Many of us enjoy having a flutter on the football whether it is the Premier League, Championship or action even further afield. In fact, the 2019-20 Gambling Commission annual report stated that three million UK residents place bets on football, at least occasionally. As a result, from a gambling perspective, it is the nation’s most popular sport, ahead of horse racing in second place.
Some of us perhaps take for granted just how easy it is to place our bets though. But for professional and even some semi-professor footballers playing in the UK, placing a weekend acca is not something they are permitted to do. The rules have not always prevented footballers from spending their money at the bookies, mind you. As we will soon find out, several footballers have ended up being banned from the beautiful game due to their betting activity.
What Are the Rules?
The FA’s stance on football betting can hardly be much clearer. In 2014, they imposed a complete blanket ban on worldwide betting on football for anyone involved in the game at Premier League, English Football League, National League, Northern, Southern and Isthmian leagues level plus the FA Women’s Super League or the FA Women’s Championship. You will note that the term used is ‘involved in’ as opposed to ‘playing in’. Therefore, managers, physios, chairmen and so on are all subject to the same ban on betting.
The ban includes any football game taking part across the globe, no matter what the level and no matter what the market. So, that means no betting on the number of corners in a clash in the Costa Rican Primera División, for instance. In addition to this, the restrictions also extend to bets relating to any football-related matter whether it be a player’s next club or the next manager in the league to face the sack.
Some may feel that banning betting on a game you have no plausible connection to whatsoever seems extreme. But the strict rules aim to avoid any possible controversies and maintain a high level of integrity. Pre-2014, the FA only stated that players could not bet on games in a competition they were involved in, or could potentially influence.
Is There a Way Around the Rules?
In reality, yes, there is. The guidelines state you cannot simply pass money to a friend of yours and make them place a bet on your behalf, or bet via their account, but this is very hard to police, especially with smaller stakes. The Times spoke to one Football League player in 2018 who revealed that he simply got his wife to open an account and he gives her the money. According to the anonymous source, hundreds of players from non-league right up to the Premier League are actively doing the same.
Former Nottingham Forest and Tottenham man, Andy Reid, estimated that around “a quarter” of players bet on football, doing so via a parent, partner or friend. Joey Barton, who we will discuss later on, went even higher saying “50%” was a conservative estimate as it is so ingrained into the sport. If this is true then why are there so relatively few reported cases? Well, as Reid pointed out, bookies really have little incentive to investigate or report them if they are making money from them. Only if a player scored a big win would there be an urge to act as they could avoid paying out by reporting it to the FA.
According to the FA rules, players should also refrain from passing on ‘inside information’ when it may be used in order to obtain an edge over the bookies. This might take the form of passing details of an injury not yet revealed to the public or revealing that a key player has been dropped from the starting eleven. Sharing such information is not an offence in itself, but it becomes one when used for betting purposes. Again though, this is something that is incredibly difficult to police, especially if players are exchanging information via word of mouth where there is no trace. It is also very difficult for players to know, in certain cases, if something they share confidentially with a close contact will end up being used for a bet. Lack of intent is not a full defence but it would reduce the punishment significantly.
Now we have a better understanding of what the rules are (and how they might be avoided) let us take a look at those who have broken them and their subsequent punishment. Just remember that these are almost certainly not the only rule-breakers about, only those who have been caught!
Very much a controversial figure in his playing days, Joey Barton regularly found himself featuring in the headlines. It was late on in his career though when he was first punished for breaking rules on gambling. In November 2016, the then 34 year old Barton received a one-game ban by the Scottish Football Association for placing 44 bets during his time at Rangers.
This proved a mere slap on the wrist compared to the punishment handed down by the English FA in April 2017 however. At the time Barton had returned to Premier League outfit Burnley and was getting plenty of minutes under boss Sean Dyche. This was until he was banned for a massive 18 months for mass-scale rule breaching.
An FA investigation found he placed 1,260 bets between March 2006 and May 2016. The ban was later reduced by almost five months upon appeal but by this point Barton had been released by Burnley and never played a competitive match again. No doubt what helped Barton’s appeal case was that he never bet on a game he was involved in, although he did bet on his own team to lose (when not involved in the match-day squad).
Ahead of some key Champions League and La Liga clashes, news that Kieran Trippier was facing a ban came as a major blow to his side, Atletico Madrid. The former Tottenham man ended up in hot water for falling foul of the ‘insider trading’ rule. He had informed some close friends of his about a pending move to Atletico Madrid, before it had been officially announced or even stated as done within the media. WhatsApp messages revealed that the England right-back had been aware of at least some of the betting activity made on his upcoming move to Spain. One friend explicitly asked “Should I lump on you going there” to which Trippier replied, “Can do mate”. To another friend, Oliver Hawley, Trippier stated “it’s happening” shortly before Hawley made a series of bets.
During the hearing, the FA accepted it is normal to inform friends of a move, particularly when it involves changing countries. They also acknowledged that the figures involved were relatively low. Even the most active friend wagered less than £1,000 in total, winning a fairly modest £1346 due to the small odds available. Due to these mitigating circumstances, Trippier was hit with a punishment toward the lower end of what was possible, a 10-week ban from football-related activities and a £70,000 fine. This was still too harsh in the eye’s of many football fans mind you who didn’t believe the Bury-born lad did much wrong.
Although there were similarities between this and Kieran Trippier’s case, this was a more serious breach of the rules. While Trippier had a more passive approach towards the bets involved in his transfer, Daniel Sturridge was caught actively encouraging relatives to stick money on a likely move. Additionally, the money involved was a lot more substantial. In a message sent to brother, Leon, said “Put the grand on Sevilla, I’ll give it to you back if you lose”. This bet was never placed, however, fortunately for Leon too as the deal never materialised in the end.
