Substantial illegal bets placed by footballers last year on their own team to lose a league match are "just the tip of the iceberg" of a far-reaching, organised scam, according to several senior insiders from both within the sport itself and the gambling industry.
The sources have told The Independent that "large six-figure sums" were involved, but the full extent of the corruption is only now beginning to emerge following an investigation by this newspaper. The investigation in question surrounds Accrington Stanley's home defeat to Bury in May 2008, and has discovered that some of the Football Association charges against six players were brought on the basis of CCTV evidence showing players wagering large cash sums in local betting shops. Cash betting is thought to be a more anonymous means of gambling than using telephone or online betting accounts.
Charges were brought by the FA against six players, five of whom wagered amounts up to £4,000. But the betting industry is now estimated to have taken up to £800,000 on the game, around 10 times the expected levels.
Yet in a candid admission of how impotent the FA is in potential match-fixing cases, an informed source has told The Independent that the FA "is highly unlikely to charge a player with match-fixing" and will not do so in this case. Match-fixing is simply too hard to prove, to specific legal satisfaction, whereas infringements of football's own betting rules are more clear-cut and more likely to end in convictions, though the matter remains within the sport's governing body.
The only scenario where the FA can envisage match-fixing charges would be if a whistle-blower, involved in a crime, admitted it and implicated others. That remains unlikely.
It is still possible, however, that the police could become involved in the Accrington affair, once the FA has finished with the case, and depending on whether the Gambling Commission – the industry watchdog – advises there could be grounds to suspect a conspiracy to defraud. The handling of the case will also test the resolve of the football authorities and the commission to root out betting corruption.
The case took a fresh twist yesterday when five players, all charged by the FA on 7 April with breaches of FA betting rules, were given an extra fortnight to take more legal advice over how they will plead. As a consequence, the verdict will now be delivered after the end of the domestic football season. If convicted, the defendants would be the first British professional footballers in decades to be found guilty of betting on their own team to lose, and the first in decades to be found guilty of any irregular betting.
Repercussions could be widespread. Speaking yesterday, the Uefa president, Michel Platini, echoed a previous investigation by this newspaper as he declared "The greatest danger to football is match-fixing," and vowed to combat the problem.
David Mannix, Jay Harris, Robert Williams and Peter Cavanagh were all on Accrington Stanley's books on 3 May 2008 when they allegedly bet sums of £4,000, £2,000, £1,000 and £5 respectively on their side to lose to Bury that day. Accrington lost 2-0. No player is allowed to bet on a match in which he or his team is involved or can influence. The investigation has learnt that Mannix's bet represents 50 weeks of his basic pay.
Another player, Andrew Mangan, formerly with Accrington but attached to Bury on that day, allegedly bet £3,500 on Bury, while a sixth player, Leighton McGivern, an Accrington substitute, faces an FA charge of failing to provide information to an investigation. McGivern has pleaded not guilty. The others, due to plead yesterday, will now do so around 7 May, with personal hearings later, and punishments or exoneration thereafter.
Mannix and Harris now play for Chester City. Williams and Cavanagh remain with Accrington. Mangan plays for Forest Green Rovers and Leighton is with Liverpudlian non-league side Waterloo Dock.
The "Stanley Sting", as some North-west bookies have termed the case, unfolded in the days running up to 3 May last year, the last day of the regular League Two season.
Accrington were originally the favourites until backers starting piling "unusually large sums", in cash, on Bury to win. The betting was concentrated at high-street shops in the North-west, mainly around Merseyside. Bury's odds continued to come in before suspicious bookies suspended the betting.
The FA, having been alerted to the rush of cash, even changed the referee and all the match officials at short noticed. The result still came out as the money predicted.
There was no innocent explanation for the crash in Bury's odds. Pre-match team news cited Bury with key injuries and absences. Initial reports suggested the money for Bury came in after reports of a stag night scheduled for the eve of the game involving an Accrington player. But there was no such party. "That was just a red herring [after the event]," said one well-placed source. "The situation stinks all the way through."
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