In the years after professionalism was legalised in English football in 1885 Scottish players were in demand and many moved south to make their living. In the inaugural season of the Football League, champions Preston North End fielded ten Scottish professionals. At first the SFA would not allow professionals to come back home and play for Scottish clubs and this limited the flow of players to an extent. However, when the SFA followed suit in 1893 and allowed players to be paid by their clubs over 500 players registered as professionals, and the options for players to ply their trade as footballers both the north and south of the border became much easier.
This gave Scottish clubs a problem as they tried, often in vain, to keep their players. It also prompted the English clubs to take unconventional steps to secure their men.
The Scottish Sport newspaper in October 1895 reported on the problems clubs faced.
There are poachers and poachers, or perhaps, the gentry to whom we allude would prefer to be called agents. To such as carry out their business in the broad light of day, and in a fair and honest way, no one need hesitate to apply the more pleasant term, but there are others, mostly the sub-agents, or tools of the leaders of the profession to whom even the word poacher provides but a mild title.
At present there seems to be an almost phenomenal demand for players from cross the border, but the supply is now not so easily obtained as was the case before the introduction of professionalism, and underhand methods are being adopted with far from comfortable frequency.
One of these is the appointment of sub-agents within the ranks of the clubs from whom it proposed to secure players, and it is within our knowledge that even players have been utilised as stalking horses for the purposes of seducing their neighbours. As a matter of fact, these sub-agents have access to men and places where they know the agent dare not show himself, and, consequently, they are a source of danger which clubs would do well to guard against. The method is first to breed discontent, which in turm produces bad play, with the ultimate result that transfer, if the man wanted be a professional, is easily accomplished. Amateurs are not so difficult to deal with in many cases, but even here the sub-agent is valuable.
The article was a timeous one for Partick Thistle. Shortly after publication Thistle lost forward John Wilkie to Blackburn Rovers (for a transfer fee of £40, reckoned to be the equivalent of Thistle’s monthly wage bill) after Mr Mitchell, the secretary of Blackburn Rovers, had spent a week in Scotland looking for new players. Whether Mr Mitchell had been using the tactics described in unknown. Goalkeeper Pat Smith reportedly signed for Burnley in the same week.
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