Niall McNamee.jpg

I made my debut with Offaly in 2003 against Laois. We drew. The replay was fixed for the following Monday week. I played, we lost by 3 points. I was 17 and in a days time was about to start my Leaving Cert. All I wanted to do back then was play football. I can remember some of my teachers urging me not to play the replay in case I got injured and wouldn’t be able to sit my exams. That was never going to happen. Education and employment were the furthest things from my mind. There was a perception that if you played inter county football you were more or less guaranteed a job so I was never too pushed about my career because I thought that football would look after that for me. And to a certain extent it probably did but there was never a clear outline in my mind of what I wanted to do with my life.

I think that mindset still exists for a lot of inter county players to this day. They are giving so much time and effort to represent their county that they feel they should be rewarded for it. But the days of easy jobs are gone, and a lot of current players are without jobs and as was the case with me, have no clear plan on where there life is going, and that can be a very scary place to be.

And players live for the buzz of winning, whether that is with your county or your club. For me, the main reason I play football is the feeling I get after winning an important game. It makes training the next week so much easier. But after such a high, there must be balance and slowly that adrenaline rush wears off. That was when I would use gambling to keep the rush going. When everyone else was getting back into their normal routine of living, I was in the bookies challenging myself, looking to keep the buzz going that little while longer. I got the same nervous feeling in my belly after placing a big bet, that I got before playing a big game.

After we won the county final in 2010 I took a two week holiday from work. We had a great couple of days and by Wednesday things were starting to go back to normal for everyone, except me. On the Friday I got a phone call to say I had made the panel for the first international rules test in limerick eight days later. It was a very special and proud moment. But everyone was gone back to work and I found myself feeling lonely having no one to celebrate this with, so I went to the bookies to celebrate and reward myself. We all met in Adare Manor the following Wednesday. It was a great honour for me and I felt privileged to be there. But it wasn’t enough for me. Every spare minute we had over those four days I spent them in the bookies. Any money I had received as expenses for the week was lost in a few hours. The whole panel went for a meal in the village one afternoon and a lot of the lads walked into the bookies on the way back to kill some time, but I didn’t go in. I didn’t want anyone to know about my gambling. I wasn’t going to go in and put €5 on a horse just for a bit of fun. I’d come back later, on my own, win a fortune and no one would ever know. Of course that never happened. It was such a horrible and lonely place to be.

But not every footballer or hurler behaves the way I used to. Some people can find the right balance in their lives between work, family and sport. Having said that, it is widely recognized that gambling is a massive problem amongst GAA players. It is always a hot topic in dressing rooms. I’m used to it. I can’t control what other people talk about so when it starts I just switch off. The fact that my team mates know about my addiction makes it easier for me to be in that environment. But of course that’s not for everybody. But if you are a compulsive gambler it can be difficult to shield yourself from the conversation that centres around gambling. And it’s a dangerous topic. There may come a day when someone plays poorly in a game because they had the opposing team backed to win. I hope it never happens but it is so accessible nowadays that you couldn’t rule it out. And that is where the desperation of gambling can bring you. You will do anything you can to get yourself back on track but it always gets worse and worse. It was rumoured back in 2011, before I came into recovery, that I played poorly in a game because I had the opposition backed to beat us. I didn’t, thank God, and it hurt when I heard it, but if I was to have continued gambling, I don’t know what I might have done to try get myself out of the hole I was in. And that scares me.

But I could see why the rumours would start. It was well known around many circles that I was a gambler. In the later years I tried to hide it but up to that you could find me in any bookies in Offaly, or Leinster for that matter. And if someone sees you in a bookies losing money or being in bad form, then you play poorly in a game of football, it's easy put two and two together and come up with 5. I only had myself to blame really. That was another reason why I didn’t want to come into recovery. What would happen if I went to a meeting and someone in the room recognised me? Those thoughts would make me afraid to go and continue on doing what I was doing. The beauty of a meeting however, is that everyone is in the same boat. If I meet someone that I know now, great, we could help each other get well. Everyone is there for the same reason after all, to stop gambling and get rid of all the madness that goes on inside our own heads.

Thankfully I don’t have that burden or stress to carry today. I realise that at 28 I am not going to be playing football forever and so I try to put structures in place for my life away from football. That has only happened since I’ve come into recovery. I can see the bigger picture now. The GPA have been a massive help in that regard. The services and support they have provided have been amazing. They want me and all of their members to have a personal life and career that surpasses their achievements on the playing field. Because at some stage the curtain will come down on my football career and I want to be ready for the next chapter in my life.

Footnote: I received an email last week from a man that came into recovery from gambling 14 months ago. Telling his family and girlfriend was the hardest thing he ever had to do but they all stood by him. He is now thriving in his own business and is due to marry his fiancé in 2015. For anyone that’s struggling, help is there for you if you want it. Trust me, I’ve  been there, it works.

The Gaelic Players’ Association, working with the GAA, has operated a counselling service for players since 2010. This service includes access to experienced health professionals and, crucially, an urgent confidential counselling support line for players which is available 24/7, 365 days a year. 

Freephone Republic of Ireland 1800 989285 and from Northern Ireland dial 0800 0445059. Over 70 players have engaged with the service in the last three years.