The Beautiful Game? Don’t Bet On It
While few would consider it one of the great sports biographies, Keith Gillespie’s How Not To Be A Football Millionaire certainly does what it says on the tin. For over the course of 320 pages, the former Newcastle and Northern Ireland winger explains how, in a style reminiscent of countryman George Best, he blew a fortune on gambling, women and high living.
Gillespie’s gambling losses alone make for sobering reading. For as his bankruptcy proceedings revealed, the man who played in the same Manchester United youth team as Beckham, Giggs and Scholes frittered away £7,215,817 at the bookmakers. The bulk of this sum was lost during his stint with Blackburn Rover, where he lost £3.5 million in a little over five years.
Would that he was the cautionary tale other professionals paid attention to. Alas, the list of football stars with gambling issues is as long as it is upsetting. For while Gillespie was throwing his money away up North, ‘The Magic Man’ Paul Merson was prone to betting £30,000 a game while at Arsenal. Then there’s striker Michael Chopra who was gambling – and losing – £20,000 a day while at Sunderland. And as for journeyman Steve Claridge, he’d show up to training with several grand tucked in his sock so he could head straight from the showers to the betting shop.
And the list goes on. Dominic Matteo, Matthew Etherington, Tony Kelly, David Bentley – Gillespie is anything but an isolated case. Not only that, but the desperation some footballers exhibit verges on the pitiful; the BBC recently reporting that players have even been known to acquire payday loans in order to service their habit.
Of course, it’d be wrong to suggest that footballers enjoying a punt is anything new. Leaf through the biographies of ’70s stars like Stan Bowles and Frank Worthington and you’ll find the bookies rivalling the pub and the nightclub as preferred meeting place. There were betting-related bankruptcies back in the day, too.
No, the big difference is the sums of money being staked. In the time of the maximum wage, pros had little in the way of disposable income. But with onaverage.co.uk estimating the standard weekly Premiership wage at between £25,000 and £30,000, there’s a – seemingly – limitless stream of cash to blow at the casino, the races, the turf accountants, etc.
As dire as the situation seems, there is a ray of hope here and it comes in the hulking shape of former Arsenal and England skipper Tony Adams. Having discussed his own demons – with extraordinary candour and eloquence – in his autobiography Addicted, Adams has found a new purpose in life as the founder of the Sporting Chance Clinic.
“Sporting Chance is up there with all the medals I’ve won, the England caps and everything,” says the man who captained his country throughout the celebrated Euro 96 campaign. “I’m very proud of what I created here.”
And with good reason. As a facility specialising in assisting sportsmen and women with addiction issues, Adams’ charity has successfully helped the aforementioned Chopra and Etherington. Joey Barton, Clarke Carlisle, Warren Aspinall and Paul Gascoigne have also passed through the Hampshire-based clinic.
Adams has also helped his former Arsenal Kenny Sansom. And speaking of old colleagues, Paul Merson has not only been successfully treated by Sporting Chance but he is now a patron of the charity, alongside former Sports Minister Kate Hoey and erstwhile Watford chairman and recovered addict Sir Elton John.
But as both Adams and his charity are to be admired, Sporting Chance isn’t a cure-all for football’s gambling disease. For one thing, the clinic is relatively small and, as such, can only offer help to a handful of players at any one time. More pertinently, the number of sports people with betting issues has turned from a trickle into a torrent, with Adams being approached by everyone from top golfers to Irish hurlers for assistance.
The Mail On Sunday’s Patrick Collins can’t see a simple solution to the current predicament. And a major reason for this? Football’s present infatuation with the gambling world. “[While] the Premier League doesn’t possess a ‘betting partner’… each of their 20 clubs has a gambling associate,” writes Collins. “Three of those clubs — Stoke, Fulham and Aston Villa — play in shirts sponsored by gambling companies.”
A gambling culture is well-established, then. And as Collins fears, this presents a slippery slope for the stupid or gullible pro to slide down. “The consequences are now starting to emerge, with arrests and charges of spot-fixing and match-fixing. The signs are that more arrests and more charges will follow. We knew things had become serious because the Culture Secretary Maria Miller convened a so-called ‘summit’ of our five major sports to debate the issue.”
So the addicted player takes bribes to service his habit and, as a result, the beautiful game is corrupted. A more depressing thought is hard to imagine, at least in the sporting arena.
With circumstances so cruelly conspiring against him, the cynic might see Tony Adams’ charitable works as the equivalent of raising an umbrella in the middle of a hurricane. But as both he and Keith Gillespie (above) explain in their respective memoirs, the fight against addiction is a very lonely one. As such, support is crucial if one is to overcome the odds.
And while a clinic in Hampshire can’t possibly hope to cure a global ill, the blueprints it’s establishing for the treatment of addiction may yet give both footballers and football sporting chance of beating the betting bug.