Stan Hey: The boy wonder done bad. But not that bad

Monday 20 January 2003 01:00
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So the cherubic one has a little secret after all. Michael Owen may well have won the hearts of the nation with his goal-scoring exploits for Liverpool and England and his sporting demeanour on the pitch but now we know that there is more to him than just advertising sports drinks and wholesome breakfast cereals. The boy's a punter. And a big one too.

But is he a problem one? Not necessarily.

Since making his Premiership debut on 6 May 1997, Owen has played for England in two World Cups and won three trophies with Liverpool. He has won the European Footballer of the Year Award, and acquired worldwide fame. It is less well known that he won the prize-money for the David McLean Developments Maiden Fillies Stakes at Chester on 30 August with Treble Heights. Owen and his father – former Everton footballer Terry, who seems to have helped his son get "the gambling bug" – are partners in the horse.

In owning horses, going racing, having a bet, Owen has joined a long-standing tradition within football culture. Only the size of the bets has changed to keep pace with the hyper-inflation of footballers' wages over the past decade. You could virtually name an entire England international team of gamblers and racehorse owners, perhaps managed by former Southampton player turned racehorse trainer Mick Channon. Peter Shilton would be in goal, Bryan Robson and Alan Ball in midfield and beside Kevin Keegan up front, perhaps former QPR striker Stan Bowles. One coach said of the latter: "If Stan could pass a betting shop like he passes a ball, he'd have no worries at all."

Owen's admission yesterday to "occasional gambling", while insisting that his stakes are "not as big as reported", suggests a quick rearguard action in response to puritan clucking. As long as Owen has not bet on himself or his team – an offence under Football Association regulations – he should be in the clear, although his squeaky-clean sponsors may think otherwise. For, despite being a £50bn a year industry, betting labours under negative stereotypes. Gambling hits a raw nerve in the English consciousness for those who fear it or who have been touched by its worst consequences.

Yet Owen's gambling seems relatively controlled in the context of what he earns. One Sunday paper published what it claimed were details of a typical day of his betting. The amounts would strike most of us as large – £500 rather than £5 a time – but the pattern of bets, frequent rather than enormous, suggest a bored mug punter rather than a desperate addict. His highly regarded management agency – responsible for such marketable "nice guys" as David Beckham, Gary Lineker and Alan Shearer (who also owns a racehorse) – may, however, want to give him a "yellow card" and an ISA portfolio. But Owen can point out that his string of four nags won him over £26,000 in prize-money last season, tax-free. And that's before the boy even had a bet.

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