Quick fixers

Match-fixing has always been in football. Simon Craig looks at the murky history

The lights went out at Upton Park and at Selhurst, and might yet have followed suit at The Valley and up to eight other grounds over the country.

With as much as £30 million being the reward for stopping a match any time in the second half when the score was favourable, it was a very nice little earner for the south-east Asian betting syndicate. But matches can be fixed without any expertise in electronics, and the practice has a longer and more dishonourable history than most people realise.

Take, for instance, the case of Manchester City’s Billy Meredith who, in 1905, received one year’s sus­pension for attempting to bribe an opposing player to lose a match. Many people refused to believe that the widely respected Meredith would have been capable of such skulduggery. The player himself, however, later admitted that it was true: unhappy with City’s attitude while he was under suspension, he elected to lift the lid on a match-rigging scandal which led to the suspension of 17 City players and the banning sine die of manager Tom Maley. 

Illegal betting was never proved in the Meredith case, and it is certainly true that matches can be fixed simply for the ben­efit of one of the sides involved. In 1949, for instance, Leicester City visited Cardiff for their last league match of the season, needing one point to avoid relegation to the Third Division.

One of their men, Ken Chisholm, later revealed that several Cardiff players colluded in giving Leicester the required draw. A quite dreadful match became interesting midway way through the second half, when a Cardiff player accidentally scored. Panic ensued, with Cardiff finally conceding a soft equaliser in the 77th minute. So Leicester got their point and Nottingham Forest got Leicester’s rightful place in the Third Division.   

Disgraceful, of course, but fixing a match in such circumstances never attracts such obloquy as fixing one for a betting scam. Even so, it is hard to feel all that much distaste for Henry Thatcher, the most incompetent corrupter of footballers the world has ever seen. In 1919 Thatcher actually tried to bribe two Millwall players to win a match on which he had placed a bet. Pleased with the subsequent Millwall victory, he then tried it again, but the players had reported the first incident and Thatcher was arrested. Initially jailed for his off­ence, his penalty was reduced on appeal to a fine with costs.   

Four years earlier, a much more serious case had occurred. On Good Friday 1915, Man­chester United beat Liverpool 2-0 in one of the worst matches Old Trafford has ever seen. “Play up, you rotters!” shouted restive and suspicious spectators. It was eventually established that a flood of bets had been placed at 7-1 on a 2-0 United victory, and the eventual outcome was the banning for life of four players from each club. One was the appropriately named Tom Fairfoul, another was United’s Sandy Turnbull who, as a Manchester City player, had figured prominently in the Meredith case ten years previously. (Meredith, now with United at the age of 41, was also involved in the match but not the scam, wondering, indeed, at his team-mates’ reluctance to pass to him.) The bans, for what it is worth, were lifted after the War, but too late for poor Turnbull, who had been killed in action.   

The League never did like betting, and in 1936 made a determined and ridiculous attempt to destroy the football pools. Their tactic was sim­ply to withhold until the Thursday before the match, the names of away teams in league fixtures. Posters therefore appeared which read, for example, “Arsenal v ?”. It took all of a few weeks before the League caved in.

Anyway, the pools really are almost impossible to fix because of the plethora of matches involved. Bet­ting coups always involve small numbers of games, as was the case in the greatest scandal ever to hit British football. In the spring of 1963 the People, under the headline Soccer Bribe Sensation, described how Bris­tol Rovers goalkeeper Esmond Million (sounds un­likely, but there it is) had taken £300 to throw a match against Bradford. (In fact, he managed to concede only two soft goals in a 2-2 draw.) The next month the League banned individual bets on fewer than three matches, although the Million case was later found to have been part of a four-match scam.   

Jimmy Gauld, a veteran now coming to the end of his playing days, admitted to the People that he had masterminded a number of such efforts, beginning in 1959. He agreed to work clandestinely for the paper which, on April 12th, 1964, revealed The Biggest Sports Scandal Of The Century. England internationals Tony Kay of Everton and Peter Swan of Sheffield Wednesday, as well as Wednesday’s David “Bronco” Layne, were the big names involved. It was said that they had colluded in fixing a defeat for the Owls (for whom Kay also played at the time) away to Ipswich in 1962, Ipswich having won the match 2-0. Many other players were brought to book, but it was still clear that a few had carried the can for many. Swan, Layne and Kay were all jailed for four months, while Gauld was sent down for four years.

So there’s nothing new under the sun. To get back to the recent case, it seems hard to believe that any syndicate would think they could black out as many as 11 matches without causing suspicion. Football fans may not all be Einsteins, but some at least are equipped with noses capable of smelling rats.

Bear in mind, however, that some of the matches targeted might have given the right result without the need for intervention. And don’t forget that the four now in jail for the offence were only the front men. Their bosses are still at large, and will no doubt be quite happy to think of something else for next time.

From WSC 152 October 1999. What was happening this month