Mortal sin that strikes at the heart

Eamon Dunphy explains why fixing matches goes against a footballer's nature
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The Independent Online
I WELL recall that early summer evening many years ago. We were playing away in a vital game. There was an unusual atmosphere on the coach trip up the motorway. Nerves, for this was the moment of truth. But there was another factor: a rumour that something was going on, something that might assist the cause that night.

As we arrived at our opponents' ground (anonymity is essential, as Edward Lustgarten used to say, to protect the guilty), I was approached with a request. A fellow Irish international was playing for the opposition. Would I enquire if "something could be done"? More specifically, would my friend convey an offer of money to his goalkeeper to ensure that we won the game?

Angry and shocked, I told my colleagues to go away, or words to that effect. Nevertheless, an approach was made directly to the goalkeeper, the princely sum of £600 was offered. The keeper also declined to get involved.

What subsequently transpired is fascinating in the context of last week's allegations of match-fixing in English football. My team won easily. We were two goals up in 20 minutes, both scored as a result of serious goalkeeping error. It was apparent that the opposing goalkeeper was so unnerved by the approach made to him that he couldn't concentrate on his work.

The implication of any mistake was terrifying, for the players on both sides were aware that we had tried to buy the result. To some extent all parties to this deal, even those who were innocent, felt tainted.

When it was revealed recently that a number of prominent English League managers were being investigated for receiving kick-backs, nobody in the football community was surprised, much less shocked. Bungs have long been custom and practice in English football. A successful investigation would unearth some spectacular results.

The facts uncovered so far represent the tip of a very large, very murky iceberg. Men more renowned than those currently in the frame must rest uneasily in their beds. But the trail of evidence goes cold when you reach the agent for the deal.

Conversely, news of match- rigging still shocks even the most sardonic heart within the game. Professional athletes live to compete; in a word, to win. Winning is everything, the last thing you think about at night, the first thing in the morning. Such is your conditioning from childhood onwards that it requires an extraordinary effort of will to deny your most basic instinct and continue to lose by failing to make that tackle, save that shot or refuse to score when the opportunity of a goal presents itself.

Trying to lose is not easy. Most footballers would find it virtually impossible to unlearn the habits of a lifetime. And the money would barely compensate for the appalling feeling of having betrayed not just your team-mates but the most sacred tenet of your calling. By comparison, bunging is a venal sin, an aspect of the commercial side of the game. But not touching the core of a man's existence.

My initial reaction when the Bruce Grobbelaar story broke was that on close examination the allegations didn't stand up. If there was anything in the story at all, the most plausible explanation was that Grobbelaar was trying to earn some easy money out of some shady fools. For a retainer of £2,000 a week he would "mark their cards" and ensure that Southampton would lose away to Liverpool later this year. Big deal. When did Southampton not lose at Anfield?

Rogue footballers have always existed, vulnerable to the prospect of acquiring money which, for reasons outlined above, it would be trite to call easy. The case of Tony Kay, Peter Swann and "Bronco" Lane comes to mind. Thirty years ago, those three Sheffield Wednesday players were found guilty of betting against their own team. They went to prison and were banned from professional football for life. Their fate served as a warning to a generation of footballers.

Tony Kay was a particularly poignant victim of that scandal. An English international, Kay was an inspirational player respected for his willingness to battle as well as his considerable skill. There was no suggestion that Kay and his colleagues actually "sold" the games involved. The crime was to bet against their team. In the particular match cited at their trial - away to Ipswich, then one of England's best teams - Kay was adjudged to have been Sheffield Wednesday's outstanding player. Still, they lost. He was finished.

In my 17 years as a professional I only once encountered match-fixing. And although I loved to bet, I never did either way on my own team. The unmatchable pleasure of winning would not have been significantly enhanced were I to make a few extra pounds in the process. The misery of defeat would be compounded if the bet was lost. Betting against oneself was unthinkable.

Occasionally, especially in the bad old days when players were ill-rewarded for their toil, games were fixed. In August 1905, professional football's first great star Billy Meredith was banned for one year for his part in a bribery scandal. In the Sixties a First Division club were rumoured to have "bought" the two points necessary to win the Championship. Of the latter case, proceedings were said to have descended to farce because the key opposition player bribed, an experienced international, couldn't find a way to deliver on his commitment. Eventually the crucial blunder did materialise but nobody could prove a thing.

Proving a crime was committed is as difficult as fixing a game. In the Sixties also, around the time of the Kay case, one of Sir Matt Busby's Manchester United teams was believed to have taken a dive, something the boss of legend quickly discovered. But proof was never furnished, no scandal ensued.

Always rare, this form of corruption offends against football people's deepest convictions. Should the present allegations prove to be true, those guilty should go to prison and be kicked out of the game for what is, especially in this age of extravagant reward, the most mortal of all sporting sins.