Not least of the pleasures of watching England's footballers hammer Greece on Wednesday evening was seeing Eddie Kirkland's little jig of delight as his son Chris took his place between the posts for the second half. As has been widely reported, Kirkland Snr struck a bet almost 10 years ago with William Hill that Chris, then starring for South Leicestershire Under-15s, would one day play in goal for England. The bet, contrary to reports, was not £100 but £98.10, which somehow adds to the romance, suggesting that Mr Kirkland just emptied whatever was in his pockets on to the counter.
Yesterday I spoke to Graeme Sharp, the spokesman for William Hill, who told me that in the wake of the Kirkland bonanza he fully expects a rush of proud parents backing little Jimmy to play in the 2015 Rugby World Cup or little Jemima to win a gymnastics medal in the 2016 Olympics. Most bookmakers have thousands of such bets already on their files. Graeme told me that his company stands to lose a million quid if a lad called Freddie Martin-Dye ever wins a Formula One grand prix; Freddie's father, Philip, was offered 1,000-1 and stuck on £1,000.
I love those wildly optimistic, long-term bets, especially the ones that come off. The father of Reading's Kevin Doyle has €150 (£102) at 150-1 with Paddy Power on his boy playing a competitive match for Ireland by 2014. That should be worth keeping an eye on, especially as Doyle has already played a couple of international friendlies.
But some long-term bets are inspired by rather more than misty-eyed parental pride. A punter in Winchester, for example, some years ago backed his hunch, to the tune of £100 at 66-1, that the up-and-coming cricketer Chris Tremlett would some day play in a Test match for England. Tremlett has been 12th man four times so the £6,700 pay-out looks like a sure thing, although it might also prove to be an agonising near-miss.
Anyway, the Kirkland bet, which yielded just short of £10,000, inspired me to recall a few of my favourite sporting wagers, an eclectic selection in no particular order, and decidedly personal, which is why I'm starting with my mate Mark Johnson, who in 1994, with a mate of his, had a 15-team accumulator on the first round of the Uefa Cup.
By the end of the evening, 14 of the results had gone their way, and they needed only Benfica to win to land £15,000. But Benfica had kicked off late and in those days, before the internet and before blanket television coverage, there was no easy way of finding out the score. Mark phoned every national newspaper and even the Portuguese embassy, but no joy. Finally, he remembered that Alfredo, the owner of a restaurant on the Algarve that he'd once been to, was a big Benfica fan. He got the number, and phoned Alfredo who, though somewhat bemused by the call, confirmed that Benfica were 2-0 up in injury time.
I love that story, partly because it's a nice reminder of a less sophisticated world, albeit only 12 years ago. And around the same time, another man of my acquaintance, the irrepressible Angus "Statto" Loughran, placed one of his more astute bets after watching the teenage Tiger Woods playing at St Andrews in the 1995 Open won by John Daly. Angus backed Tiger to win the Open when it returned to St Andrews in 2000 - £100 at 100-1 - and moreover had a substantial bet at 500-1 that Tiger would, by the end of 2000, have all four majors under his belt. Which, by winning the Open, he did. There was also a spread bet on the number of shots Tiger would hit that week before entering one of the Old Course's many bunkers. As it turned out he avoided all of them, and Angus cleaned up on that, too. The week was almost as lucrative for him as it was for Tiger.
The best betting stories always confound the old notion that gambling is a mug's game. So it is, of course; at least it is on the rare occasions that I have a punt. But it's always nice to see a truly perceptive bet landing the result it deserves. A year ago, a chap called Adrian Hayward asked Paddy Power for a price on Liverpool's Xabi Alonso scoring a goal during the forthcoming season from inside his own half. He was offered 125-1 and his £200 was turned into £25,000 when Alonso duly scored from improbable range against Luton in the third round of the FA Cup.
"I watch Liverpool a lot and had seen Alonso try it before," he later reported. "Also, I'd had a dream about it and just couldn't get it out of my head."
Hats off to him, for finding a bet that combined perceptiveness and wishful thinking. My own bet on the Premiership season that begins today, that Everton will finish above Liverpool and Manchester United, is based entirely on the latter. I was offered 50-1, incidentally, which seemed a trifle parsimonious. But I took it anyway.
Who I Like This Week...
Andy Murray's coach Brad Gilbert, whose tactics in helping the youngster to defeat the world No 1 Roger Federer in Cincinnati, somewhat improbably involved a Jewish deli in Toronto. A couple of weeks ago, apparently, while Murray was training in Toronto, Gilbert advised his protegé that soaking his hand in a pickle jar for five minutes would ease his problem with recurring blisters. Murray duly bought some pickles from a nearby deli, and rarely has the whiff of success been quite so vinegary. As for Gilbert's more orthodox ideas, they are clearly having a magical effect on Murray. And although I for one suspect that the relationship will eventually end in tears - each man being as stubborn and volatile as the other - let's hope that it first ends in the right kind of Grand Slam. Not a door, in other words.
And Who I Don't
Sven Goran Eriksson, again. It might seem a little unfair to heap further obloquy on the Swede now that he's gone, but England's fluent performance against Greece served as a reminder of his shortcomings almost as potent as the feeble World Cup campaign itself: Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard functioning well together, Jermain Defoe brought successfully back into the fold, Theo Walcott making an impact for the under-21s, his rightful level. And David Beckham, it has to be said (and it has, indeed, been hinted at gently by my colleague James Lawton), was not missed.