Heroes trapped in time

Football's great scandal of the Sixties is the subject of a BBC film. Andrew Baker sets the scene on location
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"HERE he is, ladies and gentlemen!" The nightclub MC directed a spotlight to the doorway, where a wiry, slight figure in a smart suit stood, blinking, clutching his wife's hand. "Tony Kay! The best buy that Everton football club ever made ..." Kay pecked his wife on the cheek, whispered something in her ear, and made for the bar, as fans and cronies swamped him with backslaps and cheers.

Here he is, ladies and gentlemen: behind the spotlight, quietly watching the young man in the suit. Salt-and-pepper hair, spectacles, a little bulkier and shorter than his namesake, but unmistakably the real thing. Tony Kay, hero and villain, watching his life flash before his eyes without having to die for the privilege.

The scene, last Thursday afternoon, was the Rivoli Ballroom in Crofton Park, South London, a Fifties dance hall. It was doubling as a Liverpool nightclub for the filming of The Fix, a BBC docu-drama detailing the downfall of Kay, who was imprisoned in 1965 after a match- fixing scandal.

It was like walking into a timewarp. The hall, a treasure-trove of kitsch decoration complete with red velvet banquettes and dusty chandeliers, was crowded with quiffed and beehived extras. Under the arc lights the warm air smelled of Brylcreem and hair lacquer. Tony Kay looked on, and when consulted by technicians, nodded his approval.

Kay was the first victim of the love/hate relationship between football and tabloid newspapers. He was targeted by the Sunday People's foot-in- the-door man Mike Gabbert (played in the BBC film by Steve Coogan), who was determined to uncover the truth about widespread match-fixing in British football in the early Sixties. Gabbert succeeded, and many footballers were implicated. But it was Kay who bore the brunt, sentenced to four months in gaol and banned from football for life.

Newspaper reports at the time described him as "a broken man" but he looked anything but as he buzzed around among the actors and extras. He remains shy of reporters, which is hardly surprising given the central role of the People in ending his career, but he eventually agreed to pose with his younger self, played by Jason Isaacs.

The two clearly get on well. "Tony has great energy, and bite, and fitness," Isaacs said during a break between scenes. "The second I met him the strength just rang out of him."

Isaacs, who is in his early thirties, is too young to remember Kay in his playing days. But he has done his research. "Initially I imagined a great brute, a kind of Tommy Smith figure," he said. "But the thing about Tony as a player was that he was fleet and skilled."

So the first task for the actor was to get the posture right, and banish any trace of laziness from his body language. But much more important for Isaacs was the mind-set, the emotions: to imagine what it must be like to build a life around football, and then be forbidden for ever from playing the game.

"Tony's heroes were Stanley Matthews, Raich Carter, Len Shackleton - glorious men, gladiators," Isaacs said, watching Kay, who is an adviser and bit-part player in the film, as he flicked through the script. "How must it have felt to have been so close to achieving their status, and then have it all taken away?"

Paul Greengrass, the writer-director of The Fix, believes that Kay was denied the chance to emulate his heroes by the changing status of footballers in the early Sixties, from ordinary men on ordinary wages to pop stars earning a fortune. "His tragedy was that he started out wanting to be like Shackleton and Carter, but he couldn't be like them. The whole celebrity thing, the change from slaves to stars, brought a demotic reaction, which is what Gabbert, the tabloid reporter, represents." He also represents a time of change in the newspaper industry: Gabbert went on to employ the hard-nosed skills he had honed during Kay's case on the tale of the Rolling Stones and Mars bar abuse.

Despite the obvious similarities between the Kay scandal and problems in the modern game, the timing of the film is entirely coincidental. Greengrass actually started work on the project six years ago. "It's weird," he said. "I have just sat and watched events make a piece of work more and more relevant. Things couldn't have turned out better."

Kenith Trodd, the producer, is best known for his work with Dennis Potter, and he is typically keen that the BBC should schedule The Fix at a time when it would have the most impact: as close as possible to the trial on corruption charges of Bruce Grobbelaar, John Fashanu and Hans Segers, and the businessman Heng Suan Lim.

As Trodd pointed out, there is no connection or point of comparison between the two cases beyond coincidence of timing. But increased media attention on the seamier side of football was a factor in persuading the BBC that the time was right to bring the Kay story to the screen. The word that the production team use in this regard is "resonance".

Trodd understands why the BBC might want to "dance nervously" when dealing with such a sensitive topic, but he is determined to ensure that the film gets the attention he feels it deserves. "I hope that the BBC doesn't dilute the power of it by burying it in the schedules," he said. "I think they should sensibly spotlight it. The single drama documentary has less clout than it used to have - I think this one should be savoured, guarded and publicised for its own sake."

Trodd elaborated on Kay's dilemma. "He realised that he was becoming an icon," he explained. "That he had much more value than he was being credited with. And his sense of his own worth tipped over into a foolish and personally tragic mistake. He was confused, but he remained a sportsman."

Greengrass believes that Kay was trapped at a time of great change in football. He pointed out that scandals have always arisen when the finances of the game have been in upheaval. He cited the persecution of Billy Meredith, the leader of the original players' union, the Kay affair, and more recent scandals since the advent of the Premier League. "When the waters move," he observed, using a maritime metaphor more revealing than Eric Cantona's, "and tidal shelves appear, that is when the barnacles and slime are exposed."

Plot line: How the real story unfolded

THE Soccer Conspiracy Case, as the scandal involving Tony Kay became known, broke in the Sunday People on the morning of Sunday, 12 April, 1964. The paper carried a report linking three top players, including two England internationals, with a betting ring to fix matches. It led to the imprisonment of all three.

The prominence of the players shocked as much as the crime. Peter Swan, David "Bronco" Layne and Tony Kay were accused of backing their own team - Sheffield Wednesday - to lose at Ipswich on 1 December, 1962, and after the home team had duly won 2-0 the players were alleged to have won pounds 100 each. A court case followed after which all three were imprisoned for four months and banned from playing any officially recognised football for life.

Of the three, Kay had the most to lose. A skilful and gifted wing-half who was transferred from Wednesday to Everton for a then record fee of pounds 65,000, he was, at the age of 27, at the height of his powers when he went to prison. The commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme had said that he could not conceive of an England squad for the 1966 World Cup in which Kay did not play a part. But after the scandal, Kay had to be content with just a solitary cap for his country.

The rot in English football in the early Sixties spread far deeper than just Sheffield Wednesday. Aided by Jimmy Gauld, a former Everton and Charlton inside-forward who was a go-between turned informer, other matches were also found to have been rigged and seven less-renowned footballers received terms of imprisonment ranging from six months to four years.