by Andy Robinson

One of the fastest rising social ills of the nation at the moment is a massive increase in gambling. The development over the last few years in the lottery and scratch cards in particular, plus online betting as well as the emergence of poker as not just a night out with the lads pastime has led to a dramatic increase in the number of lives affected by what the medical profession term as the “silent” addiction. Let’s face it, you can soon tell if your neighbour or work colleague is stoned or pissed but it’s pretty impossible to find out if  they have just blown a week’s wages or maxed out their credit card in a quick phone bet to their online bookie. What I didn’t know until I started to search out information for this piece was how badly affected football was. Estimates show that a footballer is around ten times more likely to have a gambling problem than you or me.

There should be no surprise in this. To reach the top in any sport certain characteristics must be on display. A deep rooted desire to win, the ability to stand up and be counted after a serious setback, a dedication to be the best you can possibly be through your own efforts and training are just some of these; and all these are similar to the characteristics of “compulsion” found in addicts of any type. When the above is matched with too much time on the hands of the individual concerned and of course the vast wealth their living generates then you are bound to have a recipe for disaster.

The list of footballers documented with problems stemming from gambling is getting longer. John Terry has reportedly mortgaged his house earlier this year for the fourth time.  Dietmar Hamman has admitted to losing £288,000 in a single bet. Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen reputedly fell out over a £700,000 gambling debt. Mathew Etherington was reputedly given an improved deal by Stoke to pay off an £800,000 debt to the bookies and in an interview with the Daily Express he announced he had lost twice that amount through gambling. David Bentley confessed to making over a hundred bets a day and former Scotland Captain Colin Hendry was declared bankrupt after running up debts with online betting giant Spreadex. Spread betting where both the rewards and losses are far greater is a particular danger to footballers with too much time and money on their hands. Other well known names affected include Scottish international Kevin Kyle, Northern Irish international Keith Gillespie, Dominic Matteo, Steve Claridge, Paul Merson and many others both famous and not so famous.

The football industry is making some attempt to address these issues. Initiatives have been established by both the FA and the PFA to offer counselling to youth players and both organisations help to fund the Sporting Chance charity established by Tony Adams but could it be all too late? As far back as 2007 a lower division player is said to have attempted suicide over a debt of £37,000 and if the numbers of players seeking help from the authorities doubled from 30 – 60 between 2006 and 2008 what are the figures likely to be now given the massive onslaught in the popularity of all forms of gambling we have seen since then? Seriously – each squad could have as many as 5 or 6 players in it with a problem.

Earlier today I managed to speak to an advisor who was not allowed to reveal her name from the Charity GamCare. I only had the one question for her – How does the player concerned manage to stop? The answer is as I imagined it would be, because it’s the same for all addicts in that it must come from within: a resistance to culture and peer pressure and self-reliance and strength of character. The victim must want to stop and as with all addicts it can so often be left until they hit rock bottom. Counselling, self – help groups, new hobbies, giving someone else control of your money and such will only get you so far.

Personally I don’t gamble and as a self righteous sod I have an inclination to preach and be superior towards those that do but I am addicted to nicotine with a 25 a day habit so am in no position to judge. According to my doctor it’s as tough to get off that stuff as it is heroin – fags are almost as expensive as well. So without preaching I just think people need to know the extent of the issue. The media don’t seem to be that interested concentrating instead on issues such as the game’s finances and the FA despite their support for the initiatives mentioned earlier seem to have nothing but racism on their minds. For instance this week they announced a new politically correct quota system for the introduction of black referees into the game. However until we know and understand the true extent of the problem of gambling within the game we can’t possibly know of the damage being done. As long ago as 2006 a well known player got himself deliberately sent off in order to repay a £50,000 debt to a bookie and there are also strong rumours of at least one Premiership match being a “fix”.  Was a footballing gambler the one to oil the wheels of that? This information is out there if you look hard enough. The one really dodgy case we did have – when the Accrington Stanley players bet they would lose to Bury – hardly got a mention on the back pages never mind the front. Did you know that one of those players (ed’s note – allegedly) bet double his monthly salary on his own side getting beat?

With betting syndicates so powerful in some areas of Europe and Asia Interpol have had to set up a special unit just to collate and chase the information on corruption and bribery and match fixing and its only that typical British head in the sand mentality that says it hasn’t happened here yet. However it can only be a matter of time before a Premiership player gets himself into real financial difficulty with a bookie and goes “rogue” and the lid on this blows off. When it does the disputes between Ferdinand and Terry and Suarez and Evra and the fact that your team had a clear penalty not given last weekend will just seem so trivial.