Monday 1 May 2017

Offaly star Niall McNamee opens up about his addiction to gambling

Liam Kelly

Liam Kelly

OFFALY football star Niall McNamee stares the world in the eye and says: "This is me. This is my gambling addiction. Today I am in recovery."

It takes courage. Who among us wants to stand up and confess to a devastating weakness, to a life of secret shame, desperation and debt, all the while trying to pretend: 'I'm fine. No problem here.'

But McNamee (26), from Rhode, is standing tall.

He admits he has been addicted to gambling. He estimates it has cost him €200,000 over the years and he owes around €80,000 -- and that's only the financial cost.

The collateral damage to family, friends, relationships, workmates, employers, fellow footballers and teams is less visible, but he's beginning to come to terms with the harm the addiction wreaked on everyone around him and most of all -- himself.

In this he is not alone. Any addiction -- be it to gambling, alcohol, drugs, sex, food -- is like an evil spirit that wraps its coils around the personality, inducing irresistible cravings for the substance or activity, isolating the person, bringing them spiralling down, destroying all that's good about them and around them.

Many don't make it. They can't get to that point where the pain is so great that they just have to surrender and seek help. Some take the ultimate way out -- suicide.

For McNamee, the final vestiges of facade crumbled on Monday, November 14, 2011. It wasn't the first time his father, John, had tackled Niall about his gambling.

Indeed, there had been many occasions when the son had to seek loans from his parents to bail him out when the bets were placed on duds. There had been concern expressed many times, followed by promises to change, to give it up.

But there was something different about this occasion. And even though Niall admits that for 20 minutes of that conversation he still tried to bluster and protest that nothing was wrong, eventually, he cracked.

BIGGEST

It proved to be probably the biggest turning point of his life.

"I would have been gambling heavily for the last five to six years, but I would have known over the last three, maybe four years, that I had a major problem," McNamee said.

"I would have gone to my parents a number of times and they would have bailed me out.

"And I would have sworn to them then that was the end of it. At the time I would have meant it. I wanted to stop, but I never did anything about it.

"But over the last couple of months I could just feel the walls coming in around me.

"That night my father wasn't cross with me. It was just concern. He called down to the house. I had been ignoring his phone calls. He'd been ringing me maybe for a week and I'd answered the odd time.

"I'd talk to him and tell him everything was all right, but he knew there was something wrong.

"He basically said he'd rung around people, he'd made a few enquiries, and he just knew there was something really wrong.

"I was denying it for 20 minutes or so. I was saying: 'Look, I have everything sorted' and then I just went, 'f*** this' and broke down and came clean.

"It was the best thing I've ever done. It was a weight off my shoulders," said McNamee.

The next day he met recently-appointed Offaly manager Gerry Cooney. Cooney came to his native county to manage, but he also works as a senior counsellor in The Rutland Centre in Dublin.

The two men had met prior to that. The player had criticised the process by which the county manager's job was being filled and there were also rumours he was poised to join a club in Co Kildare.

Cooney had wanted to know what was behind that statement by the player, and also what were his intentions for 2012 regarding football.

They had arranged to meet on Tuesday, November 15 for further discussions on the subject, but by that night, football was the last thing on McNamee's mind.

The team manager had been contacted by Niall's father on the Monday night after the crucial father-son discussion and on the Tuesday morning Cooney and Niall spoke by phone.

They met at Johnstown House in Enfield that night. Cooney outlined the options for McNamee and asked him what he wanted to do.

"There was no question in my mind what I needed to do. I had to go in for treatment," was McNamee's verdict.

The next day, the Rhode man, a manager in a meat factory, told his employer about his situation and what he needed to do about it. He got a supportive reaction.

On Wednesday, November 23, McNamee entered the Rutland Clinic for five weeks' treatment.

Two days later, on November 25, he had a letter read out to the Rhode GAA club AGM which was attended by over 120 people, informing them of his addiction and his decision to seek treatment.

"I wanted to do it because they're the people I would have grown up with and they're the people that would have supported me down through the years playing football or whatever. I think it was the right place to do it and I've got a load of support from people that were there. And everybody's been great since have been home.

"I know one particular woman whose mother died recently and my father was in a shop, the day after I came home and the woman asked how was I doing.

"My father said: 'He's out there in the car'.

"She ran out to her car and got a card out of it and gave it to me. And this was only a few days after her mother had died, so that's the kind of good people that are around the place."

Inevitably, after that AGM letter was read out, the word spread across Offaly and into other counties, and that's why McNamee is speaking publicly today.

He is making this one statement to outline the facts rather than allow the rumours to spread and grow legs in the telling and re-telling.

It's entirely his own decision to do this.

He's not setting himself up as a paragon of virtue, a crusader for recovery, or anybody's saviour. Nor is he looking for sympathy.

Once this article is published -- indeed, since he came out of the Rutland Centre on December 28 -- McNamee's focus is on doing what he has to do to make a new life without gambling.

"Basically going public is for myself more than anything else. It's a matter of letting people know the full story.

"Once everyone knows the story, it should stop the rumours," he said.

THE BEGINNING

Aged 18, McNamee started going to the local bookmakers. He settled into a habit of betting €50 every Saturday, and this went on for a year or two while he was a student at UCD and doing part-time work.

"If I lost the €50 it didn't bother me, because I had it to lose."

He wasn't too bad at it either, and there were times he'd win. Horse racing and the dogs were his specialties. Football and golf took too long for a result.

THIS IS ADDICTION -- 1

"2006 was fine. I was gambling, but I kind of had it under control. But from early 2007, it really just got on top of me," McNamee said. "I owed about €3,000. I borrowed €3,000 to pay it off and I ended up losing the €3,000 and borrowed more money to pay that off and lost that, and it just snowballed in a matter of weeks.

