What would your reaction be if I were to point out that in the past week Gordon Taylor has quietly passed the 40th anniversary since he took his place at football’s top table and set about the process of transforming himself from a barrel-chested winger at Bury, from the puddles and potholes of the old Third Division, into a life of establishment wealth?
If you could put aside any cynicism, try not to dwell too long on the deficiencies of his organisation and overlook that it is traditionally he, not Richard Scudamore, who is the real Bagpuss of football’s fat-cat culture, it might even be possible to manage some grudging admiration for such a feat of longevity.
When Taylor replaced Derek Dougan as chairman of the Professional Footballers’ Association on 13 November, 1978, the other stories of the time included a strike of bakery workers that had led to bread rationing. Watership Down was at the pictures. A pint of milk cost 11p and the average annual salary was £5,440. Taylor had chestnut hair, a kipper tie and a boy-next-door look. If, without wishing to be too cruel, you lived next door to a boy who turned out to be monotone, divisive, wildly over‑remunerated and puffed up with self-importance.
In fairness to the old boy, nobody could argue that, on a personal level, his professional life has not been a success when Taylor has hived off preposterously large amounts of money for himself, held a position of influence for four decades and been decorated in the 2008 New Year honours list with an OBE that I am reliably assured doesn’t stand for Other Buggers’ Efforts.
Taylor’s first interview as chairman, three years before taking the chief executive role, emphasised his desire to create a better understanding between players, their clubs and referees. He might not have succeeded on that front but he must have done something right to last so long and, though it is a challenge sometimes to remember exactly what that is, he did earn the accolade from the Times in 1985 for being “undoubtedly the most impressive administrator and negotiator in football”. Most heroically, you might recall, when the big television money arrived and he threatened a players’ strike unless his union clawed its way to a decent wedge.
The Premier League duly came up with an offer to settle everything amicably. Gordon’s response, true to form, was that they might have to be a lot more amicable than that.
Out of that, he hasn’t done too badly bearing in mind we live in an age when marvelling, queasily, at the sums he pays himself feels like an annual part of the football calendar. Last year, the PFA’s accounts revealed it was £2.29m. Previously, his earnings multiplied almost three fold, from £1.13m to £3.37m after bonuses. Which is nice work if you can get it: Taylor was not just raking in more than any other trade union boss on the planet, but upwards of Didier Deschamps and Joachim Löw, managers of the last two World Cup‑winning sides.
It is no wonder he has taken exception that Ben Purkiss, the current PFA chairman, has broken ranks by calling for an independent review into how the organisation is run and the possibility, ultimately, of regime change. “Sometimes you have to make a stand for what is right,” Purkiss says. “Football is rapidly evolving, players are rapidly evolving and the PFA needs to evolve, too. Players past, present and future need a PFA for the modern player.” Which is one way of saying the organisation is stuck in a time warp.
Taylor, of course, will see it differently and perhaps we should no longer be surprised by the self‑interest at this end of the sport when the Strange Case of Richard Scudamore’s Golden Handshake has given us another eye-watering glimpse into the football bubble over the last week. The news of Bruce Buck, Chelsea’s chairman, arranging for the Premier League’s chief executive – a friend with whom he goes shooting, we are informed – to receive a £5m farewell gift, comprising £250,000 from each club, was certainly a spectacular low. Though we probably should not be surprised that Taylor was conspicuous by his absence in the stampede to point that out. It must be quite hard, I suspect, lecturing about money when one Premier League chairman has previously accused Taylor of “building a mausoleum of greed” and, lest it be forgotten, the PFA’s leader once signed a hush-hush £700,000 payment from News International for being a victim of phone-hacking, as opposed to exposing a scandal he might have reasonably assumed had affected his members. As the News of the World’s lawyers put it in a letter to the Commons culture, media and sport committee, Taylor’s legal team was operating with the clear instructions he “wanted to be vindicated or made rich”.
If nothing else, he has achieved that last ambition. I do wonder, though, if there is ever a flicker of embarrassment when he considers that his last reported salary was more than four times the amount the PFA paid that year in benevolent grants for the thousands of former professionals it is supposed to represent and look after.
Does the thought occur that the financial distribution can look wildly disproportionate, callous even, when there are so many veterans of the sport hobbling around on arthritic joints or struggling in some cases, through the fog of irreparably damaged minds, to remember the days when they pulled on a football strip? Can Gordon look in the mirror and tell himself, hand on heart, that his priorities have not been badly distorted when most reasonable people might assume the principal purpose of the PFA is to care for the members who have addictions, mental health issues, serious financial difficulties and so on? Is he so brass-necked he can possibly find justification that an organisation with £50m in the bank has, according to Purkiss, spent only £100,000 on its studies into dementia? Or that it was 2002 when the PFA, together with the Football Association, announced a joint 10-year research programme but not until late 2017, unforgivably, that they decided it was time to go through with it properly?
