'I had to get money to get in and have a bet. Financial difficulty, loneliness, whatever, there’s loads of reasons for it'
Niall McNamee is a lot of things. He is a brother and a son. He is Offaly football’s Boy Wonder turned Totem. He is a fiancé and, by proxy, a wedding planner.
He is a trained butcher and he’s been a mortgage broker. He’s an English scholar from his time studying Arts in UCD. Professionally his orbit has collided with Conor McGregor.
And he is at once beguiled by county football, jealous of the fresh faces in Offaly dressing-room on the cusp of it all.
Simultaneously he is fatigued by close to 20 years at the coalface, wondering just what this ‘cult’ of the GAA is – and where it is going.
And he is a recovering gambling addict, 12 years free of the scourge that nearly pulled him under.
He is a counsellor in so far as he is often the first port of call for someone else at rock bottom.
He is a club man, still chasing glory for Rhode. And he is an entrepreneur who, because of his past, still struggles to get a bank loan. Despite that his sportswear business is thriving and for five years now, has been his full-time job.
And it is in the midst of taking a quantum leap forward.
During McNamee’s stint in rehab and amidst the healing, he found what he wanted to do with himself. His ‘Twelves’ brand – a sportswear company – is his passion.
‘Twelves’ had humble beginnings. Absent-mindedly, McNamee bemoaned the absence of half-length socks for sport in club and county colours.
“Walking off the pitch in Walsh Island one evening, former Offaly footballer Ken Casey suggested to him that he solve that problem himself. ‘Twelves’ – the name a nod to the 12 steps of recovery – was born.
“I went home that night and googled ‘how do you make socks?’ I found someone, got a sample, made changes and then got them out,” McNamee said.
McNamee reckons he sold around 40,000 pairs in 18 months. His exploits in the area earned him a new nickname.
Nike co-founder Phil Knight called his book ‘Shoe Dog’. In the Rhode dressing-room, McNamee became known as ‘Sock Dog’.
“Noel McGrath texted me when I started doing the socks initially, ‘Niall where do I get the socks?’ I told him not to worry about it and said what do you want? He said: ‘Two for the club and two for Tipperary.’
“So I posted them down to him. And when he got them he put up a tweet of the socks and thanked me. On the back of that that night I sold 79 pairs of socks more or less all in the Tipp area.”
McNamee had managed a factory for Tom Cribbin but success of the socks, sold through a simple blog in his name, lit a fire in him.
He moved into teamwear and sent gear to Conor McGregor who was later pictured in his compression top. And now he’s swimming with the sharks by releasing his own football boot.
By his own admission, he has spent too much time cutting open different boot brands to see what made them work. It took three years, several samples and dozens of tweaks – much of it over Zoom with his US-based, former Nike designer – for the Viper Blanca and Viper Sombra to come into being. Lightweight but strong, McNamee says it was designed for all sports.
The first sample he received was a couple of sizes too small for him so he couldn’t run in them but he went for a kick anyway.
“It pinged off the instep,” McNamee remembers. “I knew I was onto something.”
He can talk at length now about things like seams and stitching, outsoles and shanks.
Things like stud matrixes, polyurethane and the tooling costs of a factory line in China consume much of his day. The outlay for it all is significant, enough to cow most.
And his past means banks would take a lot of persuading.
“Twelves has been tipping away nicely for the last couple of years, paying the bills and all that.
“But my credit with the banks would be brutal because of the gambling, it’s cat, so I wouldn’t get a loan.”
Did going public with his gambling come back to haunt him?
“No, going public... that wasn’t the worst thing in the world, because you can now go into a bank and be truly honest with them ‘look this is the reason why’.
“When I went initially with the socks, the boots were too big a risk (financially), so with the socks I think I saved up about €5,000.
“I brought the first batch in myself and I sold them like that (clicks fingers).
“Then I went to the bank and told them I need €20,000 to buy-in more. I showed your man the business model and the price and he went ‘okay’. But this (the boots) is far beyond that.”
Despite that success, the scale of investment to develop a boot – a single mould for one size could cost around €2,000 – required him to look elsewhere.
