Monday 14 October 2019

McNamee still taking it one step at a time

A year ago, Niall McNamee revealed the full extent of his gambling addiction. Today, he tells Liam Kelly about how far he has travelled on the long and winding road to redemption

Niall McNamee, leading out the Offaly team for an O’Byrne Cup game, says he has put his problems behind him and is now enjoying the game more than ever
Niall McNamee, leading out the Offaly team for an O’Byrne Cup game, says he has put his problems behind him and is now enjoying the game more than ever

Liam Kelly

LIFE is changed, changed utterly for Offaly football captain Niall McNamee. Just over 18 months ago McNamee finally reached breaking point with the gambling addiction that was sucking the marrow out of his daily existence.

The descent into his private mental hell had been incremental, but unstoppable over a period of nearly six years.

Finally, confronted by his father, McNamee at first tried to bluster and deny the undeniable, but the pressure was too great. He cracked, cried tears of anguish and admitted he was utterly defeated.

Outwardly he was a successful young man, and a highly respected footballer, but by November 14, 2011, inwardly, he was a broken man, crushed under the weight of worry and torment that comes with trying to live a lie.

Driven by guilt and shame and yet propelled into a vicious cycle of betting, losing money, winning occasionally, borrowing from one person to pay another and hoping against hope that another debtor wouldn't knock on the door looking for payment, McNamee had truly hit his rock bottom.

Today, what a difference. Always a majestic football talent, McNamee has his life on a whole new level and it's showing in his performances for Offaly and his beloved Rhode club.

Anyone who witnessed McNamee's elegant display of point-taking and clever link play for Offaly in the recent Division 4 final against Limerick at Croke Park appreciated his genuine star quality. Last October he captained Rhode to their 25th Offaly county title, a personal landmark for the player.

The victory over Clara was a significant milestone on his road back to fitness, not just on the field of play, but also in terms of his mental, spiritual and physical well-being.

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Even in the last six months McNamee's outlook and his progress in recovery has brought new insights and a new appreciation of a life free from gambling addiction.

The Gaelic Players Association, whom he credits as being a terrific source of practical help, particularly in the early stages of treatment and counselling support, have identified gambling as a big issue for the country and for sections of their membership.

McNamee is thus delighted to be an ambassador for the GPA to highlight the message that (a) there is a road back from the despair that comes with addictions of all kinds, and (b) help is available, so please take it.

"The GPA have been brilliant. They have so many services available to players and they have been a great help to me," he explains.

"That's what I'd love to change – I'd say to anyone struggling with addiction that if you come forward to the GPA they will put you in contact with people who will look after you and put you on the right road and help to get your life back on track. But you have to break the silence."

McNamee appreciates that he has been given a second chance to live a decent, normal life and he has grasped it with both hands.

Reflecting on how it was in the past, McNamee recalls: "When I was gambling I knew I shouldn't have been in the bookies. I knew I didn't belong there. Everything about the place was wrong but I just couldn't stop going back.

"And then, when I lost money, I'd say 'that's it, never again.'

"As soon as I got money again, I was back gambling. Once you get to that stage, there's no going back from it. It's just madness until you actually put your hands up and say 'that's it, I'm beaten.'

"And even then it had to be dragged out of me. And that, I think, is a massive burden. People don't realise it's not like being an alcoholic or whatever. With alcohol there'll probably be a lot of physical signs and a lot of people see it, whereas with gambling it's all in your head, you're keeping it all within.

"I would have been in a bookies and lost the value of a car, and come out and someone would say 'how are things?' and I'd say, '100pc, not a bother'. That's insane.

"Sometimes, because I was in trouble and went into a bookies and made a lot of money I thought I could keep doing that, but eventually it just became too much and I couldn't actually stop it.


"It wasn't until my father confronted me over it, that I broke down and said 'that's it'. That was the best thing I ever did, but looking back, at the time it was the hardest thing I ever did because I didn't want anyone to know my weakness."

McNamee is happier than he ever was, but he's realistic too. Life has its ups and downs for him, just as it does for anyone in Ireland at this time.

The difference is that he doesn't get so low that the only answer is to dull the feelings by bet after bet after bet, and the highs equally don't drive him into a bookies shop to lose a week's wages in an afternoon as happened in the past.

It takes work, but it's worth it to be free. The first stage was admitting to the problem, followed by a spell in the Rutland centre where the then Offaly manager Gerry Cooney is a counsellor. Then there were weekly after-care plus recovery meetings and counselling where necessary. Cooney's reign as Offaly manager only lasted a few months.

