There was no fooling the 18,000 spectators at Old Trafford. “Play up, you rotters!” they screamed. The fix was on. They knew it, as Manchester United went through the motions against Liverpool on 2 April 1915, winning 2-0 in a listless performance.  According to the court testimony of Fred Hargreaves, a linesman for the match, fans made their disgust known in “unmistakable Lancashire fashion”. John Robson, Manchester United’s manager was so appalled he left the ground before the final whistle.

During two court cases, which dragged on until 1919, it emerged players from each side had fixed it so that United would win, with a goal to be scored in each half. Bets were placed on a 2-0 score-line around England at odds of seven and eight to one. The plot was the biggest British football scandal of the first half of the twentieth century.

The match was played on Good Friday. It was a holiday weekend but over on the continent the Great War raged. The snow was so deep underfoot in the Carpathians that Russian and Austrian soldiers stood plugged in the ground shooting at each other. The Second Battle of Ypres was a few weeks away. The war, which was dragging on interminably, undoubtedly influenced the players who rigged the match. The feeling at large was that the league should be shelved until the fighting had finished, by which time many of its players would be too old or too dead to play professional football again.

In the months preceding the game, the front pages of Athletic News, a Manchester-based newspaper, were peppered with items exhorting players to enlist in the army and applauding the minority who had done so. A few days before Good Friday 1915, Colonel CF Grantham, a commander of the 17th Battalion, otherwise known as the Footballers’ Battalion, noted bitterly that only 122 professional footballers of an estimated 1,800 available had enlisted. The historian AF Pollard wrote to the Times in similar disappointment: “We view with indignation and alarm the persistence of Association Football clubs in doing their best for the enemy — every club that employs a professional football player is bribing a much needed recruit to refrain from enlistment and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing so much towards a German victory.”

On the day of the match, the official programme, amid advertisements which claimed that “a bottle of Manchester Brewery Milk Stout contains more nutriment than a glass of milk”, did a little bit of soothsaying on its sixth page: “The continuance of the war may prevent the opening of the season next September. In the result of the military situation taking a turn unfavourable to the Allies, football will be out of the question.”

The match kicked off in heavy, showery rain, which subsided after about 15 minutes. United, decked out in their customary red jerseys, won the toss and played with the breeze; the visitors Liverpool wore black shorts and white shirts.

Liverpool’s goalkeeper was Elisha Scott from Belfast. His brother Billy was Everton and Ireland’s goalkeeper. Scott was only 20 years of age, but was such a promising keeper that two years earlier Liverpool had forked out £1,000 for him. He tended goal for the club until 1934, and became famous for his jousts with Everton’s Dixie Dean, but never put in a more unusual shift. He was overrun in the first half. United’s keeper, Bob Beale, was so redundant that he had time, apparently, to spark up a cigarette and walk up to Scott’s goal and share it with his counterpart.

Shots rained down on Scott, including, according to the Sporting Chronicle’s reporter, “a hot shot” by 25-year-old Joe Norton, which careered off the post. Scott finally yielded five minutes before the break when United’s striker George Anderson latched on to a cross-field ball and whipped a volley past him. 

Liverpool’s dressing room was in disarray at the break. Some of their players were so furious that they threatened not to return to the field for the second half. There were effectively two matches being played — one by the players in on the fix, and one by the others, which included the future England captain Ephraim Longworth, who tried to get on with the game.    

Midway through the second period, the home team won a penalty, according to the Sporting Chronicle’s correspondent, “for hands” against Liverpool defender Bob Pursell. Anderson, United’s normal penalty-taker, stood aside to let the team’s captain, the Irishman Patrick O’Connell, take the kick. O’Connell, or ‘Don Patricio’, was a picaresque character who later managed Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. According to a Liverpool Daily Post correspondent, the big half-back blazed his shot “ridiculously wide”. 

As the ref and Hargreaves, his linesman, conferred about their suspicions after the kick, boos echoed around the ground. The match officials allowed to game to continue, however. Anderson bagged a second goal. By this stage, the match had descended into farce. Enoch James West, or “Knocker”, as he was known to fans and friends, was particularly off his oats, having sent two good chances wide. 

West, 29, with boyish good looks, was Manchester United’s top scorer for three of his five seasons at the club, including the league-winning campaign of 1910-11. He fell back into defence, citing ankle problems, as the game progressed. “West was chiefly employed in the second half in kicking the ball as far out of play as he could,” wrote ‘Veteran’, the Manchester Daily Dispatch’s match reporter. Just before play finished, Liverpool’s striker Fred Pagnam crashed a shot off the bar. He was upbraided for his efforts by some of his teammates. 

