(What follows derives from research for a fiction project)
By 1979, English football was clapped out. Decaying stadia, violent fans, and the fading away of the post-War talent boom left most lovers of sport with little to cheer. There had been eighty years of the Football League. For most of that time, the League had enjoyed large crowds, and, courtesy of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, captive entertainers to put in front of them. Ground maintenance was inexpensive relative to revenue. Clubs were a cash cow.
Where did all that money go, over all that time? To the Board, presumably. So what could an ambitious secretary-manager do, in the first part of the century, to get his hands on more of the wealth he was helping to create?
Assuming complete absence of scruple, our corrupt manager could weigh the following options:
Gambling Until the arrival of the Football Pools in 1923, gambling on sport was fiercely regulated, and thus capable of providing vast fortunes for anyone willing to walk on the dark side. Match fixing allegations haunted the early game – the 1905 Manchester City bribe scandal is the most prominent example. It would be a hard trick for a secretary-manager to pull without the knowledge and connivance of his team – unless, of course, he was prepared to ensure their silence.
Embezzlement With all of that lovely money pouring in from the turnstiles, the chance was there to divert some of it: all that was needed was the cooperation of a corrupt cashier or accountant. Illegal payments to players were a feature of pre-maximum wage League football. Secretary-managers, of course, were not subject to the pay restrictions of players. Something of this nature was probably responsible for the demise of Leeds City in 1919, but as they never handed over their books, the precise nature of their misdemeanours will forever remain a mystery. Herbert Chapman was banned from the game for life for his part in that. Those few biographers that he has had assert that he was away from the scene of the crime, running factories essential to the war effort.
Property Fraud We are witnessing something of an arms race in the stadium business now. Courtesy of Health and Safety legislation, most of the old stadia can no longer house sufficient supporters for the likes of Everton and Tottenham to compete at their natural level. This happened at the turn of the twentieth century, but in a more intense manner. Consortia of businessmen founded a club, built a big stadium, and cut all manner of deals to get their club straight into the Football League. Chelsea were founded in 1905 and went straight into Division Two: without the attractive opposition that that provided, the huge investment behind the club would have been lost. When Leeds City were banished from the League in 1919, they became insolvent overnight. At the same time, Arsenal were ratcheting themselves up the pole by dubious means – with the aid of a separate match-fixing scandal involving Liverpool and Manchester United – desperate to clear the debts generated by their move to Highbury. The opportunities open to the secretary-manager in both circumstances – success and bankruptcy – are obvious. Backhanders from construction firms; skimming of out-of-control construction budgets; cutting corners with materials and equipment. Again, none of this is possible for someone working alone.
Transfers The sheer power a club had over its players held possibilities for the unscrupulous and determined. There are many examples of secretary-managers negotiating over players with board members of other clubs. It takes no great leap of the imagination to envision a manager allowing the release of one of his players, once “certain conditions” are met..
On the other hand, some of the more modern scourges were less attractive. The most obvious example here is performance-enhancing drugs. They were always in use – but the financial implications of a cup win, or a league win, were relatively minor compared to the greater consequences of league membership or cup participation itself. Drug use was carried out purely for love of the game and with the selfless, unmonied desire to win.
I close with a paragraph from Wikipedia’s entry for Herbert Chapman:
Chapman returned to Leeds City from Barnbow after hostilities had ended, but resigned suddenly in December 1918, eventually moving to Selby to take up a position as a superintendent at an oil and coke works. No reason was given for his resignation, but as football resumed in 1919–20, Leeds City were accused by a former player of financial irregularities, involving illegal payments to guest players during wartime matches. No documentary evidence was produced, but Leeds’ refusal to allow the authorities access to their financial records was deemed a sign of guilt, and they were expelled from the Football League in October 1919 and five club officials, including Chapman, were banned from football for life. The club was dissolved, with the players auctioned off and their Elland Road ground taken over by the newly formed Leeds United.