I have strug­gled to fight my ad­dic­tion... foot­ball has a huge gam­bling prob­lem

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - SPORTS - By Chris Wheeler

FOR Kyle Laf­ferty, there was no hid­ing place. On the foot­ball pitch, he was sur­rounded by a bet­ting cul­ture. Away from it, he gam­bled on horses, dogs, roulette. Any­thing.

Even in Switzer­land, he couldn’t re­sist hav­ing a wa­ger on games of ice hockey. That was dur­ing a year spent at FC Sion in 2012-13 on loan from Rangers where a gam­bling ad­dic­tion had truly taken hold.

Laf­ferty is back play­ing in Scot­land with Hearts and back in Switzer­land tonight for the sec­ond leg of North­ern Ire­land’s World Cup play-off tie in Basle, hav­ing de­cided to con­front his demons.

The 30-year-old for­mer Nor­wich and Burn­ley striker can talk openly about the prob­lems that threat­ened to en­gulf his ca­reer and, he be­lieves, re­main a ma­jor is­sue in foot­ball.

‘To be out gam­bling, you need time and money. Foot­ballers have both,’ says Laf­ferty. ‘You fin­ish train­ing at one o’clock and have all af­ter­noon and all evening to your­self. It’s dif­fi­cult if you are in that en­vi­ron­ment and you get tips sent to you.

‘Every­where you look, there is some­thing to do with bet­ting. In Scot­land, it’s the Wil­liam Hill Scot­tish Cup and the Lad­brokes Pre­mier League. You’re play­ing a game and bet365 is on ad­ver­tis­ing boards and stuff like that.

‘You can’t get away from it. It’s money. And the SPFL get money from book­ies who ad­ver­tise. I think peo­ple need to look at it.

‘I’ve spent 11 years where prob­a­bly only my close pals and team-mates knew about the prob­lem. Even they prob­a­bly didn’t know the ex­tent of it.

‘I’m glad I’ve come out. I’ve heard peo­ple say I did it for sym­pa­thy but that’s rub­bish. I’m do­ing it for my­self to get over this ad­dic­tion that has been a mas­sive part of my ca­reer. Once I’m over it, I want to help oth­ers.’

Laf­ferty’s prob­lem dates back to play­ing on slot ma­chines, grow­ing up in Kesh, County Fer­managh.

It reached cri­sis point last year when he was fined £23,000 by the FA for bet­ting on two foot­ball games in Spain. His hon­esty was re­flected in a le­nient pun­ish­ment but he could eas­ily have been banned from play­ing for North­ern Ire­land at Euro 2016.

‘It got to a stage where I was ly­ing about what I was do­ing,’ he ad­mits. ‘I had to get help or let my ca­reer go down­hill.

‘I was asked if it af­fected my foot­ball and 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. I played with a weight on my shoul­ders.

‘I was bet­ting on any­thing; horses, dogs, vir­tual rac­ing, roulette. I knew ab­so­lutely noth­ing about horses. I still don’t have a clue. I would go by the colour of the jersey or the name. It was ev­ery day on the horses and ev­ery sin­gle race.

‘When I was over in Switzer­land, I was bet­ting on ice hockey, which was on ev­ery sin­gle day and night. 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. It’s a lit­tle bit more dif­fi­cult to bet in a for­eign coun­try than it is in the UK.’

A move to Hearts in the sum­mer af­ter three frus­trat­ing years at Nor­wich has helped Laf­ferty to ad­dress his is­sues. He con­fided in coach Austin MacPhee, a friend he knew well from the North­ern Ire­land set-up. He spoke to the Sport­ing Chance clinic and had coun­selling ses­sions in Lon­don.

Hearts man­ager Craig Levein, club owner Ann Budge and North­ern Ire­land boss Michael O’Neill have sup­ported him. So too John Hart­son, the for­mer Celtic and Ar­se­nal striker, who has faced his own bat­tle with gam­bling.

‘No one knows how stress­ful it is un­less you are in that en­vi­ron­ment and you have that ad­dic­tion,’ says Laf­ferty.

‘I was em­bar­rassed to come out at first. I was afraid that peo­ple would judge me or look down on me. Speak­ing to John made me feel bet­ter.

‘I’ve fi­nally got my mind in the right place. I’m go­ing to do this for my fam­ily and my­self.’

Laf­ferty has set­tled just out­side East Kil­bride with his model wife Vanessa. He is happy at Hearts and has scored nine goals al­ready this sea­son.

Golf has also helped him keep the demons at bay.

‘I’m will­ing to do any­thing as long as it gets me away from be­ing in the house by my­self,’ he says. ‘Ob­vi­ously I have a TV and there is a bet­ting shop around the cor­ner. So if I have to be in a bunker for half a day rather than be­ing in the book­ies, I’ll do that.’

BAT­TLING: Kyle Laf­ferty in ac­tion for North­ern Ire­land against Switzer­land

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