Twisted History : The Jean-Marc Bosman Ruling


It's been over 15 years since Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice suing for restraint of trade. But what if the ruling had gone against Bosman? Today on the blog, Andrew Thomas tells us how the football world would have been changed in ways we never would have suspected.


It was perhaps the most important legal ruling in the history of football, but at the time, nobody paid much attention. The finer points of European employment law just aren't as interesting as … well, as most things, if we're being brutally honest, and so on 15th December 1995 when obscure Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman lost his final appeal to the European Court of Justice, it rather slipped under the Premier League's radar. Les Ferdinand and David Ginola had taken Newcastle United to the top of the table, Kevin Keegan had yet to melt down on the radio, and all was at peace.

However, the decision of the judges that Bosman did not have the right to move for free at the end of his contract, while perhaps harmless in itself, was the catalyst for British clubs to begin a program of clawing back their players' hard-won rights. The retain-and-transfer system returned in 1996. Then, in 1997, the clubs began to get creative. West Ham ordered their players to dye their hair claret with blue tips; an attempted rebellion of the shaven-headed was swiftly met with compulsory tattoos. Manchester United instructed their entire academy to change their surnames by deed poll to "the Red", while their cross-town rivals City's attempts to enforce a bananas-only diet was abandoned only after several players were hospitalised with severe anaemia.

Everywhere, player power was being eroded. At first this was taken in relatively good spirit by the footballers, who figured that being paid decent money to play a game for a living didn't really warrant too much agitation. Things changed, though, once Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur introduced schemes designed to ensure that the clubs, not the players, would be the legal guardians of any male offspring that their players might have. Though the clubs insisted that this was a perfectly reasonable step designed to keep their players free from distraction, the players differed.

The summer of 2001 passed, seemingly, without incident; the usual raft of rumours, transfers, and general nonsense. Tottenham, led by their inspirational captain Sol Campbell, were hopeful of a successful season. However, as kick-off on the opening day of the season approached, crisis struck White Hart Lane. Alan Green was covering the game for the BBC, and later recalled "The teamsheet was delayed, which I found to be exceptionally inconvenient. As we got closer to kick off, it became clear that the Spurs management were very anxious. Eventually, we got the sheet through, and that was when I realised that my day had just got a lot more difficult."

Campbell, along with nine other first-team players, was missing. Similar scenes were unfolding up and down the country: Liverpool's Steve McManaman was missing, along with eight other players, including; Manchester United were missing six; Arsenal seven. Nobody knew where they had gone; there had been no contact from any of them. In all, nineteen out of the twenty Premier League clubs were affected, along with more than fifty in the Football League. The games went ahead in an atmosphere of confusion in the stands and panic behind the scenes. Where had millions upon millions of pounds worth of footballing talent gone?

The answer came the following Monday, when an unlabelled videotape landed on the sport desks of several major newspapers. On the tape was a message from Steve McManaman, who despite having concealed his face with a balaclava, was easily identifiable thanks to his numbered Liverpool tracksuit. McManaman, speaking on behalf of all the missing players, recounted a list of demands, some small (like the return of the right to choose the flavour of one's post-match Lucozade), and some large (like the immediate renunciation of any claims to the players' organs in the event of their untimely death). Tucked away was a request that Jean-Marc Bosman's original case be revisited. If these demands weren't met, warned McManaman, then there would be consequences.

Initially, the FA, the Premier League and the Football League, in consultation with the clubs, decided to brazen it out. They halted their wages and waited. However, as the season wore on, more and more footballers slipped away from their clubs and joined the rebels. Matters reached a head around Christmas, thanks in part to the Premier League's 'Scrooge tax' on players' presents. Fully half the Premier League were unable to fulfil their Boxing Day fixtures. Then, in the early hours of New Year's Day, the situation escalated.

Dave Richards, chairman of the Premier League, was heading home after celebrating with friends. He later wrote "Frankly, the whole business had ruined my evening. I was taking so many phone calls that I barely touched my dolphin heart fricassee, and my orphan-tears spritzer was virtually at room temperature by the time I finished it. 'Ryan Giggs has been seen on a merry-go-round in Penge, could you comment?' 'Nicky Barmby's stolen three chickens from a yard in Shropshire, do you have anything to say?' Eventually I left, and hailed a taxi. I must have dozed off in the back seat. When I awoke, I didn't know where I was."

A second videotape was released, showing Richards tied to a chair under armed guard. Immediately, the FA suspended the football season and contacted the authorities. A Metropolitan Police task-force was formed, but after two weeks, the police were no closer to finding Richards or the players. The turnstiles were quiet, the pitches untroubled, and questions were being asked on the floor of Parliament. Eventually, the FA folded. They acceded to all the players' demands and announced a near-total amnesty for those involved. Richards was released, and was found by a dog walker on the fringes of Epping Forest, babbling and tired but otherwise unharmed.

The footballers returned, and the season was completed in a spirit of uneasy truce, followed by a summer of frantic transfer activity. On the plus side, the England national team's excellent form in the 2002 World Cup – they reached the semi-finals, before losing to eventual champions Turkey – led to the introduction of a winter break. Ten years later, both sides appear to have agreed to do their best to forget the whole thing. However, we are now able to exclusively reveal that the officer in charge of the operation actually located Richards within 24 hours. Being a Sheffield Wednesday fan, he'd decided to "let the bugger sweat for a bit".



Follow Andi on Twitter: @Twisted_Blood

And read more of his work on his blog:

I write about football. SB Nation, Football365, the Score, and elsewhere.