Sunday 15 September 2019

Declan Lynch: 'Our old friend, 'unusual betting patterns', has never gone away'

Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

Some friends of mine were in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, relaxing at a cafe in Heidelberg, when the waiter overheard their conversations and deduced that they were from Ireland.

He explained to them that he enjoyed betting online on the Irish football - Sligo Rovers, Shelbourne, Finn Harps, these names were well known to him. In 2006.

So, in late 2019, the news that gardai are conducting an investigation into alleged match-fixing at League of Ireland matches falls into that strange category of news that isn't really news.

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Certainly the specific allegation may have a newsy element, yet it is entirely predictable that such a thing has been happening, is happening, and will be happening. In fact, it really would be news if you could say with confidence that there is no match-fixing in the League of Ireland.

Yes, that would leave us wondering what strange forces are at play - which have made our league so remarkably immune from this phenomenon which is affecting almost every sport in every country in the world in which people have money. Now that would be news, and big news.

But as regular readers will know, the vast global industry that is online gambling is a hydra-headed thing, and one of its myriad manifestations is the corruption of the sports that provide it with its raw material - it was always inevitable indeed, that this would happen.

And yet because we are only starting to grapple with some of the more obvious issues which arise from the phenomenon, this matter of match-fixing and the manipulation of results in general, has been seen almost as a sidebar.

Yet here it is, front and centre for a few days at least - partly because it is about football, which a lot of people care about in ways that they don't care about, say... tennis.

Indeed, if there was such a thing as a match-fixing school, tennis would be presented by the match-fixing teacher to his class of aspiring match-fixers, as the optimal environment in which to operate.

Sure enough, for some time it has been featuring in dispatches which make frequent references to "unusual betting patterns". With tennis you need only to corrupt one hard-up player to make a decisive difference in a match, and the sport is organised in such a way that at any given time of the day or night, there are numerous small-time matches that nobody really cares about, being played at obscure venues with hardly anyone watching except the multitudes of online punters who are receiving pictures on their gambling websites.

Football can be a bit more complicated, but in the League of Ireland, the essential element of online betting was facilitated by the FAI through the engagement of the streaming company Trackchamp, broadcasting to "markets" worldwide.

The then CEO John Delaney felt that a "fair debate" might be had about the wisdom of this arrangement, given the unlikelihood that punters in, say... Malaysia, might be watching the Midlands Classico of Athlone Town v Longford Town, just to savour the fineness of the fare.

Indeed, it was at the Midlands Classico in 2017 that our old friend "unusual betting patterns" were noted on a grand scale, so we trust that that "fair debate" is still being conducted with suitable fervour in the conference rooms of FAI headquarters at Abbotstown.

They might also debate whether a relatively impoverished league such as ours is more open to the activities of the fixers with their bribes and other inducements - but then at the other end of the game, betting companies are also targeting the super-rich players of the Premier League, inveigling them into addiction with considerable success.

So the debating is over, baby!

In theory there are a lot of sporting organisations who could divest themselves of their connections with the online betting companies, stop the streaming, the sponsorship, the "partnerships".

But really, they couldn't.

We may have mentioned this a few times in these pages, that it has come to our attention, that a large part of many professional sports that now exist in any viable form in the world are effectively "owned" by the betting corporations.

They've been buying them up for years. It's done now - and it cannot be undone without a calamitous disappearance of the funds which are supporting everything from the darts to the snooker to the football and, of course, the racing, and almost anything else that walks or talks in this sporting life.

Indeed sport isn't enough for them any more - at this stage I think you should know that Paddy Power has recently been forming a partnership with the Samaritans.

It seems that staff at the betting corporation chose the Samaritans as their charity of the year, and both organisations are saying that the Samaritans' insight and expertise will help the bookies improve how they deal with vulnerable customers.

This would be a learning curve for the bookies, who have traditionally dealt with vulnerable customers by inviting them to the VIP enclosures of great sporting events, showering them with free bets and other tokens of their appreciation, then filling them with champagne.

