In researching an episode of the ever-wonderful Hornet Heaven, Olly Wicken uncovered the tale of a long-forgotten match-fixing scandal
On 14 October 1960, it was big news. The Daily Mail ran a story that two English footballers had confessed to taking part in cash deals to affect the results of League matches a couple of years earlier. One of those players was Watford’s former captain Johnny Meadows.
Johnny Meadows was a popular chap at Watford. He’d joined the club in 1951 and, by late April 1958, when the match-fixing took place, he’d made 200 appearances. He was a handsome and stylish wing-half and inside-forward who scored plenty of goals and took cool penalties.
In 1960 he confessed to the Daily Mail: “Some other Watford players and myself shared £100 between us from the Brighton players at the end of the season to ‘bend’ a home and away match with them.”
The matches in question hadn’t been insignificant. They’d decided who would be promoted from the Third Division South at the end of the 1957/58 season.
It was an unusual season because the Football League was restructuring. Teams that finished in the bottom half of Third Division South would be relegated into a new Division Four (with teams from the bottom of Third Division North). Going into the last Saturday of the season, Watford were looking almost certain to be relegated: they needed to win their two remaining games and for Colchester United to lose their last game. But there was still a chance.
Meanwhile, at the top of the table, four teams were still in contention for the single promotion place to the Second Division: Swindon, Plymouth, Brentford and Brighton. Swindon and Plymouth had one game left, Brentford had two, Brighton had three.
On the final Saturday, Watford played at home to Brighton. Watford had all the play, but they didn’t put the ball in the net. Something didn’t feel right. Watford’s manager, Neil McBain, suspected someone had been ‘got at’. At half-time (ironically, in hindsight), he asked Watford’s skipper Johnny Meadows to keep an eye on a particular player. Brighton went on to score the only goal of the game in the last minute.
Brighton were now joint top of the table with two games in hand on Plymouth who’d completed their fixtures. On the Monday, they lost at Brentford – which put Brentford top of the table. It all came down to Brighton’s final game two days later, on the Wednesday, at home to Watford.
At this point, obviously, Brentford were keen for Watford to beat Brighton. The details are murky, but according to Brentford’s full-back at the time (Ken Horne), a former Watford and Brentford player, Jimmy Bowie, made an offer of money to Johnny Meadows to incentivise Watford to win.
Johnny Meadows turned down the offer – but only because his team had been offered more, by Brighton, for losing the match.
Brighton’s captain Glen Wilson told the Daily Mail: “It was between some of the players alone, the club managements knew nothing about it but I don’t want to say any more about it. This sort of thing happens all the time.”
The Wednesday night at the Goldstone Ground is one that’s still fondly remembered by Brighton fans. They won promotion to the Second Division with a 6-0 victory. Remarkably, Brighton were 3-0 up after just 11 minutes, with a hat-trick from a young reserve-team striker in only his seventh game. He went on to score five. Anecdotal evidence suggests he was being marked by Johnny Meadows.
The match-fixing didn’t emerge until the Daily Mail investigated in 1960. By then, Johnny wasn’t in Watford’s first team. He’d played most of the 1958/59 season but had made only a single appearance in the 1959/60 promotion season. He’d asked for a transfer, and had come off the list again. He was still only 29, but his career had completely stalled.
Johnny Meadows finally left Watford in the summer of 1961 to play for a lowly non-League club, Yiewsley. No official or legal action was ever taken against him for his role in the match-fixing.