February 22, 2017

The bookies who corrupted the most romantic game of the season

Richard Baerlein, the racing correspondent of The Observer, thought Shergar the best horse he had ever seen. And Baerlein was a man to support his judgment.

He backed Shergar for the 1981 Derby at 33-1 and all prices down to even money. When Walter Swinburn steered the stallion home, 10 lengths clear and easing up, Baerlein made enough from his winnings to buy a house in Sussex. He called it Shergar, too.

Being a generous individual, Baerlein shared his insight and conviction with his readers. Tipping Shergar emphatically in one of his previews, he used a phrase that has gone down in racing legend. ‘Now is the time to bet like men,’ Baerlein wrote. Back then, you still could. Try having a man-sized bet now. No bookmaker will take it.

A friend tried to put £10 on Lincoln for the FA Cup. The big firm she went to would only permit a stake of 75p. And that’s a small, mad bet, on a real outsider.

Imagine being a serious punter. Nobody is interested. Kids — that is what they want these days. Students, teenagers, all trying to nick £400 from a two-quid stake and a 10-team accumulator. It’s close to impossible, that’s why they lay it.

If you want to put five grand on something, you won’t get on. They might let you have a 10th of it, if you’re lucky. Rupert Murdoch hasn’t got into the betting game to take on those who know their Cue Card from their Thistlecrack. But if you think the fat goalie might eat a pie, in play — Rupe’s your man.

Stuff the Baerleins of this world, with their knowledge and boldness. Fun bets. That’s where it’s at. Beyonce’s kid to be called Brexit, 300-1. Gary Lineker to wear polka dot pants on Match of the Day, 15-1. Danny Dyer to be the next Doctor Who, 12-1. And Sutton’s big fat goalie to eat a pie while the match is going on. You could have had a bang on that at 8-1.

By the sounds of it, quite a few did: because Sun Bets reported paying out a five-figure sum. So that’s minimum £10,000, maximum £99,999. Quite a wedge, considering it was a punt with no chance of coming in, if everything was above board.

Has Wayne Shaw, Sutton’s reserve goalkeeper, ever consumed a pie during a match before? If so, there is no evidence of it. He may be over 20 stone, he may not be playing, but he’s not a complete oaf.

Nobody’s so hungry that they cannot wait until the final whistle. So it was a stunt. A deal to promote a fledgling betting company — Joseph Kagarlitski started as Joe Coral in 1926, William Hill in 1934, Sun Bets launched in August 2016 — who were also sponsoring Sutton’s shirts and had branding throughout the ground.

If they had to pay out another few grand for the publicity, what the hell? Everyone knows who Sun Bets are now. They’re the bookmakers who corrupted the most romantic football match of the year.

For there are only two explanations. Sun Bets were in on it and were happy to suffer a little damage for the promotion — or Shaw has spied an opportunity and got his friends in on the act. For there is no way a market worth five figures is created otherwise.

How many people do you think will wager that Beyonce gives birth to little Brexit? It’s a headline. It’s five easy quid from some inebriated pillock. It isn’t a 10 grand, minimum market.

Let’s say every bet on Shaw’s pie consumption was worth £5. And let’s go with the minimum payout: £10,000. That means 250 people thought a player engaged in the match of his life would eat a pie while it was ongoing. At £2 per stake that would need 625 gullible punters; at £1, there would be 1,250. People aren’t idiots.

And here’s another strange thing. Sun Bets were very keen to promote their 8-1 pie-eating bet and subsequent pay-out — The Sun newspaper, not so much.

Sun Bets tweeted the promotion, then the picture evidence at 82 minutes, then the news that Shaw had ‘COST US A BELLY FULL’. Yet in the print edition yesterday morning, there was only the image of Shaw scoffing with no mention of the financial bonus to Sun Bets customers.

This could be because, by then, there was a backlash. Shaw’s manager, Paul Doswell, was less than impressed with a stunt that had made Sutton look like a pub team, which they did not deserve; and there was already a rumbling of Football Association action, which could impact on the club, as much as the player.

This is unfortunate. Sutton United were tremendous — swamped by media and sudden interest, but accommodating, friendly and as well organised as any club of their size could hope to be.

