Stewards' inquiry into the sack race

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If the recently dismissed Arsenal manager, Bruce Rioch, is a reader of the Racing Post he would have known his imminent fate last Monday morning, several hours before it was officially announced. This was not a question of the specialist racing paper getting a scoop from the horse's mouth, but rather a small news item relating to the bookmaking firm William Hill.

The previous week, as part of their traditional build-up to the start of the football season, Hill's had offered individual odds on the chances of each Premiership manager being fired from his job during the season. The book, formally entitled "Premiership Managers to no longer be in charge on 11 May 1997", but more grammatically and colloquially called "The Sack Race", offered odds for example of 5-4 on Martin O'Neill getting the push, with Howard Wilkinson of Leeds next best at 7-4. Theoretically the most secure manager was Kevin Keegan, rated 20-1 to walk the plank, although this price was framed before the Charity Shield. By Monday, he was down to 14-1.

But tucked in amongst the field of 20 runners was Rioch, offered at 7- 1, which was among the higher prices available, making Rioch a man unlikely to be receiving his P45. Apart from his form - no trophies in the '95- '96 season, but placed in both the Coca-Cola Cup and the Premiership - hadn't Rioch just signed a contract after a season of doing without such legal nicety?

But as soon as the odds had been announced strange things began to happen in the Hill's network of betting shops and their credit office. A whole string of bets on Rioch losing his job were placed at 7-1, obliging the company to cut his odds to 3-1 by the close of business on the Friday night.

If it was Spurs fans having a laugh, it was a potentially expensive joke. Come last Saturday morning, however, it became even weirder. Four punters, two with cash and as it happens in the north London area, plus two on credit, tried to place pounds 1,000 bets at 3-1 on Rioch being sacked.

Alarm bells duly began to ring in the Hill's office and though these four-figure bets were declined they did lay other wagers on Rioch of pounds 200 at 2-1, and pounds 600 at 7-4. By mid -afternoon, Hill's, if not Rioch himself, had got the message and had closed their book. And sure enough the dreaded chairman's statement was issued from Arsenal 48 hours later on Monday afternoon, allowing these well-informed punters to collect their winnings.

As a betting man, I am not usually inclined to be censorious at other people's gambling habits, or whatever the bookies offer to tempt us into shelling out. But there are several dubious elements to this.

In the first instance, it seems obvious that among those who placed the bets must have been several individuals with inside knowledge, particularly those four who were prepared to wager pounds 1,000 each. However rich you are, you just don't go sticking a grand on something that might not pay out, and the co-ordinated timing of the attempted bets confirms that a coup was on the cards. This was no hunch betting.

Now this happens all the time in horse racing as professional punters get tips from inside stables about how a particular horse has worked in training, or how its form has been disguised to enable it to win "surprisingly" next time out. But eventually, it does come down to a race, against other horses whose trainers may also have plotted a win, so there is always an element of chance.

Those who were trying to "get on big" on Rioch plainly knew they were on a winner in a one-horse race. So the first question has to be - how did they know? If we assume that it wasn't Rioch himself placing bets as a consolation, it leaves the uncomfortable notion that somebody close to Arsenal could have been in a position to leak the information or benefit from it.

May I suggest that as Hill's know the names of the two credit clients who tried to place their pounds 1,000 bets, Arsenal may wish to find out if those same names are known to them. The Football Association may even want to make a few enquiries of their own over this thoroughly distasteful affair. They act in cases of players and club officials selling tickets on the black market, which is nothing other than "insider trading", so why should they not investigate this because it seems to be a far more serious example of the species.

Hill's should also consider their position over this particular market. I find it tacky at the very least to be invited to gamble on a man's failure. It goes against my sporting instincts, being the equivalent of trying to place a bet on a horse that will fall.

Even on a less moralistic basis of their own self-interest, Hill's must realise that their managership market is wide open to abuse from those with access to a football club's internal affairs. They didn't even have the guts to lay the big bets after all, so what is the point of it, apart from a few pieces of free publicity? Last Wednesday, unabashed, Hill's were touting the news that Ray Harford of Blackburn Rovers had been backed into 7-4 from 5-2 to be the next managerial casualty. Prophets of doom, or profits of doom?

THE news that Uefa have now decided to expand the Champions' League to admit teams who, er, aren't actually champions comes as no surprise to students of the relationship between football organisation and money. They may have been equal partners at one stage, a honeymoon period of equal love and respect. But now it is football that is emphatically being asked to bend over forwards.

The new 24-team league stage of the competition is nothing more than an expanded advertising hoarding for the trans-national European companies who bankroll Uefa's affairs. The likes of Ford, Amstel Beer and Continental Tyres have found that football is a far more potent unifying force across Europe than a language, a single currency or a combined foreign policy.

As sponsors of the Champions' League these companies have been able to obtain prime advertising sites around the grounds staging the matches which are all covered live by European television companies, the programmes themselves being topped and tailed by more messages from the same sponsors who are already so visible around the stadia. The advertising breaks are usually filled by them as well.

Does it matter? Do I actually run out to buy a Ford Mondeo with Continental Tyres and stop off for an Amstel after seeing the programme? I do not. I just watch the footie. I win, so far anyway.

But what if the football itself becomes corrupted? The European Cup, as I still prefer to call it, was about the best of each year competing against each other in the inherently dramatic circumstances of cup football. Now we have a league where teams are seeded, where the points needed for further qualification can be estimated in advance, and where the only pure knock-out element is the final itself. Add more clubs to this format, spread across the vagaries of a European winter, and you surely have a recipe for the worst of all outcomes - football that doesn't matter.

LATE flash: Fast Mickey bookmakers are now offering odds on the first football manager to lose his job as a consequence of a bad result given out by the Pools Panel. Ring now!

Peter Corrigan is on holiday