Saved from relegation with a nod and a wink

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The Independent Online

Romantics will not want to know about this but, back in the days when English football clubs held their men to a maximum wage of £15 per week and paltry bonuses, there was no guarantee that probity would prevail in the resolving of relegation issues.

Romantics will not want to know about this but, back in the days when English football clubs held their men to a maximum wage of £15 per week and paltry bonuses, there was no guarantee that probity would prevail in the resolving of relegation issues. Even after all these years, stories are still told about teams surviving in suspicious circumstances.

Because no culprit ever came forward and it was the nervous habit of authority to maintain a blistering silence in such matters, those stories remain as rumours in the lore of the game, although any number of old players think them authentic. "You can forget about it happening today," one recently said, "but, 40 years or so ago, when things were a great deal different, you could never be absolutely sure that every team survived on its merits. I can remember dodgy looking results and thinking to myself that a favour had been done and not necessarily for money."

Of course, there are millions of television viewers and newspaper readers eager to lap up the juices of scurrilous imagination, so how far can we go in trusting the contention of old pros that not everything was what it seemed to be?

Well, once I fell into conversation with a player who made quite an impact in the game as a goalscorer if falling short of the standard required for international football. We were sitting in a friendly bar, going over the distinct possibility that his career had been foreshortened by a serious injury, when he referred to two First Division matches, played over Easter, against a club deep in trouble. Before the first, a proposition was put to him by an envoy with whom he had once happened to share a dressing-room elsewhere in the Football League. "The idea was to square me, our other two goalscorers and the goalkeeper," he said. "There was no deal the first time around [the game ended in a draw] but two days later we accepted a better offer. If we lost there was 50 quid apiece for us."

Many years later, this came up in mind as a short story The Bent Game, because the developments were highly amusing. The goalkeeper played his part, conceding a soft goal publicly attributed to defenders who were not in on the deal while the sweetened goalscorers merrily went about their work, taking no great interest in proceedings and passing up every opportunity that came their way. However, shortly before half-time, disaster struck.

The ball had been sent from right to left and back again past a disinterested centre-forward when it struck the face of the man who initiated this harmless movement, bounced and flew into the net. "If that wasn't bad enough," my informant said, "the manager reckoned it was one of the best goals he had ever seen. He said Tom Finney couldn't have bettered the cross and that my headed return pass was as good as any he'd seem from Tommy Lawton. He didn't see a guy trying to get out of the way but a dummy Stanley Matthews would have been proud of. As for the finish, a pure accident, he'd seen nothing braver from Nat Lofthouse. Our goalkeeper did his best in the second half but the game ended in another draw and we didn't get a penny."

I hesitate, but not for long, to mention another example of behaviour that would have made the authorities squirm had they known about it. Interestingly, no money was involved and the opposition were oblivious to a decision that would see them survive at the expense of a team that could no longer shape its own destiny. "Do we want to play here next season, or there?" was the question that came up in a hotel room before the manager gave his team-talk. All were in agreement that the former would best suit their interests. After about 20 minutes play this hadn't dawned on the home team, who were playing flat out and making life difficult. "Don't you realise what's happening here?" their captain was told. "You're in front and that's the way things will stay as long as you calm down."

Heaving huge sighs of relief, the fans went off home as happy as crickets.

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