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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Government’s FOBT review should tackle online issues

The Thursday column

Shane Duffy was fortunate to escape punishment for his tackle on Joselu
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Fans of the FOBTs, enjoy them while you can. Victims of the machines’ addictive qualities, help may soon be on the way.

It seems increasingly likely that the government’s review into gaming machines will result in the imposition of a huge reduction in maximum stakes.

That eventuality became even likelier yesterday when it was revealed outgoing Paddy Power Betfair chief executive Breon Corcoran has broken ranks with his rival operators and written to Tracey Crouch, the minister in charge of the decision, to recommend the maximum stake should be slashed to £10, a figure which many bookmakers claim will result in widespread shop closures and consequent job losses.

Corcoran claims negative media coverage aimed at the FOBTs is tarnishing the image of gambling as a whole and making recruitment difficult with talented people unwilling to work in a sector that has such a damaged reputation.

His opponents in the retail space have responded by suggesting he is acting in self-interest given that Paddy Power have so few betting shops compared to the likes of Ladbrokes Coral, Hills and Betfred, although, interestingly, Corcoran claims his company “and other well-run operators” should be able to manage their retail businesses successfully and profitably under a £10 limit.

Equally interesting is that Stewart Kenny, a former Paddy Power CEO, left the board last year because his opposition to FOBTs was not supported by Corcoran’s management team.

Of course, the damage to Paddy Power Betfair’s bottom line could increase significantly if, as seems entirely logical, any stake limits are ultimately applied to online versions of the machines as well as the ones in shops. The big question is: will that happen?

My issue with machine restrictions has always been that it is unjustifiable, counter-productive and potentially dangerous to apply them to physical FOBTs but not digital ones.

Smartphone ownership in Britain is now so common that few people who want to play machines for more than a tenner a pop in the shops would be unable to find an app or website on their device that would enable them to play away to their heart’s content.

And that’s when problem gambling could increase rather than reduce, as is the government’s intention.

I recently heard of a man who, while waiting for the Mayweather-McGregor fight to start, lost £300 prodding around on his phone. He was drunk at the time and devastated in the morning when he realised what he had done.

With the retail operators having finally woken up to their social responsibility, players of in-shop FOBTs now receive a certain degree of supervision, and are likely to be told to take a break when showing signs of distress.

Within the walls of their own domiciles, such protection does not always exist. Players may be under the influence and staking more recklessly because they are not using hard cash.

I have no idea what the right limit is on these phenomenally contentious machines that would genuinely ease the misery of problem gamblers without causing significant job losses through shop closures, but what I do firmly believe is that restricting stakes significantly in shops but not doing likewise on digital gambling sites would be a socially irresponsible thing to do.

More by Bruce Millington

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Brexit-themed name doesn't win my vote

A filly called Brexitmeansbrexit was due to make her debut at Kempton on Monday. But while some people probably consider the Richard Hannon-trained two-year-old to have quite a funny name, I take the view a horse should not be allowed that nomenclature.

It is not the biggest issue the planet has to contend with by any means, but it does warrant scrutiny because it seems odd that this one managed to get past the BHA’s naming team.

A BHA spokesman told me the name was flagged by Weatherbys and discussed by the naming team at length.

Apparently the rules state that names cannot be allowed which may be offensive to religious, political or ethnic groups, and in this case it was deemed that the name would not be offensive and was a phrase that had become a sufficiently generic part of common and political parlance to be allowable.

So is Brexitmeansbrexit offensive? Not massively. It’s more irritating than offensive but, however you define the reason why it is a name that jars, I don’t think it is suitable for a beautiful racehorse to be saddled with a moniker that brings the dreary, depressing question of the UK’s position in the European Union into a space that is, for most fans, an escape from the real world’s more dismal issues.

There will be around 52 per cent of the population who probably think it’s a superb name and cannot wait to back the filly, but on the other side of the coin plenty of those who voted not to leave the EU are likely to sigh when they glance down a card and see she is declared.

Interestingly, Brexitmeansbrexit is owned by Mervyn Stewkesbury, a property company owner and former speedway promoter who gained 435 votes as an independent candidate for the South Dorset seat in the 2015 general election.

Mr Stewkesbury has every right to give his filly that name and good luck to him for having got it past the assessors, who really should have given this one more consideration.

If next season she goes on to be as successful as Enable has been this term there are going to be plenty of people who look at the headlines trumpeting her brilliance and wonder just what kind of sport racing is that it allows its equine participants to carry names like this.

It remains to be seen what her chances of emulating Enable are because on Monday, due to a self-certificate, Brexitmeansbrexit was a non-starter.

No reason to go easy on early offenders

It would make a really interesting TV programme to watch a referee get home from a match he had controlled and sit down to view a recording of his performance. He could provide a running commentary of his 90 minutes, picking out particular decisions and positions he had taken up.

This is not one of those imbecilic ‘refs should explain their decisions after every match’ demands, but an idea that might enlighten those who cannot accept a single error from referees, as well as giving some insight into what the job really entails.

If Andre Marriner watched his officiating of Brighton versus Newcastle on Sunday it is hoped he would have learned a lesson after committing one of the few sins that even a devout defender of our brilliant arbiters such as me finds unacceptable.

With just a minute gone Brighton defender Shane Duffy ploughed through the back of Newcastle forward Joselu, but Marriner deemed the offence to be worthy only of a free kick to the Magpies.

This fell squarely into the category of ‘too early to book him’, a syndrome that undoubtedly exists and absolutely should not.

It defies logic that a foul committed in the early seconds of a match should be treated more leniently than one that takes place at any other point of the game.

Indeed, there is a defensible case for saying such fouls require more punitive action because there is a need to eliminate the culture of defenders dishing out some premeditated early pain on an opponent.

This is usually done to order by old-school coaches who pinpoint certain players who may go into their shell if they get roughed up early on, and might have the desired effect in some cases.

Of course, when refs do brandish an early yellow there is always someone in the commentary box who will claim he has “made a rod for his own back” and that a flurry of red and yellow cards are bound to ensue, but players have control over whether they choose to make fouls that are punishable by caution or expulsion.

A foul is a foul whenever it is committed and referees should ensure they are consistent in their approach to taking names regardless of whether they have just blown to start a match.

Golfers out of tune with anthem protest

It's Presidents Cup week and, while sportsmen up and down the United States have been creating headlines by going down on one knee during the national anthem in protest at the treatment of black Americans by the police, you’d get a decent price about any golfers doing likewise.

Davis Love III, one of the assistant captains of the American team, said: “I think President Trump is right. There is a time for protest, and it probably isn't during the national anthem.

"I think you'll see in golf that there's a little bit more restraint. We adhere to our rulebook and to our core values and to our traditions, and I think that's why our sport is so successful."

It would be interesting to know how Love defines successful given that player numbers and equipment sales are reportedly plummeting, but at least nobody will be fainting with shock at the news the Presidents Cup is unlikely to see any participants risk dirtying the knee of their trousers as the Star Spangled Banner is belted out.

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It is unjustifiable, counter-productive and potentially dangerous to apply restrictions to physical FOBTs but not digital ones
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