Next in our 'What football means to us series' sees editor MARK GODFREY reminisce about afternoons spent trying to win big by studying fuzzy black and white photos.
Wednesday afternoons at my Nan’s dining room table. A pot of tea nestling under a knitted cosy – loose leaf, of course, “none of this tea bag rubbish” – and a plate of freshly cut Battenberg slices to bridge the gap between lunch and teatime.
First, the Liverpool Echo and her Lucky 15 selections for the following day – “Who’s Willie Carson on?” – then the Pools and the Sun Plan 40, “Eight score draws, Mark…let’s have ‘em.” Never any good.
Then it was my turn to use the ‘lucky’ pen. A different coupon comes out of the kitchen dresser drawer; not the Pools but still from Littlewoods.
Spot The Ball was simultaneously both a game of skill and chance. No form to study other than that of the contorted bodies and middle-distance gazes of the protagonists in the grainy black and white photographs used as the setting. Some basic information too: the teams, date, score – even the weather – as if that would help.
You could spend hours plotting the eye line of the players in the picture before making your X’s where you think the ball – or at least the centre of the ball – was when the cameraman took his snap. But what if they were slightly behind in their reactions, was the ball suddenly somewhere else? Higher, lower? Right a bit, left a bit? Cover all possibilities you told yourself, it must be there.
Scores of crosses later and it was done, for better or worse. Another week feeling diddled out of the jackpot or maybe this time it was your turn to scoop the big prize and get your name in the following week’s paper.
Back in those days – the 1980s in my case – Pools winners had the lure of a million pounds; the dream of jacking in their jobs and getting a second car with the winnings, maybe even a caravan. There was no National Lottery or EuroMillions to woo the working classes, and you certainly couldn’t retire on a full house down the bingo. Spot The Ball’s jackpot may have been a fraction of its more illustrious cousin the Pools but it was nothing to be sniffed at – £250,000 if memory serves. No sooner had I filled it in than me and my Nan were speculating about how we would spend it: “a Ferrari like in Magnum” I would say, “a new Axminster for the dining room, the old one’s looking a bit worn” she would retort.
Years later, once Nan had passed on and I’d long since given up playing Spot The Ball, I was slightly horrified to learn that in fact the ball was never positioned where it was ‘missing’ from the photograph, but where a panel of experts decided to place it based on exactly the same process of guesswork I had done 20 years previous. Granted, that panel is made up of Ian Callaghan (ex-Liverpool and England) and David Sadler (ex-Manchester United and England) so one can’t doubt their years of insider knowledge about football, but I fail to accept they’re any better at sticking a pin in a photograph and declaring that X marks the spot than the average man in the street.
Even more infuriating is that the current owners of the Spot The Ball game, Sportech (who purchased the Pools and STB from Littlewoods in 2000), used this technicality to prove that it was a game of chance rather than skill and therefore they were exempt from paying VAT under gaming laws stretching back to 1979. The Supreme Court awarded them a £97million pay out (including back interest) from HMRC in 2016.
As an entry level introduction to gambling – sorry, games of chance – as a youngster, it was mostly harmless fun. Usurped initially by the relaxation of licensing on betting shops in the 1980s and 90s and then more significantly by the development of the internet, handheld mobile technology and the explosion in gaming opportunities in the 21st century, Spot The Ball seems as old-fashioned and completely of another era as Saturday afternoon wrestling on ITV. Which makes it all the more surprising that it is still plodding along in the background – albeit as an online game for those with touchscreen capability – behind the shouty, banter-driven bookmakers’ websites offering all manner of exotic ways to part you from your cash. In 2018 it is merely an anachronism, although a profitable one for its owners. To me it was a rite of passage, a peek into a slightly illicit adult world that was just over the horizon for my younger self. More importantly it was a connection; a shared interest with a beloved grandparent; memories of hours spent at that dining table playing cards, picking horses, swapping stories and eating cake.
You may ask; is this just a misty-eyed middle-aged man railing against modern football? Perhaps. However, the world moves on as it must. Football moves on as it must. But for me, Spot The Ball – in part – represents a time of greater simplicity and innocence, a time that is now long gone. I mourn for it, for terracing, for old grounds, for real heroes, and for my Nan, still.