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