Around A Crooked Table

betting_1154763cToday the Scottish Football Monitor site has put up a flag and proposed a brand new cross-club scheme to bring fans together and make big changes within the game. Needless to say, this site wholeheartedly supports that venture.

It is long overdue, and I am glad that I had this article to put up because it might serve as a suggestion for one area in which reform needs to be made, one that doesn’t get enough attention but remains a serious concern for many fans.

There is a certain arrogance that exists in Scottish football that we don’t like.

It never manifests itself amongst the fans, who know the sport they absolutely love has seen enough scandal over the years that anything goes. You are most likely to find it amongst those inside football and on those rare occasions when the subject is raised they don’t want to hear it.

Then the media takes up their cries of denial with a vigour they never apply to defending any other aspect of the game.

There is no corruption in Scottish football, they tell you.

They refuse even to countenance the suggestion that there might be.

When Celtic recently asked for an explanation about the bizarre refereeing decision that may have cost us a domestic treble the hacks were quick to point the finger at Lawwell and the club for trying to ride roughshod over the governing body because we’d lost an important game.

They said that it was motivated by a desire to blow smoke, to cover for our failings on that particular day.

This reaction was not unexpected.

The media never misses a chance to have a sneaky kick at Celtic, and this one wasn’t even partially disguised. Some of the more ridiculous hacks even saw it as a chance to attack our CEO and suggest he step down from his post at the SFA, even bringing the Dave King hearing into it although one had nothing to do with the other.

Thus were their own motivations made crystal clear.

Yet, I wonder now if perhaps the whole Josh Meekings thing was misinterpreted from the off. Were Celtic really seeking an explanation on behalf of the club, or was their concern motivated by something else? A concern for football itself?

Some will scoff at the very suggestion, but even if it wasn’t, I don’t think anyone can dispute (without being biased) that regardless of intent, Celtic may have been doing our national sport a great service in trying to bring into light something a lot of people would rather we didn’t.

I’ll tell you what a lifetime of reading about the dark side of human nature suggests to me about an equally long timeline in watching our national game; I suspect that at least one match in which I have had some kind of emotional interest has been fixed, either partially or wholly.

I am convinced of this, beyond all shadow of a doubt. Although no direct evidence of it exists (it wouldn’t, of course) it would be absolute folly not to believe it has happened.

If you believe the naysayers, Scotland is the only part of the global game in which the honesty of referees is not even in question, where players are so dedicated to their teams that the notion of throwing matches never crosses their minds, where managers play their strongest team every week with the intention of winning every game and where everyone involved in the sport is in it for the glory, for the love of it, and not for financial rewards.

The moment you conclude that any one of these things is in doubt you have to accept that anything might have happened – or be happening now – and that the integrity of our game is only maintained because of the things we don’t know.

A lot of our media commentators are quite open about preferring it that way. Hugh Keevins once famously said we should not investigate corruption in case we found some evidence of it, because, he said, that evidence would destroy football in this country.

Forget the fact that if we’re all sitting around a crooked table the game isn’t worth a damn anyway; this was a journalist, or a self-defined one, talking about the benefits of living in ignorance.

This is but one of the reasons I view much of the press in this country with undisguised contempt. So few of them remember what they are actually for and what the purpose of their profession is. That they would rather let cheating go undiscovered and unpunished is bad enough, but to actually claim they want it that way for the good of the game … well, what can you say?

I do want to know.

I think most football fans would.

In England, last week, the whole game received a proper shock to the system when Delroy Facey was found guilty of match fixing. He faces being sent to jail. It was the second high profile court case to rock the sport down there in recent years, although both trials were focussed on the same scam.

Any complacency that might have existed down there was erased at a stroke by this case and the verdict in it.

They are now alert, vigilant, and watchful for anything which threatens the game further.

The same complacency that exists here in Scotland was, doubtless, equally rampant south of the border for years beyond counting, along with that deep rooted suspicion that only Johnny Foreigner had enough disrespect for the sport to get involved in this kind of thing. Then, in 2013, the match-fixing scandal erupted there and changed things.

