When I entered my local betting shop before the 1988 FA Cup final, breast- stroking my way like a guilty thing through the coloured fringe in the doorway, I had no particular thought in my head, other than this one: It's the FA Cup final. Why not have a bet?
Under the ironic gaze of the regular punters, all perched beneath TV screens with copies of the Sporting Life, I announced my bold intention to the woman behind the counter. She indicated the relevant slip of paper, and then began a process within my head which went roughly like this: Wimbledon v Liverpool. More interesting to bet on the underdogs. And what about a scorer? Think solid clubman lifted from obscurity. Think Bobby Stokes, Roger Osborne. Lawrie Sanchez. Just the man.
I wanted to bet on Wimbledon winning 1-0, with Sanchez as the scorer. The nearest I could get was Wimbledon to win and Sanchez to score the first goal.
I was a guest at a wedding on Cup final afternoon, and I gleaned the first news of the match from a coach driver taking guests on to the reception. Wimbledon were in the lead, but he didn't know who had scored. Several glasses of wine and champagne later, I heard the outcome. Wimbledon had won 1-0. The scorer was Lawrie Sanchez.
This was my first real bet. pounds 10 had become pounds 110. And no one had objected.
The obvious thought occurred: Why not do it again? But I realised I had to use my newly revealed power of divination wisely. I had to wait until the sporting muse hovered once more at my shoulder.
I did not feel the beat of those wings again until the sixth round of the following year's FA Cup, when West Ham - my team - went to Norwich for a replay. The mental process this time was as mysterious as before. As in 1975, when they won the Cup, West Ham had beaten Swindon in the fourth round replay. They had also beaten Arsenal, as they had on the 1975 run, and in the 1980 final. The signs were all there. It was on. I knew.
As I watched the match on television, it was probably the moment when Norwich's third goal went in which prompted me to question my prophetic capabilities. At 0-2, I still thought West Ham were going to win.
This was my second real bet. pounds 25 had become nothing - and no one had objected.
So there it was, a moral lesson in two parts. As Paul Weller sang it: "Just when I thought that I was something special, they tell me that I'm not, and they're right, and I'm glad that I'm not..."
And I was glad. Because, once the sting of Dale Gordon's finalstrike had worn off, I realised I had gained an intangible consolation. From being a freak of luck, I had become a regular guy, a happy-go-lucky, what- the-hell, you'll-never-guess-what loser. I belonged.
For years, friends and colleagues had beguiled me with gambling tales which, almost invariably, involved spiralling hopes being dashed to the ground by cruel fate. The more excruciating the failure, the greater, it seemed, the relish.
In the way that some find consolation for life's vicissitudes in the Blues, gamblers draw comfort from a common lament over the fickleness of fortune. The Stoic position of the dyed-in-the-wool gambler was defined for me this week by an Australian friend: "If you take five odds-on certainties," he said, "there is always one bastard that lets you down."
Having the bookmakers take your money is a badge of honour. Listen to Radio 5's Saturday Sports Call and you will hear the authentic tone of cameraderie-in-defeat as the Scottish presenter, Dominik Diamond, expatiates engagingly upon his latest disastrous venture on the gee-gees and cheerfully solicits further listeners' tips.
The same masochistic relish animated the verse of C J Dennis, Australia's demotic poet laureate at the turn of the century, when he described his inexplicable failure to back Trivalve, winner of the 1905 Melbourne Cup:
"I 'ad the money in me 'and,
"Fair dinkum! Right there by the stand..."
In Scotland, they have a favourite joke about gambling which speaks the same language: "Question: How do you stop a runaway horse? Answer: Put some money on it."
It's only a feeling at this stage, but I think I have pounds 10 which says that West Ham are going to reach next year's Coca-Cola Cup final...Reuse content