Been inside? You're hired

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There is a moment in the famous fly-on-the-wall television documentary about the former England football manager Graham Taylor's disastrous 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign where the camera turns to the dismayed press corps.

There is a moment in the famous fly-on-the-wall television documentary about the former England football manager Graham Taylor's disastrous 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign where the camera turns to the dismayed press corps. Rob Shepherd, then of Today newspaper, is shown looking utterly dejected by Taylor's team selection for the deciding game against Holland and pleading with the manager to change his mind. Taylor mocks him for his negativity. Shepherd, of course, was right. England crashed out of the competition and his cameo role ensured his place at the top table of British sports writers.

That is until January of this year, when he lost his job at the Daily Express and began a 14-month sentence for violent conduct after he bit a man when under the influence of alcohol. He has spent the past four months residing at Highdown prison in Surrey and at Canterbury jail.

The episode could have spelt the end of his career, but Shepherd is now out of custody on an electronic tag and is being offered a second chance. James Hipwell, who is the editor of the gambling magazine Inside Edge, now wants Shepherd to be its football columnist.

The magazine is fast becoming Britain's refuge for fallen hacks. When Hipwell was offered the chance to launch the magazine he felt duty bound to tell his prospective employers that he was still being investigated by the Department of Trade and Industry over his role in the Daily Mirror's City Slickers affair.

His prospective employer, Dennis Publishing - owned by Felix Dennis (who himself served time in Wormwood Scrubs following the famous Oz obscenity trial, although the charges were later quashed) - nevertheless chose to hire him.

Hipwell had appeared to be washed up after losing his job at the Mirror in spectacular circumstances amid a share-tipping scandal. Now he is promising to offer an opportunity to a number of writers and gamblers whose lives have been blighted by falling foul of the law in one way or another. He also employs his fellow City Slicker Anil Bhoyrul (also sacked by the Mirror) and the jailed Barings trader Nick Leeson.

When I called to meet Shepherd last week, he told me that he could only make a day-time meeting (he remains on an evening curfew until 8 August). The Ritz, which has a casino attached to it, seemed an appropriate venue. It also serves a fine cup of coffee - now Shepherd's preferred drink - in its bar area.

Shepherd is a chastened man since spending time inside, but he is not a man that has in any way been deserted by his many contacts. Ken Bates, Chelsea football club's former chairman, last week put a financial proposition to Shepherd that is under consideration.

Other big names from the world of sport and media (including Graham Taylor) wrote to Shepherd while he was in prison and some offered significant help to his family (he has two children). "A lot of people gathered together and rallied around for me, both emotionally and materially. I lost a stone inside and reacquainted myself with the gym and read some books on Buddhism. I don't believe I'm a Buddhist, but I'm looking at the spiritual side of life."

So how has Shepherd made an impact on his new editor? "I'm interested in Rob Shepherd because he's got one of the best contact books in the business," says Hipwell. "And he's one of the best-regarded football writers in the country."

Patrick Hannon, a media consultant, says that Inside Edge needs to differentiate itself from daily newspapers and specialist publications in order to succeed. The hiring of well-known and even controversial columnists is one of the ways of doing this.

Shepherd's potential value to the magazine, which covers all forms of sports gambling, is obvious. What Hipwell wants is for Shepherd to use both his contacts and experience in the football world to write a column for the magazine's growing band of readers who pay £3.99 per issueor £32 per year for an annual subscription.

Since launching earlier this year, Inside Edge has been steadily building its subscriber base. Hipwell hopes that as the liberalisation of the gambling laws goes through Parliament, interest in all forms of gambling will continue to grow. Interest in online poker, for example, is phenomenal, he says, and he hopes his magazine will not only make lots of money but will also inform its readers of the dangers of gambling as well as its many attractions.

Hipwell himself is an inveterate gambler, putting money on anything and everything. Shepherd prefers a smaller flutter, although he did say that after our meeting he was going off to collect his winnings on a bet he made that Chelsea would finish either first or second in the Premiership.

And what are the odds on Inside Edge registering its break-even circulation figure by the end of the year?

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