In another incident, Sturridge told friend Daniel Hemmings “Look real quick playa” followed by “worth a flutter” when the odds drifted regarding a bet on him moving to West Brom. A loan deal which did indeed materialise on this occasion.
There were other cases of family members making bets, seemingly placed due to insider information, even if there was no concrete evidence. Anthon Walters for instance lumped £10,000 on his cousin to move to Inter, and this was after having an initial £13,830 bet denied by Paddy Power. In total, the sum wagered by direct or indirect connections of Sturridge stood at £13,755 returning £10,762. A further £20,560 in bets were blocked, however, and these would have returned a huge £317,006.
Taking an extremely dim view of Sturridge’s actions, the FA actually appealed their own initial punishment, a six-week ban (four of which were suspended) on the grounds that it was far too lenient. Their appeal was approved with the end result being that Sturridge’s ban was increased to four months and his fine doubled to £150,000. The forward subsequently ended his contract at then-current club Trazbonspor through mutual agreement as he would not have been able to play for them for the remainder of the season.
Although in many cases footballers are betting with “healthy” amounts, or simply passing on information, there are cases of genuine addiction. Andros Townsend is one example of this, with the England winger losing £46,000 lying on his bed one night due to a combination of boredom and his addictive personality. This was much higher than the £3,000 he would usually spend across an entire week. Fortunately, after being caught, Townsend was “snapped back to reality” and sought counselling for his addiction.
With the FA acknowledging that Townsend (in his own words) was just a “stupid kid who made a mistake” they went quite easy on him. The winger was handed a four-month ban but three of them were suspended leaving him with only one month to serve. This sole month was backdated to May 2013, the time he voluntary withdrew from the England squad for the Euro U21 Championship after being charged with a betting regulation breach. So, effectively, Townsend did not end up missing any matches after the decision was made. He did, however, have to pay an £18,000 fine.
Just to prove that the FA does not simply target high-profile names, or high-profile cases (see below), we wanted to quick a quick mention of Scott Kashket. At the time of his ban the forward was playing for Wycombe Wanderers in League One, the year the Chairboys secured a shock promotion to the Championship.
Midway through the season, in January 2020, Kashket was ruled out of action for two months after being caught placing 183 bets between September 2014 and August 2016 (while at Leyton Orient). Nineteen of these were on Orient games, including 10 on Orient to lose but he did not play in any of these matches. Additionally, there was no evidence whatsoever of insider information or match-fixing.
The inclusion of Wayne Shaw on our list is simply a must given the sheer ridiculousness of the situation. ‘Piegate’ as it would later be known, involved Sutton United goalkeeper, Wayne Shaw, who weighed approximately 23 stone (146kg). Facing a televised FA Cup clash with Arsenal, the now-defunct Sun Bets decided to drum up some publicity by offering 8/1 odds that Shaw would be caught, on camera, eating a pie.
During the game, substitute keeper Shaw was indeed spotted eating what he confirmed was a pasty, although this was widely reported as being a pie. He was aware of the bet being available but insisted that he, nor anyone close to him had put a bet on the pie-eating occurring. Although this proved to be the case, one lucky punter did end up scooping up a five-figure sum according to Sun Bets.
While this all seems rather comical, a thought should be spared for a rather distraught Shaw who was effectively forced to resign from Sutton very soon after (leaving the club with just one keeper). As it happened, the game after his resignation, Sutton were forced to play an outfield player in goal for 75 minutes of a 3-2 win over Torquay.
A few months later, the FA reached their verdict, handing Shaw a relatively small fine of £375 and banning him for two months for “intentionally influencing a football betting market”. For many, this punishment was undeserved. Even by not eating a pie (or pasty) Shaw would have been influencing a betting market. Additionally, no footballer should effectively be barred from eating a particular mid-game snack because of a betting market.
Has Anyone Escaped a Ban?
It would be fair to say that the FA has adopted something of an inconsistent approach when it comes to punishing players who have a flutter on the football. Then-Stoke City striker, Cameron Jerome, who admitted repeatedly breaking the rules, managed to escape without a ban and was instead hit with just a hefty £50,000 fine.
The Argentine defender Martin Demichelis also managed to walk away with simply a fine as punishment, this time coming in at £22,000, after placing 29 bets during a three-week period. Falling into the fine-only category was also Dan Gosling who had to fork out £30,000 in 2014 for his apparent misunderstanding of the rules. His interesting case is one we will touch on a little more below.
Is There a Better Way?
Given the fairly substantial number of bans and fines handed out to players, the question must be asked, is the current approach fair and effective? It is easy to understand why the FA imposed such an unambiguous rule that left no room for interpretation. Only months before the new ruling came into place, Dan Gosling claimed the rules were confusing. He placed a bet on a Premier League game while playing for Blackpool in the Championship. The reason this was a problem was that he was on loan from Newcastle and therefore still technically a Premier League player. So, from a player’s perspective, at least the new rule removed any possible ambiguity.
The former rule though, while not as crystal clear, did seem to strike a better balancing point between giving players the freedom to bet without it harming the integrity of the game. Rather ironically, by imposing a blanket ban, players are perhaps more likely to bet on more closely related games on the basis that they are breaking the rules anyway. This was the sentiment shared by one anonymous source quoted in the Times. Ultimately, betting is such as massive part of footballing culture that any attempt to crack down on player involvement will inevitably fall short. Rather than effectively turning a blind eye to this, there is a persuasive case to return to a similar system of old. There is also an argument to simply remove markets very at risk to insider trading for example the ‘next transfer move’, or to at least cap the maximum stakes at a low amount.