retain and transfer system

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A form of player contract management used in English professional football from 1891 to 1963, that operated as a restriction on the mobility of players, and therefore of their labour rights. The English Football League (FL) adopted what the Football Association (FA) had required from 1885: the annual registration of players on one-year contracts. Clubs in the FL could employ and play only those players who had registered for the club, and a player could not transfer to any other club without the consent of his employing club, and the approval of the regulatory bodies. A club could therefore retain a player indefinitely, until the player's services were no longer required, or an agreement was made to transfer the player's registration to another club. At the end of contracts, players had no negotiating powers, and even if a contract was not renewed or renegotiated, the player's registration could be retained by the club while he was placed on the ‘transfer’ list.

In 1963 Newcastle United's George Eastham took court action against the club, the FL, and the FA, disputing a retain and transfer system that was preventing him from joining the London club Arsenal as the employer of his choice at the end of his contract. The High Court in London ruled the system to be an ‘unreasonable restraint of trade’, though it was not deemed illegal: Eastham's successful challenge, with the Professional Footballers' Association, was the beginning of the reform of this feudal form of control by clubs of its workforce. The subsequent changes increased player power as well as mobility, and the capacity of the richest clubs to harness the best talent.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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