The family of Jeff Astle, one of the men who suffered catastrophic brain trauma from repeatedly heading the ball, has already called for Taylor to resign. Astle was 59 when he died and maybe you caught the BBC Inside Out feature when Dawn, the daughter of the former England and West Bromwich Albion striker, walked out of a meeting at PFA headquarters with the man who should have been offering her, and the sport as a whole, more than watery excuses. Not that the evidence of Taylor’s jumbled priorities is restricted to just the one matter. It intrigues me, for example, that the PFA can fork out nearly £2m for an LS Lowry painting, plus £70,000 every year on a box at Manchester City and goodness knows how much more on a museum’s worth of other football memorabilia, but will donate only £125,000 annually to keep the chronically under-resourced Kick It Out ticking over.
I also wonder if it ever crosses Gordon’s mind that when the Dispatches documentary Soccer’s Foul Play highlighted, in 1997, the monstrous crimes committed by Barry Bennell, as well as flagging up the very significant likelihood of other paedophiles lurking within the sport, that was the point the leader of the PFA should have recognised there was a serious problem, rather than when Andy Woodward came forward, via the Guardian, almost 20 years later.
It has not been easy for the FA, Manchester City and some of the other clubs who are most seriously implicated in football’s sexual-abuse scandal to understand why more was not done at the time, mostly because they are investigating regimes that are long gone. But the PFA and Gordon Taylor don’t have that get-out clause. He was there. He has been full-time at the PFA since 1980 and chief executive since 1981.
Can he understand, therefore, why so many of the victims are looking his way, wondering why the PFA – the players’ union, for heaven’s sake – is guilty of, at best, a startling lack of curiosity? Or why Deborah Davies, the brilliant journalist who put together the documentary for Channel 4, says his apparent inaction – “I wasn’t aware of any serious commitment by Gordon Taylor to investigate” – was particularly shocking given that he had helped to develop a youth training scheme programme throughout the game? “That was the 1980s,” she says, “when so many of those 16-year-olds had endured years of sexual abuse, partly because they felt no one in the professional game would support them if they spoke out.”
As you might expect, the PFA has shifted its priorities, post-Woodward, and been particularly obliging to SAVE, one of the survivors’ groups. But the point remains: how many boys could have been saved if the relevant authorities had acted differently at the time? Some of the letters and other messages that reached the PFA after Dispatches were heartbreaking. And if Clive Sheldon, the QC in charge of the FA’s independent inquiry, makes the same observation, as he undoubtedly should, it feels perfectly reasonable to suggest Taylor should do the decent thing and walk.
Don’t bet on it, though. There is a reason why the Daily Mail’s Charlie Sale described Taylor as “untouchable” recently, surrounded by some loyal allies in an organisation that has the feel sometimes of a personalty cult, dominated by one man. The PFA has some good people among its ranks. It is also desperately in need of modernisation and the bottom line here is perfectly simple: it will never happen until there has been a change at the top.
What puzzles me, more than anything, is the general reaction throughout football when the sport is reminded of Taylor’s elastic principles. The time, for instance, it was reported that the man who backed a “zero-tolerance” policy towards gambling had splurged £4m on 2,000 bets and owed a bookmaker more than £100,000. Or you might remember his efforts to bar the agent Rachel Anderson from his organisation’s annual dinner because he wanted a men-only event; the cack-handed apology after likening Ched Evans to the Hillsborough justice campaigners; the tragicomedy of Reginald D Hunter’s N-word routine at the PFA’s 2013 awards do; and on and on. Every time, the sport seems to roll its eyes, nod knowingly and accept that is the way Gordon Taylor OBE operates. Nobody, until now, seems willing to take him on properly and ask whether it should be better, and what needs to be done about it.
Perhaps that is because he is not an easy man to take on. Purkiss now says he has been informed his eligibility as chairman is under question, on the grounds that the 34-year-old defender is currently a non-contract player at Walsall. It stinks, and once again I am reminded of what Gareth Southgate said about loving the sport but not necessarily liking the industry. Though, strictly speaking, it was William McGregor, founder of the Football League, who made the point first. McGregor was quoted, in 1909, in League Football and the Men Who Made It. “Beware of the clever, sharp men who are creeping into the game,” he said, very astutely.
The Guardian Sport