"And I was just chasing it from there on in really. And then my parents would have come on board.

"My father would have given me a few bob to bail me out and get me sorted. I would have gotten a loan off people, but I always kept going back.

"I would stop for maybe five weeks, maybe three months, but it always ended up that I'd gradually get back into it. A little thought would come into my head that this time would be different than the last time, but it always got worse."

THIS IS ADDICTION -- 2

"I never studied form or planned going into a bookies what I was going to bet on, especially in the last couple of years. I would always just go in and that was it, I'd be over to place a bet.

"As quick as that race was over, I'd be on to the next thing straight away. I might only be there for half an hour, but I could lose a massive amount of money. I could lose €1,000 in half an hour."

THIS IS ADDICTION -- 3

"Unless you're involved in it, people don't understand what it's about. If my parents were giving me money, or if they were saying 'pay off this' and saying 'right, you have to stop' they just thought I could stop. But I couldn't stop. I'd say to them I'd stop, and I wanted to stop, but I did nothing about it. I tried at times to stop on my own, but I didn't change anything about the way I was behaving. I'd always end up going back gambling and when I went back, it was always worse than before.

"It never went back to like when I was, say, 18 or 19 and I was going up with €50 on Saturday. It was always €200 bets, €300 bets, €400 bets."

THIS IS ADDICTION -- 4

"I was gambling online in 2007 for about three months and I actually made a lot of money. I had my account up to the guts of €8,500 at one stage, but I lost it within a week, all on horses. I closed the account soon after. I haven't bet online since that."

THIS IS ADDICTION -- 5

"I had to meet one of my friends in Newbridge, but he was delayed. I had €400 and I went into a bookies while I was waiting and lost it all.

"I went across the road and took out €700 which was the maximum I could take out of the bank machine. I lost all that too. By the time he met me I had no money to bring him for coffee, so I lied that I had to bring my mother shopping and I had to go home."

SECRECY OF GAMBLING

"If you're an alcoholic, everybody can see it because you're falling around the place drunk. If you're a drug addict, an overdose might stop you in your tracks.

"If you're a gambler there are so many easy ways of hiding. Like, I could lose €1,000 and walk out in the street and chat away as if nothing was wrong.

"Locally, people would have known that I was betting a bit more. It got to a stage where I wouldn't gamble locally in the last two or three years.

"I'd go off somewhere else. I'd be in Tullamore, Newbridge, or Mullingar. I'd go to different places just so people wouldn't know where I was, or what I was doing. If people asked me was I gambling, I'd say: 'No, I'm finished'.

"I'd try to make people think that I'd stopped whereas I was gambling more than ever."

FOOTBALL -- THE RELIEF

"The only time I ever left the bookies was when I'd no money left, the bookies was closed or I had training or a match. Football was the only release I ever got from the gambling.

"We (Rhode) played a championship semi-final in 2007 at a time when I could really feel things were getting on top of me. I owed about €25,000 at the time to different people. I didn't know how I was going to pay it.

"I had lost my week's wages in the bookies. I had no money to my name that weekend.

"I remember the day before the match, my head was spinning with thoughts of all the money I owed, and what was I going to do about it.

"I went out and played the first half and completely forgot about my problems. At half-time, the head started going again onto the problems.

"I played the second half and same again, total release when I was playing the game. I scored 3-3 of our 3-5. We lost, but I played really well. People were praising me, but they had no idea of what was going on in my head.

"I just didn't think about the gambling when I was playing. Football was the only time I got a release -- that and sleep.

"My football has obviously been affected over the years. It mightn't have been affected directly, but my head just wasn't on it. That's not to say it's going to get 100pc better or anything like that in the future, but there was always something going on for me in the background," said McNamee.

His best year in an Offaly jersey was 2006, three years after he made his debut. Ironically, Gerry Cooney was a selector under Kevin Kilmurray's management.

Rhode won the Offaly championship and Offaly were the surprise package of Leinster, reaching the provincial final before falling to Dublin. McNamee also received a nomination for an All Star.

2012 -- A NEW BEGINNING

"Part of the treatment is that I don't drink for a year. That's fine by me. I never took drugs and the alcohol isn't a massive problem.

"But gambling has beaten me. I know I can't handle it. I don't ever want to gamble again.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time. Every morning I'm getting down on my knees and praying saying: 'Don't let me gamble' and 'don't let me drink' for today. And it's working for me so far.

"I've loads of numbers and people that I can ring and the meetings are great. I'm going to put all my effort into this recovery, and if that means five, six, seven meetings a week -- that's fine.

"I've been to the gym a few times already and I've enjoyed that, so I'll just keep myself in some kind of shape for when I'm ready to go back playing.

"I don't know when that will be. It might be in six months, it might be three months, it could be one month, but I just need to give this new way of living without gambling 100pc effort.

"I know the addiction is always going to be there and I've always got to keep on top of it. At the moment I'm in no fit state to look after anyone only myself.

"I have to get myself sorted and if in a year or two, I can help someone else, or if someone reading this can get a bit of inspiration from it, then that's great. The main thing is that I'm putting it all out in the open so I can get a clear conscience and give it everything to get myself sorted.

"Everyone's been really supportive, especially my family who have been great to me. People know now that I've got a problem and I'm trying to do something about it, whereas before, I had a problem and I wasn't doing anything about it.

"I have debts of about €80,000 now, but anyone I've contacted that I owe money to, they're not putting me under pressure. There are some people I still have to contact, but my head is clear and I'll do all I can to make good with people.

"I just want to get on with my life and try and get things sorted," said McNamee.

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