A Brief History of Soccer Players Living the Life Of Crime
While footballers are so often held up as role models in this country, the fact is that, down the years, many of them have lived less than spotless lives.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
If there is one fallacy in the world of sport that ought to be dispelled forthwith, it is the idea that footballers should be held up as role models. Footballers, like the rest of us, are flawed and fallible human beings, and no amount of goalscoring ability, close control or fine first touches can elevate a person to the status of a saint. The content of a man's character bears no relation to his skill with a ball, and the sooner we come to terms with that as a society the sooner we can drop our meaningless pretensions. Children, as the argument so often goes, will inevitably look up to their favourite players, and so those players are required to live up to our ideals and set a good example in everything they do. In reality, the rest of us bear a far weightier responsibility – to teach kids to separate admiration for footballers' talents from consequent admiration for their conduct as people.
The fact is that, down the years, many footballers have lived less than spotless lives. While it might be tempting to make a connection between the maddening money of modern football and amoral behaviour in the beautiful game, the truth of the matter is that talented players have been acting unscrupulously since football began. There are numerous reports of corruption in the game dating back to its earliest professional origins, such as when Burnley goalkeeper Jack Hillman attempted to bribe Nottingham Forest players to throw a crucial fixture in 1900 – for which he was banned for 12 months in what was the earliest recorded case of attempted match fixing – or when Manchester City stalwart Billy Meredith tried to fix a game against Aston Villa at the end of the 1904/05 season. While questionable dealings at boardroom level were prevalent during those early years, footballers were not above the odd financial inducement themselves, whether strictly legal or otherwise.
Back in the black-and-white years of football, there were plenty of other goings-on which were even less salubrious. In the late 1920s, a French amateur player named Pierre Mony became the first well known footballer to kill someone in cold blood, even if he was eventually acquitted of murder. Mony shot one of his closest friends, the champion cyclist and Grand Prix racer Jean Delpierre, four times at point-blank range in a rage over Delpierre's supposed affair with his wife. In the resultant trial, Mony was painted as a heartbroken husband, despite his wife's testimony suggesting he was "an immoral, lazy, brutal man" and various witnesses attesting to his own adulteries. The jury found in his favour, delivering a 'not guilty' verdict, though his friends in football largely disowned him and his attempts to rekindle his career were in vain.
Fast forward several decades, no doubt with many dubious happenings in the meantime, and crime amongst footballers begins to peak. The sixties and seventies were when football and the high life started to go hand in hand and, as such, it's no surprise that some felt the need to turn to crime to further fund their lavish lifestyles, while others found they could no longer control their drinking, drug use and general excess. First, there was the 1964 British betting scandal, in which an illegal betting syndicate headed up by former Swindon Town star Jimmy Gauld was exposed by The Sunday People. Having enticed several other players into helping to fix matches and betting on the results, Gauld was caught out by the newspaper, and soon sold his story to them for a then-considerable sum of £7,000. He incriminated his co-conspirators, most of whom were given life bans from football, while he was sentenced to four years in prison and roundly denigrated by the national press.
While that was a widespread scandal, with 33 footballers prosecuted in the aftermath, there were plenty of individual improprieties to follow. Perhaps the most iconic player of the era, George Best, was about to embark on his own criminal career. In the winter of 1972, he was arrested and charged with assault after fracturing a waitress' nose in a Manchester nightclub. Though he successfully escaped a stint behind bars, this preceded various drunken misdemeanours, minor theft, and a three-month prison sentence in the mid-eighties for drink driving, assaulting a police officer and failing to answer bail, which he served at Ford Open Prison. Legend has it that he turned out for his prison side during his spell under lock and key, though the football folklore of his sentence has since been thoroughly debunked. That seems fitting, really, considering that the mythology of Best's life rather detracts from the sad and inglorious reality of his alcoholism.
Though Best was perhaps the most celebrated footballer-come-criminal of the seventies, Peter Storey was the most notorious. While Best had been tearing it up for Manchester United, Storey was a defensive stalwart and so-called 'hatchet man' for Arsenal, with whom he won a league and cup double in 1970/71. Having invested much of his money in a pub and then minicab firm in 1975, he soon found himself in serious debt, not helped by his own chronic drinking problem. Before long, he found himself helping the shady Barry brothers to counterfeit money, for which he was arrested and subsequently charged.
While on bail, in order to raise enough cash to flee to Spain and evade justice, Storey set up a brothel called the Calypso Massage Parlour along with three female associates. In December 1979, he was arrested again, and soon handed a six-month suspended sentence for his role in the scheme. Just under a year later, he was given three years in prison for conspiracy to counterfeit money, having already been briefly jailed for contempt of court. He was left bankrupt, humiliated and almost completely without prospects. A decade afterwards, after a spell on unemployment benefit and a stint working on a market stall on the Portobello Road, he was jailed again, this time for attempting to smuggle a batch of pornographic videos into Britain from Europe after hiding them in the spare tyre of his car.
Though few footballers have been as criminally connected as Storey – he later became a minicab driver for a firm allegedly linked to the Clerkenwell crime syndicate – there have been plenty who have lived the life of crime in the modern era. Though the vast majority of footballers' crimes now seem to be to do with fights outside bars and dangerous driving, there have been several players who have gone considerably further than that. Marlon King, of Watford, Gillingham and Birmingham fame, has been convicted for wounding, theft, credit card fraud, assault and receiving stolen goods, amongst various other charges. He was also sacked after a short stint at Wigan, having been sentenced to 18 months in prison for sexual assault after groping and punching a woman in a student bar.
When looking at a wrap sheet as extensive (and serious) as King's, the true absurdity of making role models out of footballers becomes apparent. While the majority of players will get through their careers without leaving a litany of felonies behind them, fans cannot choose who plays for their club, nor who their kids might come to idolise on the pitch. In terms of prolific misconduct, King's nearest rival is probably Nile Ranger, who has been in the news again recently having admitted to online banking fraud. Ranger served 11 weeks in a Young Offenders' Institute after being convicted of participating in a street robbery as a youngster, while his arrests and court appearances since then are almost too numerous to count.
In the most extreme of recent cases, Bradford City midfielder Gavin Grant was convicted of a historic murder in 2010. Then 26, he stood accused of participating in the killing of Leon Labastide six years earlier on the Stonebridge Park estate in Harlesden. Labastide had been shot outside his parents' home, supposedly after an earlier burglary in which it was rumoured he had been involved, and police believed the murder had led to a further 30 shootings in the area. Without defending Grant in any sense, the case was a reminder of the brutal experiences that some footballers carry with them for the duration of their professional careers.
As well as those still of playing age who have become associated with various forms of criminality, the cases of struggling former professionals come across as particularly depressing. Kerry Dixon was found guilty of a serious assault on a man in a pub in Dunstable, after a fellow drinker apparently called him a "fatso." Dixon, Chelsea's third-highest goalscorer of all time, had lost much of his fortune on gambling at this point, and was at a seriously low ebb in his life. The impression he gave in his trial, and in multiple tabloid exposes afterwards, was that of a self-pitying former pro who had inadvertently swapped icon status for that of a petty middle-aged man.
While those mentioned stand out in their misdemeanours, there are many others who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law in recent times. Past and present, then, there have been footballers who have proved themselves unworthy idols in the behaviour outside of the game. The difference between admiring a footballer's talents, and admiring the footballer himself, is a crucial one. The truth is that it is not only children that struggle with that distinction. Fandom is a powerful thing, and sometimes even the severest of crimes are conveniently forgotten in the name of the game.