Striking Back

Precarity, lack of representation, and injuries have had devastating impacts on the lives of non-league footballers. Now, with the help of the GMB, they’re starting to unionise.

Over two million people participated in football regularly in England in 2018, with the vast majority being in amateur grades. (Photo credit: The FA)

It’s not an understatement to say that I’ve been a football fan for my entire life. At age 8, I first laced up my boots to play for the Foresters in Essex. Later on, I played semi-professionally for Barnet F.C. and Kettering Town. These days I’m happy to stand with my lad on the terraces at the Emirates. Football has been a constant presence for me through the years.

As general secretary of GMB, I’ve been immensely proud to work with Show Racism the Red Card. Football played an important role in breaking down racism across our country, providing diverse role models to millions of kids: first black players, later migrants, and recently Muslim players like Mo Salah. On the way many endured racist abuse, but pioneers like the late Cyrille Regis kept fighting and with their performances on the pitch made space for the political discussion off of it.

Like me, my union has always had roots in the sporting community. We support football at all levels, including women’s and youth teams, as well as ice hockey, and our growing rugby league branch is headed by former Great Britain international player Garreth Carvell. But it wasn’t until I met former non-league centre-half Francis Duku at a Show Racism the Red Card event, that we heard the true extent of precarity facing footballers and their need for representation.

When most people think of football, the Premier League comes to mind (or the Championship, which I have to reference because I live in Leeds and I’d never live it down otherwise!), but those leagues are the cream of the crop, with players earning vast sums of money and playing in front of tens of thousands of people. That is the exception rather than the rule as far as football in Britain goes. For hundreds of thousands of people in villages, towns, and cities, grassroots football clubs are just as important as those in the top tier. Dedicated fans travel across the country to support their local side, clubs do outreach in the community, or help organise youth teams in their area. Volunteers run raffles and fundraisers, staff the burger vans, and clean the stands.

Non-league players aren’t distant figures you only see on telly, who arrive in town in a supercar and leave after the match. They’re workers, often living next door to fans or to be found in the club bar after the game. Like many of us, these players are often on insecure contracts. They likely have a day job alongside their playing careers. One bad slip on the pitch can not only put their club contract in jeopardy, but their day jobs as well. That’s what our GMB Footballers United branch is about. Non-league, semi-professional, and amateur footballers need an organisation that represents them, that speaks out for them in their clubs as well as their day-to-day workplaces. They need representation at FA hearings — where a two-year ban could be catastrophic in a career lasting twenty years at best. They also need advice should the worst happen with injuries.

We quickly found out how much we were needed, and already our members include a young footballer who broke his leg and couldn’t pay for his rehabilitation, as well as a scaffolder who injured his collarbone playing county league and was left without an income for weeks. But it hasn’t just been these difficult cases — we’ve received a groundswell of support from coaches, club managers, and people across the communities that make up the backbone of grassroots football. Their message is clear. As Francis Duku put it at our launch, the days when ‘one bad tackle can leave you with no way to pay your rent or feed your family’ have to come to an end. Football provides us with a lot of joy in this country — the people who play the game deserve the same rights as every other worker.