It could not be true, surely? The Daily Express sent me hotfoot from Manchester to Sheffield Wednesday's home at Hillsborough, the players' club, to find out. As I drove over the Pennines on a bright spring morning, still sceptical, my first thought was of the great Chicago White Sox scandal of 1920, when eight players were accused of throwing the World Series and never played major league again. And of the tearful small boy who is supposed to have followed "Shoeless Joe" Jackson out of Comiskey Park, pleading, at his heels: "Say it ain't so, Joe. Please say it ain't so".
The "Black Sox" story had been forgotten in 1964. Even in the wake of Kennedy's assassination there was probably a fundamental belief, certainly in sport, in basic human goodness. Professional sportsmen did not cheat - well, there were funny stories emanating from boxing but boxing had always been like that, hadn't it?
By the time I had joined other reporters outside the main entrance at Hillsborough (no radio or television in those days), waiting for a statement from the club, I was reminded that the People had been digging at bribery suggestions, without uncovering sensations, for months. Neville Holtham, that newspaper's sports editor for 25 years, explains: "Two of our best news reporters, Peter Campling and Mike Gabbert, had been digging into rumours heard by the sports staff for more than a year. The editor, Sam Campbell, insisted that nothing could be published unless we had the names and addresses of everyone involved and full details of the matches that had been fixed.
"Campling and Gabbert had to take evidence on a strictly legal basis and had to know the solicitors of the accused. We did not publish a line until we had absolutely incontrovertible facts."
At the start of the 1963-64 season the People had fired a warning shot when they accused two virtually unknown players in the North-east. One, Ken Thomson of Hartlepool, admitted receiving £200 to help his team lose - "we would have lost anyway" - and Thomson's confession became the first drop in a waterfall.
The People went on to reveal that the promoter of these coups on fixed- odds betting on single matches (now illegal), was Jimmy Gauld, of Charlton. But not until that extraordinary Sunday morning, 14 April 1964, did the story reach the front pages and radio bulletins.
Swan and Layne were centre- half and centre-forward, outstanding players in a successful and glamorous Wednesday team. Kay, a wing-half, had recently been transferred to Everton for £60,000, probably the equivalent of around £4m today. Only days before I had written an adulatory report of his play for Everton, comparing his performance to that of a cunning and indefatigable red fox.
Could such players have taken money to lose? And if so, why? The maximum wage had gone four years earlier but even First Division players then did not remotely enjoy the lifestyle of today's players (why, even sports writers were paid more money than young footballers in the 1960s). Then again, money was not deemed to provide the motive for as much in life as it does today.
So we waited on that Sunday morning. Eric Taylor, Wednesday's shrewd and genial general manager, may have added to the unreality by smiling and joking in his usual fashion. We saw nothing of Alan Brown, the team manager but, eventually, according to my Daily Express report: "a pale- faced Wednesday chairman Dr Andrew Stephen, himself a member of the League Management Committee, mumbled: `I'm too stunned and shocked to say anything much at the moment'."
Sadly for Dr Stephen, for the three stars and the seven minor players and for Gauld, for supporters and for we reporters, all football lovers, it all turned out to be true. Swan, Layne and Kay were deemed to have agreed to lose a match at Ipswich (2-0), the only First Division game believed to have been affected during that investigation.
All three were imprisoned for four months and never played League football again. Kay admitted later: "I never cried so much in my life as when I heard of the ban". Gauld was jailed for four years and had to pay £5,000 costs and all the others received imprisonment and life bans.
Swan and his family took much of the outrage of Wednesday's fans, with abusive phone calls to his home and his children being baited at school. Kay's punishment brought a justified outburst from Harry Catterick, Everton's manager. As Catterick pointed out, Everton, an entirely innocent party, had lost both a valuable player and a £60,000 transfer fee.
Critics of the Football Association should therefore hold their fire. The punishments in 1964-65 were severe, just as they had been in 1904 when, after allegations of illegal payments (not match-fixing, merely bonuses) FA Cup winners Manchester City had a former chairman, the secretary, two directors and 17 players suspended and fined.
Five of their transfer-listed stars, including the incomparable Billy Meredith, were snapped up by City's humbler neighbours on the other side of the town, and thereby hangs another tale. The evil that men do lives after them.Reuse content