I will try to do some posts about things that played a significant part in people’s live but have now disappeared (or almost disappeared), things that younger readers may not have even heard about. In truly random fashion, I have one of these now between two posts about information. My first subject in this series will be Football Pools.
I am hoping that at least some readers will be thinking: “What?” Football Pools used to be a significant industry in England, so important that they affected how newspapers and television reported football results. I need to set the scene before I explain what they were and how they worked. Then perhaps it will be fairly obvious why they disappeared.
There have always been many people who like to spend a little of their earnings in the hopes of winning a lot. Now we have Betting Shops; several National Lotteries with scratch cards; the Internet and on-line betting. You know what I’m going to say next! Back in the fifties, we had none of them.
There were some opportunities for betting. Some pubs had fruit machines. You could bet on horse racing (or greyhound racing) at the meeting. You may have been able to bet on horses by telephone but I think that came later. And there were some limited, illegal methods.
But from the late fifties, for millions of people, there were ‘the pools,’ betting on the results of regular Saturday football matches in England. (I don’t know what life was like in Scotland but in England the Scottish results always came after all the English divisions. As now, Wales was somehow included in England.)
Before we go much further, we have to put football back to the way it was. We may get to look at football later but for the purposes of the pools, we need to know that virtually all English and Scottish football matches took place at the same time on Saturday every week. (If there were, occasionally, matches postponed to other dates, they didn’t count for the pools.) No football was shown on television or reported on the radio.
The Weekly Form
We need to look at the next picture but don’t think in today’s language. You may all be thinking: “It’s a spreadsheet!” But it was in a world where we had no spreadsheets, not even any computers. It was a piece of paper!
Every week you would have a form, like the one shown here, to be filled in. They were printed each week and delivered by hand. You needed the appropriate sheet with the fixtures for that weekend. With uncertainties, like FA Cup replays, only definite fixtures would be listed – if necessary, they could use more of the otherwise ignored lower Scottish Divisions!
Every football match would result in either a Home Win, an Away Win, or a Draw. In its simplest form your task in completing the form is to select eight teams who you hope will produce draws. You gamble against millions of other people in the hope of winning a large sum of money. So, in one column you put eight crosses against your selected teams. You pay what in our money would have been a fraction of a penny and hope to win hundreds of thousands of pounds if the results turn out right! Basically, that was it.
(There were other choices but eight draws was by far the most popular.)
You would probably try a few lines, with a total weekly expenditure of just a few pence. Each column could have a different set of eight crosses. (I won’t go into the mathematics of the perms and plans you can see on this form.) If you were a football expert you would think carefully about each match, study the teams form, look at weather forecasts, read what the newspapers said … Or you could pick numbers at random – that was, in practice, just as likely to succeed. Remember, we didn’t have lotteries, so to many this was just a lottery.
At their peak, there were more than ten million people playing the pools every week. You could post your form. Many were collected by pools agents who earned their living from the commission payments. Postal entries had to be postmarked before the kick-off time of 3:00 pm on Saturday.
In the early days, results would come from Sunday newspapers. The papers would always list the matches, showing the line numbers used by the pools. (The main pools companies always used the same line numbers.) It was also true then, as it is today, that sports sections of newspapers had sections devoted to horse-racing aimed at those who placed bets on them. The papers provided what their readers wanted.
With the advent of television, this became the main information point for early results. They gave the round-up of results at around 5:00 pm on every Saturday evening. (Results had to be phoned in, one by one, to the BBC, then the only television channel.)
I can remember many Saturdays when we children had to be quiet while Dad followed the results over the dreadful quality TV reception, which was then all that was available, looking down his lists. Millions of others must have done the same thing. When all results were in, the television presenter would list the draws in order as a check, with their pools line numbers.
There were complications – postponed matches, abandoned matches, late results. But, soon after five o’clock, the television could tell us the final results, how many draws there were and predicted pools payouts. If there were lots of draws, the payout would be small, but if only eight matches were draws and you picked them, then you had the jackpot, maybe £100,000. In the seventies and eighties they went up over a million pounds.
Nowadays, the pools companies that are left can take entries over the Internet or read in forms automatically to their computers. They can identify all the winners automatically and instantly. Back then, they had very little automation. They could rely on winners to telephone and make their claims. Then they knew which forms to check.
Sometimes there were too many draws and too many winners but only eight or nine or ten draws would produce a big win. These were publicized in newspapers in the same as way as big lottery winners more recently.
(What did we do at the end of the season? There were versions of pools using rugby or Australian Football – but most people just waited for the next football season.)
At some time roundabout the sixties, the pools companies made a change to increase the chance of a single jackpot win. They changed the system so that score draws (like 1-1; 2-2; 3-3, …) were the target. A nil-all score happened too often so they were eliminated. This kept the interest in the pools going.
If you have been paying attention you will know the significance of 1963. It was that horrible, cold winter. Lots of football matches were called off or postponed because of the weather and this really messed up the pools. When three quarters of the matches were abandoned because of snow, there was little chance of finding eight draws in those that were left.
They introduced the Pools Panel, a group of football experts. By the time the final results came out, the panel had decided what might have happened to the abandoned matches on the basis of form. They probably worked a lot on guesswork but they produced results that were accepted for pools purposes. Newspaper and television football results would include pools panel results almost as if they had actually happened. This helped to keep the number of high value payments going.
In the nineties, it was the National Lottery and all the other scratchcard lotteries that were the major cause of the demise of football pools, with other factors like Betting Shops and Internet betting. There are still football pools but user numbers are drastically down. They no longer get a mention on Saturday television with the football results. The Pools Panel still meets.
There it was. The pools emerged in the fifties; formed a significant part in the life of most working-class families; and disappeared in the nineties.
I think I was talking about information …