Pulling out of the spiral of addiction
Kyle Lafferty is rebuilding his life after addressing his gambling problem
It was in Sion, 150 miles south of Basel, where Northern Ireland will hope to produce a stirring fightback against Switzerland tonight to secure their passage to the World Cup finals, that Kyle Lafferty's gambling addiction took another turn for the worse.
On the one hand, Lafferty was thankful to be somewhere quiet, and life in the sleepy Swiss town was certainly far removed from Glasgow's goldfish bowl and the incessant scrutiny that came with being a Rangers player.
"Every Thursday there was a market on the main street, and the place was on lockdown on Sunday and everything was closed," the Northern Ireland striker recalls. "It was a shock after Glasgow but it was nice to be there to concentrate on football rather than having negative things written about you. There was none of that over there. You were left alone to do your own thing."
That was also a serious problem, though. Lafferty found himself with more time on his hands than ever, and while he managed eight goals in 28 games in that 2012-13 campaign for Sion and got a good move to Palermo in Italy off the back of it, his gambling continued to spiral.
"When I was over there I was betting on ice hockey, which was on every single day, every single night," he explains. "My team-mates knew a lot about ice hockey and I picked up on it. They knew I liked a bet but they didn't know I had an addiction. We would just be having a coffee after training and they had a coupon and I would say, put money on for me."
Lafferty is talking in the corner of a salubrious bar in Belfast's Culloden hotel. For several months now, he has been in a good place and, for the first time in his 12-year professional career, he is no longer betting. A Football Association charge and a £23,000 fine in August last year for betting on football was the start of a wake-up call, and with the help of his new club, Hearts, and former Arsenal, Celtic and Wales striker John Hartson, who has had his own well-publicised battle with gambling, the 30-year-old is slowly rebuilding his life.
"It got to a stage where I was lying about what I was doing," Lafferty says. "It had to be a time when I stopped it and got help or let my career go downhill. I was asked if gambling affected my football but I can't say if it did or didn't because there hasn't been a time as a professional footballer when I haven't gambled or had an addiction. But it feels like a massive weight has been lifted from my shoulders."
On Saturday, February 20 last year, Lafferty popped into a bookmakers in East Kilbride. Although still earning big money, he was a Norwich City player in name only, really. His last appearance had been in early January, and over three seasons he played just 31 league games. Lafferty was in the bookies for 35 minutes, betting, and losing, on horses and dogs, when the need for one last punt was irresistible. He spotted that there were two games in La Liga that evening - Real Betis against Sporting Gijon and Celta Vigo versus Eibar - and did a double on all four teams to score.
That bet happened to come in, but so did something else - an FA charge. "I knew it was against the rules to bet on football but when you've got an addiction you just want to win that money back."
The charge left Lafferty at a very low ebb. With seven goals in qualifying for Northern Ireland, no one had done more to get his country to Euro 2016, but now came the fear of missing the tournament in France. In hindsight, though, the charge was the best thing that could have happened to him and so began the process of confronting an addiction that has cost him a fortune.
"I'd usually bet on horses but I knew absolutely nothing about horses. I still don't have a clue. I open the app on my phone and go by the colour of the jersey or the name. If it's a winner, it's a winner; if it's not, it's not, and I move on to the next one. It was every day on the horses and every single race."
It was not until Lafferty arrived at Hearts in June, and he sat down with coach Austin MacPhee, whom he knew well from the Northern Ireland set-up, and owner Ann Budge and unloaded that he could truly move forward. "I don't think I would have come out if I wasn't at Hearts," he says. "Austin, Ann, they have been superb. For someone like Ann, who owns the club, to be so into me getting over this hurdle is incredible."
It was MacPhee who put Lafferty in touch with Hartson, and the pair now regularly attend Gamblers' Anonymous meetings together. "John said he would take me to my first meeting but I was away and he was working for BT Sport so it ended up being two weeks without doing anything after I'd come clean.
"So I googled one in Glasgow and went myself. I was absolutely bricking it because I didn't know what to expect. I went in, listened and took everything on board. I was at a GA meeting last Wednesday with John. A guy picked up his 35-year pin. He's been to every single meeting - two a week. I spoke to him after and said, 'Why so long?' and he said 'You need to do it'." Lafferty attends meetings once a week and has taken up golf. "There is a bookies around the corner from me, so if I have to be in a bunker for half a day rather than there, I'll do that," he says.
His form on the pitch is improving, too. He has nine goals in 16 games for Hearts so far and was back in the starting line-up for Northern Ireland in the first leg of their play-off in Belfast on Thursday now he is playing regularly again.
A year has passed since Lafferty last scored for his country, so a goal against Switzerland tonight as Northern Ireland bid to overturn a 1-0 first leg deficit would be most welcome. And if he has another wish, it is that football reassesses its relationship with gambling.
"To be out gambling, you need time and money, and footballers have both," he says. "You finish training at 1.0 and you have all afternoon and all evening to yourself. Everywhere you look in Scotland, it's the William Hill Scottish Cup, the Ladbrokes Premiership, and you are playing a game and Bet365 is going around advertising boards and stuff like that. Everywhere you look there is something to do with betting. I think people need to look at it because if you have a problem, it is difficult to get away from it unless you are going to be brave, come out and get help, but that's difficult.
"I have spent about 11 or 12 years where probably only my close pals and team-mates knew about the problem, and even then they probably didn't know the extent of it. I've come out to get over it myself, and hopefully I can help many more footballers and anyone else. If anyone wants advice or to come along to a meeting I'll help them, like John Hartson helped me."
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