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Monday, 10 December, 2018

Belgium's golden boys could be the real deal

The Thursday column

Belgium's Kevin De Bruyne
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Kieron Dyer has a new book out and if the extracts that have appeared in the papers are any guide it will be a fascinating read, not least because he has interesting things to say about England’s failure to perform to expected levels in major championships.

The former winger says high-stakes betting among squad members did not help and nor did what he saw as the wasteful deployment of Paul Scholes in a wide position to accommodate Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard in central midfield.

But Dyer pinpoints fear as the major cause of the disappointing campaigns he experienced in his time with the Three Lions between 1999 and 2007. He says the pressure from the fans was so intense and so quick to boil over into abuse that top-quality players would lose the ability to play simple passes to each other.

While England were never as good as the fans wanted them to be, even during the era of the so-called Golden Generation, it is amazing to look back on how much talent there was in the ranks and how little they collectively achieved.

The squad for Euro 2004 was as follows: James, Robinson, Walker; G Neville, P Neville, A Cole, Campbell, Terry, Ferdinand, Bridge, King, Carragher; Gerrard, Beckham, Scholes, Lampard, Butt, Hargreaves, J Cole, Dyer; Owen, Rooney, Heskey, Vassell.

Compared to the current England squad that is an extremely powerful unit, yet they couldn’t make it past the quarter-finals.

Things have changed as far as weight of expectation is concerned 14 years on. We no longer expect and we barely even hope, and even though Harry Kane is truly great and a few others have advanced their reputations during the domestic season it is hard to get excited about the current best odds of 16-1 for the World Cup.

The most intriguing question is who will play in goal? Joe Hart is not first choice at West Ham so even though Gareth Southgate strikes me as the kind of a manager to stick with established players too long he surely can’t get the nod.

Jack Butland would have been the prime pick at the start of the season but the Stoke stopper has not been anything like as dazzling as had been hoped, while Everton’s Jordan Pickford has spent far more time picking the ball out of his net than he would have liked.

If forced to choose now I would edge towards Pickford, but it is not the most reassuring pool from which to select.

While I have been sure for some time that England are not serious runners in Russia I have struggled to identify a team to carry my financial hopes. But then this week it suddenly struck me that the answer could be staring us in the face.

I should by now have learned how to avoid an obvious betting trap (and this might be the most obvious one I have ever fallen into) but when I look at the quality of players Belgium will take to the World Cup I cannot help but think they are a wonderful wager at 12-1 - just four points shorter than England.

Thibaut Courtois is slightly overrated in my book, but worse keepers have won World Cups, and he will be magnificently protected by the Tottenham duo of Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld as well as Vincent Kompany if he is fit and the coach opts for three at the back.

The midfield will be strong with Kevin De Bruyne, now officially and indisputably world class, the main man and quality operators such as Mousa Dembele and Radja Nainggolan alongside him.

Further forward Eden Hazard is playing outrageously good football and he, Romelu Lukaku and Napoli’s Dries Mertens could cause mayhem.

There are negatives. The squad does not have the depth of those above them in the betting even if their starting 11 is arguably as strong as anyone’s, and many will look at Roberto Martinez’s club CV and query his credentials.

But I would trust the Spaniard to get a tune out of his players for a one-month burst as long as they stay fit and, as things stand, no other team represent the value they do.

And just as a bonus they are in the same group as England.

Low margins would encourage punters to take dip in new pool

Stack 'em high, sell 'em low. That was the motto of Tesco founder Jack Cohen and it’s a mantra that Britbet should consider adopting as they look to get a toehold in the betting market when they launch their new pool service in July.

The operation, set up by the vast majority of British racecourses in an attempt to maximise the opportunity created by the ending of the current Tote’s exclusive licence, has yet to reveal its intended deductions from win and place pools.

The Tote, owned by Betfred, keeps 19.25 per cent of money which makes it competitive in big-field races but considerably less so when there are fewer runners as a consequence of the lower margin offered by fixed-odds bookmakers and exchanges.

Britbet are going to have a major challenge to gain traction in their infancy. They will be able to count on plenty of on-course turnover as habitual tote punters simply use them instead of the outgoing service.

But they cannot enter the UK betting shop market because of existing Tote Direct deals and away from the tracks they will be looking to drum up liquidity through their own digital products and international deals.

More by Bruce Millington

Time to ensure handicappers are neither seen nor heard

No need for any replays to expose VAR as a ruinous farce

New tournament offers a bright spot on dull international calendar

Mildenhall closure evokes memories of other much-missed venues

A ten-point training regime to ease transition from player to pundit

It is believed they have a range of innovative exotic pools that they will hope have similar success to the Tote’s Scoop6 and Placepot. However, if they set their win and place takeouts broadly in line with what the Tote have been deducting in recent years it is difficult to see how they will generate much business, despite reports that they plan to use rebates to entice customers to bet with them more frequently.

But this feels like an interesting opportunity to take a punt on win and place by dropping their deductions through the floor and basically adopting the Jack Cohen model that focuses on high turnover rather than high profit margins.

Put simply, they would be better siphoning five per cent from a pool of £1m than 20 per cent from a pool of £100,000. The big question, of course, is whether betting to five per cent would persuade price-conscious punters to switch from the fixed-odds products and the exchanges.

I would boldly suggest there is a decent chance of the answer being yes. Clearly with tote bets you cannot take a price, but if your winnings were consistently bigger than the fixed-odds firms could offer and your pool offering did not clobber successful customers with a premium charge there would be obvious attractions.

The marketing message would be powerful. Bet with Britbet and get significantly bigger returns. Daily examples of how Britbet win and place bets beat SP would reinforce the service’s reputation as the home of value betting, with the added advantage that profits should theoretically boost British racing because the shareholders would be in a position to use them to boost prize money and improve facilities.

Clearly Britbet’s ambitions with their multi-leg and combination pools should not be stymied by such low deductions because they would presumably be unique offerings and decent revenue-generators, but I would give the new venture a fighting chance of making a big impact if they took a deep breath and set their win and place margins extremely low.

It didn’t do Tesco any harm.

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Eden Hazard is playing outrageously good football and he, Romelu Lukaku and Napoli’s Dries Mertens could cause mayhem
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