Bets, files and videotape – inside the 'Stanley Sting'

A year ago, five players backed their own side to lose a match. Now investigations have unearthed hundreds of thousands in suspect wagers. Nick Harris follows the trail of evidence

Thursday 19 December 2013 04:05
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Here's a proposition for you. Make one bet on the football team you support to lose an end-of-season game where nothing is at stake in terms of relegation or promotion. You gamble, say, a year's basic pay on that outcome, and if your side lose, then you make a profit of somewhere in the region of a year-and-a-half's pay. Does that sound an attractive deal? Or a scheme that is just awfully, awfully risky, for comparatively little gain, in case your team go and win? And what might you think if you weren't a fan but a player?

According to charges laid by the Football Association, and to sources capable of placing good estimates on basic pay levels at Accrington Stanley at the time they lost to Bury on 3 May last year, a similar dilemma was faced by at least one Accrington player who backed his team to lose that day.

The midfielder David Mannix, 23, is a former teenage prodigy who played for Liverpool's Under-17s aged just 13, and won England youth caps. It is understood he was on a basic weekly deal of just £80 at Stanley at the time. The League Two club's small size and low crowds dictate lower basic pay levels than many clubs in the non-league game, let alone at clubs in the Football League. Contracts are heavily weighted to appearance money and bonuses, with Mannix on around £300 per actual game played back then.

But he did not play in that game. And so, when his weekly basic wage of £80 is set against the £4,000 that the FA allege he bet on his own side to lose that day, it is possible to see that he was not dealing in pin money. Quite why a player would risk so much might become apparent in the fullness of time, but the fact that Mannix and four other players related to Accrington wagered a combined sum of £10,505 on Bury to win, according to FA charges, suggests this was not a typical day's punting. Or if it was, then never have so many alarm bells sounded before.

Asking the gambling industry to open up and let you into their secrets is never going to get you far, but even long-suffering veterans in the trade were surprised at the levels of cash on Bury. They were so surprised that at least three separate firms independently alerted the FA, the Gambling Commission and the Association of British Bookmakers about suspicious betting patterns on or before Friday 2 May.

And some, if not all, of those bookmakers are also likely to have played a role in almost a year of forensic detective work by the FA's understaffed compliance unit to find out who was betting, where, and why.

Amazingly, even with the cloud of suspicion hanging over the game after the result had followed the money, some bookies paid out to winners who had placed "dodgy" bets.

But as one impeccable bookmaking source told The Independent: "When we suspect something iffy is going on [with a winning bet] we pay out as a matter of policy by cheque. Of course, if we want, we can then follow it. It's our way of saying 'we know something is going on, and now you know we know, so watch it'."

The Independent does not know whether that specific bookmaker's cheques have been or will be used to trace the people who made bets. Most bookmakers are reluctant to give up too much information unless forced. Some fear a tag of "snitches" which might keep punters away. Some want nothing to do with substantiating claims of dodgy betting in case the knock-on effects damage the industry.

Yet under Gambling Commission powers, bookmakers can be asked for all kinds of detail and, if necessary, be forced to provide it. It would seem the FA has done some meticulous work on this case, viewing CCTV from shops where bets were placed and then trying to match footage with faces and cross-match with betting records.

Whether all bets were examined is doubtful in the extreme. Theoretically it should be possible to discover total wagers to the last penny. All bookmakers, on the high street and online, should keep detailed accounts, and if the Gambling Commission demanded disclosure, it could find out. Chains including William Hill, Coral and Paddy Power saw big suspicious sums, prompting reports to regulators. Industry insiders think up to between £500,000-£800,000 was wagered across all platforms, up to 10 times expected levels.

Betfair, the main online firm, saw increased trade, but not suspicious trade. Around £281,000 was wagered with them alone, but a lot of that was on the Saturday morning after rumours of a sting had emerged, but before kick-off. This was from general punters. The Independent understands no FA charges arose from Betfair data. The company is famous for its electronic audit trail of every bet back to the gamblers. "If you are going to get involved in a dodgy bet, you are not likely nowadays to go down the path of likely detection," said a source.

The Independent also understands the FA requested phone records, bank account access and betting account details from a number of "football people", and that at least some of its charges arose from this work.

Compared to many countries, especially those in Eastern Europe, England has remained largely free of serious malpractice related to betting and football. Certainly proven cases are few and far between. The hope at the FA is things can stay that way, but nobody in the corridors of power is complacent. Especially not in an era when placing a bet – be it legitimate or otherwise – is only a mouse-click away.

Even Uefa's president, Michel Platini, reiterated yesterday that eradicating corruption linked to betting is his organisation's top priority. "The greatest danger to football is match-fixing," Platini said. "Uefa is investing a lot to combat match-fixing."

So, slowly but surely, are authorities in Britain.

How last match of season unfolded for Accrington

The action as it happened: the following is a verbatim contemporary match report from the Press Association, 3 May 2008...

"Andy Bishop, Bury's highly rated striker, took his tally to 25 goals for the season with both goals in the 2-0 win at Accrington. Bishop fired home from the penalty spot in the 21st minute after Phil Edwards had chopped down Nicky Adams.

"Then, on the stroke of half-time, the 26-year-old burst through and finished superbly past Kenny Arthur for the mid-table side. Stanley, safe from relegation, had chances in the first half, but Bury 'keeper Jim Provett did well to thwart Paul Mullin and Bobby Grant. The home side dominated after the break but were wasteful.

"Andy Todd blasted over in a good position, substitute Leighton McGivern scuffed a golden opportunity and Mullin was denied by Provett from close range to end a disappointing season for Accrington."

The next phases: The key remaining questions

Who made the bets?

The million-dollar question, almost literally. According to Football Association charges against five footballers, it is alleged that they collectively bet £10,505 on Bury, and have apparently been identified doing so convincingly enough for charges to be brought against them. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of pounds of other bets struck by other people. Huge amounts of detective work would be needed to find out who they were. The footballers, at least, were relatively famous and easier to trace.

Why are only footballers in the dock?

Because the FA only has a remit to look at breaches of its rules, which govern only players, managers and officials.

Whose job is it to investigate whether there was a wider conspiracy?

Possibly the police, but probably only at the request of the FA and/or the Gambling Commission, who are undecided what to do yet.

How will the players plead, and what action might their pleas lead to?

It is possible that at least one and maybe several of the players will plead guilty, arguing mitigating circumstances such as their ignorance of the rules on gambling. They might even say that the money was somebody else's.

Whose?

Excellent question. Hard to answer.

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