Friday 4th May 2012. Monaghan United are about to take on Shelbourne in a League game in Tolka Park, but something unusual was taking place that caught the attention of UEFA who then flagged the FAI.
An irregularly high amount of money was being placed on a penalty to be awarded to Shelbourne and in response to this the FAI’s integrity officer Fran Gavin paid a visit to the ground.
‘’I went into the dressing room myself, it’s not a nice thing you have to do but unfortunately that’s the way it works.’’ He said.
‘’Once we are notified of that (irregular betting pattern) a representative of the Association meets with the referees and both teams to read a prepared statement. We don’t tell them what the bet is, we just say that the match is going to be monitored by UEFA and ourselves (The FAI) and we give the consequences of anybody being involved in anything around the fixing of the match or an incident during the match.’’
Roddy Collins was managing Monaghan United that day and wasn’t happy with the rumours that were circulating.
‘’One of my players came to me, he said his girlfriend worked in a bookies somewhere and that there was a pattern for betting on a penalty.’’ He said
‘’It was a really tricky one wondering is it us (Monaghan) or is it Shelbourne but anyway Fran came in and had a chat with us before the game went off’’
The game passed without a Shelbourne penalty and the investigation stopped there although Collins has been suspicions of other games over the years.
‘’There was another particular game I was involved in where a player kept knocking square balls across the edge of his own box it was ridiculous, then the same player gave away a penalty with about ten minutes to go so I thought you know, could he be really up to something? I’ve never had a concrete case but you would be a bit suspicious at times.’’
The bigger picture than what may have been a bunch of amateur players looking to make some quick cash with local bookmakers is that the match fixing industry has grown at a parallel with online gambling.
The problem lies with criminal gangs exploiting the Asian bookmakers, many of whom are also corrupt themselves. Unlike legal European betting agents, the Asian market does not make its data available meaning there is no way of highlighting unusual gambling patterns. The FIFA World Cup is estimated to be worth about 4 billion dollars, the quantity of the Asian market is estimated to be anywhere between $400 billion to $2 trillion according to different sources.
The world’s most infamous fixing criminals such as Dan Tan are known to work with local gangs in each country as a way of linking themselves to domestic players.
Dublin’s most notorious gang members are well documented and although there is no proof or suggestion that any of them are having an influence over football, this year saw boxing come under the spotlight for the wrong reasons after a shooting at a weigh-in at the Regency Hotel. The event in question was run by MGM, a professional gym with close ties to the Kinahan gang.
Infiltrating football is not inconceivable. The League of Ireland’s low pay scale and accessibility makes it vulnerable to criminal opportunists who desire to work in sync with gangs running and exploiting Asia’s betting markets.
Fixers have targeted Ireland before. After the FAI sold international broadcasting rights to Trackchamp (a live-streaming company owned by the bookmaker Bwin) in December 2015 four players contacted the PFAI to report that they had been messaged online.
‘’A lot of these groups target players through their facebook page’’ said Stephen McGuinness, spokesperson for the Player’s Football Association of Ireland.
‘’They will try to incentivise little things to them, lead them into a position where they are vulnerable, then they can influence them in regards to fix games. We had one issue here with Colm James and he was banned for two seasons.’’
The former Longford Town and Shelbourne player received the ban after being found guilty of attempting to coerce teammates into fixing games in 2013.
James’s case was more cynical than just exploiting the local bookmakers, it involved ‘’ a syndicate from the UK with an Asian background’’ according to Fran Gavin who was well aware of the threat international criminals could potentially pose.
‘’The fact that we’re a calendar season also makes us a target for possible syndicates as sometimes our games are the only games on a particular weekend or mid-week, we have to watch this very carefully. We have had nothing above the norm, every league has had its issues everywhere but we are quite vigilant, the players are very responsible and the clubs and managers are aware of it.’’
‘’If a player is approached and they do not report it that is also an offence, and players are fully aware of that.’’ He said.
McGuiness is also wary of the potential threat of outside influences.
‘’Anybody who runs associations (like the PFAI) are always fearful of this stuff, you have to make sure that the players are aware of it, social media has changed the dynamic.’’ He said.
‘’It’s one of the top things on our priority list and we’re lucky we’ve only had one case and nothing since then and we just have to make sure we stay on top of it.’’
Author of ‘The Fix’ and ‘The Insider’s guide to match fixing’ Declan Hill has witnessed fixers in operation first hand at levels much higher than the League of Ireland.
‘’They’ve been doing it at World Cups since at least the early 90s, we’re talking about the highest football tournaments in the world, not just the obscure leagues.’’ He said.
‘’You’re going to have to be very very naïve, in fact so naïve the word stupid comes to mind if you don’t think match fixing is going to threaten the Irish game. It’s affected leagues around the world so why would Ireland be any different? There is still an endemic culture of gambling among many athletes and many sports people in Ireland and nobody has really grasped the nettle and said, ‘guys, if you want to be a top-level athlete, even if you want to simply be just a good professional athlete, you cannot gamble.’ This is a major problem.’’
‘’There hasn’t been a systemic examination and a systemic defence of Irish Sport against corruption, the highest level sports official Pat Hickey was arrested in Rio de Janeiro and nobody in Ireland examined what the Brazilians looked at as soon as the man arrived. I don’t know if Hickey is innocent or guilty but Ireland is not a country of virgins.’’
‘’There is corruption and sin in every country, there really hasn’t been a wake-up call among Irish sports officials to say look we have to establish proper defences, we’ve got to take issues seriously, you’ve got to give proper gambling counselling to athletes because an athlete is the worst gambler you can find. Everything that makes them good about being a sportsperson makes them a really bad gambler.’’
When asked about what countries are leading the way when it comes to combatting the problem Hill cited Australia.
‘’They have established two units, one with their national crime agency to take a look and try and predict things, they go around and speak to sports officials to really root out the corruption before it gets a toe-hold.’’
‘’I’m not saying that corruption doesn’t exist in Australia, but at least they have a unit there that’s ready to activate. In Ireland they just don’t have it, the guarder is asleep at the wheel and it’s time that the country wakes up.’’
Sending Fran Gavin to the Tolka Park in 2012 may have been enough to deter a fix that day but a scarecrow’s effect will only last so long before the crows begin to ignore them. In a year when the top level of Irish sports governance was faced with allegations of ticket touting there is little to suggest that the lower levels are not vulnerable to corruption.