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match fixing

<em>Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos</em>

Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Manchester, red or blue, had cause for celebration today. A point secured at Blackburn winning United the Premier League title, a goal at Wembley enough to give City their first FA Cup win since 1969. So all happy, then.

Well, not everyone. The last ten minutes at Ewood Park was a bit of a farce, as United settled for the point they needed and relegation-threatened Blackburn for the point they wanted. It was reminiscent of several years ago when Rangers won the title at Easter Road (or, more accurately, Celtic lost it at Fir Park) when Hibs didn’t want to concede another goal or they would have missed out on Europe and Rangers weren’t interested in adding to Nacho Novo’s strike.

City’s win over Stoke City gave them their first pot since the League Cup in 1976. Seems like yesterday!

Of course, if I’d spent £350 million assembling a team, and my goalscorer Yaya Touré was on £220,000 a week (mental arithmetic says that’s £10m a year, which is mental), I’d be expecting to not only win the FA Cup, but the Premier League, the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest, Horse of the Year Show, Crufts, a Grammy or two, an Oscar, the US presidential election and the National Lottery at least several times over.

Maybe that shows how easy pleased some people are…

Sunday
It was billed as “Helicopter Sunday”, a day when the ever-changing drama unfolding in Kilmarnock and the Parkhead area of Glasgow deemed air travel as the quickest form of transport.

But the reality was that the SPL could have saved themselves a small fortune in aviation fuel and delivered the silverware to Rugby Park on foot.

Those who had wondered all these years what was actually said in Celtic’s pre-match huddle will be keen to know that, on Sunday, the final words were “Rangers are one-up!”

Not true of course, as the games kicked off simultaneously just to add to the occasion, with the outcome also known simultaneously less than seven minutes later. The title was going back to Ibrox for a 54th time, making it three-in-a-row, and a fitting send-off for Walter Smith.

Kyle Lafferty, much maligned at times, grabbed the match ball with a hat-trick, taking his tally to seven goals in the last six games and maintaining his record of scoring on the last day of the season, just as he did at Tannadice and Easter Road.

Playing away on the final, title-deciding day of the season in three consecutive years? That might be considered cause for a conspiracy in some places.

Lafferty’s goals were important. But arguably no more vital than those from Kenny Miller who hit 21, a phenomenal contribution when compared to the SPL’s other goal machines, especially given that he only lasted half a term before bailing out of Ibrox for Turkey.

Celtic did pick up a trophy on Sunday evening, when Emilio Izaguirre – who already had the Scottish PFA and Premier League awards on his mantelpiece – was similarly honoured by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association. Better than Allan McGregor over a season?

I don’t think so. Not even by a point…

Monday
Honestly, you wait for one bus to run over a trophy, then two come along in the space of a few weeks.

Copying the example set by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who managed to get the Copa del Rey lodged under a double-decker, Ajax goalkeeper Marteen Stekelenburg fumbles the Eredivisie plate with similar consequences. Admittedly, it does look like a very ornate wheel trim, but there was no need to do this to it.

Stekelenburg is a target to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, which could force his transfer fee up by a few million. Not because he’s worth it, but with the number of trophies United win, insurance cover could be astronomical…

Tuesday
An historic day. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, visits Dublin – which, by chance, would also host the Europa League final the next day.

Not the usual thronging crowds around for a royal visit, and what did go on was kept in check by the Garda. Of course, if you look at the bigger picture, their job was made a lot easier, not by a lack of interest, or detailed intelligence, or assistance from their British counterparts, but by PSV Eindhoven.

Elsewhere, there appears to be some consternation emanating out of Rugby Park over the number of Rangers fans who filled the stadium for Sunday’s game.

I assume they were Rangers supporters, based on the attendance being 16,173 against a season’s average of just 6,427 (figures courtesy of the SPL’s own website).

Kilmarnock expressed regret at the number of away fans present in home sections at Rugby Park, putting their unhappiness down to safety, segregation and security issues.