Newspaper reports about the shenanigans in the match were muted, although the Manchester Football Chronicle quoted “one famous old player” in attendance that was aghast: “You don’t need the War to stop the game, football of this sort will do it soon enough.” Coverage of the war and Lord Rothschild’s burial left little room for the fripperies of holiday football. The Daily Mirror, which, it claimed, had a “certified circulation larger than any other picture paper in the world”, published the result without a match report; ditto Sporting Life

The Manchester Guardian’s correspondent failed to register any suspicions, remarking that Manchester United had the better of proceedings; that “play was scrappy”; and that “in the closing stages both sides showed more dash, but there was not a dangerous forward on the field.” Most pressmen acknowledged, in the words of Manchester Daily Dispatch’s reporter, that “the second half was crammed with lifeless football”. The Manchester Football Chronicle’s roving reporter ‘Wanderer’ wrote that he was “surprised and disgusted at the spectacle the second half presented” but neglected to elaborate. 

The unrest in the terraces went unnoticed, with the exception of an ambiguous aside from the Sporting Chronicle that “the crowd were very silent”. They wouldn’t shut up once they got back out on the streets. The football community and in particular out-of-pocket turf accountants were appalled. They cursed the footballers for their blatant charade. Newspapermen cocked their ears. “There is almost as much about this Manchester v Liverpool match as there was about the Liverpool v Chelsea match of a year or two ago,” wrote Sporting Chronicle a week afterwards.

The “unsavoury comments” the journalist was overhearing brought to mind a game in March 1913 when Liverpool lost 2-1 to Chelsea, a defeat which helped preserve the London club’s First Division status. Henry Norris, Arsenal’s chairman had gone to the match and wrote a huffy letter afterwards to a London newspaper, maintaining that “had the Liverpool team, as a whole, desired to win the match they could have done so quite readily.” The FA sprung into action, but their enquiry failed to land any convictions. 

Illegal betting on football was rife at the time, a vice that the country’s elders tried in vain to curb. The Football League was so disturbed at how widespread it had become that in 1902, like a man wrestling with the waves, it tried to ban everyone who attended a football match from betting on its result. 

In July 1913, the House of Commons debated a Ready Money Football Betting Bill. The Right Honourable W Hayes Fisher told his peers in parliament that “the FA has long been determined to endeavour to free this game from the excrescences which have grown upon it in connection with betting and gambling.”

Two weeks after the game, Sporting Chronicle, on behalf of a betting firm, put up a £50 reward to anyone who furnished information regarding allegations that “a certain First League match played in Manchester during Easter weekend was ‘squared’”. The paper specified that several of those playing had put bets on a 2-0 scoreline. 

On 20 April, it was announced that league football would be suspended until the war was over. A few days later, the Football League established a three-man commission to investigate the Good Friday game. It began hauling players in for questioning while billeted in hotels in Liverpool and Manchester, including the Grand Hotel in Manchester. The commission also trawled the country acquiring evidence, the ingredient which bedevils the prosecution of most football-betting scams. It wasn’t until 23 December 1915 that it published its verdict. It was shocking. 

It concluded that there was “a conspiracy to defraud bookmakers”, but exonerated both clubs, who helped with the investigation. Eight players received life bans, as, curiously, did the Lancashire first-class cricketer Lol Cook, presumably for helping to place bets; a ninth footballer , Manchester City’s Fred Howard, who was alleged to have pocketed money from bets on the match, got a 12-month suspension. 

The players’ expulsion extended to management in the game. They weren’t even allowed to enter a football stadium again. Of the four from Liverpool, Jackie Sheldon, who was fingered as the ringleader, had won a championship medal with Manchester United in 1911, a spell in which, inevitably, he had formed friendships with the three banned Red Devils — Arthur Whalley, Sandy Turnbull and Knocker West. 

Strangely, West was the only Manchester United player who took part in the actual match. The commission stated it did not have enough evidence to convict any more of his teammates. The Liverpool Echo dwelt on the men who escaped the gallows: “There are some lucky fellows connected with the inquiry, that’s certain. It is a fact that some fellows have scraped through the inquiry ‘by the lip of their mouth’.”

West took it the worst of the blacklisted bunch. Against the advice of solicitors, he launched an extraordinary crusade to clear his name. He lived in a house on Railway Road, within walking distance of Old Trafford. During a wartime regional league match between Manchester United and Liverpool, he stationed himself outside the stadium — a ground, of course, he couldn’t enter — passing out handbills, printed at his own expense, promising a reward to anyone who could supply information proving he had made a bet or won money from the Good Friday match in 1915. As Simon Inglis remarks in his book Soccer in the Dock he must have cut a tragic figure. 

