Bookmaking's a game of two halves

By Robin Hutchison

WE HAD a damn good look, honestly we did, but there wasn’t a single one left in the cupboard.

The staff canteen looked like a herd of Pamplona’s finest had been through it and out the other side.

It was the morning after the night before and Greece had just won Euro 2004.

Ladbrokes, along with every other British bookmaker, had smashed every last plate in celebration. Christmas, as the cliché went, had well and truly come early.

"Retsinas all round!" cried the chief executive.

"Mine’s a moussaka with a taramasalata to start,"

crowed the managing director.

The team had been available at a highly improbable 100/1 at the start of the tournament — and all told we’d taken about three drachma on them.

Gone were the English with Wayne Rooney’s broken foot, the Italians, the traditionally underachieving Spanish and the much fancied Portuguese. It really couldn’t have been any better.

Yet, contrary to popular opinion, we don’t always get it right. The favourite romped home at the Grand National last April, remember (fortunately, the joint favourites came in second and third this year) and many a satchel was emptied by Liverpool’s victory in the Champions League and Chelsea’s dominance of the Premiership.

In their own way, each of those results cost us a fortune. And so, quite frankly, will England if they win this summer’s World Cup.

On paper, the signs are all there. Familiar conditions, a favourable draw, a manager with nothing to lose, a good spirit within the camp and a number of genuinely world-class players.

If the last of those can be kept out of Michael Owen’s card school for long enough, they have the best chance in a generation to bring the trophy home. And don’t the punters just know it.

The Three Lions are already a £5m loser for the industry, seven weeks before a ball has even been kicked.

It’s no exaggeration to say that that figure could well have doubled by the time England take to the field against Paraguay on 10 June. A nation really does expect this time. Of course, we all want them to win, too. It’s just that we usually have to shell out a lot of cash when they do, which tends to dampen our enthusiasm. Not that we’d get many column inches if we put out press releases suggesting how pleased we were that England had been beaten in the final. Short shrift, I believe it’s called.

We must be the only industry in Britain that celebrates its losses on a daily basis. Every day’s a good day to dig up bad news rather than bury it when you do PR for a bookmaker.

In terms of football, it used to be very bad news when the home nations went home early. Why would anyone have a bet on Holland v Argentina?

Nowadays, people can tell you how many goals Van Nistelrooy and Crespo have scored in their last 10 Premiership games and are familiar with Van Bommel and Messi from watching Barcelona in the Champions League.

The footballing world is a much smaller place and there’s every reason to bet. There’s money to be made, for a start. Football has changed dramatically, and so has football betting. While horse racing and dog racing still dominate in the shops, turnover on the roundball game has gone up 140 per cent in the past five years.

During the last World Cup, the nation’s punters were stumbling out of bed bleary-eyed, unable to put milk on cornflakes, let alone work out the odds on their five-team accumulator. A lot of bookies weren’t even open to take their bets if they could.

Yet with the sociable kick-off times on the Continent, millions will be sat in front of their computers or hurrying past their local turf accountant on the way to the pub as the games kick off.

Due to the advent of ‘Betting in play’, they’ll also be able to have a wager on the outcome of games up until the 85th minute, all of which will be shown live throughout the 2,300-strong Ladbrokes estate. No longer will betting stop when the referee starts the game.

It’s no surprise that turnover, for the British industry alone, could be pushing £1bn by the time the month-long tournament comes to a close.

Come kick-off at the final on 9 July, it really will be a question of lighting the blue touchpaper and retiring to a safe distance.

And if you’re searching for another long-odds outsider, I’m afraid you’ll have to look beyond the Greeks, as they didn’t make it to Germany. Not great for the bookies — or those looking for overtime at Royal Doulton.

Robin Hutchison works for the bookmakers Ladbrokes.

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