It should be noted this had nothing to do with Kilmarnock being unable to charge Rangers supporters, who had bought empty “Kilmarnock” seats, an extra fiver. Of course it didn’t…

And talking of Old Firm fans, Celtic manager Neil Lennon urged supporters to stop offensive songs, saying: “In recent times, there has been a re-emergence, from a small minority, of some of the singing and chanting which is simply not acceptable.”

These songs have at times been inaudible to the human ear and can usually only be picked up by TV and radio effects microphones around the pitch.

BBC Scotland’s Bigotry, Bombs and Football documentary, scheduled for the following evening, highlighted the measures being taken by Strathclyde Police, and both Rangers and Celtic, to curb sectarian behaviour.

Reporter Reevel Alderson revealed that in three years, across their entire area, Strathclyde Police have arrested 800 people for sectarian behaviour. In the past seven seasons, Rangers have banned 548 supporters for a similar offence, and in the past five seasons, Celtic have banned six season-ticket holders for sectarian or offensive behaviour.

Does this mean that (a) Rangers should police Strathclyde, (b) Neil Lennon has drawn attention to a problem that doesn’t exist, or (c) Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) was right about lies, damned lies and statistics?

Wednesday
Talking of Strathclyde’s finest, their long-running investigation into alleged match-fixing allegations against snooker players Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett is at an end.

Bookmakers alerted authorities to “irregular betting patterns” around the match, which took place during the UK Championship in Telford in November 2008. They had taken numerous bets on the outcome of the match being 9–3 in Maguire’s favour.

Maguire won by that margin. But suspicion was raised by a black missed by Burnett which would have made it 8–4.

And since then, both players have been subjected to scrutiny, rumour-mongering and innuendo.

But all of that should now be put to bed. A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “Following a full and comprehensive investigation the case was reported for the consideration of Crown Counsel who, after careful consideration of all facts and circumstances, decided there is insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution.”

I spoke to both players ahead of the recent world championship, where it was plainly obvious that neither had anything to say, other than how sick they were, because they had nothing to say in the first instance.

I’m guessing here, but after two-and-a-half years, and regardless of the online accounts across Scotland opened on a particular day, you would have thought something would have come to light – if there was anything to come to light.

I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this news comes just a week after Taggart was made redundant.

Even so, you have to wonder what the game’s governing body is scheming up when WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson said; “We are treating this case very seriously. We will now be given access to the evidence connected with the case, and our disciplinary committee will review that evidence thoroughly.”

And who do they have on that committee. Hercule Poirot, Jack Regan, Miss Marple?

Or do World Snooker want to bid against Rangers to police Strathclyde?

Thursday
And it’s congratulations to Gary Anderson for winning his first televised PDC title, landing the Premier League with a 10–4 final win over world champion Adrian Lewis at Wembley.

Given the venue, and given the reception Lewis got in Glasgow a few months back, I’m sure he glanced over his shoulder a few times to see if there were any advanced divisions of the Tartan Army making a pilgrimage back to their old haunts.

Brilliant as Anderson did in winning, and in finishing runner-up to Lewis in the world championship final, it’s sad he maybe isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.

If you asked most punters to name a Scots darts player, how many would answer “Jocky Wilson”? But then again, he did make it big.

Friday
London 2012 organisers reveal that they have received more than one million requests for seat tickets for the Olympic men’s 100 metres final – yet only 8,000 will get to carry the Olympic torch for a mile on its journey around the UK. So further enhancing our reputation of being a nation of armchair sportsmen and women…

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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Samuel Beckett, an Irish cricketer

Samuel Beckett, an Irish cricketer

Wednesday’s Irish victory at the cricket world cup was remarkable in various ways, not least in how it was achieved. England might not be likely cup winners, but they’re not as bad as some believe, and their 50-over score of 327 for 8 would have been hard for one of the Test-playing sides to beat, never mind one of the associate teams.