He got his day in court, though. On 5 July 1917, a libel case he brought against the Football Association and several newspapers opened, in which he also hoped to overturn his ban from football. He began spiritedly enough in the witness box, maintaining he played up front in the first half of the game, but retired to defence under instructions from his captain, O’Connell, who also, as it happened, was working as his foreman in the same war supplies factory, Ford Motor Works at Trafford Park. When questioned, West conceded that it was odd that there was so much heavy betting on a 2-0 score-line in Hucknall Torkard, Nottinghamshire, the town where he was born in 1886, but added that according to reports there had been big bets laid in other districts around the country.  

O’Connell was next for cross-examination. When asked about his ballooned penalty kick, he drew laughter with his response: “I have missed dozens in my time.” He denied there was an attempt to “square” the match and said West had played his normal game, commenting that it was not unusual that West “hugged” the ball, as that was his playing style. It seemed the wind was travelling in West’s direction. It changed with the next witness summoned by the court. 

The evidence given by Sheldon, who had enlisted, was taken before an examiner, as he had to return to the front. It was forthright, influenced, perhaps, by his predicament, and a U-turn on a melodramatic letter, claiming he was “absolutely blameless”, he sent from the trenches in April 1916 to Athletic News. In it he pleaded for understanding given “how difficult it is for me to explain while doing my bit somewhere in France.” 

Sheldon’s old teammate, Sandy Turnbull, one of the three banned Manchester United players, was reported “missing believed wounded” during the Arras offensive. He had been part of General Haig’s spring push in northern France. Turnbull’s wife clung to the Army’s suggestion that he might have been “picked up by the Germans”. It was only in August 1918 that his commanding officer, Captain CJ Lonergan, who returned to England from his spell in a German prison, confirmed his fate to her. In a detailed letter describing the events of 3 May 1917, he concluded that Lance-Sergeant Turnbull, his “best NCO”, must have “been ‘sniped’ by a German lying low.” The remains of his body, which have never been found, lie in the region’s chalky soil. 

Sheldon confessed to fixing the result with players on his own team. He said on the Monday before the match he went to Manchester and met up with three co-conspirators in the Dog and Partridge pub: Turnbull, Whalley, who was seriously wounded at Passchendaele and later became a bookmaker — of all things — in Manchester, and West. They agreed to fix the match at 2-0. 

Once the goals were scored, Sheldon said West fell back into defence and started hoofing the ball into touch. It was obvious to the crowd what was going on, especially as United kept the ball away from their teammate Billy Meredith. The Welshman was the Ryan Giggs of his day — known as the “Prince of Dribblers”, he used to play with a toothpick in his mouth while plaguing defenders wide on the right and played his last game, an FA Cup semi-final, at 49 years of age. 

When Meredith was questioned in court, he said he felt something was amiss as no one would pass him the ball. There was a reason why he’d been kept out of the loop — he was suspended in 1905 for a year because he attempted to bribe Aston Villa’s captain with £10 to lose a match, but he’d rehabilitated himself with the authorities and was a prime mover in the Association Footballers’ Union.

Sheldon said several of his teammates were in on the scheme and placed their own bets. Others “jibbed” and objected.  One of them was Pagnam, the Liverpool forward who hit the bar in the dying minutes of the match. During questioning, Pagnam said that Sheldon told him in a cab on the way to Old Trafford that the game was fixed — United were to win 2-0 and that he’d get £3 if he rowed in. He baulked and said he was going to “bang one in”. Sheldon threatened him, saying he was “bloody well finished” at Liverpool if he did. 

Anderson, who scored both of United’s goals, testified that he was present at a pub near Manchester’s Great Central Station on the day before the match when the conspirators met again. At the gathering, one of the players asked, “Is it still 2-0?” West answered, “Oh yes, I have written to Nottingham for £70 to £10.” Anderson, who a year later was convicted of a betting conspiracy and jailed for eight months with hard labour, maintained he’d nothing to do with the swindle, but he’d keep his silence. When they were about to break up from their eve-of-match pub meeting, he told the courtroom West said, “I am not afraid. They cannot get any evidence against me.”

The court had all the evidence it needed at this stage. West’s case collapsed, though he ploughed on. In a Court of Appeal, he succeeded in getting another trial to examine whether the newspaper reports about the Football League commission’s verdict in December 1915 were defamatory. It was heard in January 1919 and again he was unsuccessful. He’d lost 2-0, which was ironic, as Graham Sharpe pointed out in his book, Free The Manchester United One

In recognition of their army service, Liverpool’s four banned players, including Sheldon, were allowed to apologise for their misdemeanour and all but Thomas Fairfoul renewed their professional football careers at Anfield. 

West could probably have secured a pardon also if he’d owned up to his guilt, by “tugging his forelock”, as his son Eric, who played for Grimsby in the 1930s, said. His lifetime football ban was eventually lifted in October 1945, as part of a general amnesty, but he never visited Old Trafford again before dying in 1965. It remains a mystery how he funded his legal challenges.

This article appeared on Episode Forty of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.