The day the battle of the reds was all 'squared'
Reports vary as to the attendance at the match. Some newspapers offer a figure of 15,000; others 18,000, both above the average attendance for a game that season of 11,950.
The game kicked off under a blanket of low, dark clouds and gushing showers. The weather was “wretched,” according to the Liverpool Daily Posts correspondent, but brightened up after the first quarter of an hour. United played in customary red shirts. Liverpool wore their away strip – white shirts and black shorts. The home side, which was captained by Dubliner Patrick O’Connell, won the toss and elected to play with the breeze in the first half.
Liverpool’s goalkeeper was Elisha Scott from Belfast. His brother Billy was Everton and Ireland goalkeeper. Scott was 20 years of age and 5ft 9in tall, but was such a promising goalkeeper Liverpool forked out £1,000 for him two years previously. He was overrun in the first half. United’s goalkeeper, Bob Beale, was so redundant he had time to spark up a cigarette and walk up to Scott’s goal and share it with his counterpart. Scott finally yielded five minutes before the break when United’s striker George Anderson met a cross-field ball and whipped a volley past him.
Liverpools dressingroom was in disarray at the break. Some of their players were so furious they threatened not to return to the field for the second half. There was effectively two matches being played – one by the players in on the fix, and the others, which included Liverpool and England captain Ephraim Longworth, who tried to get on with the game.
Some minutes into the second half, United won a penalty, according to the Sporting Chronicles correspondent, “for hands against Pursell”, or handball in modern parlance. Anderson, the team’s regular penalty-kicker, stepped aside to let O’Connell take it. The Irishman blazed his shot “ridiculously wide”, reported the Liverpool Daily Post.
The crowd, who had grown agitated by the listlessness of play from both sides, smelt a rat, “and said so in unmistakable Lancashire fashion,” one of the match’s linesmen Fred Hargreaves later testified in court. Boos echoed around the stadium. The referee, John Sharpe, conferred with Hargreaves about the dubious spot kick, but waved play on.
Manchester United’s manager John Robson was so disillusioned he left the ground before the final whistle. United bagged their second goal, Anderson again hitting the target, although Liverpool nearly scored when Fred Pagnam rattled the bar with a shot. He was upbraided by a team-mate for his effort.
Newspaper reports about the shenanigans in the match afterwards were muted, although the day after the match the Manchester Football Chronicle quoted “one famous old player” in attendance who was aghast: “You don’t need the War to stop the game, football of this sort will do it soon enough”.
Two weeks after the match, the Sporting Chronicle, convinced the match had been “squared”, offered a reward of £50 to anyone who provided information that led to punishment of the offenders. A week later, the Football League launched an investigation, which was headed up by a three-man commission, including two former referees. On April 20th, it was announced the football league would be suspended until the war was over.
The Football League’s inquiry dragged on until December 1915, having hauled players in for questioning as they billeted themselves in hotels in Manchester and Liverpool. It concluded there was “a conspiracy to defraud bookmakers”, but exonerated both clubs, who helped with the investigation. Eight players received life suspensions from football.
Liverpool’s Jackie Sheldon, who was part of Manchester United’s league-winning team in 1911, was pinpointed as the ringleader. He denied his part in the plot in a peculiar letter he sent from the trenches in April 1916, pleading: “You will understand how difficult it is for me to explain while doing my bit somewhere in France.”
Three United players were suspended, although only one of them, Enoch James “Knocker” West had played in the match. O’Connell, who worked with West at the Ford Motor Works factory in Trafford Park during the war, escaped censure but he took the stand during two quixotic cases West brought against the Football Association and several newspapers for libel. When questioned about the penalty he mishit, O’Connell replied brazenly: “I have missed dozens in my time.” The response drew raucous laughter in the courtroom.