophy hunt between 1953 and 1970, on pitch virtuosos were somewhat lacking. Fittingly, this particular trailblazer does not quite follow that path. But there again, George Eastham never was the type to follow the well trodden path.

Really, an article about George Eastham could not be scribed at a more fitting time. Arsene Wenger has spoken this week about the imminent collapse of the transfer market as we know it, the Webster Clause has set tongues fluttering and Sepp Blatter’s latest 6+5 idea is the subject of intense discussion. The case of George Eastham can, perhaps unfairly considering Eastham’s motives, be considered the forebearer to all of this.

George Eastham was born in September 1936 into a footballing family. His father, George Senior, was an England international and played for Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers. His Uncle Harry represented Liverpool and Accrington Stanley (who are they?) until his career was prematurely curtailed by a knee injury. Without a player pension, Uncle Harry was hung out to dry by Accrington, which George now attests gave him the desire to fight for player power. Eastham began his career at Northern Irish club Ards, where he achieved the notable distinction of sharing the field with his father. From the very beginning, George’s career was being marked out as unique. He eventually signed for Newcastle United in 1956, scoring 34 goals in 125 games. In those days, Newcastle were huge underachievers who played to unsatisfied crowds and relied upon overhyped, overpriced signings that never fulfilled their potential. Fortunately, history has taught Newcastle a lesson. Wait a minute………

However, Eastham’s Newcastle career was fraught with difficulties. In the days of the maximum wage, clubs would find players second jobs. Eastham was handed a job selling glass door to door, which he found unsatisfactory. Eastham was also housed in barely habitable accomodation and the board of Directors tried to prevent him representing the England U-23 side. As his contract was fast approaching its zenith in 1959, Eastham refused to sign a new deal and requested a move. But in 1959, football operated under the ‘retain and transfer’ system, which effectively meant football clubs owned a player’s registration indefinitely until they decided otherwise. A club could hold onto a player for his entire career against his will if they so wished. Newcastle tried to exercise this right and refused to sell. Eastham was unrepentant and refused to sign on. He went on strike for the 1959-60 season, moving to Guildford to sell cork, as the Magpies had ceased to pay his wages. In October 1960, realising their asset was depreciating in value, Newcastle relented and sold Eastham to Arsenal for £47,500. The F.A, who had threatened not to sanction the move, and Newcastle were forced into a humiliating climbdown by George’s sheer bloody mindedness. (At this point, I am reminded of a scene from Shawshank Redemption, whereby Andy Dusfrane secures funding for a prison library, simply by badgering the local senate with two letters a week for years on end).

Eastham made his debut for the Gunners in December 1960, scoring twice in a 5-1 victory over Bolton Wanderers. Later that season, upon his return to St. James’ Park, his every touch was greeted with cries of ‘Judas’ and he was pelted with apples by upset Geordies. (Sam Allardyce might confirm that, minus the apples, the natives have not changed much in nearly half a century). But Eastham was a man with an iron will and he grabbed a last minute equaliser to level the game at 3-3. Eastham was a guy who would usually get the last word. However, Eastham was about to draw the ire of Arsenal fans in 1961. Jimmy Hill (he of the enormous chin and writer of ‘Good Old Arsenal’) had successfully campaigned for the abolition of the maximum wage and George immediately asked for a payrise. As the fleet footed flair player on the team, Eastham saw fellow entertainer Johnny Haines on triple his wage at Fulham, despite Fulham’s low gates. Money was pouring into the game in the swinging 60s as the baby boomers became enraptured with sporting spectacles, yet the players were not the ones reaping the financial dividends. Eastham’s perceived insolence saw manager George Swindin threaten to banish him to the reserves. Again, George Eastham was unpreturbed and refused compromise. Arsenal eventually assuaged to his demands.

His playing career with Arsenal was looking underwhelming in a side that was drastically underperforming. Football in England began to become increasingly physical, and Eastham’s fleet of foot and slight frame saw him marked out by the 60s bully boys. In 1962, Arsenal signed the fearless Joe Baker, a striker from Torino. Eastham soon found himself out of the side and requested a transfer. However, Billy Wright stumbled upon a solution and moved Eastham into the inside right position, with Baker plundering the penalty box. It worked and Eastham and Baker struck up a successful partnership, Eastham was removed from the transfer list and was made captain in 1963. Eastham was also a member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning squad, though he did not play a single minute as Ramsey did away with fancy dan wingers. Eastham was only awarded a winners’ medal in 2007 due to a FIFA ruling. For once, it would be a beneficial rule change Eastham himself would have nothing to do with bringing about. His Arsenal career drew to a close in 1966, Arsenal had just finished 14th in the First Division and Billy Wright was sacked. Bertie Mee arrived and looked to replace Eastham, now approaching 30, with the likes of Storey, Radford and Armstrong progressing through the ranks. For once, the winds of change were blowing against him. He was sold to Stoke City having scored 41 goals in 223 matches. After retirement, always a man to fight injustice, Eastham emigrated to South Africa to coach young black children, it was George’s way of cocking a sneer at the rank odour of apartheid. He also founded the South African Arsenal supporters club.

Eastham enjoyed a good playing career, but he will always be remembered as the man who stopped players from being slaves to their clubs. He enabled them to negotiate contracts and request transfers. Eastham was not satisfied with his successful strike in 1960. He wanted to rid football of the straitjacket of ‘retain and transfer.’ In 1963, Eastham, financially backed by the PFA, took Newcastle United to court for restraint of trade, as well as to claim unpaid wages and win bonuses accumulated during his strike. The move proved incredibly controversial, many fans labelled him a rebel and a paltroon. But Eastham, perhaps unwittingly, tapped into the spirit of the rabble rousing 60s. As Mods and Rockers rioted in seaside towns, Jimmy Hill ripped up the maximum wage and Bob Dylan began to sing of ‘a battle outside a raging.’ Eastham was essentially football’s first Sex Pistol. He might even have sympathised with Johnny Rotten’s 1977 quip, ‘I don’t understand the commotion, we’re just trying to destroy everything.’ The Profumo Scandal of the 1960s, when a Tory MP was caught courting a call girl, played out over the top of George’s case. The Profumo scandal shattered public illusion about authority figures as upright citizens. The Press broke a general consensus and began to delve into the private lives of previously untouchable public figures. The Profumo Scandal also took some of the attention off of Eastham and allowed him to present his case in a composed manner. Eastham was clear that hellraiser was he none, he just wanted what was right and fair.

Eastham consummately outshone the blundering case of the Newcastle board and Lord Justice Wilberforce ruled the ‘retain and transfer’ system illegal. Typically, Eastham’s personal gain was non existent. Wilberforce ruled that, as Eastham had refused to play, whether or not he received unpaid wages and win bonuses was at the discretion of Newcastle United. Unsurprisingly, the white envelope was not forthcoming for George. He had however, pushed the envelope for players’ rights, just as teenagers were rebelling against their war veteran parents, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had shaken the American establishment to its core and Beatlemania was swinging toward fever pitch. However, one of the most revolutionary figureheads of 60s social upheaval, Bob Dylan,was to release a song in 1967 which could easily have been written with George Eastham in mind, ‘There’s a man standing next to me in this lonely crowd/ A man who swears he’s not to blame/ All day long I hear him shouting so loud/ Crying out he has been framed/ I see my life shining/ from the West to the East/ Any day now, any day now/ I Shall Be Released.’LD