The Association ('AFU') was formed in Liverpool in February, 1898 in response to the proposal of Derby County FC to introduce a maximum wage in professional football in England in September, 1893. Officials at that club suggested that £4 should be the maximum rate paid to a player. At the time some players were earning more than this.
This issue was compounded by a League decision of the same year (1893) to limit the freedom of players, contracted to play for one club, who wished to move to another club. Therefore if a decision was made by a club to limit the earnings of their best players, then their best players could not go to another to earn more if the club for whom they were contracted to play refused to sanction the move.
The highest earning players in the country therefore combined to create the AFU in order to safeguard their interests and to force the League to withdraw the resolution which kept players at clubs until those clubs freed the players from their contracts.
John Cameron, the first secretary, stated that the AFU's main objective was that they "wanted any negotiations regarding transfers to be between the interested club and the player concerned - not between club and club with the player excluded" The first chairman of the AFU was John Bell, the Everton outside-right.
Bell’s subsequent career was indicative of the difficulties faced by players and the Union during that period.
The reason why that Union failed was due, firstly, to the fact that the players of the day were not all professionals. Whereas they were paid by the clubs to play, the vast majority of players were employed in addition to their role as footballers. An example of this is Steve Bloomer who, in the 1890s, was employed by Sir Francis Ley at the foundry nearby to the Baseball Ground as a striker; and also employed by Ley at the football club on Saturdays. Only when he was earning a significant figure as an international player and Derby regular was he able to forego his ‘other’ employment.
The result of this state of affairs was that income earned by players was supplementary to that earned in their working lives. Players earning less than the maximum wage (and who could easily be sacked from their positions with clubs) did not fully back the high earners in the game. As a result the higher earning players found themselves without the required support to push through the movement's proposed objectives.
The other issue arising from the AFU is that whereas some clubs ignored the proposal of Derby County in order to attract star players, the fact that the players could not leave clubs freely limited their earning powers considerably. This meant that players who were affected by the introduction of a maximum wage could not rely on their fellow professionals to support them and could not rely on the League to demonstrate support in direct defiance of the clubs. Therefore the high earners, who were famous and who could bring the necessary publicity and drive to such a movement, soon found themselves in a position where their only option was to either submit to the proposal or go elsewhere and join clubs not affiliated with the Football League.
John Bell left the Union and the Football League itself in order to earn more money with Celtic, before returning via a circuitous route to Everton. Other notable figures from that first movement journeyed South to play for clubs in the Southern League whose club directors were quite willing to pay the excess salaries for the available talented players. These players included John Cameron, the Everton player who had been the secretary of the AFU, Tom Bradshaw, the Liverpool player who joined Cameron at Spurs; Alf Milward, the Everton player and Harry Wood, the Wolves forward both went to Southampton and Johnny Holt turned out for Reading.
The increase in the respective strength of the Southern League and Football League itself is underlined by the fact that Southampton and Tottenham both reached the final of the FA Cup around the turn of the century. Therefore the claim that Tottenham were the only non-Football League club ever to win the FA Cup needs to be put into reasonable context. Because of the influx of professional talent the Southern League had, almost overnight, provisionally become a League Division or, at least, a division of comparable strength to a League Division. because there were significant members of that Union who were at the time associated with Everton.
The AFU was a progenitor of the Professional Footballers' Association in that it created a precedent for footballers to organise themselves into a collective. But it did not last and the Union dissolved itself in 1901.