Lee sunk, now place bets

“Hang on, what’s he played there?”

Lee sunk, now place bets

Eurosport commentator Mike Hallett was confused. Straightforward pink to the middle, black virtually over the pocket, easy angle. Game over.

But Stephen Lee — Rolls Royce cue action in the chassis of a bread van — rattled in the pink like a steady cricketer; playing the game one ball at a time.

It was the shot of a man certain the world will end before he is required to pot the black.

Armageddon spared Lee to pot it, but he didn’t, because the cue ball had travelled to just about the only place on the table from where he couldn’t pot it. John Higgins eventually knocked it in to win 4-2.

That Premier League tie from October 2012 — described by the commentators as “a chapter of accidents” — was hospitalised after a diagnosis from our old friend ‘irregular betting patterns’.

In the end, governing body WPBSA found no case to answer. But earlier this month, an independent tribunal ruled Lee guilty of some kind of chicanery in seven other matches.

This week he was banned until 2024. Many in the game wanted a maximum, but a 12-year stretch will be snooker’s biggest break.

Sympathy is minimal. Ken Doherty believes Lee is lucky not to be spending some of his exile in a cell, after police charges were dropped due to a scarcity of evidence. Judd Trump wanted life.

Justice done? If he did it, probably. But amid all the chat about the integrity of sport this week, it was also possible to smell a little hypocrisy.

Is Lee’s stiff sentence about protecting sport; or about protecting sport’s betting markets? Is there any longer much difference, when so much snooker is played in deserted cubicles, seemingly for the benefit of the markets?

The first reaction from Ladbrokes’ Mike O’Kane — also chairman of ESSA, a collective ‘integrity body’ (their description) for bookmakers — was to welcome Lee’s ban, the second was to resist any attempts to limit in-play betting, the richest growth area in sports gambling.

The finest minds in the betting industry are no longer tasked with persuading the punter to bet, rather with persuading the punter to bet again as soon as possible.

Perhaps their most ingenious invention yet is the five-minute market. Turn a corner in your life by backing the next corner. Or the next one. Or the next. Speeding up the chase of losses. Shortening the route to penury.

It is this environment that has opened up so many of the cheating opportunities sport must police. And, in fairness, the bookies lend a hand with the policing.

“It is not established that Mr Lee deliberately lost a match when he could and should have won it,” concluded an otherwise fairly damning report published by the tribunal.

It is possible a couple of games in the 2008 Malta Cup may have been thrown entirely — news that will rock the foundations of top-level sport — but the rest is mainly in-play stuff.

If Lee looked like losing, it is suggested he advised colleagues he might well lose 10-4. That kind of thing.

Lee, it seems, was in the red as much as he was in the reds. The report describes him as “a weak man in a vulnerable position”. Ordinarily, the kind of chap the bookies like to get to know.

We heard, this week, from another of those guys. Keith Gillespie described how “gambling emptied my pockets”, how he earned £7m but has been declared bankrupt; how he became one bookie’s “most prized customer”.

Gillespie talked about just wanting that “rush of excitement”. He sounded like a man who would enjoy the five-minute markets. But while he was betting, Keith never turned that corner.

In Lee’s case, perhaps a weak man went rogue instead of double or quits. And if he did we must condemn him.

Mike O’Kane will argue the honest punter, as much as the bookie, are the victims here. And there is no doubt honest punters backing the Malta Cup are also Mike’s kind of people.

But if snooker and Lee’s young family are the big losers here, it’s hard to shed many tears for the house, which will always win.

Gerrard’s engine room influence waning

It was a mixed week for Liverpool supporters. On one hand, you had a brace of 1-0 defeats; on the other news the ’Pool might now be ‘the most digitally engaged soccer club in the world’, with 34 social media accounts in 12 languages.

Unfortunately, there was a caveat to this ascent to the top of the table, with managing director Ian Ayre admitting Luiz Suarez had ‘damaged the brand’ by chomping on Branislav Ivanovic.

Focussing, if we may, on team-building ahead of brand-building, you couldn’t help wonder how long Steven Gerrard’s undoubted brand value will be able to compensate for his diminished influence in the Liverpool engine room.

Stevie cut a forlorn figure at times this week; misplacing passes and chasing shadows. Lawro once called him ‘Souness with pace’, but he’s not really looking much like Souness now the pace has gone. There was a feeble part, too, in both goals Liverpool conceded. But after watching him jump under the corner that won the game for United on Wednesday, then hearing Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher look everywhere else for the culprit, you realised again the shine doesn’t easily rub off a blue-chip brand like Stevie’s.

Even if the bite seems to be gone.

Reality bit back to haunt Mayo

Hands up, it was an unforgiveable oversight. In suggesting Mayo could do it last Sunday, I failed to allow for the standout revelation of the football summer.

The news David Brady broke last month; that Mayo – at Donie Buckley’s suggestion – were training with earpieces, that they were being ‘coached in real time’, as opposed, one supposes, to day time, or evening time.

Sure you knew the minute he said it, that it would come back to haunt them.

And sure enough, with 30 seconds left to 63 years, how could you expect a man who had been getting instructions in his ear all summer to make a decision all by himself?

Ah, it would have made no difference, in all likelihood.

But was there something in Cillian O’Connor plaintive search for advice that epitomised Mayo’s growing panic and sense of helplessness when things slipped away from them?

When time was of the essence, reality bit back.

HEROES & VILLAINS

STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN

Richie Sadlier: The line, if not the penalty, of the week; “Millwall’s fans are very generous with their feedback.”

Nicklas Bendtner: Perhaps one of the least appreciated comic geniuses of our time. Welcome back, big man.

HELL IN A HANDCART

Cesar Muniz Fernandez: Put it this way; the penalty he gave Real Madrid deep in injury-time at Elche wouldn’t have raised eyebrows if it has been awarded against Ireland in an away-day World Cup qualifier in the late seventies.

Paolo Di Canio: Are we all over-qualified as football club directors? Was there anybody – Margaret Byrne and company aside – who thought it would end up any other way?

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