Andrew Strauss’s men, however, are proving to be both careless and complacent when in control, and their inability to score more than 33 from the final five overs gave the Irish some tiny hope that wouldn’t have been there with a target of, say, 348 rather than 328.

At 0 for 1 (when captain William Porterfield dragged Jimmy Anderson’s loosener into his stumps), then 111 for 5 – and needing to score at eight-and-a-half an over – the Irish didn’t have a chance. Then came Kevin O’Brien and his century off just 50 balls – the sixth-fastest hundred ever scored in a one-day international and comfortably the fastest in any world cup match, beating Matthew Hayden’s 66-ball effort for Australia against South Africa in the 2007 tournament.

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The 26-year-old Dubliner blazed away with 13 fours and six sixes, highlighting another English failing in the process: they become flappy and ill-disciplined if the attack is carried to them. This also happened in the win over the Netherlands and the tie with India – both of which were tremendous contests. If there is one criticism that cannot be laid at England’s door, it’s that of serving up dull cricket: the three most enthralling matches in the tournament thus far have been the three involving the men from the shires.

The irony is that England are still much more likely to qualify for the knockout stages than are Ireland, who had earlier lost a tight and crucial match against Bangladesh, the most minnow-like of the major nations. England still only need to beat two of South Africa, the West Indies and Bangladesh to progress (and against the latter pair they will start as favourites, albeit wobbly ones), while the Irish must hope for another miracle against India, the West Indies or South Africa and then beat the Dutch in their final group-stage game.

Chances are they won’t do it, but Kevin O’Brien going forearm-to-forearm with Trinidad’s Kieron Pollard in a tonkfest at Mohali on Friday week ought to be entertaining. Until O’Brien’s wonder-innings, Pollard had perhaps been the most crowd-pleasing player in the tournament, shambling to the wicket against the Netherlands wearing what looked suspiciously like one of Richie Richardson’s old wide-brimmed hats and proceeding to launch the ball to various far corners of Delhi.

Despite Wednesday’s heroics, was the defeat of England really a long-term significant Irish cricket performance, or just another in a sporadic series of impressive one-offs? Irish cricket has had a long and meandering history, dating back to country-house games at Coole Park of Lady Gregory fame. Cricket even cropped up in one of the most celebrated poems of William Butler Yeats, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, but it was the kind with six legs rather than six stumps: “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow, / Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings”.

A more valid Irish literary connection comes courtesy of Samuel Beckett, known to any half-decent pub-quiz aficionado as the answer to the question: “Which Nobel laureate appears in Wisden?” The creator of Krapp and Godot “had two first-class games for Dublin University against Northamptonshire in 1925 and 1926, scoring 35 runs in his four innings and conceding 64 runs without taking a wicket.” He was a “gritty” left-handed opener and “a useful left-arm medium-pace bowler”.

Kevin O’Brien would certainly win more prizes and be bought more drinks than Beckett on Wednesday’s evidence, however – and the man who wrote “Try Again. Fail again. Fail better” almost certainly never dyed his hair pink for charity.

As regards notable Ireland matches to rival the events in Bangalore, the candidate most often mentioned was the 2007 world cup victory over Pakistan in Kingston, Jamaica. This might not have been so dramatic in individual-performance terms (Kevin O’Brien’s brother Niall was the hero that day, scoring 72), but it effectively knocked the Pakistanis out of the tournament on the same day that Bangladesh did the same to India.

That Ireland–Pakistan encounter, however, has long been subject to doubt about possible – but never in any way proven – dodgy dealings on the Pakistani side. This was clearly not an issue in Wednesday’s match, given how utterly and genuinely gutted the English players looked at the end.

Then there was the 2004 game against the West Indies in Belfast, when the Irish chased down 292 to beat a side including Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul with more than three overs to spare. That, though, was just an early-tour warm-up, of far less consequence than the 2007 and 2011 real-tournament upsets.

