Football: Statto: the master of the betting man's craft

`Scotland qualifying for the finals would be the sporting upset of the decade, twice as big an upset as France beating New Zealand at Twickenham'
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ENGLAND'S COMFORTABLE win at Hampden Park on Saturday represented a blow to the bookmakers in more ways than one. Not only was a 2-0 England victory the most popular forecast, but the result has greatly reduced the gambling on tonight's second leg. "Had it been tight, the Wembley match would have been one of the biggest betting games of all time," says Angus Loughran, who styles himself as the BBC's betting correspondent, but is still better known to the man in the street as Statto, Fantasy Football icon.

When we met for lunch yesterday Loughran still wasn't sure where his money was going tonight. "I don't think I'll back England to win," he said. "I think Keegan would settle now for a 1-1 draw because for him, qualification is everything. Unlike in Scotland, where one paper listed 20 reasons to beat England and failed to include qualification for Euro 2000 as one of them."

OK, so what about an improbable Scottish victory? The odds are 33-1 against Scotland qualifying, and 33-1 is hard to resist in a two-horse race. "Yes, but it would be the sporting upset of the decade, twice as big an upset as France beating New Zealand at Twickenham. That saved the bookies a lot of money, you know. New Zealand were regarded as the good thing of the autumn." Indeed, Loughran himself backed the All Blacks to meet Australia in the final. But he hedged shrewdly, also backing France at 33-1 each- way.

Loughran, 34 next week, is the long-odds king. When Tiger Woods was still an amateur, more than a year before the Valderrama Ryder Cup, Loughran backed him at 20-1 to make the US team. At the same time, he backed Woods to win the Millennium Open at St Andrews, which at 100-1 is beginning to look like rather decent value, with Woods now quoted at 5-1. An old friend of Loughran's is getting married that weekend. Loughran has offered him the choice of a tea service or pounds 100 on Woods at 10-1. "It's a bit of sport, isn't it?" he says. Betting, and betting jargon, infiltrate every department of his life. "I don't mind flying on dodgy airlines," he says, "because I take the view that if you're travelling, you've got to get the value."

He is a delightful, amusing lunch companion, who revels in stories against himself. Like the one about cooking a joint of beef in Oil of Ulay (apparently, he went into his local corner shop and said he needed some oil to rub into a joint). With other people, you would bet that such stories were fabricated. With Loughran, it is odds-on they are true. But there are those, of course, who take him very seriously indeed. When Loughran takes a big punt, the entire betting industry sits up and pays attention. Some punters are more well heeled, but precious few, if any at all, are as well informed. "It's a religion with him, really," says his friend and grudging admirer, Mike Dillon, of Ladbrokes. "He spends every waking moment assimilating information. So when it comes to some obscure event, like some minor tennis tournament somewhere, he nearly always knows more than we do."

If the art of bookmaking is staying a short-head in front of the betting public, Loughran has been known to romp home 20 lengths ahead of the bookie. In 1989 he fancied the snooker player Doug Mountjoy to win the Mercantile Credit Classic in Blackpool. Mountjoy had won the UK Championship playing some of the best snooker of his career, but had missed the following tournament, which evidently foxed the odds-makers. Loughran thought that 10-1 would be a reasonable price and was excited to find Mountjoy at 20- 1. Even now, he can remember the draw. In terms of sporting knowledge this man is not so much an anorak, as an entire rainwear emporium.

"He was playing Nick Terry in the first round and the winner was to play Steve Davis or Tony Chappell. I knew that Chappell had beaten Davis in the past, and that if he did so again, the draw could open up for Mountjoy. Then I found that he was 80-1 with the Tote. I couldn't believe it. So I went for a big touch, pounds 100 each-way, which was the same as me having a pounds 20,000 bet now. My advice to punters is, if you fancy something, don't be put off by the price. A lot of people would put pounds 100 on a 6-4 chance but wouldn't dream of having pounds 30 on a 33-1 chance. I'm the other way."

Needless to say, Mountjoy won, making Loughran pounds 12,000 richer. He was there to punch the air, too, for after a day's racing at Leopardstown he had somehow found a flight, via the Isle of Man, from Dublin to Blackpool. There are pilots who would blanch at Loughran's schedule. Take a sample week from earlier this year, for example. He took a Saturday morning flight to New York for the Holyfield v Lewis fight, and had a limo waiting at Kennedy airport which he shared with the racing trainer Sir Mark Prescott. It turned out that Prescott had a horse, Far Cry, running in the five o'clock at Wolverhampton. Loughran, not a man to let a sporting event pass him by, duly made a phone call from the back of the limo, and they listened to the commentary as they drove into Manhattan.

