2 April 1915

English Football’s greatest match fixing scandal of all time

On 2 April 1915 Arsenal lost to Hull City 2-1 in a second division match. 

Which might seem rather an odd event to highlight in our day by day series on Arsenal’s history, but this day had a major impact on Arsenal’s history – an impact which continues to reverberate to this day. For on this day Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-0 in what became the most notorious match of all time in English league football.

The result itself was a bit of surprise because Liverpool were solidly mid-table at the time and Manchester United were heading for division 2.  But there was more, as Liverpool missed a penalty, reported in the press as the worst miss of all time, the ball slowly being rolled wide of the goal.  A number of players on the Manchester United side were reported as clearly not trying at all.  And above all as a result of all of this Manchester Utd did not go down to division 2.

So the bookies refused to pay up and offered a reward for anyone who could unmask the conspirators.  The Chronicle in particular took up the challenge and eventually blamed corrupt players on both sides of fixing the match both to get some money and to get Manchester out of relegation.

This was far from the first match fixing event and indeed the matter had been brought to the fore.  Most notable was the case in 1913, when Henry Norris, the Chairman of Arsenal, went to watch a Liverpool match, and found the spectacle so outrageous that he alleged match fixing in a subsequent newspaper article.  The League did not take kindly to this sort of reporting and rather than investigate the game, they instead warned Norris that if he ever repeated the allegations in terms of any match he would be banned from football for life.

But in the 1915 case, it was suggested that a lot of bets had been placed at 7 to 1 on a 2-0 win by Manchester United, and the word spread that three players from Manchester United, plus four players from Liverpool were involved.  It was also said that Jackie Sheldon who had previously played for Man U used his contacts with the opposition to fix up the arrangement.

Further it was subsequently stated that two players, Fred Pagnam of Liverpool and George Anderson of Manchester United, had refused to take part.  Fred Pagnam indeed testified against his teammates at the hearing.  

On 27 December 1915 the FA concluded that there had indeed been a conspiracy by the players, but not by the club or its officials.  As a result it was felt unreasonable to fine or deduct points from either club!  There was no suggestion made that the officials and directors of the club ought to have been aware what was going on or moved quickly to deal with their own players, although clearly if they didn’t know and didn’t suspect, there was a clear dereliction of duty among the directors.

The players involved were banned for life from playing League football in England, but could play in Scotland, and since four of the players were Scottish, and with the Scottish League 1st Division still running that gave them an opening to continue their career.   Enoch West was the one player who completely protested his innocence, and subsequently sued the FA for libel.

Some subsequent reports suggest that this victory saved Manchester United from relegation – this is untrue.  However, the victory certainly helped but just winning that game did not make them safe.

Given how he was censured in 1913 Henry Norris had remained quiet on match fixing commentaries but the 1915 match now gave Norris the chance to say that if the League had taken heed of his earlier comments, they could have stopped this and indeed the earlier Manchester United v Burnley match on 11 October 1913 where there were also allegations of a betting scam.  In this case one of the Man U players who was cleared in 1915 was finally jailed in 1918 for being part of a large scale match fixing for betting purposes syndicate – suggesting many more matches were fixed.

Quite clearly, in ignoring Norris’ complaints about the match he witnessed in 1913, and in initially ignoring the allegations concerning the Burnley match, the FA were supremely negligent, and they were only forced to act because of the refusal by betting companies to pay up in 1915.

There the matter rested until the summer of 1919 when the authorities prepared to start up football again.   They were of course aware of the continuing rumbles of discontent – Enoch West was still fighting them and running a libel case against the authorities, while Chelsea and Tottenham (both relegated in 1915) were claiming that Manchester United should be thrown out of the League, and that Liverpool should be demoted.

It was in part to get out of this mess that the League announced that the First Division was going to be enlarged by two clubs and that therefore Chelsea and Tottenham could apply for re-election to Division I.

But they had reckoned without Henry Norris at Arsenal.Norris, it appears, said that if this were allowed to pass then the message would go out that match fixing at a club level was acceptable, and that no club would ever be punished. 

Norris also announced that he was ready to start a Midland and Southern Football League which would be untainted with the whiff of match fixing.  What’s more he would make public the serious deficiencies in the League’s case.

Eventually the League agreed to talk with Norris, and out of this came the notion that the League could be expanded and that clubs could vote on who should go into the first division.

But the feeling that Arsenal did something wrong, rather than doing the right thing by highlighting the match fixing continues to this day, as we can see when on 29 March 2020 the Daily Mirror newspaper ran the headline “Inside England’s match-fixing scandal that involved Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal” above a story by Simon Mullock, Chief Football Writer of the Sunday Mirror.  So not a tale by a junior reporter, but by the chief football writer.

That story relates to events noted above and in the text that follows there is actually no mention of Arsenal at all.  So we are left with the headline suggesting Arsenal were engaged in match fixing, whereas in fact it was Arsenal that was the club and Henry Norris who was the man who protested the most and stopped the matter being brushed under the carpet for ever more.  He showed the League that when it came to corruption he could not be silenced.

Indeed it was this battle that eventually led to the final fight of Norris’ time at Arsenal when the League, FA and the Hill-Wood family who controlled Arsenal, finally force Sir Henry Norris out of Arsenal and out of football forever.