Friday 23 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Some day the Far East betting gangs will come across this great game

The only solution to teenage gambling is to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for that group to place bets
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

When news emerged about irregular betting patterns in an Athlone Town soccer match against Longford recently, there was shock and horror.

Seemingly, a lot of people in the Far East had developed a sudden interest in a small game in Ireland and obviously had a particular view on how many goals would be scored, especially late in the game.

This comes hot on the suspension handed out to Joey Barton in England for betting on soccer matches, most of which were on games he wasn't personally playing in.

Now if our friends in the Far East ever discover the GAA there will be lots of irregular patterns emerging. There is hardly any game which suits betting more than a football or hurling match and where the element of chance can be eliminated. I am sure there are plenty of people who think it could never happen. Well, it is just as certain as death, tax, the Pope knowing the Our Father and a bear doing his business in the woods.

Is there any harm in a team gathering money together at the start of the year and backing themselves for the championship and then using the winnings on a team holiday? Or a player putting on money that he will score the first point or goal? What if he backed himself to get the first yellow card and threw himself recklessly into a challenge in the first minute?

Or if the whole team decided to bet on a certain player to get the first score and made sure they played the ball around until they got him in a good position. Even better if it was squared with his marker that he would not police him too tight in those first few minutes.

There are people who think GAA players are purer than the driven snow. The vast majority are, but as Mae West once said, "I used to be Snow White but I drifted". The same would apply to a lot of GAA players. Money corrupts and it might only take small money. If a player got €500 to kick the first wide would he do it? If he got €5,000 would he put the wrong shape on it to make sure it went outside the post?

These are not hypothetical situations. There are so many bets available on GAA matches now; I know because I advise on them, but there is a big difference in the punter who might have a €10 or €20 bet at the weekend for an interest and those who could manipulate the market.

Not only can the outright result be backed on any game now but there are so many other betting markets available: the winning margin, the number of scores, first goalscorer, first point, who will lead at half-time, number of frees, first yellow card, man of the match, the list is endless.

This is the language of the dressing-room now. When I go to a club game at weekends the chatter is often about who had what on which game. It used to be on horse racing but the emphasis has changed and there is a surge in betting on football matches. Some day the Far East betting gangs will come across this great game and think to themselves that this is going to be as easy as feeding buns to an elephant.

Better still, if they could bribe a referee, or if a referee decided himself to get in on a small slice of the action. Take for example a referee who decides to have a small wager on who would be the first scorer in a match he was refereeing. He decides to back the best free-taker and ensures his team gets a close-in free. Everyone might say that it was an easy free but in the first few minutes nobody passes too many remarks.

Or if he decided to back somebody to get the first yellow card. An even bigger certainty. Again everyone wonders what it was for but the game goes on and people forget about it quickly. Form an orderly queue at the pay-out window! The betting can be done through a third party so no suspicion arises.

The official line is that nothing like this could happen. The GAA may feel that their members are of superior moral fibre but there are quite a few who have openly spoken about their gambling habits and are now advising others about gambling addictions. When a man's head is in a bad place they are capable of anything.

When Simonstown won the Meath championship last year there were plenty of supporters who had backed us at 16/1 before the quarter-final, and more before the semi-final and final. They could even afford to lay off before the final and take no risk. If the players all decided to have a bit of the action would they be wrong?

The GAA's guidelines on betting drawn up in collaboration with the GPA in 2014 are more to do with the dangers of addiction rather than the corruption of the game and it would be very difficult to prove corruption anyway. At Congress this year, a new rule was introduced acknowledging the dangers of gambling.

The rule prohibits players, team management, or match officials involved in a game from betting on the outcome of any aspect of that game. The minimum penalty is an eight-week suspension, right up to expulsion. A team could also be suspended or fined, and even expelled, if caught.

The problem for the GAA is that will be a hard one to make stick in the murky world of betting - a bet can always be for someone else.

I have never had a bet on any match I was involved in but I know plenty of players who have had a financial interest in games they were playing in. There is no problem really with those who back themselves to win but if it was the opposite then the difficulties are obvious. If an outright ban on betting was in place then clubs who pool their money at the start of the year would all be liable for suspension. Having a wager can help to focus minds on training and match preparation. Yet if players started to bet to lose then there is a different dynamic at work.

On a wider scale this is part of a growing societal issue which I can see in school where a big number of young people are gambling online. It is a male problem and a high and growing percentage of teenagers are betting online without their parents' knowledge. A small number might end up in trouble but even a small per cent of a rapidly growing number can cause great distress in families and relationships generally. It is a doomsday scenario.

Most of the time when I present a problem I like to offer a solution, but this one I am not too sure about. However, in the international betting world there are hundreds of millions looking to be placed on sporting events every day of the week. Hopefully this continues to avoid the GAA.

In a wider context the only solution to teenage gambling is to make it very difficult, if not impossible, for that group to place bets. That would involve pain for the big betting firms who have a lot of clout in terms of numbers employed and influence in high places. Like the alcohol lobby there is a lot of power behind the gambling industry and self-imposed guidelines don't work. Would they, for example, only take bets from over 21s? That is a matter for the political authorities and I am not holding my breath on action there.

In the meantime, the GAA will have to come up with a strict code of conduct with harsh penalties for breaches. The new rule introduced at Congress is, in my view, just a start. The expertise to devise this will probably have to be brought in. The horse is still just about in the stable so there is no time to lose.

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