The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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You bet, Owen’s not a bad bloke

I bet everyone has a bet. I just had one there. And I don’t even gamble. At the ‘bingo’ end of the spectrum, gambling is the sweetest vice, hailed by old ladies and hardly worthy of its inclusion in the list of depraved human activities. It is merely a pleasurable pastime, a matter of chance and guesswork with knobs (and few quid) on.

We really aren’t going to make a fuss about Michael Owen’s £40,000 losses are we' He’s blown half a week’s wages. We’ve all done that on a dress.

Footballer after pundit after Gordon Taylor over the weekend scoffed at the notion that any wrongdoing was involved here. Good Lord, said Taylor, the exonerating head of the Professional Footballers’ Association, even Trappist monks have to amuse themselves somehow.

And you could quite see the argument. If footballers are paid huge, ludicrous, amounts of money in wages and attendant perks, it is absolutely their prerogative to spend it as they like.

Elton John was once berated for spending £100,000 on flowers. But think how the florists prospered. It did no harm to anyone else. Owen loses £1,500 on a horse at Kempton. But think how the bookmakers prosper. It does no harm to — uh-oh.

At this point the sirens sound. Michael Owen having a bet he can afford is no problem. A footballer, indeed any sportsman, getting himself in hock to an unscrupulous bookmaker is a very, very big problem indeed. That way corruption lies. That way match-fixing looms. We would not be in the realm of jocular innocence then.

It is possible to fix a football match. The 60s provides murky testimony to that. Three Sheffield Wednesday players including Peter Swan, the England centre-half, were paid £100 each (which makes you laugh today) to help their team lose to Ipswich. Ten players were convicted of match-fixing at the Nottingham Assizes in all. They were all jailed and suspended from football for life.

You could argue that has been lost in the mists of time. That’s longer ago than England winning the World Cup — i.e. practically in Shangri-La. But it proves it could and can happen.

Humans are susceptible to temptation. And that is football’s — sport’s — real problem as the Owen story hits the fan.

He may very well be a charming young man, sufficiently rich and interested to buy a top-ish class filly — Treble Heights, trained by John Gosden — and eke out a life of stupendous innocence at the races.

Poor lad. Keeping away from wine, women and ecstasy, he has fallen foul instead of the moral police for something that is hardly wrong.

More guilty of misdeed are the cowering chairmen who continue to pay this daft money to footballers, gambling the entire existence of clubs.

In the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing, we should be prepared to consign Owen to the ‘Nothing to Declare’ channel. But what is football, sport in general, doing to keep its image clean'

A spectre has been raised. You do not want bookmakers hacking into sport. For all the carefully husbanding Owens in sport, there will be the manically profligate Jimmy Whites.

Dear Jimmy, who once got clocked in his Rolls-Royce doing 100mph while drunk, could never give up drinking without announcing it with a beer in his hand, or place a punt without losing his shirt, waistcoat and tie.

There are those in this world destined to be more vulnerable than others, and White — who was hot-wiring fruit machines as a kid, a little trick taught him by an Irishman by the name of Moby Dick — is a self-confessed past master of vulnerability.

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