All bets are off as Laf­ferty lines up shot at redemp­tion

As North­ern Ire­land meet Switzer­land tonight, striker tells James Ducker how he beat gam­bling

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Football -

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. With the help of his new club, Hearts, and for­mer Ar­se­nal 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, Feb 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,” he says.

At the time, Laf­ferty was 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,” he re­flects. “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 un­loaded to coach Austin MacPhee, whom he knew well from the North­ern Ire­land set-up, and owner Ann Budge 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,” he says.

“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.

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 1pm 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.”

‘Usu­ally I’d bet on horses, but I know noth­ing about horses – I’d go by the colour of the jersey’

Fo­cused: Kyle Laf­ferty, in ac­tion against Switzer­land on Thurs­day, is hap­pier both with his foot­ball and his life since tack­ling his demons

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.