In the latest installment of our Forgotten EFL series, we look at the scourge of match-fixing.
Over the years, many teams and players have been sanctioned for fixing the outcome of a game. In 1964, a man named Jimmy Gauld was found guilty of fixing matches, whilst more recently, Delroy Facey was also convicted of attempting to determine the outcome of games. In both instances, the motivation was money, but for Coventry City, the motivation was a little more pure. Survival.
Coventry are a team of survivors. They spent 33 years in the top flight between 1967 and 2001, only finishing in the top nine on three occasions. Often, they were embroiled in a relegation battle, but more recently, they have battled for their survival under the toxic ownership of SISU. That’s a fight they’ve won, but they’ve done it fairly and squarely. Twice, that has not been the case.
In 1977, the race for survival in the top flight went down to the final day of the season. Games finished on different days, but at the bottom, the crucial matches were to kick off at the same time. Sunderland, starting the day two places above the drop zone, faced a trip to mid-table Everton. They knew a point would suffice, as the other two teams, Bristol City and Coventry City, faced each other at Highfield Road. Stoke and Spurs were already relegated, and although West Ham looked in danger on 36 points, the two points for a win system ensured they would live to fight another day. Coventry were in real danger – they needed a win to ensure safety or to better Sunderland’s result at Goodison.
10,000 Bristol City fans made the trip to Coventry, with many delayed in heavy traffic. It was reported at the time that police advice was for the game to be delayed, but in 2012, a Guardian article suggested it was done at the behest of Coventry chairman Jimmy Hill. Either way, the game kicked off ten minutes later than the tie at Goodison.
It started well for the Sky Blues. Tommy Hutchinson gave them a 1-0 lead at the break, whilst, at Goodison, Bob Latchford had put Everton 1-0 up against Sunderland. Jimmy Hill’s side then came out all guns blazing and added a second, a strike from range hitting the bar and falling to Hutchinson, who stabbed home. It looked as if The Robins’ short stay in Division One was coming to an end.
Not so – they rallied, and Gerry Gow rattled home from 18 yards. It set up a tense finish, and with ten left on the clock, Chris Garland headed across goal, and Don Gillies snatched a leveller. If it stayed that way, the Robins were safe. They didn’t know it, but so were Coventry – over on Merseyside, Bruce Rioch had added a second for Everton, and the game was over. However, there were still ten minutes to play at Highfield Road.
Jimmy Hill rushed to the announcer’s box and got the score displayed on the scoreboard. Within seconds, the fans knew it was over, as did the players. If it stayed 2-2, both teams were safe.
What followed has rankled Sunderland supporters for many years. Coventry were struggling to contain the resurgent Bristol City team, but suddenly, neither side had anything to play for. Instead, Bristol City knocked the ball about across the back four, with Coventry making no attempt to try and win it back. It was a truce, one that determined the outcome of the game. It finished 2-2 without another effort on either goal, and both teams remained in the First Division.
It was not an outcome well received by the Football League. Secretary Alan Hardacker immediately wrote to Coventry to enquire as to why the result was displayed on the scoreboard. On Wearside, fans called foul, as did the team. Sunderland complained, and whilst an official investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing, Coventry were ‘strongly reprimanded’ for their actions. It was an incident that remained in the hearts of Sunderland fans to such an extent that Jimmy Hill needed a police escort when the two teams met in 2008.
Whilst an incident of ‘match-fixing’ might still hurt Sunderland supporters today, Coventry’s earlier indiscretion was much more obvious, but it doesn’t seem to upset fans of the wronged club quite as much..
Before the Great War, Coventry City had been outside the Football League, looking in. They were ambitious, and at the cessation of hostilities, they were granted their coveted place in Division Two. Chairman David Cooke spent a small fortune on his team, hoping to see them climb to the hallowed pitches of the First Division. However, this is Coventry, and it will surprise nobody to know they struggled badly. They lost game after game, and Cooke tried everything. He even changed their strip, believing their old colours unlucky, and settling on the Sky Blue they wear today, although they did abandon it, only for none other than Jimmy Hill to bring it back in the early sixties.
Ultimately, it came down to a straight fight between them and founder members of the Second Division, Lincoln City. The Cits, as they were known then, had a huge doubleheader against Coventry that could ensure their survival, and they triumphed 4-1 in the first game.
Seven days later, all they needed was another win to condemn Coventry to their first relegation. The Sky Blues won 2-0. Days later, Coventry grabbed a surprise draw against Bury, putting the two teams level on points. Lincoln faced a trip to Huddersfield, one they were not expected to win, whilst Coventry once again faced Bury. At Gigg Lane, they too were expected to lose, and they’d be relegated on goal difference.
Lincoln lost 4-2 at Huddersfield, whereas Coventry bagged a surprise win. 1-0 down at half time, they rallied and scored twice in the second half. Lincoln were relegated, and the newly-christened Sky Blues stayed up. Cooke was overjoyed but it didn’t take long for questions to be asked about the Coventry score. Bury were fifth and should have brushed a poor team aside, and some Bury players even blamed their kit and ‘ill-fitting boots‘. As they would in 1977, the authorities smelled a rat and launched an investigation.
That investigation took three years, but eventually, it was determined Coventry had fixed the result. George Chaplin, the club captain, had headed to Bury pre-game with £200 to bribe the opposition players. With inflation, that’s around £7,500, a big sum for a team consisting of normal, working-class footballers. They got half before the game and half when the deed was done, Chaplin heading to a pub with an envelope full of cash. One wonders if it was brown.
Indeed, it is widely accepted that Coventry were so bad in the first half, that even trying to lose was a challenge for the Shakers’ players. “Coventry played so badly we had trouble allowing them the result they needed,” was one comment that came from the investigation. They were also bad at keeping a lid on what they’d done – five Bury players, two directors, and an official were banned from football in the aftermath. David Cooke, Coventry director Jack Marshall, and Chaplin were all banned for life.
Cooke’s desire to keep the club in the Football League worked, but they struggled for the next few seasons, never finishing above 19th. Eventually, they were relegated to Division Three (North) in 1925, where on the opening day of the season, they once again met Lincoln City at Highfield Road. On that occasion, Coventry won 3-2, but once again, accusations of cheating were rife, with their players later admitting a perfectly good goal had been chalked off for the visitors.
Still, no police escort is needed for Coventry officials at Sincil Bank these days. It seems the threshold for a grudge is somewhere between 32 years and 100 years!