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Saturday, 19 January, 2019

Unexpected results remind us that some things just happen

The Thursday column

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There does not have to be a clear, logical reason for everything that happens in football and yet still we try to find one all the time.

On Sunday Tottenham beat Stoke 4-0. Going into the match many people had expressed doubts about Spurs’ chances of victory because they had played in a Europa League match three days earlier.

But an unchanged side registered one of the easiest wins of the Premier League season.

The next day Liverpool lost 3-1 at Leicester. Going into the match many people had expressed their confidence about Liverpool’s chances of victory because they had not played for 16 days.

But a supposedly fresh side were comprehensively beaten in a display that often verged on the feeble.

When things like these results occur the people whose predictions were proved wrong tend to forget about them, whereas had they been correct they would pat themselves on the back and allow the outcome to strengthen their belief that theories about fatigue and freshness have been validated.

When they are wrong their reaction is right and when they are right they tend to react in the wrong way. The ‘these things happen’ philosophy when a theory is disproved is the correct mindset to adopt.

As punters we need to have our own set of guiding principles because otherwise we are unlikely ever to strike a bet, but we should never forget that some things just happen. It is a line my learned colleague Kevin Pullein has written often and, obvious though it may sound, it is amazing how many punters fail to acknowledge it, preferring instead to concoct some half-baked narrative that satisfies their desire for an explanation for every outcome.

I frequently find myself when discussing football matches sounding hideously vague when someone claims a team won because the ref got one wrong or because the home side were knackered.

“Maybe that’s just how the game panned out,” I’ll muse unspectacularly. “Sometimes these things just happen.”

I tend to get a strange look, as if I didn’t actually watch the game, but in a sport in which one goal, arising from one incident, is enough to decide the outcome it stands to reason that luck and fine margins will often be crucial.

I’d much rather be unsure about how a match will finish than base a view, and thus a bet, on an opinion that might sound plausible but can be easily picked apart.

Probably the best example of this is the commonly-expressed view that a cup tie will not be drawn because a draw is the last thing either side needs owing to fixture congestion.

Many people put forward this prediction but few challenge it, despite it being so illogical.

So two teams clash in, say, the fifth round of the FA Cup. One is challenging for the title and still involved in the Champions League, while the other is fighting relegation and has a League Cup final looming.

While it may be true neither manager wants an extra match, their main concern will be not to lose, and if the scores are level with ten minutes to play, they may push forward with a greater sense of risk but nor will they simply concede a goal just to ease the upcoming schedule.

It has never happened to the best of my knowledge yet people are happy to oppose the draw for that very reason.

Returning to the Tottenham and Liverpool matches, it is reckless to bet a certain way based on predictions of tiredness or a fitness advantage unless it is backed up with evidence.

Playing two matches of football with a two-day break in between is not, as history has shown, a significantly hard thing to do.

As one professional once said when asked how you cope with such a schedule: “We train less.”

And as Liverpool showed, a nice rest doesn’t always help. Sometimes things just happen and in these cases Spurs played the best football and Liverpool the worst.

Perhaps my favourite example of people failing to accept some things just happen is the Ryder Cup.

When the Europeans win the media and golf fans on this side of the Atlantic claim it is because they played fantastically well.

When they lose the captain usually gets hammered because that fits the narrative better than the simple truth that there has never been a sporting event in which both competing teams have won.

There is negligible skill in captaining a Ryder Cup team. You or I could pick pairings and a singles order that would get the job done provided the players performed well.

Unless the captain ordered his men to use hockey sticks instead of golf clubs it would be hugely unfair to blame him, and yet that’s what happens because we feel better if we have something or someone to blame.

Sport is unpredictable. Things happen that defy logic sometimes. Don’t be afraid to accept that the best explanation is there is no explanation.

Claudio’s critics deserve derision 

Leicester's owners were ridiculed wrongly for recruiting Claudio Ranieri and then rightly for sacking him after he had helped the club achieve the most amazing feat in the history of sport.

Beating Liverpool in the game after his outrageously unfair dismissal does nothing to vindicate the decision. Leicester beat Manchester City 4-2 in December and under the Italian’s guidance are still in the Champions League so it’s not like the season after their title triumph has been an uninterrupted catastrophe.

Ranieri should have been allowed to stay for as long as he liked. It was a revolting act to jettison him, especially as it happened in the same month that the owners issued this statement: “The entire club is, and will remain, united behind its manager.”

How risible and pathetic to sack Ranieri just 17 days later.

I have no idea how my punting will go on the first day of Cheltenham, but even if I have a nightmare I am relishing the chance to get it all back by smashing into Seville to beat Leicester that night. It would serve them right.

Law on kicks needs to be converted 

Rugby League is my preferred code of rugby, but league and union share a fault that should be rectified.

It makes no sense to me that the conversion attempt should be taken from a point in line with where the try was scored.

It is not significantly harder, and quite possibly no harder at all, to score a try under the posts than it is to touch the ball down in either corner, and yet the reward for scoring in a central position is huge.

The kick goes from an odds-against shot to a 1-66 poke, and there is no logic for that being the case.

In American football the only penalty for scoring out wide is that the kick for the extra point must be taken from the hash marks on the side where the line was broken, but that is of extremely limited inconvenience.

Turning five points into seven in union or four into six in league is a massively tougher task if the ball has been touched down by either flag and there is no sound reason why this should be.

However, players know the rules and yet they often show an irresponsible reluctance to place the ball in the most advantageously possible position for the kicker.

Obviously, having done the hard work to cross the line, it would be idiotic to risk squandering the points completely by trying to shimmy past opponents just to make the conversion attempt easier, but often the ball hits the grass far earlier than it should, even when the ensuing kick is almost certain to decide the match.

The conversion attempt should always be from a central spot but until it is players should try harder to make the kicker’s job easier.


As punters we need to have our own set of guiding principles because otherwise we are unlikely ever to strike a bet
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