Graham Cummins: 'This is what happened when police banged on my door at 7am'

Five and a half years ago, then-Preston striker Graham Cummins and his wife woke to officers from Britain's National Crime Agency hammering at their front door. Accusations of match spot-fixing and time in a jail cell followed. Though he was cleared of all wrongdoing, the stigma of the episode remains.

Here the ex-Cork City man writes about the experience for the first time.

Graham Cummins: 'This is what happened when police banged on my door at 7am'

It saddens me to think that the time I spent as a professional footballer in the UK may not be remembered for scoring winning goals against Celtic and Rangers or playing against the two most expensive defenders — Harry Maguire and Virgil van Dijk — in the history of the game.

Instead, I’m more likely to be associated with the events that occurred after I woke one morning in April 2014 to find several officers from the National Crime Agency [NCA] at my front door.

In football, spot-fixing is an offence which relates to things like throw-ins, corner kicks, and bookings. In other words, it influences aspects of a game but not the result.

I pride myself on being an honest, hard-working professional who gives everything on the pitch. To be accused of spot-fixing caused damage to my character then and it still does to this day.

Did you do it?

There are few who know the full story, so I don’t blame people for asking that question. I’d probably do the same if the roles were reversed. Yet even though I know the truth, I can’t claim that the question doesn’t hurt.

I’m the type of person who gets a fright when my alarm goes off in the morning. The sudden burst of noise causes a brief sense of panic.

Having said that, since being arrested, the alarm on my phone has seemed a much more pleasant wake-up call than the sound of my door almost being kicked in by the NCA at 7 am.

As I sprung from the bed that morning, my wife — who had been getting ready for work in — came rushing in, terrified. Our immediate thought was that someone was trying to break into the house.

It wasn’t much in the way of solace when I opened the bedroom window and looked down into the front garden.

Two men, identifying themselves as NCA officers, asked me to open the door.

All sorts of things were going through my head as I walked down the stairs. Has something happened to a member of my family? Has my car been stolen?

Once I opened the door, four more officers appeared from the rear of the property. They produced a search warrant and made their way into my home.

I was then told I was being arrested. When they explained why, ‘betting’ was the only word I heard.

At that time, footballers in England were allowed to bet on games. While I did enjoy doing a coupon on a Saturday, I couldn’t comprehend why that could lead to me being arrested — and it didn’t.

A matter of seconds after I had been in bed on what was due to be a normal day, I was suddenly being dragged out of my house and driven to a police station.

My wife was my main concern at that stage. I won’t ever forget the sight of her with tears streaming down her face as I was being taken away.

She was left at the house while officers tore the place apart in their search for evidence.

Graham Cummins: 'This is what happened when police banged on my door at 7am'

It was tough seeing my wife’s face but I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for some of the other players arrested who had kids. They had the NCA ransacking their homes and petrifying their children.

No parent wants to be dragged out of their house in handcuffs in front of their children.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the police station and was read my rights that I realised specifically what I had been arrested for. I was aware that a previous team-mate, along with several others, had been arrested a few months earlier for the same offence, which initially left me wondering if they had fabricated a story to frame me.

I was put into a cell and told to wait until a lawyer arrived. Hours passed before I was finally questioned.

In the first interview the officers were relatively pleasant, asking simple questions about my general finances and bills.

When I returned to the cell, I was somewhat relieved to find that I had been joined by Keith Keane, who I played with at Preston North End. His company was welcome and his presence reassured me that this was all a misunderstanding.

My second interview was more specific. It related to the games I was involved in and the friends I had in football. There were questions about yellow cards I had received the previous year, as well as the starting line-ups from those games.

The NCA were particularly interested in why phone calls and messages between players at Preston were so frequent on Saturday and Sunday evenings. They seemed perplexed why footballers would speak to each other over the phone to discuss a game in which they had played earlier that day. They couldn’t understand why those conversations wouldn’t take place in the dressing room immediately after the final whistle.

Footballers will seldom express how they really feel in front of the group.

They wait until they get home to ring their closest friend and dissect the game.

On top of that, our manager at the time would send the same text message to everyone on the team on a Sunday afternoon to ask a question about the game.

He would then read the replies in front of the group in a meeting on Monday, hence the players would ring each other in advance to ensure that we were all on the same page so nobody got stitched up.

