Football Pools


Before the National Lottery, the most popular way for ordinary people to make a fortune was to play the Football Pools. The country’s oldest football betting game was born in Liverpool nearly 100 years ago. It became a Saturday teatime ritual for people to listen to the football scores on TV, clutching their coupons and marking off their score draws, dreaming of a line of crosses next to the right games. Over its 97-year history, the Pools has paid out over £3.2 billion to lucky players who used their knowledge of teams – or just a combination of birthdays and lucky numbers.

Despite being overshadowed by the razmatazz of the Lotto and its various spinoffs, the pools is still going strong today, with the old paper coupons now being joined by online games.

The Football Pools is the world’s oldest football gaming company and it helped to make Sir John Moores a billionaire, but it wasn’t actually his idea. It was thought up in the early 1920s by John Jervis Barnard, from Birmingham. He noticed that most of his friends liked football and placing bets but at the time betting was only legal on racecourses, so he came up with the idea of punters guessing the outcome of matches and collecting their winnings from the pool of stake money – which is where the name “Pools” came from.

John Moores, a Post Office messenger with get-rich dreams, saw potential in the idea and took it back to his home town of Manchester where he and two workmates Colin Askham and Bill Hughes each invested £50 (a big amount back then) in the scheme. They bought a cheap printing press, rented an office on Church Street in Liverpool city centre and named their business Littlewoods – Askham’s birth name before he was adopted.

They printed off 4,000 coupons and handed them out at Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground on a match day in 1923 – but only 35 were returned and the three didn’t even cover their expenses. In the middle of the following season, with the project continuing to lose money despite them having invested another £150 each, Hughes and Askham wanted to give up, but John Moores held his nerve and bought them out. It was a gamble that paid off hugely – when he died in 1993, aged 97, he was estimated to be worth more than £1 billion.

The Depression of the 1930s hit Liverpool hard … but The Pools was booming and employing thousands – as football crowds grew so did the amount being staked on The Pools. £200,000 was being staked every week and to keep up with all those coupons Littlewoods took on more and more staff. There was no automated coupon checking, so 10,000 staff – mostly women – would manually scan and check every one of the half million coupons coming into the Littlewoods Pools buildings. By the 1940s and early ’50s that had gone up to more like five million coupons which were allowed to arrive until 3pm on Saturdays, kick-off time for all English and Scottish league matches.

The Pools played a major part in the World War II effort – within 48 hours of war being declared on September 1, 1939, the Government’s censorship department moved into the new Littlewoods Pools building on Edge Lane, and Moores’ printers switched from printing Pools coupons to printing 17 million call-up papers for the Armed Forces. Women Pools staff were trained by experts to cut, sew, produce and pack thousands of parachutes, working 24 hours a day. Littlewoods Pools was a leader in new tech – by 1961, it had designed and commissioned the first high-speed optical scanners meaning five coupons could be checked every second. Five years later it became one of the pioneers of computing when it installed an IBM system to store its customer database of over 10 million players.

From the 1950s until the final contest in 1992, staff working at The Pools would often enter and win the Miss Littlewood title. Competition to take the beauty crown was fierce among employees and getting to go the finals was a big occasion because they often attracted celebrities like Cliff Richard and Tom Jones. Staff names had to be put in a lottery for tickets to attend because demand was so high and kudos wasn’t all that was waiting for the winner – they were awarded a trophy, cash prize, jewellery and a free wardrobe of clothes to wear for official engagements.

The Football Pools has handed over so many winner’s cheques, but milestones came in 1950 when Mrs E Knowlson from Manchester became the first person to win £100,000 and in 1986 when the million-pound barrier was broken for the first time by a group of Wiltshire nurses. Probably still the best-known win was miner Keith Nicholson and his wife Viv, from Castleford in West Yorkshire who won £152,319 in 1961 – the equivalent of more than £3.5m today. Viv notoriously vowed to “spend, spend, spend” and it took the couple just three years to blow the lot after they splashed out on cars, furs and champagne parties. Their life story went on to be turned into a West End musical.

The 1989–90 Football League Cup (known as the Littlewoods Challenge Cup for sponsorship reasons) was the 30th season of the Football League Cup, a knockout competition for England’s top 92 football clubs. The competition began on 21 August 1989, and ended with the final on 29 April 1990 at the Old Wembley Stadium. The cup was won by Nottingham Forest who beat Oldham Athletic in the final, who regained the trophy after winning it the previous season. This was the second time that Nottingham Forest had won the trophy in successive seasons, having won previously in 1978 and 1979.

Sheffield United 1–1 Rotherham United 22 August 1989
Rotherham United 1–0 Sheffield United 29 August 1989
Sheffield Wednesday 0–0 Aldershot 20 September 1989
Aldershot 0–8 Sheffield Wednesday 3 October 1989
Derby County 2–1 Sheffield Wednesday 25 October 1989

Do you have more information about this that we could add? Are any of the facts wrong? Please get in touch if so.

Source: Nick Robinson
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