But change always happens slowly. Because how could such a thing happen here, on this island, the birthplace of the game itself?

Easy. It happened like it does anywhere else, and it was motivated by the same greed.

Furthermore, in a sport where the players at the very top are paid salaries which boggle the mind it’s not difficult to imagine what drives some young guy who never quite made it, or some old pro who missed out on the days of the big money, to forfeit their love of the game for one big payday. Without condoning it, you can understand the motivation.

What’s worse, if you’ve ever been on a sports betting website you’ll have seen the awesome array of options now available to the gambler. You can stick a quid on everything from the number of corners to whether or not the game will have a penalty kick or a red card. It is heaven for the Saturday afternoon punter who likes to sit and watch Sky Sports News, but it opens the door wide to all manner of possible fixes and scams.

One of the stories that emerged from these court cases was that of Sam Sodje, who had played for Reading and Portsmouth, who told undercover reporters than in one particular game he had twice punched then Oldham striker Jose Baxter, in order to get himself a red card and fulfil his terms of a scam that would have netted £70,000.

On 2 May this year, in an astonishing after-match outburst, the Newcastle United manager, Steve Carver, expressed his disbelief at his own player, Mike Williamson, getting red carded for a second bookable offence, after a ridiculous, un-necessary challenge on a Leicester player during a 3-0 defeat. Although there is no suggestion that Williamson was involved in a scam, Carver was pretty clear when he spoke to the media after the game.

“‘I thought he meant it. When I was standing in the technical area, and the ball went onto that left hand side, after already having a caution, my first reaction, five yards before he made the tackle was: ‘Don’t do it’. He did it.

“Vardy was off the pitch, Williamson was off the pitch, the ball was off the pitch. There is no need to do it. I’m not accepting that, especially the situation we’re in.

“I don’t know why he would do it. It was just my thought, “He’s meant that”. I’ve told him that. I’ve said it to his face.”

That’s how easy it would be. That’s how it could be done.

And even as English football was still reeling from that, another Scottish based player, Steven Lawless, of Partick Thistle, was being charged with betting on games.

It infuriates me to know that if this guy is found guilty the most he will get is a slap on the wrist for it and told not to be such a naughty boy in future.

Those rules exist for a damned good reason, as the above examples very clearly demonstrate. Violations of them threaten the integrity of the sport. Yet we’ve allowed a cavalier, almost contemptuous, attitude to develop towards them.

Without wanting to distract from the actual point of this piece, I have to say that part of that has been fostered by the outlook at Ibrox and the soft-soaping way the SFA dealt with infringements involving two of their players, setting a very bad precedent for the future.

Now I accept that the club was never going to throw its players to the wolves; I would not have expected that at all. But I was shocked, and appalled, when first McCoist and then later Kenny McDougall and Stuart McCall didn’t so much stand up for their footballers but actually questioned the rules themselves.

Craig Swan, at The Daily Record, was but one journalist who not only defended their stance but called upon the SFA to “relax the rules” following the news that Steve Simonson had become the second player at the club to fall foul of the regulations.

Perhaps he didn’t know what was going on in the English match-fixing case. Perhaps he just didn’t give a toss.

But to make such a dangerous suggestion in print – that the SFA basically dump its policy because it had uncovered inconvenient facts, when those rules exist to protect the sport, when, in fact, they are actually mandated by UEFA and FIFA – took media ignorance to brand new levels.

What’s more, in the first case involving a player at Ibrox, that of Ian Black, we are all too aware that McCoist didn’t stop with just condemning the rules themselves but actually waved his famous dossier in the faces of the media claiming to know dozens of people – including officials – who he said were involved in the same thing.

I cannot think of a more serious charge for a manager to have levelled during a press conference. I gasped when I heard that he’d done that.

I said at the time that the SFA should have convened a panel and had him in front of it, to answer serious questions about that claim.

No-one bothered.

Not one newspaper ran a follow up story.

Not one editorial demanded those answers.

It is breath-taking. A complete media silence on an issue of enormous importance.

