Liverpool versus Manchester United is one of the most hated rivalries in world football. The Reds and the Red Devils are two of the most successful clubs in English football and as success in football – when it comes to two teams in the same league – is a zero-sum game, the venom in rivalry has a legitimate reason (there were reasons to do with commerce, but we will save that topic for another day).
However, the rivalry between the two teams was not as bad a hundred years ago. In fact, Liverpool and Manchester United colluded to fix a match between them to save the Red Devils from relegation to the old second division and keep them in the top flight.
Heading into the match, played on April 2 (Good Friday), 1915, Liverpool were ensconced in mid-table safety, while Manchester United were flirting with relegation. Manchester United took an early lead through a George Anderson strike, but the setback failed to force Liverpool into drawing a response as they hardly showed any interest in venturing into their rival’s half. Anderson scored again before the first half drew to a close to put his team 2-0 ahead.
The second half of the game remained virtually uneventful as the Red Devils pocketed a vital 2-0 win in their bid to retain top flight status. Interestingly, when Manchester United were awarded a penalty, their skipper Patrick O’Connell took it instead of Anderson, who was in such good form and on the verge of a hat-trick. And not just that O’Connell rolled his spot kick wide off the post.
Match referee John Sharp noticed the curious happenings and later remarked: “It was the most extraordinary match I have ever officiated in.”
After the game, evidence of a possible match fixing started to appear, a large amount of money had been bet at odds of 7/1 on a 2–0 win to United, which explains why Anderson didn’t take that spot kick and why his captain missed it so nonchalantly.
The Football Association launched an investigation into the matter and found several players from both the teams guilty of unlawful conduct. Sandy Turnbull, Arthur Whalley and Enoch West of Manchester United, and Jackie Sheldon, Tom Miller, Bob Pursell and Thomas Fairfoul of Liverpool were all found to be involved in fixing the match and were subsequently banned for life from the beautiful game that their actions had tarnished.
Sheldon, who was a former Manchester United player before joining Liverpool in 1913, was found to be the plot’s ringleader.
The 1914/15 season proved to be the last one before the football league was suspended due to the raging World War I – it was clear that this would happen and that could partly explain the reason why the players decided to go ahead with the fix since they were sure there would be no football in the subsequent season.
All the players, except for West had their bans lifted in lieu of the services they rendered to their country in the war. Although money could be the main motive for the match fixing, the two points did save Manchester United from relegation and they played in the first division when the football league resumed in the 1919/20 season.