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Newcastle United, Football and Gambling with your life

5 months ago
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What are the odds?

‘I was struck by what victims were saying. You essentially have a betting shop in your pocket. I think it’s right that we look at regulations. Many MPs have raised concerns about the dreadful outcome of gamblers who commit suicide, or are dragged into a spiral of problem gambling.’ (Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary)

I was nineteen years old when I placed my first bet.

Going to the match as a teenager, I had seen my Dad and his mates put a fiver or tenner on a score/scorer bet for home games but never really paid much attention to it. I was besotted with the game itself and the experience of finally being a regular attendee at St. James’ Park. I looked forward to going to the pub, having beers with ‘the lads’ and being part of the matchday experience I’d seen my Dad immerse himself in for so many years.

I was so naïve regarding betting that I remember asking my Dad as a seventeen-year-old whether you could bet simply on the result of a game and being surprised when he confirmed that you could. ‘Eh? Well surely that’s easy! Man Utd will beat Bradford, so just bet on that!’

I went to Durham University after high school and turned nineteen not long after settling into campus. The first friends I made were at football trials and we instantly bonded over that common love, which then extended to watching games together in the college bar. I noticed a couple of the lads placing bets on their laptops and asked about it.

They told me about signup bonuses and free bets and how they put a fiver or a tenner on games and a win pays for their night out. I didn’t see the harm so signed up for an account and received a 100% deposit bonus so had £20 to stake, rather than £10. I won my first bet, which may well be the biggest turning point in my entire life.

The next few years saw a gradual progression in both frequency and monetary involvement with betting. Student finance payment days would see the necessary bills paid off and an increasingly large stake wagered on whatever game was on that night. It had stopped being about the chance to pay for Saturday’s drinks with a tenner accumulator on the Premier League games and had become the need to double my money in order to make up for last month’s losses.

I got deeper and deeper into my overdraft and borrowed money from my grandparents, claiming expensive textbooks and extortionate town centre rent prices had led to financial difficulty. Although true to an extent, betting losses were entering the hundreds and thousands by this point.

I was very specific about the subject of my bets and this was something that I would later learn was an unusual behaviour. Mates would bet on horses, darts, golf or even head to Newcastle for a night in the casino but that never interested me. I watched a lot of football, knew a lot about the sport and was only ever interested in betting on it. Perhaps, looking back, that’s why it took me so long to realise that I had a problem. If I could control my behaviour to only include one specific sport, then it couldn’t have been a gambling addiction.

After university, I went travelling through Asia and then onto Australia and eventually settled in Sydney for a while. Although my betting was more sporadic during this period due to moving around and having inconsistent internet access, I won £500 from a £5 bet on Michael Owen to score a hat-trick away at West Ham. I suppose, like any addiction, a high is needed at some point to maintain it and December 17th 2005 saw my biggest win to date.

By the time the FIFA Club World Championship Final came along on December 22nd, the £500 was all gone, as the final £50 of it was lost that night. I thought Liverpool were certainties to win but watched on in dismay as Sao Paulo won 1-0. I hated Liverpool – I always have – and I was friends with quite a few Brazilians in the Bondi area. This should have been a night of celebration but among the sweaty embraces and the downing of cachaça, I felt a gut-wrenching emptiness at what I had just done. This would become a very familiar feeling.

Something else that became more familiar was watching football with an unnatural interest in the action on the field. Instead of enjoying the game, I was now counting corners and cards. Instead of appreciating defensive battles or narrow 1-0 wins, I was desperate for three or more goals. Football had become a way to win (but more often lose) money, rather than the sport I had loved my entire life.

When I returned from Australia, I had a hard time finding work and signed on to unemployment benefits for a while. Gambling stopped because I simply didn’t have the money to do it. Once again, this wrongly led me to believe that I couldn’t have a problem. I went months without placing a bet and I was fine about it, so this was obviously something I had control over.

The problem was that, as soon as the work started and the money returned, I was back at it. I had moved back in with my parents on returning from Australia, as I didn’t have a job or anywhere to go, so when the paydays started coming in I had very little outgoings that I was committed to. This afforded me a lot of disposable income and I didn’t waste any time disposing of it as the value of stakes steadily increased.

