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GCR Books

A history of corruption in English football

On UNTOLD ARSENAL after the Chelsea game I wrote a piece in which I suggested that some matches in the English Premier League are fixed.  It is a debate that continues on that site.

But it made me think it might be worth a meander around the time that this site deals with, in terms of the same topic.

Corruption has been part of English football since day one. In 1884 for example the original invincibles of Preston North End  were thrown out of the FA Cup for paying their players (the Cup rules clearly said it was a competition for amateurs).   But the scene for the future was set – because a whole range of other northern clubs that paid players were allowed to continue unmolested and unchallenged, and a year later they changed the rules.  Matters got worse for Preston as their chief exec was sent to prison for stealing from his employers to pay the players.

That set of events might be of no significance when we think of the endless scandals among teams in the leagues ever since, except for one thing.

The other clubs all protested that as they paid players they would all be thrown out of the Cup and there would be no Cup.  The FA changed the rules.  From now on, the punishment would be against individuals not clubs.

There was only one more action against a club.   Tapping up of the Ashley Cole type was illegal from the start and in 1899 West Ham were clobbered for this type of activity.  But that was it.

Bribery has been there from the early days too and Hillman, the goalkeeper of Burnley was the first player to be found guilty by the league in 1900 – but there was no action against the club on whose behalf the bribe was offered.

Then there are clubs going bust and then re-emerging a moment later under a new name.  Step forward Newton Heath in 1902 who became Manchester United – as far as I can tell the first club to go bust and come back from the dead, although the two major players in the deal were then suspended by the FA for making illegal payments to players.

So it went on season after season – in 1905 Villa complained that Man City tried to bribe them so that they could win the league.  Villa refused, and won.  But here a nasty trend for the future was set.   The FA found the Man City captain guilty and suspended him – BUT NOTHING WAS DONE TO THE CLUB.

This then became the basis for the future. Get the player, leave the club alone.  Even Man City refused to help the player, who then went public.  That was in the days when journalists were prepared to out the cheating clubs – largely because they were not under the wings of the clubs.

Eventually the FA did investigate City under a different matter (the old favourite of paying players over the odds) and they then suspended 17 players for two years, and fined Man City £250.   The manager was banned for life.

Middlesbrough were always in the middle of rumours.  The FA looked at them and found a chairman who put some of the gate money in his pocket.  That one was swept aside.  A gentleman does not do such things.

By 1910 football, corruption and politics were mixed up totally.  If you have looked at my novel MAKING THE ARSENAL which is set in 1910 you’ll know the three topics move hand in hand and vote fixing arises as an issue in the early part of the plot.

I have been unfair to Henry Norris (the owner of Fulham and Arsenal) in accusing him of this as there is no real evidence of it at all on his behalf – but it helps the story along.  However it is not so far fetched as the Unionist (that is Conservative) candidate for Middlesbrough tried to help his election campaign along by fixing a match against Sunderland as well as certain nasty political activities.   More suspensions of the individuals concerned – no action against the clubs.

Henry Norris turned up on the other side of the fence in fact by arguing that the FA and League should change its policy and stop punishing individuals and instead throw match fixing clubs out of the league.  He particularly wanted Manchester United and Liverpool thrown out because of their match fixing in 1914/15 season.    In the end Norris backed down when the league agreed to extend the first division and accept Arsenal into the league.

The league were embarrassed by this affair and regarded Norris as the enemy thereafter, because of his continual view that clubs, not people, should be punished.   Eventually the FA managed to find Norris guilty of the “crime” of personally benefiting from the sale of the club bus to the tune of £125, and they expelled him from football for life, and so took their revenge.   They conveniently forgot that Norris had put £10,000 of his own money into building Highbury.

Middlebrough were shown to be corrupt again in the 1950s when the Sunday People published a series of articles exposing their habit of exceeding the maximum wage of players by giving them non-existent jobs.

The League were outraged and so did what they always do: they went after the individual, demanding to know from the author of the revelations (a Middlesboro player) which clubs had been breaking the rules.  He refused to reveal his sources, so they banned him for life.

It was only after Leicester City went into liquidation (I think that was 2003, but correct me if wrong) that the League finally, finally, got the idea that maybe a club should be punished – although still not for corruption.  This punishment was for going bust.

And so the sorry tale continues – clubs are not punished for their crimes – only the people – and usually the little people, not the man.

Tony Attwood 2009

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