Book Of The Week: Blinkered view of a too-casual bet

Gambling on Goals Graham Sharpe (Mainstream Publishing, hardback, pounds 15.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Online
What with Ladbrokes being among the sponsors of Euro 96 and a betting booth at every Premiership ground, it is easy to forget that for much of the history of organised football, its administrators regarded bookmakers as parasites, fixers and hoodlums - and that was when they could bring themselves to mention betting at all. In theory, Gambling On Goals is an account of an aspect of the sport which was always there but rarely acknowledged. In practice, though, it reads rather more like the case for the defence.

This is only to be expected. Graham Sharpe has been the public face of William Hill for a quarter of a century, and a more determined and persuasive advocate for the betting industry you will struggle to find. The trouble is that his enthusiasm can tend to get the better of him. Betting, it seems, is unequivocally A Good Thing, and anyone who has ever suggested otherwise deserves nothing but mockery.

At least he is consistent, though. As Sharpe demonstrates via an impressive collection of sources (his mail, you suspect, was being redirected to the Newspaper Library in Colindale for several months), the hallmark of the official attitude to gambling on football has long been hypocrisy. It took decades for the authorities to accept even the pools, for example, but when the concept of the Football Trust arrived, they fell over themselves in the rush to get their hands on the money.

It is an entertaining sub-plot - blazers wage war against the lovable rogues as they engage in the harmless pursuit of laying the odds - but at times just a little too complacent. True, there is an exhaustive list of incidents of bribery and match-fixing, both proven and otherwise, which will give most fans the chance to spot an unsavoury incident in their team's history, but the implication seems to be that the skulduggery is all in the past.

This is not to say that betting on football is not, by and large, an entirely legitimate and life-enhancing thing for people to do. Some of Sharpe's comments and assumptions, however, are far too casual. Comparing a chairman backing his club to win promotion in order to cover bonus payments, and a player betting on himself to score the first goal, he asks: "Is there, in principle... any difference? I don't think so - do you?"

Well, yes, actually, and it takes a serious set of blinkers to miss the point that fans do not pay good money to watch the chairman. They do so to see players give of their best, and even the perception that a team member might be influenced by a bet is damaging.

Sharpe has undoubtedly produced a comprehensive account of football betting down the years, and his first-hand experience means that it is awash with fascinating snippets on the pay-outs won and lost. It is simply too partial, however, to be definitive.