I could have close to £1000 left after paying bills and board money and, the way I saw it, that meant that I could afford to risk that much money. If I could double it, I could build up my savings and move out (of course, with that level of disposable income, I could have already moved out) and if I lost it, I still had a roof over my head and food on the table. I had created a risk-free bubble and my gambling problem flourished in this environment.

The problem with gambling, as opposed to an alcohol or drug addiction, is that your body doesn’t have a cut-off point. There is only so much alcohol or drugs that you can put into your body before you pass out. The additional safety net of these kind of addictions is that those around you are likely to notice your addiction progress, as you display physical symptoms of intoxication and dependence. Gambling has neither of these features. There are no obvious symptoms to the untrained eye and the only cut-off point comes when your bank balance hits £0. I could not drink £1000 of alcohol in one go but I could click away on my online account and lose it in a night.

An additional feature of a gambling addiction is that you’re unable to enjoy the spoils of your rare victories. I had some wins, some large wins (£4000 being my biggest) but how would I explain where that kind of money came from if I were to, for example, suddenly buy a car or go on a fancy holiday? Of course, I could have said that I’d been saving my actual income but by this stage I had become so insular and warped with my thinking that I couldn’t see the obvious answers.

When you’re buried deep in that pit of despair, you simultaneously see gambling as the thing that ruined your life and the only thing that can save it.

Online gambling is the most solitary and insular world for those with an addiction, not even requiring the fleeting human interaction of a drug deal. Sign up, register card details and away you go. A bar or shop wouldn’t serve you more alcohol when you’d already consumed a litre of spirits and I know drug dealers who cut off customers if they suspect that they’re using dangerous amounts but gambling companies lie far beneath this level when it comes to welfare concern of their consumers.

How can someone deposit £1000, lose it in a night, deposit £1000 the following day, lose it again and there not be a safety net or check on the individual? I was lost by this point and the online simplicity of another sector only made matters worse, as I began to use payday loans to fund my addiction. In my twisted logic, I could borrow £250 and place it on a ‘cert’ – as if there were such a thing – at around evens. I could then pocket the £250 and instantly pay back the loan. This worked, occasionally, but when it didn’t it would spiral into a further loan and a top up before I found myself owing next month’s wages before they had even reached my bank account.

November 2008 saw Newcastle play Steve Bruce’s Wigan at St. James’ Park. Ryan Taylor opened the scoring for Wigan before goals from Owen and Martins saw Newcastle take a late lead. Titus Bramble, on his return to Newcastle then thundered in a header in the closing seconds to equalise and the game finished 2-2. A rollercoaster of a final ten minutes saw fans head out into the cold city, unsure of their overriding emotion. I remained seated in the Leazes End, head in hands, as a stranger commented, ‘Chin up mate, at least we got a point!’ I had just lost £1000 on a bet on Newcastle to win.

The debt mounted up as the ‘recovery bets’ failed. Regardless of their repeated failures, I always thought that if I could get a large enough stake and place it on a winning bet, that I could get myself out of this increasingly deep hole. Instead of just stopping, cutting my losses, and working to pay off the debt I had already accrued, I continued and it mounted.

I had still only ever bet on football. I have never, to this day, set foot in a casino. I didn’t play the lottery and I didn’t bet on other sports. However, I now found it impossible to watch a game without betting on it. Even if I set out with good intentions, every single advertising break featured at least one betting advert…and I only needed one.

The debt letters began to mount up as I would intercept the postman or race to the doormat to scoop them up before stashing them in my bedroom, out of sight. I just needed more time, a change of fortune and I could fix it. I still had this mindset, despite all logic screaming in my face that it was nonsense.

I had become increasingly withdrawn by this point and was rarely off my laptop, either betting, watching online streams of games I’d bet on or juggling loan accounts. I had stopped socialising with friends due to a combination of seeing it as valuable betting time lost or seeing betting funds spent elsewhere.