“I have investors for the boots, I had to. And there was a proud moment in that (persuading investors to put their trust in him).
“There’s minimum buy-in, there’s a minimum in the number of pairs the factories will do. So the investment has to be to a certain scale.
“So a big step for me was going and asking people for money. Because it’s very like when I was gambling, it’s a similar process so in one sense it’s been good.
“Because it’s sort of from the same place but for better reasons.
“And there’s product in it. But when you’re gambling you’re just spending money. So there’s growth in it for me.”
The boots have been ‘tipping along nicely’ so far but McNamee accepts that getting people to move away from their trusted brand is his single biggest challenge.
He has ambitious plans to have some of the biggest names in Irish sport wearing them over the next few months.
There’s also the prospect of an outlet in Rhode, combining coffee, boots and team wear.
He’s getting married on New Year’s Eve. It’s a far cry from where he was and the life he was living.
“It is (a miracle) in the sense of where I was. I used to live in Newbridge in the early part of my recovery. And I’d be driving by Paddy Power and I’d genuinely get nervous seeing people walking in. Because there was a time I could not pass a bookies without going in. It just wasn’t possible.
“If I had money I had to get in. Or I had to get money to get in and have a bet – pure escapism. Financial difficulty, loneliness, whatever, there’s loads of reasons for it.
“Even today if I walk by a bookies, I half-turn my back sideways to it,” he says, curling his shoulder under his chin.
“I know exactly what it looks like inside the door. I can still smell them. I know exactly what is waiting for me. So it is a miracle I could stop doing it. And a lot of work goes into that process.
“I’ll never forget, when I went in to get my assessment in the treatment centre the last thing the woman that was doing the assessment said to me, Mary Lacey, was ‘Niall you’re ready for this aren’t you?’
“And I was just f***ed at that stage, absolutely f***ed with it all. It had me beaten up and down.
“Because for years, the amount of signs I’d get on a daily or weekly basis that I shouldn’t be gambling would be unbelievable. I’d walk out of the bookies and the one person I wouldn’t want to meet I’d meet. I’d walk out of the bookies and I might have borrowed money off someone and they’d be the first person I’d meet on the street.
“And this was non-stop. So you’re in that negative mindset of ‘this is going wrong’ or ‘that’s going bad’ and then you’re down in the dumps. And because of that everything in life looks shite.”
Life is a lot sunnier now though it has been a long, humbling road to this point. He’s paid off his debts but needed his mother to be guarantor on a loan to help him do it. Part of recovery was making amends to those he had hurt along the way. For the most part he’s met kindness.
Along the way he learned he was rarely in the moment. He tells a story about playing in an U-16 county final as a 15-year-old before Rhode fielded in a senior county final.
The U-16s won and the seniors drew and rather than enjoy his own success, McNamee told a team-mate he’d play for the seniors in the replay. He was good to his word, coming off the bench at just 15. He let college pass him by too. ‘When I was 19 I wanted to be 30’.
“I was always chasing the next thing but never stopped to think ‘what do I want?’ or ‘who am I?’ or ‘what I was doing with myself?’”
Perhaps now he has the answers to those questions.
* * * * *
Niall McNamee has “no idea” whether he’ll return for another season with the Faithful county.
One of the longest serving footballers in the game, McNamee (right) has been a focal point for the Offaly attack since 2003 when he made his debut before he completed his Leaving Cert the same summer.
Save for the 2018 season, McNamee has been a near ever-present since missing just three championship games for the county in that time.
But with his ‘Twelves’ business having launched a new football boot and with his wedding on the horizon, McNamee, speaking to the Irish Independent, admits his inter-county future is up in the air.
“I actually have no idea, that’s being honest,” McNamee said of his future with Offaly.
“I’m getting married New Year’s Eve. I wouldn’t be doing anything before Christmas. I don’t know. But the body is good. It’s more like do you have the motivation. Body-wise, football-wise, I’d be fine.”
Liam Kearns will take over from John Maughan as manager for next season as Offaly seek to get back up to Division 2.