It says in the papers and on the podcast - All Bets are off

Tue, Sep 12 2017

Athlone Town goalkeeper Igors Labuts Credit: Steve Alfred

The big news of the week sadly was the conclusion of the FAI’s investigation into allegations of match-fixing levelled at two Athlone Town players, Igors Labuts and Dragos Sfrijan. Both players have been banned for 12 months.


The charges related to Athlone’s 3-1 defeat to Longford Town in a Midlands ‘Super-Clasico’ last April. Two other games had originally been considered by the FAI but it was decided that evidence in relation to those was too scant to continue.


Both the PFAI and Athlone Town challenged the FAI’s findings and defended the two players involved.


The PFAI was very much out in front of the issue, immediately issuing a strongly worded statement, while their General Secretary Stephen McGuinness spoke to RTÉ.


The players union have also had the evidence reviewed independently by their own group of experts “including three of Ireland's best known broadcasting pundits and another leading coach”. Not sure where Pat Dolan fits in there, but he and Richie Sadlier were both part of the ‘PFAI 4’ and each used their own newspaper column, in Friday’s Star and Saturday’s Irish Times respectively, to expound on the case.


Dolan took a fairly nuanced position, expressing sympathy all sides and pointing out that while the evidence he saw could not be regarded as conclusive there may be other information that has yet to come into the public domain. Although Richie Sadlier was at pains to underline his independence from the PFAI, he largely endorsed the union’s position.


Sadlier expressed extreme scepticism regarding the determinations of the committee, both in relation to the match footage and the players financial details. The committee found that the two players’ financial arrangements were “insufficient and unconvincing”.


While the Paddy Power twitter account was understandably quiet given the nature of story, those on twitter could read @PFAISolicitor tweeting links to the Dolan and Sadlier articles, and another by Aidan Fitzmaurice in the Irish Independent.


Fitzmaurice essentially reprised the statements of both the club and the union; correctly pointing out that it is extremely rare for a League of Ireland club to criticise the FAI in the manner Athlone did. The club asserted that the findings of the committee had been predetermined and had little to do with the evidence presented (the club’s statement in full is available here).


In general, the three articles mentioned above appeared to be chafing at the bit to criticise the FAI. Fitzmaurice framed his narrative around speculative criticism of the association. Also, Sadlier and Dolan’s references to the Trackchamp deal were unnecessary.


Firstly, I’m not sure that Trackchamp covers any First Division games; the footage the investigation used was from Longford Town. Secondly, any effect that deal has had on the amount of money being gambled on LOI games is likely to have been marginal; large sums were being wagered long before 2016.


It should be noted that this FAI-bashing was typical of the coverage in the print media and online. Of course, and as is frequently the case, the FAI could have helped themselves by providing a more detailed statement and by putting office-holders forward for interview. However, the media might have pursued a more even-handed approach.


The PFAI should have been pushed for some examples to support the statement that “[n]o player in the history of sport has been found guilty of match fixing on such little evidence. All of the comparative jurisprudence in Europe demonstrates a requirement for substantial proof in the face of such allegations. This case is an outlier.”


Also, instead of simply parroting the descriptions of the evidence in the case as “exceptionally flimsy” and “half-baked innuendo” the papers might have discussed how the FAI committee reached their decision. If the committee are relying on the original report from UEFA then this should be mentioned.


It is not reasonable to suggest, as both Sadlier and McGuinness did, that any LOI footballer who makes a mistake could find themselves in the same position as Sfrijan and Labuts. Both players had been involved in games that were scrutinised previously by UEFA but had not been found guilty in relation to those matches.


Both players deny any wrongdoing, but if the media were happy to give details at the time the allegations were made, then surely they could have been repeated last week for balance. If any reminders are needed I’d suggest the article co-authored by Johnny Ward in the Irish Independent on the May 6 (here) or the piece co-authored by Owen Cowzer in the Sun the previous day (here).