The pile of coins on the table at the front door stood as a monument to millionaire dreams. Thursday nights were defined by Top of the Pops and fantasies of becoming one hit wonders on the football pools. The letterbox would rattle at about 8pm and there stood pools agent Mr Harkins, gatekeeper to all our glorious hopes. It cost 27p to perm eight from 10 on a single line and the old man would study the form guide in Record Sport like Christopher Columbus plotting his course across the Atlantic. If the stars aligned above Cowdenbeath, Carlisle, Crystal Palace and Cardiff, then it was Disneyworld for our holidays, not Dunoon, and life would be endless Chinese takeaways instead of carefully rationed oven chips.
Magician Paul Daniels alongside Nancy Walpole, 61, a retired dinner lady in London, after she scooped Â£759,035.76 on Littlewoods Pools
(Image: PA Archive/PA Images)
Suffice it to say, we never were on first name terms with Mickey Mouse and McCain continued to rule the roost, not Mandarin cuisine, but the pools still enjoyed a long-term hold on our affections. In truth, as much as those carefully balanced coins bought a shot at the big time, the reality is they were funding a 48-hour dream. The pools offered a chance for many families, including my own, to elevate themselves from a working class environment that didn’t always reward hard work and endeavour. Unemployment, low pay and poor housing were the obstacles to upward mobility that could be erased by 16 strokes of a bookie’s pen. King John didn’t sign the Magna Carta with the same care and attention as the trembling hand that was occasionally allowed, under strict parental supervision, to decree that Forfar would draw at East Fife.
Fred Smyth, a 68-year-old ganger with the gas board, with his winning pools coupon
(Image: Getty Images)
It was a case of X marks the spot before James Alexander Gordon acted as a personal tour guide, leading us towards Treasure Island late on the Saturday afternoon with his soothing tones on Grandstand. He turned reading the football scores into an art form. Like Olivier as Hamlet, only the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune were fired from venues such as Dundee United and Doncaster Rovers, not Denmark. An occasional win of £20 or £30 would keep us believing we could one day join the real victors, those with their head shots and beaming smiles at the top of the coupon declaring “Mrs V from Lancs won £873,907”, or “Mr K from Sussex won £762,032”. We did have Scottish winners including former Aberdeen striker Harry Yorston, who made over 200 appearances for the Dons and was even capped for Scotland.
Staff at Littlewoods football pools firm dealing with coupons and accounts in 1954
(Image: Getty Images)
He gave it all up at the age of 28 for a more lucrative job in the Buckie fishing industry but really struck it rich in 1972 when he won £175,000 on the pools. The record jackpot, £3,001,511, was won in 2010 by prison officer Michael Elliott from Brechin, who scooped the prize from a stake of just £2. He predicted eight 2-2 draws in Scottish, English and Spanish football, bagging his bumper payout in predictably humble circumstances when Clitheroe drew with Fylde in the Evo Stick Premier League. He said: “To say this is a life-changing experience would be the understatement of the year. I have played the pools for many years and have won three times before although my biggest previous win was £32.”
The game could change lives for as little as a few pence and became a Saturday ritual for millions during its heyday. The football pools saw punters staking a bet to predict the scores of matches up and down the country. At its height, the pools attracted 10million platers every week. In the days before the National Lottery, it was the only chance for the ordinary man or woman in the street to win life-changing sums. ✘ Pottery worker Edwin Dodd celebrated a £1000 pools win in 1934 – a fortune in those days. Dodd, 21, was working for 48 shillings a week in Stoke-on-Trent while recovering from a major operation. He was able to buy a newsagents business and a home for himself, his wife and their four-year-old son. Almost 50 years later, Dodd recalled: “The win saved my life because if I had not had the money, I would have carried on working. I would rather have died working than starve.” ✘The first win of more than £1million went to a group of nurses from Wiltshire in 1986. ✘ Graham Barlow, from Leicester, was just about to give up playing as his weekly stake was proving a financial strain when he hit the jackpot in September 1992. With pregnant wife Diane due to give birth shortly, Graham planned to tell his dad Arthur that he was throwing the towel in on the pools. But he decided to try his luck for one more week and the father-and-son partnership became pools millionaires, winning £1,120,705 between them. ✘ In 2010, Michael Elliott, from Brechin, Angus, became the first ever triple millionaire in the 87-year history of the pools. He won £3,001,511 for a £2 stake – sealed by Clitheroe’s 2-2 draw with Fylde in the Evo-Stik Premier League. He said after winning: “I cannot believe it. It is a dream come true. To say this is a life-changing experience would be the understatement of the year. I’ve played the Pools for many years and won three times before, my biggest previous win was £32.”
It was the brainchild of John Moores, founder of Littlewoods pools, and such was its success, his company was quickly followed by Vernons, Zetters and Brittens. Moores was a trailblazer but the initial public response was lukewarm – 4000 coupons were distributed outside Old Trafford before a Manchester United game but only 35 were returned. Worse still, they printed 10,000 coupons soon after and took them to a big game in Hull and only one coupon was returned, throwing the whole operation into jeopardy. Moores persevered, however, backed by a wife, who told him: “I would rather be married to a man who is haunted by failure than one haunted by regret.”
Comedian Jim Davidson hands over a cheque for over half a million pounds to Littlewoods Pools winner, retired sea captain Len Williams, of Seaburn, Sunderland,
(Image: PA Archive/PA Images)
Within a decade, Moores was a millionaire and used the profits from the pools to set up Littlewoods stores across the UK. At its peak, 10 million people played the pools in 1994 but competition from the National Lottery led to a decline as the population switched from a game of skill to one of numerical chance. Still, the pools continues to be held in huge affection and created profiles and personalities that remain with us today. Viv Nicholson is the greatest of all after vowing to “spend, spend, spend,” when her husband Keith won £152,000 in 1961, the equivalent of £5million in 2019. She was as good as her word, with most of her fortune gone within five years on trinkets, travel and turbo-charged cars, including a pink Cadillac. Top of the Pops may have gone, kind Mr Harkins has long since retired and these days, the old man is marking his eight from 10 from inside the Pearly Gates. However, the pools endure, offering its dreams and a delightful distraction and always sealed with a X.
The new SPFL season kicks off this weekend. Not only can football fans get their fix on the big screen but can also win thousands with footie5. Below is a guide on how to play and get the best out of the game. WHAT IS FOOTIE5? footie5 is a free to play football prediction game created by thepools.com. It allows users (aged 18 and over) to be in with the chance of winning the £25,000 jackpot by predicting the correct scores of five football fixtures. You can personalise your selections choosing your five fixtures from Scottish and English leagues, or stick to Scottish matches only if that’s your speciality. You can also compete against your friends and family by setting up your own league. If you correctly predict the results of five fixtures in a round, you could win £25,000. If more than one person wins, the prize is shared. HOW DO I PLAY? You can download the footie5 app or access the game at www.footie5.com It’s free to register and once you’ve set up your account you’ll be presented with five fixtures taking place over the coming days – it’s your job to predict the scores! ●If you predict five correct scores, you’re in with a chance of winning £25,000. ●Once you’ve finalised your scores, hit the submit button and cross your fingers. You can visit footie5 at any time to see how you’re doing. ●All users of the game must be aged 18 and over. Good luck! 18+, UK only. UK residents only. 1 entry each round per player. Prizes will be shared in the event of multiple winners. Full T&Cs apply.