“The Russians are going to win the Space Race – bet you a tanner … the Beatles are going to have more No.1s than the Stones this year – bet you a tanner … the headmaster collects gonks, he’s got millions of them – bet you a tanner.”
A few years ago I bumped into Stewart for the first time in almost half a century and thought I’d greet him with his emphatic declaration. He looked shocked, almost staggering backwards. I couldn’t work it out: had he turned into a raging gambler in the interim or was he now vehemently against betting on anything?
So if you’re a gambling man you might be wondering about the in-plays as this column unfolds. Which way will Stewart go? What’s going to be your correspondent’s standpoint on betting? When will the Back Post’s first prog-rock reference appear this week?
Isn’t it exciting? Apparently so. In football you can have a flutter on anything and many do. First goal. Number of corner kicks. Time of the first yellow card. The opportunity to bet on a game’s incidentals – the number of empty crisp packets blowing across deserted stands – won’t be stopping anytime soon. Don’t worry, all you crazy gamblers, you’re not going to lose your individual freedom allowing you to lose all your money. But we should be seeing a bit less of Ray Winstone’s big fat face and hurrah to that.
The big bookmakers have voluntarily agreed to a “whistle-to-whistle” advertising ban during televised games. In practical terms this will hopefully mean that the growling cockernee thespian’s giant, floating, disembodied heid in the commercials for Bet365 will be shunted behind the stadium – that one in the ads, quarter-full, suggesting most of us would rather be at home with a beer and a jumbo bag of Doritos, betting like mad – where it will be burst with a rocket-launcher. Not literally, of course. I liked Winstone in Sexy Beast.
You will have gathered by now that I’m not a gambling man. I haven’t been involved in any kind of betting since the 1967 Grand National. Every year until then the whole family nominated a horse with the prick of a pin. Then Foinavon, pictured inset, was the last one standing after carnage resembling a First World War battlefield. My mother declared the race too brutal and after that we all lost interest.
In those days betting shops were like snooker halls; places that protective mums hurried you past, especially if the doorways were full of shilpit characters puffing on Capstan Full Strength, which they usually were. But then gambling smartened up its image. Really, betting was nothing to be ashamed about. This was the message of ads showing non-sweaty, non-desperate, nearly metrosexual guys making bets with a ping of their smartphones as if they were online shopping for candle-holders. Doing it by phone avoided the need for a trip to the bookies, which in any case had themselves undergone facelifts. (For all I know, the outlets phased out the tiny pens, of the kind I found in the possession of an old girlfriend. I was ignorant of the pens’ provenance; she thought this made me the strange one. We didn’t last).
And then came Ray. Big, barrage-ballooned, baw-faced Ray, bullying us to get involved: “Bet in play NOW!” It was easy for us to laugh at his leering maw, as if he was about to burst into the nation’s living-rooms. Then Jonathan Watson’s send-up on Only An Excuse? made us chuckle some more. “It’s all about throwing your money away,” rasped Watson. “It’s about the next football crisis, the next club in the grubber, the next player done for speeding, the next halfwit on the phone-in. It’s about guessing Jim Traynor’s weight to the nearest ton. How many years in a row can Celtic attempt to flog a Lisbon Lions DVD? Who’ll be the next Rangers player to pull out of a Scotland squad? How long does an SFA life ban last?”
Easy for us to enjoy the joke but kids don’t get it. Winstone’s ads and others like them by their sheer relentlessness might not actually be frightening the young into betting but they must be normalising gambling. How else to explain there being 55,000 problem gamblers in the UK aged 11 to 16?
Alarm and pressure have forced the bookmakers to agree the voluntary ban. There’s been some cynicism about this and the suggestion it’s a ploy designed to prevent the closure of a legal loophole which allows these adverts before the 9pm watershed. Certainly if the gambling firms are serious about social responsibility you would want to see them remove their logos from players’ shirts.
Clubs, including those in Scotland, might complain that their local butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers won’t stump up as much for sponsorship and they’re obliged to accept the highest bids. Scottish football might say the same thing about the fact that all three domestic competitions have bookmakers as sponsors – beggars can’t be choosers and all that.
But the grim figure of 55,000 should be forcing marketing departments to up their game, try even harder for commercial backing which doesn’t compromise and, when we see youngsters emblazoned with the name of a betting firm while kicking a ball about, make you cringe.
The thing I hate most about the Bet365 campaign isn’t even the bloody omnipresence of it; rather the inference that football is dull and aimless and witless without us betting on it. That we can’t just enjoy the game, the goals, the drama and the occasion. We need to have a financial stake in the outcome, or several different outcomes.
Ray Winstone has presumably accepted the highest bid for his voice and his massive napper. But what has Bet365 done for how we view him as an actor? Whatever his next big movie role might be, it could be difficult, during a tender moment in the action, to avoid whispering to yourself “’ave a bang on that!” I don’t think I’ll be queueing up for that.
As my pal Stewart Dickson would say, bet you a tanner I won’t.