Before I wade into the debate over ‘match-fixing’ in English football it’s important to establish what we’re actually talking about.
As far as I can tell the controversy at the moment centres around spot-fixing rather than match-fixing.
Match-fixers try to fix results – something I’ve always thought must be incredibly difficult to do – whereas spot-fixers make their money by betting on pre-arranged red cards, yellow cards, throw-ins etc.
It’s illegal to spot-fix – and so it should be – but we need to be careful about convincing ourselves that English football is bent or a total sham. But if you think that spot-fixing is a new phenomenon, think again.
Go back to the mid-1990s and watch replays of the opening moments of top-level matches. You’ll see a familiar routine: teams kicking off and then lumping the ball into the stands as quickly as they can. Why? Because players had money riding on when the first throw-in would be taken.
At the time it was acceptable for them to bet on games they were involved in – it’s strictly forbidden now – but the bookies hadn’t cottoned on and were getting their odds very wrong. Giving a throw-in away in the first minute isn’t going to influence the final result. Others things would, of course. Taking a red card, conceding an own goal or giving away a penalty, but it’s far more difficult to do any of that without drawing attention to yourself.
Yellow cards are less controversial and if someone asks you to pick up a booking between the 30th and 45th minute it’s not much of a challenge to do so. Nor would it be hard to take £10,000 in cash and squirrel it away. That’s the thing about spot-fixing; it’s almost untraceable and it can be easy to hide, unless you’re reckless or stupid. Stamping it out is a massive challenge.
We all like to be moral angels but to play devil’s advocate, I can understand why players might be tempted when someone’s offering easy money, particularly if being asked to do something that won’t impact heavily on a game. You can take the cash and still win the game, no? Some of them must reason it that way.
Deliberate yellow cards are probably the most interesting aspect of the debate. Loads of players are guilty of purposefully looking for a caution. I did it myself, though not for any money, I did it for the good of the team.
When Leeds United were in the second group stage of the Champions League, we went to Anderlecht for our penultimate tie. It was clear that we were going through so I made sure I got a yellow card to clear my record for the knockout stages.
It cost me an appearance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu – our final group game – and I never had the chance to play there again. People will say I was wrong but I don’t regret it. I did what I and others thought was best for the situation at the time. I was ‘ultra-professional’.
The bottom line is that I’d never, ever have done that for money. You have to ask: is taking a yellow card to give your club an edge different to taking a yellow card for hard cash? In the eyes of the law it is and I think that’s right. But I always try to be wary of pretending that I’m on a pedestal.
Betting in the UK is very well regulated and most bookmakers know exactly how much is likely to be gambled on individual games and individual markets. An unusual increase sets alarm bells ringing straight away. The issue is really with betting in the Far East which seems to have little or no regulation whatsoever. How we get on top of that, I’ve no idea.
What we can do is to make sure that the punishment for anyone involved is extremely severe. Make players realise that one payment of £10,000 might cost them their livelihood and their liberty. Back in 1999 a group of blokes who tried to fix a game between Charlton and Liverpool by sabotaging the floodlights got between 18 months and four years in prison. So I wouldn’t say we’re a soft touch.
But unfortunately, no matter how hard you try, there are always anomalies and people who break the rules. Maybe they’re desperate or maybe they just succumb to temptation when the money’s dangled in front of them. We shouldn’t panic about this because I don’t believe the problem is endemic. But nor should we pretend that it doesn’t exist.