Gambling on the result of football matches – a historic perspective

As you’ll know if you have read any of our commentaries on the crowds at Woolwich Arsenal, taking a punt on the outcome of football matches has been something the Arsenal crowd has done from the moment the club started playing in the league in 1893.

Indeed as we’ve reported here in the past, and as featured both in Mark Andrews’ book on the Crowd at Woolwich Arsenal, and in the fictionalised story of 1910 in “Making the Arsenal”, in the earliest days of Arsenal at the Manor Ground, Plumstead, gambling was part of the everyday culture.

Indeed when Arsenal were playing away from Plumstead, supporters would gather at the Lord Derby pub opposite the ground, where the latest score was read out by the landlord (standing on a table) from a telegram brought to the pub every 15 minutes. There’s no doubt that gambling took place (illegally) on what the score would be for each of these announcements.

At that point all such gambling was illegal but in 1923 Littlewoods Football Pools was founded on a way of getting around the law, and the first pools coupons (which punters filled in, normally seeking to predict the results with a “1” for a home win, a “2” for an away win and “x” for a draw), came into being.   Indeed the first football pools coupons were distributed to fans outside Old Trafford in 1923.  

The Pools got around the law by claiming that they were games of skill (ie you had to know about the relative merits of each team in order to predict the results as opposed to games of chance (such as throwing dice or playing cards).  There being no legal gambling other than at horserace tracks at the time, the pools took off.

Such was the dominance of the pools at this time that TV programmes that ran football results would indicate how many points the score produced for the pools (3 for a draw, 2 for an away win 1 or 1.5 for a home win).  Radio stations would conclude the reading of the results with the statement, “A list of the draws…” and they would then suggest that there should be “claims by telegram” on days when it was anticipated that the victory payout would be limited to just a few people, and be of very high value.

Later, to make the payouts even bigger, a difference was made between score draws and no-score draws, with score draws being more valuable.

Of course this whole culture revolved around the receiving of the scores at half time and then at the end of the game via the radio, or later TV.  Certainly in these early days of football there was very little updating of scores during the course of the game.

Indeed it has often been suggested that it was the importance of the reading of the results on the radio that was reputed to have led to The Arsenal changing its name to Arsenal – in order to be top of the list of results when the club was at home.  However as we have shown on this site, the name change came before the days when the reading of the football results occurred.  But the fact that the club’s name change was thought to be a response to the reading of results, shows just how important that the reporting of football results in the press and later on the radio, was at the time.

As for the pools, they survived for a while, but were ultimately sunk by the National Lottery in 1994.   Today of course there is choice, choice, and more choice as to how you place your bet.  Indeed this is the prime time for the punter.

You can get a feel for betting site offers by taking a look at that link.  It leads not only to football but also every other sport you can imagine!


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