Today Liverpool and Manchester United are such fierce rivals you cannot imagine them colluding to arrange the result of a football match. But in 1915 that is exactly what happened. The fact it happened at the same time the First World War was going on probably saved it from a far bigger scandal than it was.
The existence of the ‘war to end all wars’ is significant and was arguably the major contributor to the fix.
The season was 1914-1915. Britain had already declared war on Germany a month before it started. The begin with, the regular army was sent to Belgium and France to repel the Germans marching their way to Paris. It was largely expected to be a short conflict, evidenced by the most popular saying at the time, “it’ll be over by Christmas.”
With the season in full swing many footballers were out on their own amongst men of a similar age in not signing up. Some clubs suffered because they had players join up and for those who were left, it wasn’t all over by Christmas. Far from it. Resources became stretched as the need for more men at the front became ever more critical. By the spring of 1915 it was becoming clearer the season would not be concluded, or at the very least league football would be suspended once the season finished.
April 2nd 1915 was Good Friday. One of the traditional fixtures around that time was Manchester United against Liverpool. The two met at Old Trafford with the hosts deep in a relegation battle. Points were crucial. Liverpool were mid-table, neither with any hopes of the title or under any threat of the drop.
It had been five years since Liverpool had won at Old Trafford and three and a half years since they had beaten United anywhere.
Even back then it was considered a big fixture in the season. Since coming up from the Second Division in 1906 United had been English champions twice (1908 & 1911) so relegation was not something they wanted to accept. Liverpool themselves had twice been champions since the turn of the century.
The odds were heavily in favour of Liverpool, in fact bookies were laying 7-1 against United winning 2-0.
United were the brighter from the start of the game and in front 12,000, their forwards caused more problems than Liverpool’s. The visitors had the legendary Elisha Scott in goal and had him to thank for a string of saves. George Anderson up front for United looked particularly sharp.
A newspaper report of the game made reference to how wretched Liverpool’s shooting was.
Five minutes before half-time United were rewarded for their persistence count. Anderson received the ball from the right and drove towards goal, beating Scott in the corner.
United dominated the first half to such extent the Liverpool Daily Post reported;
“a more one-sided half would be hard to witness”
United were again fastest out of the blocks for the second period. Within three minutes they had a penalty. Bob Pursell handled the ball in the area. But Pat O’Connell sent his kick hopelessly wide. Such seemed to be United’s luck that season.
Instead of the visitors coming back into the game, United just pressed on and got their second with quarter of an hour still to go. A tussle in the box and Anderson managed to poke it home, for his and United’s second.
The Sporting Chronicle wrote;
“The Liverpool forwards gave the weakest exhibition in this half seen on the ground during the season.”
But just towards the end of the game Liverpool forward Fred Pagnam hit the crossbar.
The Manchester Daily Dispatch reported;
“the second half was crammed with lifeless football. United were two up with 22 minutes to play and they seemed so content with their lead that they apparently never tried to increase it. Liverpool scarcely ever gave the impression that they would be likely to score”.
United eventually won 2-0 to give them a boost in their attempt to stave off relegation.
Almost immediately the game had finished there were rumours things weren’t as honest as they might seem. Some observers commented on the moment Pagnam hit the bar and some of his teammates appeared to remonstrate with him. This suggested they didn’t want the ball to go in.
Gradually, people put two-and-two together. Suggestions money had changed hands were becoming louder and more definite.
Then a couple of newspapers implied the result had been decided beforehand. Such was the number bets put on for a 2-0 win that the odds shortened to 4-1.
Eventually, United finished 18th and safe, a point above Chelsea and two above Tottenham, who both went down.
The Sporting Chronicle published a notice from a bookmaker called “The Football King” who promised a substantial reward that would lead to punishment for what went on.
“We have solid grounds for believing that a certain First League match played in Manchester during Easter weekend was, ‘squared’, the home club being permitted to win by a certain score.”
“Further, we have information that several of the players of both teams invested substantial sums on naming the correct score of this match with our firm and others. Such being the case, we wish to inform all our clients and the football public generally that we are withholding payment on these correct score transactions, also that we are causing searching investigations to be made with the object of punishing the instigators of this reprehensible conspiracy. With this object in view, we are anxious to receive reliable information on bearing on the subject, and we will willingly pay the substantial reward named above to anyone giving information which will lead to punishment of the offenders”
Consequently, the Football League launched an investigation.
They released a statement containing;
“We can readily understand the serious unwillingness of bookmakers to be robbed by a conspiracy on the part of players, and we are just as determined that League football shall not be degraded, disgraced, and ruined by such reprehensible practices as those referred to in the coupon under notice”
“If, as stated therein, direct bets have been made by players, such conduct is contrary to the rules of the F.A., and, in accordance with declarations by the F.A. and the Football League, any such player found guilty would be put out of football for ever. The conspiracy alleged is a criminal offence, upon which the aggrieved parties can take action.
“If the injured parties are not prepared so to act and will furnish us with any information justifying such allegations, or either of them, we are prepared to pursue our inquiries to the utmost, and fearlessly impose adequate punishment, and anyone willing to supply any information should communicate with the secretary of the Football League, Mr. T. Charley, Castle-chambers, Market-place, Preston, at once.”
The investigation went on throughout 1915 as each player was interviewed. All the time articles appeared in various newspapers confirming and denying accusations had been made.
The new season had indeed been suspended so this probably lead to as much time taken as authorities saw fit.
Eventually on 23rd December 1915 a verdict was reached.