The Samaritans need to end that conversation.

Embittered Keane has much to learn of the art of gracefulness

There's a scene in DA Pennebaker's famous documentary film Don't Look Back in which Bob Dylan appears to be dissing Donovan, regarded by some as a potential rival.

Now like any sane person, I do love Bob Dylan, and yet there has always been something about this encounter with Donovan that bothered me - not enough, it must be said, to be thinking too deeply about it, just a vague feeling of unease at the casual cruelty of it.

But I was thinking about it again last week, and finally it settled in my mind what was wrong with that scene: here was a great artist having a laugh at the expense of a lesser artist. And there is something essentially graceless about that, a lack of class.

Roy Keane is said to love Dylan too, and it was he who reminded me of this, as he entertained the crowd at an Off The Ball roadshow with merciless put-downs of players such as Jonathan Walters and Harry Arter and Stephen Ward, and anyone else whose deficiencies still madden him.

His line about Walters "crying about his family on TV" became instantly notorious, referring as it did to Walters' appearance on The Late Late Show in which he spoke about the death of his brother, his wife's miscarriage and his daughter's illness.

Today, I'll refrain from hanging Keane for this, if that's okay, because it was a live show and sometimes one thing runs into another in a way that isn't strictly intentional. Indeed it would probably be wrong to cancel him just for this, because there is some evidence that Keane can also be a decent sort of fellow, and anyway the true nature of the problem can be seen more clearly in this almost inexplicable need of his to belittle so many of these "ordinary" players.

Dylan was only caught once in public dissing his inferiors, Keane is making a living out of it. Mind you, he also disses his betters such as Alex Ferguson, and a few of his equals too, but it is that gracelessness of his lines about Walters and Arter and Ward that stays with you.

Dylan was just riffing with his entourage, Keane has worked on it, landing his punchlines just right, showing a natural gift for sick comedy. And it is absolutely compelling, not just because the man has no filter, but because he has become the living embodiment of a certain kind of tragic failing - not only is he embittered by success, he seems devoid of gratitude for it, almost oblivious to the wonders of what he achieved as a player.

Of course he has mostly failed as a manager - yet he seems weirdly more comfortable about this than about the days of glory. So, instead of being able to impart an appropriate sense of football greatness, he devotes his energies to these sad deconstructions of the careers of journeymen such as Walters, Arter, Ward, and how poor they have been.

Poor from him.

Endless adolescence of Boris and his bumbling Brexiteers

With Keano in a spot of bother and Dominic Cummings being accused of installing himself as de facto prime minister, it was a difficult week for foul-mouthed martinets whose blindingly clear strategies are constantly being undone by fools.

Always, it seems, they reach this point where they are reliant on others who are not in their league, and for Cummings it is 'Boris' who is out there, making the moves which made him such a legend at the Oxford Union.

There's this other analogy that can be made, between Keano who went "over" to Nottingham Forest and Cummings and Boris who went "up" to Oxford - in some ways, they still seem to be roughly the same age now, as they were then.

There's an old football adage that says you enter the dressing room at 16, and you retire 16 years later, but you're still 16. They don't mention that this also applies to members of the ruling class such as Johnson who clearly hasn't gotten much better at anything since he was a student - and who was probably nowhere near as good then as he was cracked up to be, by his contemporaries at the Union. To see him continually running out of rhetorical steam after about 15 seconds, making jokes that would hardly even get a laugh in the theatre, and all of it unmitigated bulls**t, tells you that if Boris was "the brightest of his generation", then it wasn't much of a generation.

And because he and his Brexiteering chums are still stuck in this endless adolescence, they can't even imagine what grown-ups might do in these circumstances.

We constantly hear the line about Brexit that everyone just wants to "get it over with". To which a grown-up might respond, that a good way of "getting it over with" would be to admit it has been a catastrophic mistake, and to put it to one side for maybe five years. Or 500 years.

That could work.

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