Looking back at that period, it’s all very blurry and there are details I simply don’t remember. It feels as though several years of my life – of what should have been my prime mid-20s – were lost in a bleak fog. There are jobs I did that I can barely recall and people I worked with who I would walk past in the street. It’s as though I was only present in body, while my mind was completely lost in my addiction.

It’s because of this that I don’t remember the trigger or the rock bottom that led to taking action. Perhaps it was a debt letter being found or my altered behaviour finally being noticed. I honestly don’t know but I came clean about everything to my parents and essentially had a breakdown.

I was off work for months, eventually leaving, and during this time I attended counselling via the GP, was prescribed medication for depression and anxiety and started going to weekly Gamblers Anonymous meetings in town. These meetings were the best thing I did during this period as they made me realise that I wasn’t alone, as the attendees shared their backgrounds and tales of their rock bottoms as well as their coping mechanisms.

Each person had a slightly different vice and different periods of abstinence, which were declared each week. People could sit and listen or talk for as long as they liked about whatever was troubling them that particular week. It felt strangely comforting to hear other people describe their secret life of intercepting mail, having separate bank accounts, claiming fictional expenses and many other cunning ways to avoid their loved ones detecting a problem.

‘One day at a time’ was the mantra and it really had to be. I still couldn’t see a way out of it and took some drastic measures to help achieve my goal. A 26 year old man, handing his bank card over to his Dad and receiving only his bus fare each day is not how I saw my life going as I graduated from Durham University but here I was.

I lost a lot of weight, lost my girlfriend, lost my job and lost some of my friends. I also lost at least £40,000 of earnings and loans. I had no possessions of any worth, no house of my own and so decided to declare bankruptcy. Bankrupt before my 28th birthday – rock bottom had been reached.

I stopped watching football, completely. Throughout that decade of an increasing and gripping addiction, football remained the only outlet for my betting. I couldn’t watch it without seeing betting adverts, betting sponsors, talk of ‘favourites’, in-play markets and even odds being discussed by sports channels. I had to completely abstain and so stopped following the only sport I’d ever loved.

The Northern Rock-sponsored Newcastle shirt was the last one I bought. I was horrified to see Wonga, and then Fun88, as our sponsors and couldn’t be a part of that. Although this was my problem, my issue, I still held these loan and betting companies partly responsible for what happened. How was it so easy to get into this mess and why did nobody check on me?

Eight of the twenty current Premier League clubs have shirt sponsorship contracts with betting companies and there are even stadiums temporarily named after them. Every single advertising break during football matches has betting adverts. It is utterly engrained in the sport and, as such, normalised as an integral part of it to the newer generation.

Although it is far too late for me, I was so relieved to see a newspaper story a couple of days ago that Oliver Dowden, Culture Secretary, is leading a review into betting companies. The most recent gambling laws in this country were passed two years before the introduction of smartphones and Dowden stated that Britain’s ‘analogue laws have been left behind by the digital age of online betting’ and that ‘changes are needed to combat addiction caused by the betting shop in your pocket’.

Shares in UK bookmakers have soared during the pandemic as betting has dramatically increased, resulting in rapid growth and profits for the likes of William Hill, Paddy Power and Ladbrokes. Even at the beginning of lockdown, MPs had the foresight to implore online gambling firms to impose a temporary betting cap of £50 a day but these calls were ignored.

UK advertising regulation for alcohol is one of the strictest in the world, with a code enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority stating that alcohol adverts can not be directed at people under 18 or contain anything likely to appeal to them, for example by reflecting youth culture. Tobacco advertising and promotion in the UK is now banned. The new government review into gambling, launched on December 7th, could see a maximum stake imposed online and stringent checks on whether players can afford the potential losses, as well as control of the industry’s marketing and advertising.

Last year, MPs and campaigners successfully passed a £2 maximum stake on fixed odd betting terminals – a move which led to hundreds of high street bookies closing due to the resulting fall in profits – and now have their sights set on the online sector of gambling.

The Gambling Commission has already banned betting using credit cards and is looking to follow the lead of Germany, which has already implemented a £900 per month betting limit, by discussing similar limits in this country.

