Tuesday 17 October 2017

Welsh glad to be back in spotlight for right reasons

Probe into spot-fixing was waking nightmare for Preston midfielder, writes Paul Wilson

A sign outside Deepdale showing the next home match for Preston North End is against Manchester United
A sign outside Deepdale showing the next home match for Preston North End is against Manchester United

Paul Wilson

Preston North End's Deepdale stadium is nothing if not traditional, and John Welsh admits he gets a buzz from the sign outside that currently reads: 'Next game - Manchester United.'

"It's exciting, we are all looking forward to it," the 31-year-old former Liverpool midfielder says of tomorrow night's FA Cup fifth round tie. "We were playing for this tie when we went to Sheffield United in the last round. We are confident about ourselves, I'm not saying we are going to win, but it will be great facing United in front of a packed house here. All the supporters will expect us to give everything we've got, and that's what we want to do. Promotion is the real target this season, but games like this don't come along every week and we want to give a good account of ourselves."

Welsh does not mind being in the spotlight for the right reasons. It makes a welcome change from receiving attention for the wrong ones, which is what happened last year when the then Preston captain was one of six players arrested for alleged spot-fixing. No charges were ever brought, but the Preston six spent the best part of a year under suspicion, even after being released from police bail, until a month ago they received CPS letters confirming the matter was being dropped, evidence from a witness in a related case having proved unreliable.

"It felt like a weight had been lifted from our shoulders," Welsh says. "But it was still a traumatic experience and we received very little in the way of explanation or apology."

Welsh was in bed in his Liverpool home one morning last April when the family were awoken by a loud banging on the door. "At first I thought we were being burgled, that's how early it was," he says. "When I went downstairs I could see lots of policemen at the door. They all piled in, told me I was being arrested and said I couldn't speak to anyone. They took my phone and my laptops, then after letting me get dressed they put me in handcuffs. I was trying to keep calm because I could see the panic on my seven-year-old son's face. He couldn't work out what was going on and neither could I.

"The language the police were using made no sense. They were on about conspiracy to do this and that, and at one point mentioned money laundering. That came as a shock to the system. I didn't know anything about money laundering but it struck me that you could go to jail for it, maybe for a few years. I was scared then. I didn't know that others were involved, I thought it was just me."

Welsh was taken from Merseyside to a police station in Manchester, left in a cell for a couple of hours and then interviewed.

"I remember thinking this would be my chance to find out what it was all about, but all they did was ask me football questions," he says. "They were particularly interested in Liverpool and the managers I had played for, wanting to know what Rafa Benitez had been like and a few other personalities. Nothing to do with why I had been brought in. It was only when the duty solicitor arrived that I got a proper explanation. I still couldn't believe it. I knew what spot-fixing meant, they were saying I had been deliberately getting booked, but they were still looking at money laundering too."

Released on police bail, the Preston six had what must have been a surreal meeting with manager Simon Grayson the next day in training. "We had to tell him the police suspected us of getting booked on purpose," Welsh recalls. "Like he wouldn't have noticed, if any of us had been picking up unnecessary bookings. I do get booked a lot, I admit. I'm a ball-winner, I make a lot of tackles, you don't get much margin for error in the modern game. The others were similar, players who would pick up bookings from time to time, but we told the manager we were 100 per cent innocent and he said he believed us. We kept playing, the club were great, fully supportive of us, because there was no evidence. This didn't happen to me, but one of the lads was shown a short tape of a couple of bookings and told they looked deliberate, as if the police would know more about that than managers or fellow players."

The players were in touch with the Professional Footballers' Association, who told them a lot was going on behind the scenes, but even now he has been exonerated Welsh still feels 10 months was a long time to be left dangling.

"There could have been more dialogue, even if people were working on our behalf we didn't know at the time," he says. "We felt very much on our own. People naturally assume there's no smoke without fire, and that will be the case even now.

"My big worry is future employment. If I change clubs or move into coaching is this episode going to be a stain on my career? Is suspicion going to follow us around? We got our phones and laptops back a couple of weeks ago but nothing like an apology. That would be something, though I fear the damage has already been done. We've been all over the national papers. I'm glad it's over now, but I'm disappointed, angry and frustrated to have been dragged into all this on the basis of so little evidence."

Welsh is a resilient scouser, though, incapable of being disappointed, angry and frustrated all the time. He still loves his football and his former team and at the risk of sounding like a police sergeant in a Manchester nick, it seems reasonable to ask him about his part in Liverpool's epic ride to European glory in 2005.

"I'd been involved in the quarters and semis, but didn't make the final squad," he says. "I didn't play enough games to get a medal but I was in Istanbul on the night, enjoying the occasion with my Liverpool shirt on.

"I didn't particularly enjoy the first half, of course, but even when Liverpool were losing it was great seeing players like Shevchenko and Kaka in action. The atmosphere in the second half was something else, something I'll never forget. The season after that I left. Rafa was honest with me, and I appreciated it. He told me I'd only be playing in cup matches and the best thing to get games would be to go on loan, so I joined Hull. As a Liverpool supporter I was gutted, but I knew what I had to do for my career."

Observer

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