Monday 23 April 2018

Johnny Ward: Hysterical reaction to bets on a friendly shows paranoia about gambling in Irish football

Bray Wanderers’ Carlisle Grounds. Photo: SPORTSFILE
Bray Wanderers’ Carlisle Grounds. Photo: SPORTSFILE

Johnny Ward

'The Football Association of Ireland and Trackchamp," read an FAI statement late in 2015, "are pleased to announce a ground-breaking partnership which will see every SSE Airtricity League game live-streamed, outside Ireland, from the start of the 2016 season.

"Trackchamp will provide an additional source of revenue for the FAI, while improving engagement and performance within the SSE Airtricity League.

Welcoming the partnership, FAI CEO John Delaney said: "We are constantly striving to improve the SSE Airtricity League'."

Now, under two years later, the at-times toxic relationship between sport and betting must have the FAI regretting the Trackchamp alliance, at the root of which was betting potential, ever happened.

Last week, the FAI announced its finding after the well-publicised Athlone investigation, banning two players for 12 months.

Were the Athlone scandal the story Irish football would rather forget ever happened this year, a close runner-up would be the tragicomic travails at Bray Wanderers, who issued bizarre statements after admitting serious financial pressure midway through the campaign.

So when the FAI announced on Wednesday it had opened a fresh investigation into alleged match-fixing in a friendly between Bray and Waterford last Friday, which Waterford won 5-0, one wondered what may happen next.

At the behest of the FAI, in what must have amounted to a surreal and somewhat sinister image for those present, up to 10 police cars swooped on Bray's training base in Carrickmines, Co Dublin shortly before the squad's session on Tuesday evening.

However, little is understood about the nature of a potentially suspicious friendly.

It is a million miles removed from what happened in the Athlone-Longford encounter, which went as far as a UEFA probe. That match involved in-running betting in the mega markets in Asia, available as it was an official league game, and colossal sums of money were wagered.

In contrast, Ireland's two main bookmakers, Paddy Power and BoyleSports, reported nothing suspicious about their market on the Bray game.

"We even laid a few bets on Bray," said BoyleSports' Leon Blanche, while Paddy Power's spokesman of that name said: "There was nothing dodgy at all in the bets and we took very little money."

There is certainly an element of hysteria about it all, particularly what would seem to amount to a heavy-handed reaction from the gardaí.

Players were quizzed one-by-one in cars by police and detectives and then told not to speak with team-mates who had yet to be questioned.

Some people in football circles had apparently been advised to wager on a Waterford win and, as has been pointed out by Irish football betting experts, initial quotes of 5/1 on the visiting side looked too long, considering they are running away with Division One and have an exceptional squad.

Bray, in contrast, started the season brilliantly in the Premier Division but have struggled for form since the club was plunged into crisis by the withdrawal of Gerry Mulvey's financial support in late June.

As such, this was a game that was not easily priced up, and Waterford were pushing the friendly game more than the home side, many of whose players might reasonably have preferred the weekend off as FAI Cup games took place elsewhere.

Regardless of what authorities do, betting on friendly games will ever be a volatile proposition.

Thus, the few bookmakers which lay bets on them in Ireland restrict liabilities and will be wary of something suspicious almost as soon as a plot hatches.

The FAI has been slated for its role in the Athlone investigation, quite unfairly: it was left to make judgments, not bound by a court of law, based on overwhelming circumstantial evidence but little or nothing forensic.

Smarting from this, it moved quickly on a sniff of potential skulduggery in a friendly game few football men knew was even taking place. Though Bray put out a strong team, it is understood that some players had heard of a potential betting sting and had acted with due probity to promptly alert superiors at the club, who contacted the FAI.

Yet these fine professional sportsmen are now viewed with suspicion, because of two things in the main.

The first is such utterly unfortunate timing, the second a sensationalist reaction - both from the relevant authorities and media - to what might have been nothing more than a handful of dubious bets on a friendly played in front of a handful of people. Bets placed by individuals not even participating on the pitch.

Irish Independent

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