Has football lost its sense of humour after Sutton pie controversy?

The furore over Sutton United’s betting controversy could have been avoided with a comprehensive communications plan

Much has been said about the changes in football during the modern era.

All-seater stadia, no alcohol in view of the pitch, the Premier League and Champions League have all helped change the world’s most popular game from a yob’s paradise to a glamourous and family-friendly day out.

Where the world’s greatest players used to open a pub once their playing career was over, now top flight youngsters have enough money to retire by the time they are out of their teens.

And while all-seated grounds have made football more accessible and attractive to a high-spending demographic, it has come at the cost of atmosphere, with the so-called ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ accused of being more interested in premium cuisine than the occasion of the game itself.

Very rarely these days does football have the chance to bask in the unpredictability of sport.

Last season’s Premier League title victory by Leicester City was so exceptional because it was so unlikely, a band of unheralded journeymen coming together and beating the best of the best a year after surviving relegation.

But the FA Cup offers some opportunity for romance, particularly when non-league clubs are drawn against big names from the top flight.

So it’s no wonder that there was so much focus on National League Sutton United’s tie against Arsenal, one of the biggest clubs in Europe but in stuttering form and ripe for a giant-killing.

Amid the build-up, the reserve ‘roly poly goalie’ Wayne Shaw attracted a lot of attention, not least because at 23 stone, he cut an unlikely figure for a footballer.

Shaw, who started his career as a forward in the same youth team as Newcastle and England legend Alan Shearer, had given up his job as a part-time ice-cream man and was said to sleep on a sofa at Sutton’s Gander Green Lane stadium so he could turn the lights off at night and open the gates in the morning. 

Bookmaker Sun Bets, who took out one-off shirt sponsorship with Sutton for the fifth-round FA Cup tie, offered odds of 8-1 that Shaw would eat a pie on camera during the game.

They later admitted that they had paid a "five-figure sum" on the bet while Shaw admitted he was told of the betting promotion before the game and had mentioned it to some friends.

It did not take long for the Football Association and Gambling Commission to launch investigations and Shaw duly left the club, prompting outcry for losing his job after a seemingly naïve misjudgement.

Betting is big business and provides an entertaining sideshow for fans already immersed in the game. While the Football Pools may be out of fashion virtually every club has a betting partner now and their investment in the game is invaluable.

But in years gone by, floodlight failures and dubious throw-ins have drawn attention to betting syndicates making big money on match events and damaging the reputation of the sport and the gambling industry.

A worldwide ban on betting in football was introduced in 2014 and covers everyone involved in the game, from the players and managers to the match officials and club staff, to ensure that no insider information affects betting markets. Last year, betting companies were also warned about the integrity of taking bets on novelty markets.

Shaw’s mistake may have had no greater agenda – and on the surface appears to be a fun publicity stunt – but anything that brings the integrity of sport into question must be stamped out.

Sutton brought in a PR and Communications agency to help them after they were drawn against Arsenal – but having secured Sun Bets as a sponsor, everyone at the club should have been reminded of the rules surrounding gambling.

Sutton’s agency should have worked with them and their sponsors to ensure that a comprehensive communications plan was put in place which prevented something like this from happening.

The agency, club and Sun Bets needed to ensure that strict parameters were put in place to avoid any hint of insider-influence or impropriety which have taken the gloss off an otherwise magical FA Cup story.

Sutton manager Paul Doswell told Sky News: “He's made his position pretty much untenable. It’s a very sad end to what was a very good story.”