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Saturday, April 15, 2006

PREMIER REPORT

Timing of Rooney-Owen row not a good omen for England


Hell hath no fury like a bookmaker scorned.

Christopher Davies

It was revealed/leaked/alleged (take your choice) earlier this week that Wayne Rooney was £700,000 in debt to Goldchip Ltd., a company set up by Stephen Smith, a business associate of Michael Owen, to enable players to gamble privately.

Some privacy.

It is more than a coincidence that after the Manchester United striker tried to wriggle out of his debt by suggesting Goldchip Ltd. had no legal right to accept his bets, the story found its way on to the front page of a Sunday newspaper.

How it got there is anyone's guess, but it is not rocket science to pinpoint who leaked it.

Not surprisingly, the story has left a trail of lies, double-talk, deceit and barely credible statements, though the odds on all that were short.

Proactive, Rooney's management agency, reacted the next day by telling a reporter that Rooney is "uptight about the way Goldchip do their business and fairly **** off with Michael for introducing him to Smith."

Lo and behold the following day, Proactive issued a statement saying that "any suggestion of a rift between Wayne and Michael is without foundation," apparently oblivious to the fact that it had laid the foundations 24 hours earlier.

When Proactive was given a transcript, the spokesperson denied the conversation had taken place.

Journalists are used to such deceit and lies. I am not alone in being asked by a manager to link him with so-and-so club only for him to say the next day he has "no idea where these guys get their stories from."

It comes with the territory, and we have to take it on the chin while crossing the manager in question from our trusted list.

United manager Sir Alex Ferguson called the Rooney story "absolute rubbish," while there was a general feeling that on his wages, £700,000 is nothing Rooney cannot afford.

Balderdash.

Losing the best part of a million pounds is a huge loss even to Rooney, who in trying to win back his debts followed the sad, familiar path of all of us.

Go to the greyhounds or horse racing and lose a few quid on the first two races -- what do we do?

Yes, have a bigger bet on the third race.

Millionaires are no different in that respect and while they may be able to afford to lose more than the rest of us, they also do not like it any more than your average punter.

A serious issue raised by Rooney's debts is that client confidentially has been breached -- somehow.

That would almost certainly never have happened with one of the mainstream bookmakers, who would lose credibility and clients if debts were revealed.

Losers have a right to privacy, but sometimes the rules are rewritten.

Obviously punters who bet (and therefore generally lose) large amounts are good customers for any bookmakers who decide credit limits before debts have to be settled. While they prefer clients to lose, the High Street bookmakers do not like customers getting themselves into trouble, and even for someone of Rooney's income a limit of £100,000 would probably have been the ceiling.

The reason for that is that legally there is no way bookmakers can reclaim their money -- it is still a debt of honor, a gentleman's agreement so by insisting on a lower limit the bookies are guarding against bigger "losses" for themselves.

In a nutshell, a gambling debt does not have to be paid, though in reality some bookmakers, and this is not to suggest Goldchip Ltd. did this, can "send the boys round" -- in an effort to "encourage" the punter to settle his account.

The problem with a sportsman being in debt to a bookmaker is that it can leave him in a compromising situation.

While not suggesting Rooney would even consider this, the view of the National Football League is that America's gridiron players should not bet.

That way there can be no debts to bookmakers. That way a player heavily in debt whose team loses --perhaps surprisingly -- cannot have the finger of suspicion pointed at him. An NFL player even seen in the company of a bookmaker socially would have to explain himself.

Those who protect the freedom of a society that fought hard for such benefits would no doubt oppose these restrictions.

But why does anyone bet?

To win money, it is as simple as that.

Whether you are someone who has a fiver on a horse because it is named after someone you know or a millionaire, the intention is to become that little bit richer.

The average salary in the Premiership is now £676,000 a year; in the Championship it is £195,000; League One is £67,850 And League Two £49,000.

While Rooney, Owen or anyone having a small flutter on the Grand National is harmless enough, is it really asking professional footballers too much to refrain from gambling until they retire probably in their mid-30?

They happily give up booze and curries to maintain the highest level of fitness -- why not give up betting to maintain the highest level of credibility?

This correspondent knows of a team which, if it won the toss, always elected to kick off. The center-forward would tap the ball to a certain teammate whose "wayward" pass to the wing was over-hit and went out for a throw-in.

Thousands of punters in Far East betting syndicates bet on the first throw-in and the two players in question benefited generously for their pre-arranged kick off routine.

Then there was the manager who, just before the start of a game, announced that Player A would not take any penalty, Player B would.

As Player A had an almost perfect record from the spot and Player B had never taken a penalty it seemed a strange decision.

The manager's reasoning was that Player A had taken a penalty against this team earlier in the season so someone else should have the responsibility this time.

Player B was 25-1 to score the first goal and as luck would have it his side was awarded a penalty which he converted.

By coincidence, his manager had placed a significant wager on Player B opening the scoring which he did, from the spot, and was £12,500 richer by the end of the game.

Of course any player insistent on betting would get around a ban by asking a pal to place it, but at least supporters would not see Premiership footballers whose wages they have helped to pay by following the team around the country, betting thousands of pounds at racecourses.

Ferguson may have called the story "absolute rubbish" but you can bet that the United manager would have called in his star player to remind Rooney that running up £700,000 debts, whether they are paid in full or not, should not be repeated.

And anyone who thinks what happened has had no effect on the relationship between Rooney and Owen, England's strike-partnership at the World Cup finals, if the Newcastle player recovers from a foot injury, also believes in the tooth fairy.



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