Whatever happened to George Eastham?

Former Stoke City player George EasthamThe League Club has a long and storied history stretching back over 50 years. In that time, the competition has been graced by some of the most significant figures in English football. In this series, we’ll be looking at what’s happened to some of the legends of League Cups past.

You’ve all heard of the Bosman ruling, and a good deal of you are probably aware of the story of Jean-Marc Bosman, the Belgian midfielder who all but forfeited his career to fight for the rights of out-of-contract footballers to move to the team of their choice, regardless of the wishes of their former employers.

You may not, however, have heard of his predecessor, George Eastham.

Bosman paved the way for the likes of Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas to force transfers, and for such international stars as Edgar Davids, Esteban Cambiasso and Patrick Kluivert to move between clubs for nothing when their new employers might otherwise have been put off by high transfer fees. The Bosman ruling, though, would not have been possible without George Eastham’s campaign of 1959-63.

On the pitch, Eastham is perhaps best known (besides his involvement in England’s World Cup winning squad of 1966) for scoring the winning goal in Stoke City‘s League Cup triumph of 1972, a 2-1 victory over Chelsea. Having formerly played for Arsenal, it must have been a sweet moment for Eastham, who became the oldest player to receive a League Cup winner’s medal at the time at 35 years, 161 days old.

Renowned for his goalscoring while playing largely as a midfielder, Eastham enjoyed successful, if sometimes turbulent, spells at Newcastle and Arsenal before moving to Stoke in 1966 after the World Cup. He would spend the final eight seasons of his career with the Potters as a more deep-lying midfielder, but one of his four goals for Stoke would be that League Cup final winner.

Off the pitch, however, Eastham’s biggest triumph was bringing about the end of the so-called “slavery contract”, the retain-and-transfer system which allowed clubs at the time to hold a player’s FA registration while refusing to pay them if they requested a transfer – meaning that the player could earn neither a wage nor a move. Eastham’s club, Newcastle, were not prepared to let him leave when the inside forward requested a transfer in 1959. Eastham went on strike at the end of the 1959-60, moving away from the north-east in the process.

Eventually, Newcastle bowed to his wishes and sold the forward to Arsenal, but Eastham wouldn’t be stopped that easily. He went on to take the Magpies to court four years later, and the judge ruled that the retain-and-transfer system was an unfair restraint of trade. Eastham’s crusade led not just to radical changes in contractual agreements of the time, but, indirectly, also to the abolition of the maximum wage.

After hanging up his boots in 1973, Eastham spent a short period of time as a coach at Stoke and succeeded Tony Waddington as manager in 1977. With the team struggling, however, Eastham was unable to prevent them being relegated from the First Division and resigned after less than a year with Stoke struggling in the second tier.

Eastham has since lived in South Africa and most recently in Canada, without the fame his ground-breaking court case would afford him were it held today. What cannot be ignored, however, is the impact that George Eastham has left on modern football. And along the way, he helped Stoke City win the 1972 League Cup, their last major trophy for twenty years.

It remains to be seen whether there will be an unlikely hero in this year’s Capital One Cup but the competition certainly has form when it comes to taking a player out of obscurity and thrusting them into the limelight.


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