As football has become dominated by money, so professional poker has long been considered fertile soil for the mind machines who can compute odds in a split second and reduce the whole game to a mathematical equation.
Those who’ve studied the poker scene know those guys usually wind up as mid-table competitors and nothing more. They are easily capable of beating Joe Sixpack over the stretch, but they struggle when they come up against real players.
That’s why the real pros don’t play online, where you can’t see the whites of a man’s eyes.
Because when it comes to the crunch, the cards you hold are luck. No top class poker player gets by on luck. There are strategies aside from crunching numbers. One of those involves getting a strong opponent to lose a big bet early in the game, either by some form of baiting, coercion or trickery. This makes a number cruncher sweat, and it can rock the confidence of even the steadiest player before things have properly got underway.
Mark Warburton made his money in the city, as a number cruncher. His drift into football suggests, strongly, that he’s got some understanding of people and basic psychology. I wouldn’t fancy facing him over the poker table, because I reckon he’d be good.
The Sevco manager is going into Saturday’s game against us with a pretty weak hand, and he knows that. You can bluff with a weak hand, but if your opponent doesn’t buy it you’re in big trouble. Conventional wisdom would suggest that you fold.
When we played Sevco in the League Cup Semi Final, their interim manager Kenny McDowall did exactly that. He played a strict damage limitation game, because to do otherwise might have resulted in a heavier defeat.
Yet Warburton can’t do that here. The expectations of his club’s fans are sky-high and the board is ever watchful. He’s going to have to play the thing out, whatever the impact on his team and his own position. He knows this, and a lot more besides.
The two men in the dugout on Saturday come from a curiously similar place, but Brendan Rodgers knows his position is utterly secure, with the backing of his bosses and the people in the stands. He knows money is there for January. He has the best squad in the country, by miles, and his reputation can’t be dented by European failure but would be enhanced, enormously, if he was somehow able to secure us a relative success there.
Furthermore, Brendan is a class act off the field and he knows that the reputation of the club itself is a good reflection on him. Should the time come for him to leave he will not have harmed his prospects by being manager of Celtic.
Mark Warburton already knows he may not have the same claim.
Warburton is in the curious positon of being able to see his own downfall from where he currently stands. His team is filled with players of dubious calibre, and although he’s putting a brave face on it and is determined to make it work he knows he’s walking a thin line. With expectations as high as they are – unrealistically so – and the chairman having given him a “second place or bust” ultimatum, he knows he stands on the precipice unless performance improve.
He also knows that on Saturday he faces the football equivalent of that early big poker loss; a result that could leave his team trailing ours by four points, and Celtic with a game in hand. Worse, he knows that if the teams around him win he faces a trip to Pittodrie which, for obvious reasons, will be just as fraught as one to Celtic Park, where defeat will be unthinkable.
Whether Warburton could rebuild his career from the wreckage of failure at Sevco is difficult to foresee under even the kindest circumstances, but when it comes time for people at other clubs to evaluate this guy the crunching of numbers isn’t all they’ll do.
His win ratio isn’t all that they’ll take into consideration, and he knows this.
Right now he is working amidst a toxic environment where latent sectarianism marches hand in hand with acute paranoia. At the weekend, he was photographed on the pitch at Linfield amidst a bunch of sectarian ghouls, a throwback to the 17th century, so out of place with the image of him as a modern football boss that it must have kept him up that night in a cold sweat. That photograph will follow him, and haunt him, for years.
The media here will ignore it, of course – doing him a massive dis-service in the process, because if they got him on record over this he might help himself – but that picture will be sent out on the internet to every media outlet in England when he’s next applying for a job there.
He won’t find it easy to explain that photograph, or his involvement in the Hampden Park fiasco, where his directors excused the behaviour of thug fans who sang bigoted songs and then confronted Hibs supporters on the pitch for a good old fashioned punch up.
Warburton wasn’t out there on the park trading punches, but he and others at Ibrox are complicit in the lies over what happened that day. No matter that he left as soon as the whistle blew and considered not coming back; he did come back and has since been conspicuous by his silence. Matters are made no better by the open spat he’s had with Villa over Joleon Lescott, or the way he always appears to find things, endless things, to moan about.
This guy is going to be tainted by association with all the baggage this club takes everywhere with it, whether he likes it or not and I’m absolutely certain he doesn’t, not one bit. This guy isn’t one of the Peepul; he doesn’t need this stuff in his life, and he’s surrounded by it at Ibrox, by a board that’s constantly looking for people to offend and upset and a support that manages to do that every day simply being itself. It’s not enough to say he’s not meant to comment on that stuff; do you think Brendan Rodgers or any other Celtic boss would get away with sitting amidst the chaos that surrounds this guy without being asked about it?
Every day he spends at Ibrox he’s a little less credible and there are signs that the full-on shrieking insanity at the club is starting to seep into his psyche. The Villa argument was purely and simply stupid, and Lescott’s signing for AEK makes him out to be a liar at best, and at worst somebody taken for an absolute ride by his own club’s PR department and spin machine. Better to look like you’re gilding the lily in those circumstances, rather than someone played for a fool but either way he’s not emerged from it well.
Warburton isn’t up for this, not for any of it. He can try to stand apart from it all but there’s simply no way to do that, and Saturday’s picture at Linfield is the proof, if he needed it, that you can’t stand next to an open sewer and not get some of the stink on you.
He is clearly not a stupid man.
His poker player mind will know the odds on overhauling Celtic are slim, and he’ll have seen enough in his team to scare him that those odds might well be lengthening in terms of his securing that all-or-nothing second spot too. He can do the math.
But it’s that other part of him, that part acutely aware of the psychology here, that will be sending warning signals to his brain as the realisation dawns on him that the lunatic asylum in which he finds himself is damaging his image and his career prospects more than results ever could.
He was never given the money or resources he was promised, so he’s been lied to on top of being made to lie.
He never sought to be the front man for a club mired in a sectarian swamp; he knew the name Rangers, but he never stopped to think about what it meant, and what that name represented. This club might not be the one the fans claim it to be, but they are the link between the two and that’s what haunts Sevco as it did the Oldco … the “culture” that surrounds it, and the toxic legacy which was ported from one to the other.
It would be in his best interests to leave, but to leave without somewhere to go might see him asked questions he’s simply not going to be able to answer. Yet it would be of enormous benefit to him and to Scottish football if he did, if he were to tell the truth to people who just don’t want to hear it, but who nevertheless could benefit from that.
Warburton goes into the game on Saturday holding the worst hand of his career thus far. Not only that, the dwindling pile of chips in front of him aren’t those he started the game with; he’s gone into hock and now his whole life is compressed into those little plastic discs.
He is gambling with his future here.
He’s risking his career by staying at that club one minute longer.