At that point, I was baffled that the NCA’s belief I may have been guilty of spot-fixing seemed to be based on little more than a suspicion about a few phone calls and messages.

After spending 12 hours in police custody, I was granted bail. Funnily enough, the two officers who interviewed me during the day then dropped me home.

Were it not for the fact that one of them was a big Everton fan who was keen to talk about football, it might have been an awkward journey.

There was a mixture of joy and concern on my wife’s face when I returned home. She had spent the day at the house, watching the NCA take away our phones, laptops and DVDs of games that I kept because I had scored in them. They were eventually returned 18 months later.

While I was in custody, my wife had been in contact with our families and close friends, who were obviously extremely worried by what they heard.

Those concerning messages and calls meant a lot because it showed who we can rely on when things get tough.

Graham Cummins: 'This is what happened when police banged on my door at 7am'

I was very surprised by one message I received privately through social media. I’d probably only met the man two or three times during my playing days with Cobh Ramblers but I received a very encouraging message from Cork hurling legend Dónal Óg Cusack.

He didn’t have to take the time to send me a message to keep my head up but he did. That shows what kind of person he is and makes me respect Cusack so much.

I had been assured at the police station that because no charges were brought against me, my name would not be released. That proved to be wishful thinking.

That night, my identity was revealed in a report by the BBC. I knew then that there would be some abuse coming my way from the terraces.

I was dreading walking into training the next morning at Rochdale, where I was on loan at the time from Preston. In fairness to the lads, they just made a joke of it.

The manager, Keith Hill, called me into his office and asked me what had happened. He also wanted to know if I felt ready to be in the squad for the game the following day.

Even though I was worried about what the crowd would have in store for me, I didn’t want to hide when I had done nothing wrong. In the end, the abuse wasn’t as bad as expected.

To Rochdale’s credit, they treated me brilliantly throughout a very difficult time. Unfortunately, I didn’t receive much help from Preston. Not once did I speak with anyone from the club about the situation.

When my contract expired that summer, finding a new club was complicated by the fact that I was still on bail. Clubs were understandably reluctant to employ someone who had just been arrested amid allegations of spot-fixing.

I managed to sign for Exeter City in August — one week into the beginning of the season — ironically after a trial.

I had been cleared by the investigation when I signed for Exeter and the manager Paul Tisdale was still concerned with my involvement. It’s an awkward conversation to have.

Meeting a manager for the first time, players are meant to be selling themselves to the club about how good a footballer they are but instead I was explaining that I wasn’t a shady character.

The incident hurt my bargaining power when it came to negotiating my salary. I couldn’t be demanding more money when Exeter were signing a player no one else was interested in because I had a black mark next to my name over an arrest.

When the investigation was finally dropped, I found out by reading an article I came across online.

Graham Cummins: 'This is what happened when police banged on my door at 7am'

At first, I didn’t believe it was true, assuming that I would surely know before some reporter. As it transpired, Preston had been informed but neglected to contact me.

I did feel that because I was out on-loan from Preston that they seemed to forget about me.

They helped the other players involved by providing a solicitor for them but I wasn’t given one by the club.

Nonetheless, an enormous weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was mental torture as I tried to get on with my life while that cloud hung over me. Every time there was a knock at the door, I thought it was the NCA. I became paranoid, convincing myself that cars were following me and that my phone was tapped.

Despite my innocence, the possibility that I could go to jail was real.

We got no satisfaction from the NCA when the investigation was over. They destroyed my house, traumatised my wife and I and kept hold of our belonging. I was told the best outcome with the NCA would be to fill out forms and maybe someday in the future I might get an apology.

The incident resurfaced two years later, when the English FA started their own investigation.

Although we had been cleared by the NCA, the FA felt there was still a case to be answered. They believed that we weren’t guilty of spot-fixing but that players had been approached to spot fix and never reported it.

If a player is approached to spot fix or if a player knows a player who has been approached and does not report it to the FA — and the FA finds out — then those players can be suspended from football.

The FA wanted someone to be punished. They believe someone was guilty of something but no player was suspended after their investigation.

When the time comes for me to find a career outside of football, and potential employers type my name into Google, the results are sure to raise some red flags.

I can only hope that that they’ll look beyond them and find the truth.

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