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Charlie Mitten - Breaking Down (Transfer) Barriers

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


By quitting English football in 1950 to find fame and fortune in South America, Charlie Mitten started the process of abolishing the restrictive retain-and-transfer system that changed the face of the game. Ben Lyttleton reports.
There is so much money around football these days that it is hard to remember that 50 years ago the footballer's life was not a lucrative one. Clubs held players' registrations until the retain-and-transfer system was ruled unlawful in 1964 (and it wasn't wholly abandoned until 1978). That meant that even if a player was out of contract, one club could prevent him from playing for somebody else.
There was a way for players to get around the issue, and even escape the strictures of the maximum wage. It meant moving to Colombia.
Charlie Mitten's contract with Manchester United had expired when he travelled with the club to the USA on their summer tour in 1950. He expected to sign a new deal on his return, but the day before embarking on the ship back to England, Mitten received a telephone call from former Stoke City defender Neil Franklin urging him to follow his lead in moving to the Colombian club Santa Fe.
The club was owned by Luis Robledo, a cattle baron whose son had fallen in love with football while studying at Cambridge. Indulging his son's passion, Robledo had modelled Santa Fe's kit on that of Arsenal, and signed not only Franklin but also Stoke's George Mountford. Crucially, he was paying wages beyond players' wildest dreams: Mitten was on £10 a week at United; he was being offered a £5,000 signing-on fee and a £5,000 yearly salary.
Just as importantly, Colombia had been expelled from FIFA for their efforts to lure the world's top players with enormous salaries. Outside of FIFA's jurisdiction, the retain-and-transfer system was impotent; there was nothing United could do to stop Mitten going.
His transfer caused uproar and many accused Mitten of greed. When he left for Colombia from Manchester Piccadilly station, only one person came to bid him farewell: Billy Meredith, a former pro who had fought hard against the maximum wage, and been criticised for it. He saw only sense in Mitten's decision, and wished that others would take such purposive action against a system that effectively reduced players to serfdom. He was later to die destitute.
Mitten was a success in Colombia. He loved the relaxed lifestyle, the weather and playing with such greats as Alfredo di Stefano. Colombia warmed to his affable endeavour. With his two compatriots, he took the English game to Santa Fe, and Santa Fe loved it. Mitten scored 24 goals in his first season, but then disaster struck as Colombia rejoined FIFA. All the foreign stars had to leave.
He returned to a six-month ban, and was transfer-listed by Manchester United. He eventually joined Fulham, and represented them with some distinction, but never earned an England recall. "We know you are the best outside-left in the country," the FA secretary told him, "but discipline must come first."
Mitten, though, played his part in ending the tyranny of retain-and-transfer as an example to others who challenged the system. When Lord Justice Wilberforce ruled against retain-and-transfer, he cited Mitten's case, concluding that the system was "an unjustifiable restraint of trade where employers have succeeded in setting up a monolithic front throughout the world".

Ben Lyttleton, March 2004

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