Every Saturday three men decide the results of postponed matches. If you don't want to find out why and how, look away now, because Al Needham met them

Whenever I have an argument with anyone about the innate superiority of British football over any oth­er sporting entity in the world, I always keep one killer argument in reserve: the fact that we have a Pools Pan­el. It gives off the impression to foreigners that our game is so important that when matches can’t be play­ed, we actually have a platoon of experts who decide the result for us. Of course, they could counter this fact by pointing out that if every team in the country had the kind of facilities that they should have in the 21st century, there would be no need for a Pools Panel, but I counter that by stating that, even if there was a nuclear holocaust, the Pools Panel are probably on standby to decide entire seasons until civilisation recovered. That shuts them up a treat.

Like heaven, everyone has their own idea what the Pools Panel look like and how they go about deciding the results. I had this image of them loafing about like the Greek gods in Jason and the Argonauts, who would break off from lute-playing and grape-gorging every now and then to peer into a watery portal at us mere mortals. “Hmm… pestilence stalks the land… the blood is being returned to the fields… a home win for Scunthorpe.” Sadly, that particular fantasy is about to be stomped upon, as I’ve been given the opportunity to meet them in the flesh – but before that a history lesson.

If you think the weather has been particular grim this winter, you should have been around in 1963. I wasn’t, but a cursory glance at the statistics (25-foot snowdrifts on Dartmoor, skating on the Mersey, a frozen seafront at Eastbourne, average wind speed of 99mph in Cum­berland, etc) tells you that it must have been an ab­solute bastard. Not only was there the risk of death and a possible breakdown of society, the football season was well and truly knackered.

Take the 1963 FA Cup, for example. There have been Papal reigns that have been shorter than the third round. It lasted from January 5 until March 11, taking in 22 different match dates and 261 postponements. Bad enough if you’re a fan, but even worse if you were depending on the pools to lift you out of your Steptoe-like existence. Obviously, something had to be done to prevent a revolt by housewives in beehives, and the Pools Panel came into effect on Jan­uary 26, 1963.

The original panel was chaired by Sir Gerald Na­barro, a rather flamboyant Tory backbencher better known for being name-checked in a Monty Python sketch for having a pet prawn called Simon, and also for having a secretary called Christine Hamilton. But it was no faceless bureaucratic entity – the rest of the panel was packed with familiar and respected ex-pros who the public could rely on to play a straight bat (George Young, Ted Drake, Tommy Lawton and Tom Finney), as well as former ref Arthur Ellis, who went on to greater fame as the man in It’s a Knockout who measured how much coloured water had been tipped into containers by bank clerks from Surbiton dressed as penguins.

The first meetings were held within the imposing confines of the Connaught Rooms in central London, and it was here that the current Panel – Gordon Banks, Roger Hunt and former Scotland and Newcastle mid­fielder Tony Green – convened for one day only to cele­brate the body’s 40th anniversary and offer the press a rare glimpse into their shadowy world, where – every Saturday between 2pm and 4pm – they control the footballing universe and decide whether or not your Auntie is going to chuck her job in at Kwik Save, get herself breast implants and run off with a “Fancy Man”.

Back in the day, their decision was so important that the BBC would break into Grandstand with a televised announcement live from the Connaught Rooms, but these days the Panel spend their Saturday afternoons locked in a solicitors’ office in Liverpool. I start the interview by pulling out the fixture list for that day, pointing to Nottingham Forest v Preston and demanding to know the result. They can’t tell me. “We have access to years of statistics, form books and injury re­ports,” says Roger Hunt, the chairman of the Panel. “And we don’t discuss results until the meeting has begun,” chips in Gordon Banks. Oh.

All of them have been on the panel since the mid-1970s, and not only are they barred from playing the pools, so are their families. Two officials from the va­rious pools companies are present at all times, and there’s no outside communication allowed once the meeting begins.

Obviously, they’re pretty tight-lipped about how precisely they go about their business, but from what I can gather, it’s like a pub argument with instant access to a library of stats, and without the alcohol, shouting over each other and the potential threat of violence. “There’s no set time for how long we decide a result,” says Tony Green. “It all depends on the fixture. The av­erage is about six or seven minutes, based on the information we have. If there’s a difference of opinion, Roger has the casting vote. And club loyalties are checked in at the door.”

Naturally, you can’t just walk onto the panel. “They’re all well respected, well known ex-pros who’ve been screened by Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters. It’s a very time-consuming job, and a very big responsibility,” says Phil Watkins of Littlewoods. So why haven’t they got round to just feeding the results into a computer? “Computers don’t have gut feelings,” says Phil. They’re not bad at picking games, either. When the games are actually played, the Pools Panel have got it right 40 per cent of the time, which gives them a ten per cent edge over the pools predictors in the papers.

Although the pools have taken a bit of a knock since the National Lottery, the workload of the panel has increased. They only used to meet whenever 25 or more matches were called of, but these days they have to meet up whenever any Saturday game is cancelled – including the ones that have been moved by Sky. Factor in the Australian season, and it’s virtually a full-time Saturday job. And although they’re on a decent salary with full expenses, it can’t be much fun having your shopping binge, quality time with grandkids or round of golf ruined because a groundskeeper’s assistant in East Fife forgot to turn the hosepipe off, or there’s been a monsoon in Tasmania.

So the next time the fixture list is decimated and you’re staring in the shop window at Dixons for the results, spare a thought for three ex-pros trapped in an office. Personally, I’m going to stick with the Jason and the Argonauts fantasy, but that’s just me.

From WSC 193 March 2003. What was happening this month

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