Why football should tackle gambling

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FOR anyone approaching the conclusion that horses have become marginally more reliable than goalkeepers when it comes to weighing up a sporting gamble, the past week would have provided some sensational confirmation. The Cheltenham Festival, surely the nation's most sustained three-day dose of gambling fever, took place to a background of galloping suspicion that football is riven with doubtful results.

While genuine and attractive horses were being cheered home by Cheltenham's delirious hordes, two goalkeepers and a centre-forward were under police interrogation about a supposed Far Eastern betting ring. The contrast between a healthy sport and an unwholesome one could not have been more vivid. The fact that those arrested were released without charge and are not required to present themselves for further questioning until 4 July suggests that the expression "bang to rights" is still far from the lips of the Hampshire Constabulary in respect of this case. This shortfall in swift and certain police activity, however, has not deterred some from assuming guilt and making judgements about football as a whole that betray a certain relish at the game's recent misfortunes.

Football will have to live with the consequences of this painstaking investigation that continues to baffle those both in and outside the game who have closely studied the available facts. While the shadow remains, opportunities will abound for the sort of bandwagoning we've already witnessed, not least from Westminster where one MP last week castigated the Football Association for complacency and demanded that the Government step in.

The idea that an organisation beset by allegations of bung and misbehaviour can best be investigated by the country's foremost experts in bung and misbehaviour is not without merit but one has only to look at Parliament's record of self- discipline to dismiss any moralising from that direction as a personal cry for attention. Nevertheless, the FA are confronted with a situation that calls for positive reaction. It is fatuous to suggest that a sporting body can perform any meaningful inquiry into alleged criminality but they can at least act firmly to cut down any existing opportunities for skulduggery.

This brings us back to the comparison with horse-racing. There can be hardly a serious follower of that sport - and I count myself a low-grade, small-wagering enthusiast - who doesn't accept that the odd jockey and trainer are adept at manipulating horses to run above or below expectations. It is part of the scene and you object only when you feel victimised, and even then you're never sure. Horses are only human, after all, and don't always perform to their full capacity.

One tends to be circumspect about racing because it exists mainly as a gambling medium. When Sunday racing without gambling was introduced it still attracted the crowds and I suggested that if it continued with the experiment the sport might stand on its own four legs as a crowd- pulling spectacle. This view was derided, mainly by the bookmakers and their influential supporters in Parliament, and Sunday racing with full betting-shop support was foisted on to the nation. The sport appears quite happy for us to conclude that it exists for no other reason than for gambling.

However, if you took gambling away from football it would not make a jot of difference to the game or its mass appeal. The bookmakers wouldn't welcome such a move but it is in the game's immediate interests that the FA remove the facility for gambling on single matches. I realise they are powerless to affect the gambling instincts prevalent in the opium dens of Malaysia where, we gather, millions are staked on the fortunes of Southampton and Wimbledon, but they can control what happens here. And what is happening here was beginning to cause concern even before the Bruce Grobbelaar case erupted.

When the great match-fixing scandal of 1964 ended in imprisonment and life bans for three First Division players, fixed-odds betting on single matches was declared illegal. I believe there was a match-fixing syndicate operating from outside the game at the time but although they were never caught their antics were curtailed by the removal of single-match betting. The ban still holds - but not for Cup games or for league matches shown live on television. Since there are more live matches on TV now than ever before, chances for match- fixing profits have become abundant and with a growing variety of bets available there are new avenues for crooked ingenuity.

Apart from straight betting on the result, you can bet on the actual score, the name of the first scorer, the time of the first goal, the number of corners and of goal kicks and even on the total shirt numbers of the scorers. Obviously, much of this is pure fun but with bookies' stalls now popping up inside grounds we are reaching the stage when a football match is in danger of becoming a betting medium.

Not having been to a Premiership match lately, I wasn't aware of the way betting has entered the game. Southampton's meeting with West Ham on Wednesday would have been slightly overshadowed by the fact that Grobbelaar had been released from his 30 hours of questioning only a few hours before the match and was replaced in goal by Dave Beasant. But sensitivity about football betting does not appear to be worrying the Dell. Stalls were open so that fans could bet on the first scorer and when West Ham's Don Hutchison duly obliged, the loudspeaker not only announced his name and the time of the goal but said that his price was 10-1.

We had an instance last year when a team bet on a defender at 40-1 to score and did their best to arrange it. To allow such things is not the act of an organisation determined to regain its reputation for paying scrupulous attention to the game's image. Whether or not the players so far implicated are guilty - and I sincerely hope they aren't - football must reassure us that the game we watch is above suspicion. At the very least, that reassurance must include the removal of any temptation for it to be otherwise.

RUGBY UNION acted with typical generosity by reducing the penalty for a player who turns to rugby league. Instead of banning him for life he will now serve only three years' suspension before being allowed back on to a union pitch. This means that during this purification period, the player would be unable to play league or union. That a body can effectively ban a man from playing two sports is yet another triumph from the men of mangled morals.

ANSWERING some irresistible call, I found myself listening to the Radio 5 broadcast of the Bowe-Hide fight in the early hours of last Sunday. It is many years since I strained to hear the crackling words of the commentary. The inter-round summaries were provided by an American gentleman called Michael Bentt who informed us that when Hide hit Bowe in the second round: "Bowe was momentarily in Bucklesville." That is why at 3.45am on a cold morning I found myself yearning for the days of Barrington Dalby. He was invariably wrong but at least I understood him.