Football Pools

The football pools is one of the oldest and most innovative football betting products around and whilst it may seem a little outdated now, to a generation of football punters the pools offered excitement like they had never experienced before.

Here we explain what the pools are, when they started and why it proved such a popular game. We also take a look at some of its most famous winners, why it went into decline and how it remains relevant so many years on through the similar products it has essentially spawned.

What are the Football Pools?

The football pools, usually known just as “the pools”, was founded way back in 1923, well before betting shops were legalised in the UK in the 1960s. John (now Sir John) Moores, a Liverpool-based businessman and subsequently philanthropist, who had a long association with Everton FC as a director and chairman, and founded the UK retail giant and catalogue company Littlewoods, is credited with creating the pools.

The first coupons were distributed outside Manchester United’s Old Trafford games and offered players the chance to win relatively large stakes from very small “bets”. The main and most well-known game on the pools was called the Treble Chance and involved trying to pick games that would end in a score draw.

From a coupon involving all the football league sides in the top four divisions, players would pick a certain number of games, needing eight or nine score draws to land the jackpot. The exact scoring system and format of the pools has changed many times over the years and between different companies but, in essence, the biggest prize has always involved predicting multiple games to end in score draws.

Prizes were, and are, based on a prize pool, hence the name, with dividends being awarded according to how many players achieved each level of prize. The maximum jackpot would be achieved where only one player managed eight correct score draws, but there are lots of other prizes, with the lowest and most easily achieved being worth just a few pounds.

In the early days of the pools entries would be made in person at football grounds where they were being sold and promoted, by post, or via an agent who would collect your entry and money at your door. Of course, the modern pools are played almost entirely online and the product has evolved to offer a range of different game types with a range of entry fees, formats and top prizes.

Popular Pools and Memorable Millionaires

In its heyday, around 10 million people “did the pools”, as playing was known, a truly staggering number. The pools really was part of the national psyche and was the first such product that really caught the public’s imagination and the first to really link the UK’s dual loves of football and gambling.

There were many reasons why the pools proved such a big hit and the biggest and most obvious was that it gave people hope and the chance to achieve a dream of sorts. In the same way the National Lottery told people, “It could be you”, the football pools gave ordinary working class people the chance to win what were then unheard of sums of cash. From a tiny stake of just a few pence, players could earn enough to retire, changing their lives forever, and even today there are games where tens of thousands of pounds can be won when playing just a 50p stake.

What made this so potent was the fact that there was nothing to rival the football pools at this time. No other product, gambling or otherwise, offered a large, single jackpot that could be won with such a small stake. The National Lottery would not come along for more than 60 years, whilst Harold McMillan’s Premium Bonds weren’t created until 1956. They also escaped gambling legislation that would have otherwise restricted them by claiming to be games of skill, rather than chance.

Finally, and as said, one of the key allures of the football pools was that they brought together two British passions, football and betting. With the links between the sport and the gambling industry now so well established it might seem strange to think that there was not really any football betting in those days but, aside from illegal bookies, that was the case. The pools brought that out into the open and to a mass, mainstream market, sold on the dream of leaving their tough working life behind them.

Spend, Spend, Spend – The Pools’ Most Wonderful Wins

The football pools was big news and, as said, very much part of the national consciousness. Undoubtedly the woman who most embodied that and arguably the first reality star, Viv Nicholson, is the most famous winner of the football pools in its long history.

It would, however, be more accurate to state that she is the pool’s most famous wife, however, as it was actually her husband Keith who hit the big jackpot way back in 1961. The lucky Nicholsons, from Castleford, West Yorkshire, won a very tasty £152,319. Now, that might not sound like a great deal but when we consider the average house price was around £2,700 and a normal salary in the UK was less than £1,000 in 1961, it becomes clear that Viv’s media pledge to “spend, spend, spend” was backed up by hefty spending power.

Adjusted for inflation, that £150,000 win would be worth around £3m in today’s money (as of 2016) but Viv and Keith rapidly blew most of it on cars, holidays, fur coats (there wasn’t much to buy in those days!), jewellery and home appliances (told you!). Keith died in a car crash in 1965, leading to Viv being declared bankrupt and all her belongings being deemed to be part of his estate.