Having said that, could the only true rival to Wednesday’s mayhem be a half-forgotten festival-friendly fixture played in 1969? As a diversion during their tour of England, a strong West Indies side faced the Irish in Derry. The visitors’ batting line-up included such luminaries as Basil Butcher, Maurice Foster and a young Clive Lloyd, along with the great Clyde Walcott, who was managing the team and turned out for the occasion.

The match was a curiosity even in organisational terms, with the old-fashioned idea of squeezing in two innings each during just one day’s play – with the proviso that if time ran out, the winner would come from the first-innings performance. It was clearly a light-hearted occasion, offering the West Indians an escape from the formal rigours of the main tour. But that didn’t excuse or explain what happened: the visitors batted first and were reduced to 12 for 9, before Grayson Shillingford and Philbert Blair dragged the total up to the giddy heights of 25.

For Ireland, Dougie Goodwin took 5 for 6 and Alec O’Riordan 4 for 18, and the home side reached 26 – for what proved to be an eventual victory – with the loss of just one wicket.

Stories abound about this match, including suggestions that the West Indians were plied with oceanic quantities of Guinness the night before – a traditional and perfectly acceptable form of match-fixing.

Even Wednesday’s events in Bangalore didn’t match that for strangeness. But if the current Irish one-day squad can conjure up another great day and somehow reach the knockout stage of this world cup, then Kevin O’Brien’s batting will surely come to be seen as the finest of all achievements by an underrated cricketing nation.

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By Allan Laing

John Higgins. <em>Picture: Владимир Синицын</em>

John Higgins. Picture: Владимир Синицын

Before Sunday, John Higgins was just about the last professional snooker player you’d expect to become embroiled in allegations of match-fixing.

But now the 34-year-old from Wishaw, the world’s number one player and a hero to a generation, finds himself at the centre of a scandal which threatens to plunge an already struggling sport into crisis.

Higgins, a quiet family man widely regarded as one of the good guys in the game, was suspended yesterday by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the sport’s governing body, over allegations that he was prepared to take bribes.

The move followed claims in the News of the World that undercover reporters caught Higgins and his manager, Pat Mooney, agreeing to a payment of more than £260,000 to throw four frames in a match to aid illegal betting syndicates.

The newspaper secretly filmed the two Scots apparently agreeing to the deal in a hotel in Kiev. The men they thought were business representatives were NoW journalists.

Higgins, who is not accused of having ever been involved in match-fixing in the past, has strenuously denied the allegations made against him. Both he and Pat Mooney claim that they had been intimidated at the meeting in the Ukraine and feared that they were dealing with the Russian Mafia. They “played along with the guys” and agreed to the deal simply because, Higgins said yesterday, they had been “really spooked” and “just wanted to get out of the hotel and onto the plane home”.

The News of the World, however, claimed its reporter had held a series of earlier meetings with Mr Mooney in Edinburgh. The newspaper has promised to make further disclosures in its next edition.

Higgins said yesterday that he is now facing “the biggest match of my life”. In a statement he added: “…I have never been involved in any form of snooker match-fixing. In my 18 years playing professional snooker I have never deliberately missed a shot, never mind intentionally lost a frame or a match.

“Those who know me are aware of my love for snooker and that I would never do anything to damage the integrity of the sport I love. My conscience is 100% clear.”

With Higgins suspended, the WPBSA has launched an urgent inquiry to examine the allegations. It will be headed by a former Scotland Yard chief superintendent.

If found guilty, Higgins would face an extremely lengthy ban from the game. The allegations are the last thing that the WPBSA’s new chairman, Barry Hearn, needed. The sports promoter was appointed to the post in December last year: his brief to reverse snooker’s drop in popularity. Now, overnight, he has a second brief: to restore the game’s integrity.

Higgins, dubbed the Wizard from Wishaw, is one of the most popular players in the game thanks to his exceptional talent and quiet but engaging personality. Happily married with three children, he has won 21 titles and made several 147 maximum breaks in his career. Last year he gained his third world championship crown.