Whatever Cooney's feelings are about that episode, it doesn't take a genius to appreciate that if his one achievement in that time was to help guide McNamee to his new life, then it was truly worthwhile.

"My family and friends and the people of Rhode have been a terrific support for me," he says. "Gerry, too, has been very good to me, and has been a massive part of my life. He more or less saved my life in a lot of ways, in terms of getting me back. I owe him a massive debt of gratitude."

It's important to point out that the Offaly skipper is not an evangelist.

First and foremost the priority is keeping himself free from gambling, but he has met GAA players who were helped by the frank disclosure of his situation to this reporter back in January 2012.

"As time has gone on, and people see me around, some people do come to me or get my number and text me or e-mail me or chat to me on facebook or whatever," he explains.

"I used to think I was the only person with this problem. When I was spending all this money I used to say 'what is wrong with me?' but there's thousands of people in the same boat.

"And that's the powerful thing about it. You're not alone. There is loads of help out there.

"I often say to people now, for anyone that thinks they have a problem, or who might have a family member in trouble or whatever, the hardest thing in the world is to actually admit it, but when you actually do admit it, it's the best feeling in the world.

"The weight off my shoulders when I told my father was unbelievable. I've said to people this very same thing: once you say 'right, this is exactly where I am' and put your hand up, it's so easy to fix it. That sounds easy for me to say, but it actually is. It's not the end of the world. You can actually sort yourself out.

"It's just at the time it's so much pressure. People's circumstances are different, the family or whatever, they might be afraid to tell anyone, they want to sort it themselves.

"It's embarrassing, well, it's not embarrassing, but you feel like you've failed.

"I was 25, just turned 26 and I felt, 'where am I going with my life? I owe X amount of money, I'm gambling my wages away every week. I'm not doing anything with my life. I'm going to work, gambling money at the week-ends, going training, playing football, but there's no direction, just living from week to week.'

"That's a horrible feeling for anyone to have. When I was growing up I would have set massive targets for myself, telling myself you can achieve anything you want and then found myself for four or five years in a rut doing the same thing over and over again.

"The difference now is once I've come into recovery, and have stopped gambling, I can see I can have a good life and be the best person I can possibly be.

"I think I can do anything I want to do, whereas two years ago I would have seen no value to myself. I didn't give a s**t about myself."

Throughout those gambling years, football was a blessing. Time on the pitch meant time away from the inner demons and worries, but McNamee is enjoying the game more than ever now.

Injury is an occupational hazard for any player and the challenges of dealing with being sidelined for long periods is an issue that goes unnoticed by the sporting public.

In the case of a player with any addiction, injury can be a minefield.

"It's a hard thing for any player to be injured and disappointments like that would be something that would have driven me to go gambling," he says.

"I'd want to get away, I'd be in bad form and say, 'ah, here, the hell with it, I'm off.'

"Even now, this year I tore my quad, and for five or six weeks it's a terrible place to be if you're injured.

"If I didn't have people to talk to, meetings to go to, and people to chat about all the stuff going on in your head, it could bring you back to all that stuff (gambling).

"That's something people don't realise. There's a lot of pressure on footballers to perform, week in, week out.

"Having an injury, or issues that could be going on at home, or problems at work, can weigh people down.

"If you don't have someone to talk about those worries, and they have a gambling addiction or if they're an alcoholic or whatever, it could set them off and make the problem worse.

"I've been lucky that I've good people around me and I can talk to them about anything that's going on.

"I think the lads with Offaly can see that as well. I'm very open with all the players. I'm very aware of lads that have a lot of stuff going on in their lives outside football. If they need anyone to talk to, I'm available.

Last year, McNamee had a persistent groin problem, but it cleared up in time for him to lead Rhode to their county title.

This year, despite tearing a quad muscle during the league campaign, he was able to get back in time for the key games in Offaly's promotion battle from Division 4.

Disappointed to lose the Division 4 final against Limerick a few weeks ago, he now looks forward to Offaly's opening championship game against Kildare on Saturday week.

The match is at Croke Park, and while Offaly will be underdogs, the experience of playing at GAA headquarters is invaluable.

"Only four of the lads – myself, Alan (Niall's brother), Shane Sullivan and Paul McConway have played in Croke Park before," he outlines.

"Losing the game against Limerick was a disappointment, but it was good in the sense of getting lads familiar with Croke Park."

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