The SFA ignored the statement, as if they’d not heard it, although it was on every news channel that night and on every back page the following day.

The matter just went away, allowed to die by people with no interest in opening the can of worms.

The can of worms needs to be opened though or what the Hell are we all watching week in, week out? How do we know the game isn’t rigged?

See, what a lot of people don’t want to acknowledge is that if Scottish football is straight, if all of our officials and players really are on the level, that we’re not observing the general rule across football. In fact, we’re one of the rare exceptions to it.

There are a half dozen countries, included amongst them some of the biggest leagues in Europe, like Portugal, Italy and Germany, where referees have fixed matches, been caught, and thrown out of the game and straight into jail.

There are a dozen others where non officials have been involved and, after investigations, evidence has been uncovered which has sent people to prison.

Players, officials, even some managers, have seen their reputations and careers destroyed because of their activities on behalf of betting syndicates or other corrupt institutions.

We now accept, as a matter of fact, that the upper echelons of the sport are reeking with the stink of a half dozen major scandals. In the World Cup after next the whole of the global game will be plunged into total chaos, probably lasting at least two years, due to playing the Qatari World Cup Finals in the winter months instead of in the summer, a decision which makes no logistical sense whatsoever and which was made to protect a group of corrupt men who made a thoroughly corrupt decision to award that country the tournament.

Here in Scotland we have credible evidence to suggest the whole commercial side of our game was crashed, un-necessarily, deliberately, to scare its clubs into accepting a NewCo version of Rangers into the top tier.

We have lived through Lord Nimmo Smith, Jim Farry, Hugh Dallas and sectarian emails and Dougiegate, scandals which would have shook any other national association to its very foundations and resulted in heads rolling everywhere.

But we balk, we draw the line, at thinking someone might have made a killing on the number of free kicks awarded in a big game?

Are you serious?

In October 2011, the Motherwell player Steve Jennings was arrested in connection with a gambling syndicate scam that allegedly involved, amongst others, Wayne Rooney’s father. The investigations related to a Motherwell – Hearts match where the midfielder was red carded, a game that investigators described as having “unusual betting patterns.”

In 2012, he was cleared of any involvement, and his then manager, Stuart McCall, criticised the SFA, saying that “un-named officials” had recommended the player be banned from participating in games until the matter was properly investigated.

On the one hand McCall was right to be critical. Hanging a guy out to dry before any credible evidence is made available would be a disgrace.

But I can’t help thinking that those un-named officials might have had the good of our sport in mind at the time.

A year later, after Ian Black was charged by the SFA for betting on 55 separate matches, including some involving his own team, Kevin Twaddle, the ex St Johnstone midfielder, said that gambling in the Scottish game was “rife”.

He warned of the creep of illegal betting, and of the syndicates who, he said, would be taking an interest in our sport if they weren’t already.

“Gambling is an epidemic within Scottish football,” he said. “People don’t realise how serious an issue it is. What has been alleged so far is only the tip of the iceberg.”

He went on to say that, “It is so easy to do. There will have been players who have bet against their own team … there is no doubt about that. Bearing in mind that players are in a privileged position; they know if key players are going to be out or playing or if your team is going to be weakened. How hard is it for, say a young kid, to put £50 on the opposition thinking it will be easy money? It happens.”

No doubt that it does. But does anyone want to do something about it?

One of the problems, as I’ve said repeatedly, is the media.

We have no standard of investigative journalism in this country, no newspaper of record that wants to look into this situation and see if there’s something going on. Instead we have clubs who occasionally express their disbelief at a situation or moment in a match and we have players who sometimes find themselves on the edge of decisions which stagger them and make them suspicious.

None of those suspicions ever comes to light.

We have regulations which give officials far more protection than they are entitled to or can reasonably justify.

In other words, with a media which would rather not know and an SFA culture which prevents people asking hard questions, and where respect for the regulations has been eroded steadily over years of scandal, we have, by accident or design, created exactly the circumstances under which cheating could not only take place but actually flourish.

And this means, of course, that if it wasn’t going on before there’s no disincentive for someone who wants to start.

