These days, it is impossible to imagine Liverpool and Manchester United doing any favors for each other. But just shy of a century ago, before the rivalry between the two escalated to the hyperbole that it is today, the two sides conspired together in creating what remains one of the biggest scandals the English game has ever seen.
On Good Friday in 1915, the Merseyside outfit traveled to Manchester for an end of season clash that held vastly contrasting significance for both sides. Liverpool were safe in mid-table, whereas United found themselves facing potential relegation to the second division. The Red Devils were in desperate need of a victory.
As the game began, it became apparent something was not quite right. United dominated the game from the off, with their opponents looking noticeably off pace. The Red Devils went in 1-0 up at the break and spurned a host of clear-cut opportunities.
One of the local papers, the Liverpool Daily Post exclaimed in it’s post match report that “A more one-sided first half would be hard to witness.” The second half saw United double their advantage twenty minutes before the end of the game and a subsequent spell of lifeless football ultimately followed. Liverpool were actually awarded a penalty late-on, but missed the target.
Initially it looked to be a massive win for United, as the two points gained from that clash steered them to safety. Chelsea were the side relegated at their expense.
The Manchester Daily Dispatch reported the following day that “The second half was crammed with lifeless football. United were two up with 22 minutes to play and they seemed so content with their lead that they apparently never tried to increase it. Liverpool scarcely ever gave the impression that they would be likely to score.” It was starting to become obvious that there had been some shenanigans were afoot. The Football League started investigating.
Two weeks on, it was noted that a suspiciously large number of bets had been placed on United winning 2-0. So much so, that the initial starting price of 7-1 on a 2-0 win was backed right into 4-1. The whole scenario was beginning to reek of match fixing.
The investigations by the Football League dragged on (just as they do a century later!) up until December, with the “Good Friday Commission” reaching a verdict a couple of days before Christmas. The players involved were vilified by the commission and were set to face the consequences. Here is a short extract from the commission’s statement:
“Every opportunity has been given to the players to tell the truth, but although they were warned that we were in possession of the facts some have persistently refused to do so, thus revealing a conspiracy to keep back the truth. It is almost incredible that players dependent on the game for their livelihood should have resorted to such base tactics. By their action they have sought to undermine the whole fabric of the game and discredit its honesty and fairness”
It emerged that the Liverpool captain and former United player Jackie Sheldon was at the forefront of the plan. The investigative panel found that Sheldon had met with team-mates Bob Pursell, Tom Miller and Thomas Fairfoul at a Manchester pub to concoct the plan. Here they were joined by United players Enoch West, Arthur Whalley and Sandy Turnbull.
The final outcome saw all of the aforementioned players – as well as Stockport County’s Laurence Cook – permanently excluded from the football league in both playing and managerial capacities. These bans remain the most severe administered by the Football League to date. It was suggested by the commission that the best way for the players could earn favor and potentially have their expulsions overturned would be to join the armed forces. It was of course, at a time where The Great War smeared the planet’s landscape.
So what became of the disgraced players? Six of the eight players heeded the advice of the panel and went on to serve their country in the Great War. Their bans were overturned in 1918 in recognition of their services to their country and they all went on to play again. But for two of those players involved, the tale turned sour.
Manchester United’s Enoch West was adamant of his innocence and decided to fight to clear his name. After numerous hearings and court battles, West did manage to clear his name in 1945. By that time however, he was 59 years old and chose to have no further involvement in the game.
But the most tragic segment of the whole affair is the story of Sandy Turnbull. A momentous figure in United’s history having scored the winner in the 1909 FA Cup Final and the first ever goal at Old Trafford, his career was coming towards its end at the time of the 1915 scandal. But he had obvious intentions of resuming his playing career, as he to decided to join the army in an attempt at having his ban cut short.
Unfortunately he would never return home from his trip. Having been reassigned to the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment in 1917, he and his men were ambushed by a German counter-attack. Turnbull was wounded and subsequently captured. His wife received a letter recounting what had happened to her husband:
“’I am writing to try to explain what has happened to your dear husband. He was wounded, and much to our sorrow, fell into German hands, so I hope you will hear from him.”
Unfortunately, nobody ever did, and it is presumed he was killed in captivity at the age of 33. Just like many men who’s bodies where never found, his name was engraved into the Arras memorial which commemorates those soldiers who perished with no known grave.
It is perhaps rather apt that the company Turnbull joined was known as the “Footballers Battalion”, and many of the its soldiers – just like the former Manchester United player – are most probably at rest under the fields of Northern France.
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