In at the deep end of the pools

FOR 37 YEARS, Len Martin would read out the classified results on Grandstand, the intonation of his delivery famously revealing the match's outcome before he had even made it to the away team. His method had occasion to change only when there was a postponement, in which case he adopted a neutral tone before announcing the verdict of the pools panel.

"St Johnstone versus Dundee ," he would say, inserting a dramatic pause, and blurting out, "home win." At which point, the punters of Perth cheered ironically, content that the afternoon had not been a complete write-off.

For fans of a certain age, the pools panel is an evocative institution, stirring memories of those rare Saturdays spent in the house, listening to the tranny or watching Frank Bough (insert your own joke) . The words had about them a strange mystique, as we knew not who or where these people were, or how they could know what the outcome would have been had snow at Central Park not ruled out the match between Cowdenbeath and Berwick Rangers. They also had the power to make millionaires of men and women whose week revolved around the prediction of eight score draws.

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The football pools is not what it used to be, thanks mainly to the National Lottery, internet gambling and the popularity of fixed odds, but it still exists, and the panel still sits, more so than ever, in fact. Yesterday, with the worst winter in years laying waste to the football programme north and south of the Border, three wise men were due to sit in judgment on most of the 49 matches on this weekend's coupon.

Two of them are from England's 1966 World Cup-winning team. Gordon Banks has been doing it for 20 years, Roger Hunt for 35. For 34 of those, he has been joined by Tony Green (circled, above), the former Albion Rovers, Blackpool and Newcastle United midfielder who was capped six times by Scotland. The wiry Glaswegian was his country's most expensive player in 1971, but within two years of joining Newcastle for 150,000, a serious knee injury ended his career at the age of 26. "It was the saddest day of my life," said his manager, Joe Harvey. "He was my very best buy."

Stan Mortensen, who had been his manager at Blackpool, was on the pools panel at that time, and told Green that they needed someone from the north-east. The retired Scot, who accepted their offer on the understanding that it would only be for 12 months, has since experienced most of the panel's 47-year history.

It was formed in 1963, the product of a winter so severe that Halifax Town turned their ground into an ice rink, the FA Cup third round took 66 days and 261 postponements to complete and the coupon was wiped out on three successive Saturdays. Fearing further losses, a Swedish pools firm produced results with the aid of a random draw. Britain came up with the pools panel. Its first meeting, on 22 January, brought together Lord Brabazon, George Young, Tom Finney, Tommy Lawton, Ted Drake and Arthur Ellis. In the early years, panellists would come and go, but it later came to rely on a few hardy regulars, including Hunt, Green and the former Celtic goalkeeper, Ronnie Simpson.

They used to meet in London's Waldorf Hotel, before nipping off to the BBC studio, where their verdicts were announced on Grandstand. Now, they gather in a boardroom of Littlewoods' Liverpool office, from where the "results" are faxed at 4pm. "People think it is mysterious, but it's not really," says Green. "Maybe the company used to like it that way, but they are quite happy to get the publicity now."

Green, Hunt and Banks, who have become firm friends down the years, meet for lunch at about 12:30 before moving along the corridor to begin their deliberations. If their workload is relatively light, the lunch continues until 3pm, by which time they know exactly which games are to be assessed. Green anticipated that they would get down to business at about 1:30pm yesterday.

It is football's answer to jury service. On no account is there to be any communication with the outside world during the course of their meeting. That golden rule is allowed to be broken only in the event of a further postponement before 3pm, in which case the panel has to be informed. "It's sacrosanct," says Green. "Nobody gets in. The lad who works there stands outside to make sure."

Each panellist is armed with an A4 booklet of at least eight pages, detailing every relevant statistic, from league positions and form to goals for and against. In the best traditions of footballspeak, they take each match as it comes, studiously making their case before subjecting it to the vote. Each fixture takes only a few minutes, sometimes more, sometimes less. "Obviously, if Rangers are playing Hamilton Accies at home, there's not much discussion about that," says Green.

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And yet, there is scope for ditching the form book. Otherwise, there would be no need for a panel in the first place. Were they not allowed to account for the vagaries of human error, statistics would be fed into a computer and the results churned out ad nauseum. "If you sit in a lot, as I do, you have to throw in some surprises," says Green. "The real thing doesn't go exactly to form every single time."

Which, of course, exposes Green and his colleagues to a degree of criticism, especially when a controversial verdict costs a paying pundit potential prize money. Their strike rate is said to be nearly 50 per cent, 20 per cent better than the best forecasters, but there have been a few, light-hearted complaints. "If they say anything to me, I just blame the other two," says Green, a former maths teacher.

Now 63, he lives near Blackpool, but frequently visits his 90-year-old mother in Glasgow. He looks out for the scores of two Scottish clubs: Celtic, whom he supported as a boy, and Albion Rovers, with whom he played at some of the country's less glamorous grounds . "If we have to sit on, say, Stranraer and Forfar, I'll turn to the lads and say, 'what do you know about it? You've never played at Stranraer. You've only won the World Cup'."

The pools panel used to sit only between October and April, and even then, only if there were at least 30 matches postponed. Now, it is on duty 52 weeks of the year. There is almost always a postponement, if not for the weather, then for television, which has matches moved to a Monday night. They also have to sit on Saturday-night games – just in case they are called off – and Sunday games, which are now included on the coupon. Add to that the Australian league – when the statistics come into their own – and there is no let-up, even in the summer.

Neither the panellists, nor their families, are allowed to enter the pools, which is a pity, for a fair old packet has been collected down the years. At one time, a third of the population was said to be hooked. The highest jackpot was won in 1994 by a syndicate representing the Yew Tree pub in Lancashire. Their 2,924,622 prize was announced on the same weekend that the National Lottery started.

Since then, the pools has been losing that battle, in the shops, and on the doorstep, where the agent is no longer a weekly visitor. Although up to 3 million can still be won with high-scoring draws, the prizes tend to be modest by comparison, and there is no Grandstand anymore, never mind its announcement of the winning numbers.

Green, though, has spent four times as many years on the pools panel as he did in professional football. "It's been a big part of my life," he says. Plenty of others could say the same.

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