It’s a curious dichotomy that when a big story breaks in non-league – and we’re talking the serious stuff here, not the “look at these poor amateur footballers and their crazy 50 fans” stories – that the larger news outlets are unsure how to cover it. Is this serious news, the kind that requires hand-wringing and pontificating for days on end, or something to be dismissed after a day because it doesn’t fit the wider news agenda?
The response to the Telegraph’s scoop on match fixing and the subject in general has followed this exact pattern. From one corner, it’s only non-league – and not even professional clubs at that – so who cares if there’s a few brown envelopes exchanging hands? In the other, this shows just how awful the game of football has become and Something Must Be Done.
But while media interest may have dropped a little when it became clear this didn’t involve football league clubs, there’s no doubt these are very serious allegations that need to be investigated further. The Conference Premier and North / South appears to be the focus of the investigation and while there are plenty of part-time clubs in the division, there’s also a large number of fully professional teams.
If the integrity of these matches is put in doubt this throws into question of promotions across the entire pyramid, not to mention short-changing the thousands of fans who are the lifeblood of many a non-league club. If these people – who would rather brave a cold Tuesday night on the terraces, often in hard-to-reach locations, than Champions League on the TV – lose faith then grassroots football would face a major crisis. This is just one of the reasons why the authorities should thoroughly investigate any allegations fully.
In some respects, though, it is perhaps not a surprise that this scandal has focused on the non-league game. The links to gambling being investigated are perhaps an alien world to most of us. This isn’t the equivalent of getting your friend to stick a couple of hundred on a game at William Hill or Matt Le Tissier attempting to win a substantial sum of money on the time of the first throw-in, although stringent rules rightly exist to prevent these abuses of the game. Instead, it’s the multi-million dollar murky world of Asian crime syndicates, who have been linked to fixed matches around the globe, raking in astronomical winnings as the result of their illegal activity.
While there have been fixes in relatively high-profile competitions – the German 2.Bundesliga, Champions League qualifiers and international friendlies – the matches involved generally aren’t the ones that make the back page headlines the next day. Like any good gambler, the syndicates know that good value lies where the main punters aren’t looking.
Premier League games are inherently expensive, difficult and risky to fix, but as you drop further down the leagues then the salaries decrease, especially for part-time players, meaning you’re most likely only a couple of desperately cash-strapped defenders away from finding a result to fix. And while those intimately familiar with this level of football may spot something wrong, the FA and other authorities, up until now, have given the distinct impression of reluctance to get involved. In short, ideal conditions for a fix.
If the Telegraph’s story does indeed stand up in court, then nobody can say there haven’t been warning signs. In 2009, bookmakers suspended betting on an end-of-season game between Forest Green Rovers and Grays Athletic after alleged suspicious patterns, although the gambling commission found insufficient evidence to prosecute.
Last season, betting was suspended on matches involving Conference South clubs AFC Hornchurch, Chelmsford City and Billericay Town and the FA wrote to all Conference South teams to remind them of their responsibilities under betting regulations. This was deemed enough, despite more than £1m being staked on a game between Billericay and Welling, more than was staked on a Barcelona game the same night.
Alan Alger, then the public face of Blue Square, last season’s sponsors, went so far as to say in his Non-League Paper column last season that he believed there has been at least one suspicious game in the Conference divisions during his tenure in charge. Similarly, Luton coach Hakan Hayrettin told this week’s edition of the paper that he’d reported suspicions of match fixing when he was in charge of Thurrock in 2010.
There’s no suggestion that any of these cases are linked to the current investigation and the seven arrests by the National Crime Agency. Indeed, all the cases listed could well be clean, but the very fact bookmakers are concerned enough to suspend betting should be warning in itself. In the current case, the links to Asia deal in a very different type of wholly unregulated market, which won’t be in any hurry to regulate itself.
It goes without saying that at the moment, that proceedings are active in the NCA case and all suspects are innocent until proven guilty. It’s certainly not unheard of for accused parties to embellish their involvement to newspapers, but the fact two men have already been charged shows the authorities are taking the issue seriously. It’s a start, for sure, but it would be naive to assume that there won’t be match fixing attempts in the future at non-league.
The FA may currently be keeping silent but there’s much they can do to show they are taking the issue seriously. Simply holding onto the belief that match fixing cannot occur in England is not an option.