Sutton the team were magnificent, giving Arsenal a proper game and losing to them by less than Hull, Nottingham Forest, Chelsea, Ludogorets, Sunderland, West Ham, Basle, Swansea and Southampton have this season.

They merited more than to be depicted as pie-eating amateurs — or in hock to a bunch of start-up online bookmakers.

Think it’s a laugh? Think it was only a bit of fun? Then we could argue the same of spot-fixing, although the company that links Sun Bets to the News of the World didn’t feel that way when Pakistan were accused of it.

Spot-fixing follows the same principle as touchline pie scarfing because the protagonist, or those in the know, can place a bet and have control over the outcome.

Bookmakers stopped offering a price for the first throw-in, because they suspected players and managers had cottoned on. There was money to be made from kicking the ball into touch in the first 10 seconds.

And there was money to be made at Sutton, too. That is why the Gambling Commission are now investigating, as well as the FA.

‘Integrity in sport is not a joke and we must establish exactly what happened,’ said enforcement and intelligence director Richard Watson.

‘We’ll be looking into any irregularity in the betting market and establishing whether the operator has met its licence requirement to conduct its business with integrity.’

So that’s Sun Bets in the dock; the FA, one presumes, will deal with Shaw, whose foolishness has already cost him his job at Sutton.

Forget how small time this looks. Where does it end, that is the crux of the matter? There was inducement for the Sutton goalkeeper to act in an unprofessional way.

And this he did, with 11 minutes of the game to go, having planned for it at half-time. His argument is that Sutton had used all their substitutes and could no longer call on him. So what? Protocol remains.

The substitutes don’t depart for the dressing room, the bookies or the pie shop when the last replacement goes on.

In a competition still celebrating non-League Lincoln’s arrival in the quarter-final, why do we consider the behaviour of Sutton’s players irrelevant?

When Lincoln visit the Emirates, will there be fun bets that day, too? And at what point do they stop being fun and start influencing the game?

English football has never done enough to keep the gambling industry at arm’s length.

The warning was there 10 years ago yesterday, when Craig Bellamy scored for Liverpool in Barcelona and celebrated with a golf swing — a nod to his infamous training-camp bust-up with John Arne Riise. William Hill, offering 100-1 on Bellamy doing exactly that, took a £50,000 hit.

Again it seemed a very big market for a fun wager. Yet the FA have done nothing to prevent a repeat. Indeed, they have strengthened their ties to gambling.

If the FA think Shaw has harmed their Cup tournament, how does that sit with William Hill as their official gambling partner?

Why were there no rules to prevent Sun Bets, or any bookmaker, hijacking their event? Why was its integrity not protected?

How can the FA sit in judgement on Shaw, then turn the other way and take the cash? And when did betting like men become just another pie-eating competition?

The FA made a record profit last year, allowing it to invest £125million in the grassroots game. The future is equally bright, with two deals worth £170m due to start in 2018.

Why the FA accepts £30m of government money is a mystery, particularly when it comes at such a price. Why doesn’t chief executive Martin Glenn return the public cheque, and then he can tell politicians trying to hold football to ransom to get lost?

(The same applies in wheelchair rugby, by the way. No, the RFU does not govern the sport, but even so, a body with an annual turnover of £407.1m could surely make up the government funding shortfall of £750,000, simply as a noble gesture?)

Alexei Smertin has the easiest job in football. He has been charged with investigating something that does not exist.

The former Chelsea midfielder is the Russian federation’s new anti-racism and discrimination inspector. Yet in 2015 he told the BBC there was no racism in Russia.

This conflicted with the findings of campaign group Football Against Racism in Europe who recorded 92 incidents of discriminatory displays and chants by Russian fans in and around stadiums during the 2014-15 season.

Celebrating his new job, Smertin said: ‘I will put every effort into keeping racism and discrimination out of the story of football in my country.’

So will he be addressing racism, or merely stories about racism? Russia has been practising shooting the messenger for a long time now. Just say no.

There is a simple reason why Donald Trump’s Turnberry course has not been named in the latest round of future Open venues — in the current climate the organisers do not want the event to become a target for unrest and protests, as it would if the R&A were seen as high-profile business partners of the President.

It isn’t a political decision, but a pragmatic one. ‘Smart!’ as Trump won’t be tweeting any time soon.

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