The Joe Royle Column

IT must have been a quiet news week judging by the furore in the media over Michael Owen and gambling. I'm not condoning gambling and I'm not advising youngsters to do it but if Owen wants to spend his money on gambling instead of alcohol then so be it.

IT must have been a quiet news week judging by the furore in the media over Michael Owen and gambling. I'm not condoning gambling and I'm not advising youngsters to do it but if Owen wants to spend his money on gambling instead of alcohol then so be it. Michael is a wealthy boy and what is a lot of money to us is not to him.

People have to realise he has money - no one raises an eyebrow when he buys a cul-de-sac full of houses just for his family, but that is the sort of wealth we are talking about.

Betting is not new in football, it is not new in sport and it is not even new in life. You have to accept these players are living film star lives these days and it was known a while ago that Omar Sherif was gambling away £1m a night on backgammon.

Like I say, I don't condone it but it has had too much coverage, too much hype.

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The lads occasionally play cards and you see the odd fiver or tenner fly around but if I knew someone was losing heavily I would certainly discourage it. But it is the same with drinking, you can control their time when they are with the club but short of holding players' hands and following them home you can't be with them 24 hours.

There is no more of a gambling culture now than there was many years ago when I played for England. We had card schools, with the likes of Peter Shilton, Mick Channon, Kevin Keegan and Emlyn Hughes and we played for days on ends and occasionally there were big losers. I have played on a suitcase at the back of a coach, because when you are travelling five or six hours or days locked up in a hotel, players have to fill their time.

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Many of the young lads play computer games nowadays but even then David James admitted he was spending eight to 10 hours a day on a game and he finally felt that wasn't helping his concentration and stopped.

With Michael, I have known him a long time, I played in Everton's youth team a lifetime ago with his dad Terry and Michael is a very level-headed lad. If there was a problem Terry would tell his son.

There are those who have had problems, Steve Claridge admitted to losing £1m and that was brave of him, same with Eidur Gudjohnsen, and I hope it means they have learned their lesson.

As a youth I worked in a betting shop in Liverpool and I have seen elderly men and women coming in with their last £10 for the week and that was more important than the £1,000s Michael bets because he has millions to spare.

But we can't be holier than thou about this. It happens and while I don't condone it, there are more important things to worry about.

WE had the Sky television cameras at Portman Road this week along with my old mate Rodney Marsh.

Rodney and I go back a long way. We first played for England together in 1972 under Sir Alf Ramsey and Rodney was saying how much respect he had for him, although he didn't play him as much as he would have liked.

Rod was notoriously deaf in one ear. If you shouted for the ball on his deaf side he would signal he couldn't hear you, and if you shouted for it on his good side he would turn his deaf ear to you.

I wouldn't say he was a selfish player but he thought a one-two was his left foot to his right foot.

Just kidding, Rodney was a very talented player and we are still great friends, along with Willie Donachie, and their wives and families are close.

I cringe at some of the things Rodney says and I know he can be provocative on television. He upset Sam Allardyce at Bolton last week by saying Ivan Campo was a pub player, but it was noticeable Sam dropped him for the next game. I just hope it wasn't on Rodney's say-so.

TALKING of Willie, we share a house when our wives are not here and we have even started calling ourselves the Odd Couple. He is Felix, the house-proud one.

The wives are here from time to time so we get our washing done, although Willie is one step ahead me and knows how to work the washing machine now, while I can make tea and wash dishes.

We are good mates. We met on Christmas Eve 1974. He was playing for Portland in America and I recommended him to Ken Brown at Norwich and he came across then. We have been together for a long time since and we are seldom too far apart on our ideas.

That doesn't mean we always agree and he is certainly no yes man. We have differences of opinion but we are seldom too far apart on ideas.

The other companions I have down here are my two Labradors, Ben and Danny and I enjoy walking them down the beach.

The wives will be down permanently in the summer and Willie will probably get his own house then, but at the moment we will carry on being the Odd Couple.

WE are taking a strong senior reserves side to Harwich next Wednesday where I'm honoured to be asked to officially open the new facilities at the Royal Oak.

I know Harwich & Parkeston have a rich history and I'm looking forward to visiting.

I'm a big fan of non-league football and one of those who believes there are still bargains to be had. I signed Mark Ward for £7,500 from Northwich and there were a lot of clubs looking at him at the time. I went to watch him and left after 20 minutes because I didn't want people to know my enthusiasm. I signed him for Oldham and then sold him on a season and a half later for £250,000.

He was only 5'6'' but would fight the world on a football pitch in the best sense.

I had Micky Quinn as well, another real competitor, and they travelled in together from Liverpool but in training one day they kicked each other at the same time and had a set to, but at the end they walked off arm in arm and got in the car to go home together.

Mark was the best non-league player I have seen. He had a great career with Oldham, Manchester City, Everton and West Ham and at his peak might have been worth an England cap.

There have been others - Les Ferdinand, Stuart Pearce, Neil Harris - and of course, we have James Pullen, who came from Heybridge.

So you never know who is watching.

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