EXCLUSIVE: Bad horses, bingo, cocaine and €1500 down the drain - how Ex-Shelbourne man Craig Walsh fell into 'deep depression'
The bingo announcer shouts 'Two fat ladies', the crowd roars out EIGHTY-EIGHT and that's the moment I hit rock bottom.
It's 11pm on the first day of September, 2015. I'm in a pub and in a bad place. I gambled away €1,500 that day, three times the amount I was taking home in pay from both football and work combined.
Fifteen. Hundred. Quid.
Just like that.
You'd wonder how you'd do something that crazy. Certainly when I think back now, the person who risked everything is a person I barely recognise.
Yet it happened. That day began with a small bet. A losing one. So I went again and lost again. Suddenly I was chasing, hoping for a win that'd get me back on track. But it got worse. All my money was gone. So I asked a friend for a loan.
And then all that was gone too.
I started drinking. Went from one pub to the next and then heard about the bingo night and the super jackpot that was advertised.
So that was where I ended up. All good fun, you might think.
But not to me. This was my way of reclaiming all that money I'd lost, of paying back what I owed, of getting lucky.
But I wasn't lucky.
Later that night, I get offered cocaine. Does the man pushing the drug see that I'm at my lowest ebb? Does he care?
I don't know. I can't hold anyone other than myself accountable. It was my decision, my actions, my mistake. It's the only time I've taken a drug. And I'm not saying that to try and make excuses. I'm just stating a fact.
That was nine months ago. Nine of the longest but also the most important months of my life because that was when the comeback began, when I started liking being Craig Walsh again, when I stopped gambling, when I sought help, when I opened up to my family, told them I'd a problem.
It was when I started counselling, the first of the 35 sessions that have forced me to tell the truth, to stop hiding behind a lie. I'll not pretend those sessions were easy because they weren't.
At the start, I felt so vulnerable that I had to bring a family member with me, feeling they needed to hear what was being said. Until then, I couldn't tell them what was wrong.
Mam would ask - 'you alright?' I'd lie and say I was.
Yet nothing was alright. Everything was wrong. I had an addiction and gambling every day was my way of dealing with it.
No one knew. Not my girlfriend, my family, my team-mates at Shelbourne, my manager. No one.
As things got worse from the back end of 2014 all the way through the spring and summer of 2015, I needed someone to turn to but just couldn't figure out who that person was.
Time after time I'd lie to people rather than tell them what I was really at. And I hated myself for doing that. I fell into a deep depression, wondering if I was a bad person, feeling horrible about my actions.
"I didn't want to be here," were six of the toughest words I ever spoke.
Yet that was how I felt.
Looking back now, it was killing me inside. I was a footballer yet I wasn't appreciating the game. Going out onto a pitch, I wasn't at my best because my head was distracted. Gambling had taken over my life to the extent that I joined a bookmaking firm because I was convinced being in the business would give me an insider's knowledge and lead to money being made rather than lost.
But it didn't.
It was a bad mix of losing horses and a losing battle. Gambling had taken control of my life. I was fragile and on Wednesday, September 1, I was sloppy and drunk and my numbers hadn't come in at the bingo and I was offered cocaine and I took it.
Two days later, after Shelbourne's game against Cabinteely, I get tested by the anti-doping authorities and my sample came back positive.
My name is Craig Walsh. You may recall seeing me on the TV programme 'Football's next Star'. Yet that isn't what I'd want to be remembered for. Nor do I want to be remembered for what I did last September.
What I did was wrong. I regret it. I think about my team-mates and how I let them down that week - taking a drug in the week of a game, getting drunk two days before our game against Cabinteely.
I think about my family and all I put them through. How, for years, I lied to them about my gambling, how I withdrew into myself and stopped being the fun-loving young fella who liked a laugh and a joke.
I think of my then Shelbourne manager, Kevin Doherty, and am guilty for not playing to my potential that season, and then think about how he stuck by me when things went wrong.
And I think of the fans who go to Shelbourne games, especially the kids, who must have wondered why I stopped playing all of a sudden and who must have asked their fathers why I wasn't a Shelbourne player any more.
Thinking of what their dads had to say to them is a sickener. I shouldn't have put them in that position.
Nor should I have put myself in that position, a position where my initial two-year ban by the Irish Sport Anti-Doping Disciplinary Panel is reduced to 12 months after an appeal when I ask them not to make an example of me but to use me as an example.
What I meant by that was that I'm willing to offer my services now to John Delaney and the FAI to go into clubs and educate players about the perils of gambling and of drugs. Because I don't want some other young player to go through what I have been through.
I want my mistakes to become a lesson to others.
In this country, there is a neglect towards gambling and it is rampant in society - think of the bookie shops on the corner of every street. Within dressing rooms, there is a culture of guys doing bets. A horse they've been told about, an accumulator on the Premier League games.
And it's all seen as harmless fun.
Deep down, though, I know how damaging it can be. When I had my first bet at 17, I had no idea that one day I would be in a desperate state - and were it not for the unwavering support of my family and girlfriend, of people like Kevin Doherty at Shels, Stephen McGuinness and Stuart Gilhooly in the PFAI, I don't know where I'd be.
Where I am, though, is a better place. I'm more determined than before. Mentally stronger. Ready to come back to the League of Ireland if someone is prepared to take a chance on me and to trust that I haven't just turned a corner but that I'm well down the path to recovery.
Thankfully, I am a much happier person than I was a year ago. I haven't had a bet since September.
I've undergone 35 counselling sessions, have got a new permanent job and hear lovely things from my family like, 'The old Craig is back again'.
I don't argue with myself anymore. Once, and this is not that long ago, I was damaging my health and my football career and my relationships with family members and my girlfriend. I was a selfish person.
Now I'm a happier one, one who is determined to make up for the mistakes of the past, who is hungry to get back into League of Ireland football, to get fans on the edge of their seats again, to be successful and to put the events of the past behind me.
As I tell this story, I hope people will listen. It isn't sympathy I'm after. It's just a second chance … knowing a second chance could also be my last one.