Her subsequent life was a sorry tail of attempting to find meaning and trying to somehow cash in on her fame but ultimately only sorrow came her way. She became a Jehovah's Witness in 1976 and died aged 79 in 2015.

Her impact on pop culture can be seen in the success of her autobiography, the fact that a musical of her life graced the West End and, most poignantly of all, the fact that her picture was on the sleeve of The Smiths' single, "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now". Money can’t buy you love, nor spending bring you happiness.

That said, we prefer to dwell on the quote from Johnny Depp that, “Money doesn't buy you happiness, but it buys you a big enough yacht to sail right up to it.” Things might not have worked out so well for Viv and Keith but the football pools has also created a lot of other very rich and no doubt happy people. Perhaps surprisingly, the Nicholsons’ win wasn’t actually the largest pols win at the time, as shown below.

  • Nellie McGrail won £205,000 in 1957
  • Cyril Grimes won £512,000 in 1972
  • A Wiltshire syndicate scooped the first £1m+ win in 1986
  • Rodi Woodcock was the first pool double millionaire, winning £2,072,000 in 1991
  • Michael Elliott won the biggest single pools win in 2011, scooping more than £3m by landing eight 2-2 draws!

Decline of the Football Pools

Although there have been a large number of big wins in more recent years, there can be no doubting the decline of the pools. As said, at the height of its popularity, most households “did” the pools and chatting about your results was commonplace.

However, in the mid-1990s two major developments saw the popularity of the pools decline rapidly. The first, and perhaps most important, was the advent of the National Lottery in 1994. The National Lottery offered bigger prizes and, because it wasn’t linked to football and offered the choice of a lucky dip, had a broader appeal and was easier to play. It was also new and fresh and gave a considerable sum of cash to charity.

The other big factor was the rise of online gambling, which started around the same sort of time and really gathered pace in the new millennium. Long list football accumulators were around long before the internet but the internet made things a lot easier and also more competitive, leading to better odds, bigger payouts and better products.

The decline of the football pools has been sharp and, for many lovers of nostalgia, it is a little sad. Such is life, and whilst the pools may continue to exist for many years to come, its glory days are unquestionably in the past. The pools once had several thriving companies, with firms such as Littlewoods, Vernons and Zetters household names, closely linked to the thrill of the pools.

10 million players regularly participated and now that number is estimated to around 300,000 or even less. Industry consolidation and takeovers are common as the pools seeks to find a place in the modern world and a market for its products.

However, football betting fans should be hugely thankful for the football pools. Whilst a younger generation of punters may not even have heard of the pools and may wonder what on earth “Pools panel verdict, score draw” means, the legacy of the pools can be seen in the many football jackpot products that now exist. A little like the lion cub that will eventually replace its father as the head of the pride, the pools is being usurped by the very products it helped create.

Modern Pools Alternatives

And so who exactly are these new cubs on the savannah then? Well, we’ve got more detailed information on all the various football jackpot products but in brief, the best are as follows:

  • Coral Football Jackpot - the Coral Football Jackpot was one of the first of the new breed of pools-style products and offered a huge £1m prize on launch. Players have to predict the correct result in 15 games in order to win and with a starting prize of £250,000 this is well worth a look.
  • Colossus - Colossus is the biggest jackpot we know of, with the main feature prize, the Colossus itself, offering a massive £10m jackpot that makes everything else look small fry.
  • Super 6 - Super 6 is a free to enter competition from Sky Bet that requires players to get six correct scores in order to win £250,000, with occasional bonus jackpots worth double that or even more. Not £10m but still a great game given it’s totally free to enter!
  • Footcast - Footcast is a prediction jackpot from ComeOn and offers smaller prizes than the others but isn’t quite as hard and can also be played just for fun if you want. Entry is essentially free but to be eligible for a cash prize you have to bet on the games in question, making this a great choice if you like to bet on football anyway.