Giles Smith Sport on TV: Odds practices of Crazy Gang brought to book

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The Independent Online
A SCENARIO: you are watching a football match. The score is 0-0 when suddenly a forward wriggles through the defence, rounds the goalkeeper and confronts the open net. But instead of shooting he turns and hooks the ball back out to a team-mate, a cumbersome central defender making his way up wheezily from the rear. His 40- yard punt clatters into the girders above the stand. What is going on?

Let's leave aside the most obvious explanation (ie you are watching Southampton) and pursue a more controversial route. Imagine the little bookmaker's booth at the ground is offering the cumbersome defender as a 60-1 long-shot to score the game's opening goal. And imagine the rest of his team have clubbed together in the dressing-room before the game and put down pounds 100 - so the entire side has a vested interest in this specific outcome. Fantasy? Yes, but a faintly disturbing report on the television football fanzine Standing Room Only (BBC 2, Wednesday) suggested that the odds on this happening are somewhat smaller than you might think.

When John Scales put Wimbledon ahead against Sunderland in the FA Cup fourth round this year, the celebrations on the pitch were more than a little enlivened by the fact that the team had just earned themselves pounds 4,000 by gambling that he would do so. A grinning Vinnie Jones confessed that, in the immediate aftermath of the Scales goal, his attention was elsewhere: 'I was on me way down to the bookies' to get weighed in.'

All of which is, as Vinnie would say, well out of order. The Football Association Rule Book probably doesn't come in for much use at Wimbledon, except, maybe, to prop up an unsteady table, but it might be worth pointing our that it lists gambling under 'Misconduct' and expressly forbids players 'to bet on any game of football other than on authorised and registered football pools'. And what if players were to start laying money on the opposition?

It's a cliche that footballers are big gamblers - all those boring afternoons at home after training, idly blowing their win-bonuses on the televised horseracing. But more and more football spectators are now joining them. Gambling on football is currently the bookies' third biggest money-spinner, after horses and the dogs. In 1986, Watford were the first club to install a bookmakers' booth - now they are virtually everywhere, chiefly offering odds on the final score and on the first player to score.

One of Standing Room Only's thrusts was that the bookmakers cash in by offering poor prices at football grounds. You can, for example, get better odds on a Liverpool home victory in a Manchester shop than you could at the game. But you would probably miss the kick-off. Andrew Smith, billed as a 'professional gambler' (presumably self-employed), suggested betting on the last player to score, in order to keep your interest intact right until the final whistle. This seemed a smart tactic and certainly in touch with why people feel the need to gamble at football - which has nothing to do with researching the odds and everything to do with generating some excitement.

Last season, my partner at Chelsea games worked out a gambling business strategy whereby he would risk pounds 1 at every home game nominating as first scorer Mal Donaghy (a defensive veteran, last seen bearing down on the goal at some point in the 1950s). Donaghy was 60-1 - a mad proposition in the short-term, but the chances of more than doubling the investment over a season looked high.

Alas, the odds plummeted to 33-1 after Donaghy hit the bar away at Crystal Palace. (We were deeply impressed by Ladbrokes' minute sensitivity to the ebb and flow of the game.) But even so, at the beginning of April, at home to Middlesbrough, Donaghy underwent a severe brainstorm, moved up for a corner and came good.

The Donaghy bet was top value in more than the financial sense. It meant we got to shout 'Shoot]' and 'Have a dig, Mal]' every time Donaghy received the ball - no matter if he happened to be down by his own corner flag at the time. During what was, even by Chelsea's standards, a long and drab season, this small pecuniary interest was frequently the only thing between ourselves and sleep.

This season, our gambling at the Bridge has been much more sporadic and inessential and not just because Donaghy hasn't found a regular place in the side. (Erland Johnsen, a man who only ventures into the centre circle at corners and on his birthday, and is thus given goalscoring odds up around the three-figure mark, would have served our purposes handsomely.) The fact is, what with Chelsea's FA Cup run and the relegation jitters, we've simply had other things to occupy us.

The point is, betting at football is not so much a reflection on the compulsive mentality of the punter as an indictment of the sorry state of the Premiership. Presumably the players are subject to the same forces though, in the end, they are better placed to do something about it.