The day the battle of the reds was all 'squared'
Incident that led to football being suspended until end of first World War, writes RICHARD FITZPATRICK
Manchester United played Liverpool at Old Trafford on Good Friday, April 2nd, 1915, in the old First Division. United were in the relegation zone. Liverpool hovered above them, in the days of two points for a win, by four points.
The first World War was in full, bloody, swing. Russian and Austrian soldiers were mired in knee-high snow shooting at each other in the Carpathians. The Second Battle of Ypres, in which 6,000 French army soldiers died within 10 minutes of assault from chlorine gas poisoning, was a few weeks away.
On the Monday evening before the match, a group of players from both sides met up in The Dog and Partridge pub in Manchester and arranged to fix the match, placing bets in bookies around the country at odds of 8 to 1 and 7 to 1 that the game would end in a 2-0 score line. The conspirators reconvened on the eve of the match in another pub, agreeing a goal would be scored in each half.
Illegal betting on football was rife at the time, a vice the country’s elders tried in vain to curb. The Football League were so disturbed at how widespread it had become that in 1902, like a man wrestling with the waves, they tried to ban everyone who attended a match from betting on its result.
In July 1913, the House of Commons debated a Ready Money Football Betting Bill. The Right Honourable W Hayes Fisher told his peers in parliament: “The FA has long been determined to endeavour to free this game from the excrescences which have grown upon it in connection with betting and gambling.”
Liverpool, ominously, were involved in two recent football scandals. In 1911, a drawn game against Newcastle United led to an inquiry by the FA, which turned up nothing. In March 1913, Liverpool lost 2-1 to Chelsea, a defeat which helped preserve the London club’s First Division status.
Henry Norris, Arsenal’s chairman had gone to the match and wrote a huffy letter afterwards to a London newspaper, maintaining: “Had the Liverpool team, as a whole, desired to win the match they could have done so quite readily.” The FA sprung into action, but their inquiry again failed to land any convictions.
The players who fixed the match were doubtless influenced by the war, which was dragging on interminably. The government hadn’t introduced conscription when war broke out in August 1914, and it was decided to let competitive football continue in an effort to preserve normal life; to serve as a distraction for soldiers on leave or those left at home.
The mood was changing, however. There was a growing sense play should be halted to support the war effort, a suspension which would have left many players too old or too dead to make a living from the game again when the league resumed. A few days before the infamous Good Friday match at Old Trafford, Colonel CF Grantham, a commander of the 17th Battalion, otherwise known as the Footballers’ Battalion, noted bitterly that only 122 professional footballers of an estimated 1,800 available had enlisted.
The historian AF Pollard rowed in, writing to the Times: “We view with indignation and alarm the persistence of Association Football clubs in doing their best for the enemy – every club that employs a professional football player is bribing a much needed recruit to refrain from enlistment and every spectator who pays his gate money in contributing so much towards a German victory.”
Join the army
Even the Athletic News, a sports paper, exhorted players in front page stories in the months before Easter 1915 to join the army, and applauded those who did. And on the day of the match, the official programme, amidst advertisements which argued that “a bottle of Manchester Brewery Milk Stout contains more nutriment than a glass of milk”, noted on page six: “The continuance of the war may prevent the opening of the season next September. In the result of the military situation taking a turn unfavourable to the Allies, football will be out of the question.”