To those unfamiliar with the scale of gambling addiction, this probably seems unnecessary. There are thousands of people in the UK who have control over gambling and bet within their limits or on specific days of the week and will have never lost anything they could not afford. Just like there are thousands of people in the UK who have the same control over alcohol – but it does not mean that the problem of alcoholism does not exist.

I already knew of these individuals but a simple Google search for ‘gambling suicide UK’ brings up the stories of Lewis Keogh (34), Jowan Evans (32) and Ryan Myers (27).

Lewis took his own life in 2013, after secretly amassing £55,000 of debt due to online gambling. Neither his family, his friends or his amateur football teammates had any idea of the double-life he was leading and the turmoil he was suffering. His parents were appalled to discover about ‘half a dozen banks’ had effectively fuelled his addiction by lending him thousands of pounds. Mrs Keogh said: ‘I always say the only people who knew he was a gambling addict was himself and the banks.’ Mr Keogh said: ‘We took a major decision as a country to stop advertising cigarettes, this is a similar killer.’

Jowan, married and a father to three children, took his life in 2019 after gambling £111,000 over a period of eleven years – including £53,000 in the six months before his death – resulting in losses of £11,000. Mr Evans wrote about his gambling addiction in a note discovered after his death. He said he had kept his addiction hidden from everyone – including his wife Lucie. It said: “This monster living inside me has ruined my life.”

Ryan committed suicide because he felt he had ‘lost control’ after losing thousands of pounds in May 2014. He was engaged and had been laughing and joking as usual on a family holiday in Turkey just a few days earlier but it emerged he had a serious gambling addiction, and had taken out a payday loan and even asked several websites to ban him to curb his spending. On the day he killed himself alone he had blown £500 on a fixed-odds betting terminal.

I know of these stories because they could have been my story. If my parents hadn’t supported me; if I hadn’t been escorted to Gamblers Anonymous meetings and been helped by my fellow addicts; if I hadn’t chosen bankruptcy, this could have been me. I vividly remember one night, when my Dad slept in my room because he didn’t believe me when I said I wasn’t going to ‘do anything stupid’. He was right – I didn’t believe it myself.

I’ve never written about this part of my life and I’ve very rarely talked about it. It seems like a different lifetime to me and none of it seems real but it was a whole decade of being eaten from the inside by an addiction that I didn’t know I had until it was too late.

I’m 37 now and have control over my addiction but it has never gone away. However, I finally feel capable of reflecting on it and discussing it and now view this period of my life as an opportunity to help others. To everyone who knew me, I was successful and happy. I had a degree, had been travelling the world, had a girlfriend, loads of friends and a good family but I was potentially one more bet or one more debt away from being dead.

If this year’s lockdown had happened during my worst period, I probably wouldn’t be here.

You may be reading this and reflecting on your own betting habits or you may be recognising the behaviours in someone you know. Ray Winstone’s head suggesting you, ‘Have a bang on that!’ might be nothing to you but to someone else it is all they need to reach for their smartphone and take another hit. A passing, ‘When the fun stops, stop!’ at the end of their incessant advertising is not enough and they know it.

Our attitude to gambling is many years behind our attitudes to drugs, alcohol and smoking but the impact of its addiction is quickly catching up. I registered with GAMSTOP, which excludes you from using gambling websites and apps run by companies licensed in Great Britain, for a period of your choosing.

To have that instant temptation removed is all that I needed – to close that betting shop in my pocket. I wish it had happened earlier but at least it happened in time and I’m alive to tell the tale.

The Gambling Commission estimates that there are 350,000 problem gamblers in the UK, with many more individuals at risk. Their research suggests that problem gamblers are:

Five times more likely to be male than female

More likely to be unemployed than in work, studying or retired

Most likely to be aged 25 to 34 (if male)

What are the odds that you know someone with a problem?

For help and advice, you can visit:

Getting help to control your gambling (gamblingcommission.gov.uk)

Help for problem gambling – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

Home – GamCare – The leading provider of support for anyone affected by problem gambling in Great Britain

(This article originally appeared on the excellent NE1’s Game website, you can also follow them on Twitter @game_ne1)

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