Twaddle was bang on about that.

It’s a perfect mix, just waiting for someone to add the ingredient that makes it all go bang.

That’s a matter of time, if it’s not already happening.

So what can we do about all this?

In truth, not a Hell of a lot.

If the media doesn’t want to pursue it and the authorities insist on keeping up walls that offer cover to anyone who wants to get involved in a bit of game rigging, our power to change it is non-existent, at least in the short term.

But a start might be if the fans of all the clubs actually stopped bitching each other out when complaints over bad refereeing arise. I see too much of that, and if cheating is going on this is one of the things the perpetrators rely on to get away with it.

Another would be if the fans pressed the clubs to lobby the governing body for the introduction of TV evidence in key decisions. This would not be difficult to implement; the cameras routinely cover big matches and you could easily leave one or two of them in strategic spots to make sure things out on the pitch are alright.

They won’t catch everything, but they might be enough of a disincentive for officials or players who may be indulging in underhanded behaviour.

Clubs could start treating gambling amongst players more seriously than they appear to. Those footballers who are caught should be subject to heavy SFA sanctions and internal fines that actually act as some kind of deterrent, instead of looking like a slap on the wrist.

The enormous range of potential bets means it would be easy enough for a group of players to come together and spread the money around, influencing their own games whilst the others bet on those matches, giving the appearance of being “clean” because they didn’t bet on ones they played in.

Yeah, that easy, right? And if a guy like me can come up with that, on the cuff, sitting in front of the computer one day, think what the professionals could get away with.

Once again, problems facing the game in this country are going to require efforts by the fans because the will to get stuck in apparently doesn’t exist elsewhere.

Maybe we’re wrong though. Maybe there are genuine leaders at the clubs who want to see changes made and who will push for those. Maybe they’ll surprise us all.

In the meantime, the supporters are picking up the slack.

This is why I’m delighted to see that the guys over at the Scottish Football Monitor are putting together something that will cross the boundaries between fans of different sides and build a truly inclusive, all encompassing supporters representative body.

I’ve said before, many times, that I believe the work that site is doing is the most important anywhere in Scottish football.

I await their next steps with enormous interest.

In the meantime, I’m watching the referees.

We all should be.

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7 comments on “Around A Crooked Table
  1. Absolutely fuc**** brilliant article. Thanks, I am raging and galvanised into supporting all that can be done to clear the middens out!!!

  2. If Res12 of Celtic AGM of 2013 were passed then UEFA would find out how corrupt our game is if they used their investigative powers.

    If our game has nothing to hide why are SFA not welcoming an investigation?

    Answers on the back of a bent 9 bob note.

  3. Spot on James.

    Muir gets the QOTS/ RANGERS game………why?

    The guy’s eyesight is obviously in question yet despite his horrendous error he gets a top game…….involving his favourite club!

    Net result…..criticism from both managers. What do these clowns have to do to be sacked?

    It’s scandalous but as you quite rightly say no one wants to put their head above the parapet and tell it like it is.

    We have the worst referees in Europe……perhaps more time working on their weaknesses rather than attending lodge meetings might help improve performances.

    Let’s be honest…..would anyone be surprised if ig turned out that collusion and corruption was rife in our game?

  4. If there was even a hint of a Celtic player being involved in anything iffy, watch the media go to town then…I kid you not.

  5. Yet another brilliant article James! heaven knows what would happen if there were not more like you.people most right minded people are heartily sick and tired of corruption at all levels of society.especially the top echelons.

  6. The ‘fixed ‘game of which you speak, do you mean for gambling purposes ?

    I have my suspicions about a match in which I had an emotional involvement but one of the currencies was information about a central figure in that game.
    In fact, I believe it to be true of other games which had controversial outcomes but 2 constants were the team which benefited and the central figure himself.
    At the time the SMSM were critical but all insisted that,at worst, human error was to blame.
    This was strange because, at the same time, it was argued that human weakness was only present in foreign associations but never here in Scotland !

    Just my suspicions, of course.

    It is little consolation that the information was exclusively revealed some time after the damage had been done.

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