“It is proved that a considerable sum of money changed hands by betting on the match, and that some of the players profited thereby. Every opportunity has been given to the players to tell the truth, but although they were warned that we were in possession of the facts some have persistently refused to do so, thus revealing a conspiracy to keep back the truth. It is almost incredible that players dependent on the game for their livelihood should have resorted to such base tactics. By their action they have sought to undermine the whole fabric of the game and discredit its honesty and fairness.”
“We are bound to view such offences in a serious light. The honesty and uprightness of the game must be preserved at all costs, and although we sympathise greatly with the clubs, who are bound to suffer seriously, we feel that we have no alternative but to impose the punishments which the players have been warned over and over again would be imposed. We are satisfied that the allegations have been proved against the following: J Sheldon, RR Purcell, T Miller and T Fairfoul (Liverpool), A Turnbull, A Whalley and EJ West (Manchester United), L Cook (Chester) and they are therefore permanently suspended from taking part in football or football management, and shall not be allowed to enter any football ground in the future. There are grave suspicions that others are also involved, but as the penalty is severe we have restricted our findings to those as to whose offence there is no reasonable doubt.”
Some players, such as Anderson (United) who scored both goals, and Pagnam (Liverpool) tried their best to ruin the result. It was Pagnam who hit the bar towards the end of the game.
United’s Billy Meredith reported to The FA he had no knowledge of match-fixing but he became suspicious when none of his teammates would pass to him.
The ‘L Cook (Chester)’ referred to in the statement was Lawrence Cook. He was banned for his part in the conspiracy. Manchester City’s Fred Howard was also banned 12 months after the ‘unsatisfactory way he gave evidence before the commission.’
Liverpool’s Jack Sheldon, a former United player, was found to be the ringleader. By the time of the verdict he was fighting in France. He later sent a letter to Athletic News which was published on 10th April 1916.
“I emphatically state to you, as our best and fairest critic, that I am absolutely blameless in this scandal and am still open, as I have always been, to give any Red Cross Fund or any other charitable institution the sum of £20 if the FA or anyone else can bring forward any bookmaker or any other person with whom I have had a bet. Assuming I return safely from this country I intend taking action against my suspension.”
The FA confirmed the conspiracy had only been amongst the players, no officials from either club were involved and therefore there were no sanctions for either club. Of course, this had ramifications for clubs Chelsea and Tottenham who were determined not to forget when the league resumed, whenever that would be.
West protested his innocence to such an extent he sued the FA for libel. He lost his case and the ban stood. Sheldon testified during the case in 1917 and admitted his guilt. He explained how he’d convinced teammates to go along with it and he’d met with some of the United players.
He then went to reveal how the arrangement was for a 2-0 win to United, with a goal scored either side of half-time. At the same hearing, Pursell confessed to taking part and Pagnam threatened to score despite threats from the ringleaders. Longworth and MacKinlay both testified they had been aware of the plot but refused to take part.
As we all now know the war lasted way longer than Christmas 1914, it didn’t end till November 1918. England, like the rest of Europe, looked a whole lot different than it had pre-war. So many young men had perished on the battlefields and of those who did return home, a lot of them were permanently damaged beyond being fit to play competitive sport.
Sadly Sandy Turnbull never made it back. He was killed while serving in Arras, France. He was an interesting character in that he was found guilty of being involved in the conspiracy, yet he didn’t play in the game. Turnbull was the player to score the first goal at Old Trafford after United moved there in February 1910. He enlisted in a Battalion of the Middlesex regiment known as 2nd Football Battalion. This was formed to encourage footballers to join up. They did play some matches and it’s also interesting to note Turnbull’s FA ban extended to those.
One other point to mention is something which came out during the subsequent investigation. At half-time in the Liverpool dressing room there was a heated exchange between those players who were taking part in the fix and those who weren’t. Some of the players not involved threatened not to come out for the second half. Liverpool keeper, Elisha Scott was said to be particularly vocal.
In June 1919 all four Liverpool players were offered a pardon providing they apologised for their part in the scheme. This was down to The FA’s “high appreciation of the great sacrifices and services of its members during the war, and the deep gratitude for the success which has been achieved.”
They all duly apologised. Thomas Fairfoul quit playing altogether. Bob Pursell was a shadow of the player he’d been pre-war. He broke his arm in his first practice match and when he did recover he only played a couple of games for Liverpool, eventually moving to Port Vale. Tom Miller continued to score goals when he came back. Funnily enough, he ended up at Manchester United in 1920.
Sheldon had two good seasons at Anfield, barely missing a match.
For the United players, Turnbull received a posthumous reinstatement. Whalley received a pardon but West didn’t. As he continued to protest his innocence he remained suspended. In fact this wasn’t lifted until 1945, by the time he was 59. The longest in football league history. This was the subject of Graham Sharpe’s book “Free the Manchester United one”.
Sharpe made the assertion the match changed the way the British betting industry operated.
“It was the first major case of its type and will have made the authorities wary of this sort of behaviour. For that reason, it will never be completely forgotten.”
The motivation for United was clear in avoiding relegation. For many of players they may have feared their careers would be curtailed by the war anyway, as no one knew how long it would go on for.
As mentioned earlier, this episode continued to have ramifications once the league resumed in 1919. The FA wanted to expand the number of teams in the league so there was all sorts of arguments to be had over which teams should go up from the Second Division and which should remain in the First.
More of that in another article.
References : Arnie : lfchistory.net, Kjell Hanssen : playupliverpool.com, Tom Airey & Paul Burnell : bbcnews.co.uk