The next day he flew back to London, went to Taunton races on the Monday, spent Tuesday at Cheltenham, and on Wednesday morning flew from Birmingham to Milan, to cover the Milan v Man United Champions' League match. This time he persuaded the ITV technical boys to fiddle with a few wires, and sat in the San Siro car park before the match, watching racing from Cheltenham.

"After the match," he continues, "I managed to get back on the plane with the United team, got home (to Altrincham) at 2.30am, did a quick change, and asked the taxi to take me on to Cheltenham so I could get there for morning gallops. I was there for 7am, which was a fair effort. Then on Friday morning I went back to New York, to do a highlights programme of European football for [the American sports channel] ESPN. I got back to London on the Saturday, in time for the England v France rugby match, then went to the Worthington Cup final on the Sunday."

You could say that such a schedule is a touch bonkers, and it would be, if it did not represent a canny investment. For, wherever he is, Loughran is picking up information that will give him an edge over the bookmaker. Moreover, lots of football managers, among them Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, have been known to tap his encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure European football teams.

His gambling income is a closely guarded secret; one of his many appealing qualities is that he never brags. However, educated guesswork suggests that, in a merely average year, he would expect profits of pounds 250,000. He has had several six-figure wins, and in 1995, for instance, correctly tipped Morton, a, Middlesbrough and Carlisle to win their respective divisions, with Ajax to win the Champions' League. This bagged him and his syndicate pounds 180,000. Generously, Loughran often shares his hunches with friends. "He's a giver, not a taker," says Dillon, which is praise indeed, coming from a Ladbrokes man.

This year Loughran's money is riding - currently somewhat precariously - on Doncaster, Darlington, Forfar, Dunfermline and Barcelona. He avoided the Premiership and Division One, which seemed to yield no obvious winner. "The team that has saved the bookmaker this year is Blackburn," he says. "They were in everyone's multiple bet." Everyone's but his.

Speaking of multiple bets, Loughran's greatest triumph came in 1996. In a spot of forecasting to make Nostradamus look ordinary, he picked Rough Quest, Encore Un Peu and Superior Finish to finish first, second and third in the Grand National. Spookily, the night before the race, he did a spot of mock-commentary on a cable TV channel. "And they jump the last together, Encore Un Peu from Rough's a long way back to third ...and here comes Rough the line it's Rough Quest..." he shouted, Peter O'Sullevan-style. At teatime the next day it was almost possible to play his commentary over the actual race.

"I have to admit that Superior Finish was a lucky guess, based on the fact that Jenny Pitman usually had a good National," he says. "I'm no Uri Geller. But I really only saw two runners." He was not, however, averse to a little underhand manoeuvring, when he heard that Terry Casey, Rough Quest's trainer, was planning to keep the horse out of the Grand National. Loughran promptly mobilised dozens of friends, passing themselves off as ordinary racing enthusiasts, to write to Casey pleading with him to let Rough Quest run. And run it did, netting Loughran and co around pounds 200,000.

His betting fanaticism - and fanaticism is not too strong a word - was born at his prep school, Moor Park in Shropshire, and cultivated at Ampleforth, the Catholic public school in Yorkshire, where he ran a book on how many monks would turn up for Sunday mass. The result was posted on the hymn board by an altar boy, who sometimes forgot to take it down. "I remember the number 20 going up one day. A woman in front of me nudged her husband and said `I can't believe it. "Away in a Manger" during Lent'."

He had his first 15 minutes of fame in 1982, when he carried a stool out to the wicket during an England v India Test match at The Oval, to emphasise the extreme tedium of Chris Tavare's innings. He was subsequently arrested and told he would have to be punished. "You could always let me stay and watch the rest of this," he suggested.

It is a great story. And there is time for one more. Earlier this year Loughran received a monthly phone bill for pounds 15,500, which was impossibly steep even for him. All the calls were made from New York, to places such as Belize and Sierra Leone. The fraud squad were duly called in, and it turned out that Loughran, in New York for the Lewis v Holyfield fight, had been videoed outside Madison Square Garden making a call with his global calling card. By superslowmo-ing the tape, the person had identified the pin number and sold the information to dozens of New York immigrants at $10 a time. Loughran tells the story almost in admiration. And why, pray, did he feel the need to slip away from the big fight to make a phone call?

"I wanted the Scottish Third Division results," he says.