Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Cathal McCarron's fall is harsh reality

Tough time: Cathal McCarron has been hitting the headlines

In the dock of public opinion stands Tyrone footballer, Cathal McCarron. This week, news broke that McCarron has left to go to London in an effort to gain control over his addiction to gambling.

A number of allegations have been printed against him, all of which he refutes.

It comes only a few days after he was given an All-Star nomination for his performances with the Red Hands last season.

While his personal life may have been crumbling he emerged as the key man-marking defender for his county, including rendering Bernard Brogan scoreless from play in the National League final.

To the outside world, it may have appeared that he was a man who had it all. The reality is that while he was gliding along like a duck on water, underneath it was a chaos of flapping and struggling.

Time to declare an interest. I know Cathal McCarron. We worked together in a previous job and while our exchanges could be robust, strong opinions and a certain license to exchange them were only welcomed in my view.

As player, he has never been known to refuse an interview and while some athletes enjoy the ego-massage of post-victory interviews but troop onto the bus with the head down after a loss, McCarron would always stop and chat after defeats.

Keith Gillespie, in town to promote the launch of his autobiography, had his say on Cathal McCarron, correctly stating that, "It might be a weight off his shoulders."

He has his own form in this regard, but you have to be puzzled when Gillespie reveals, "I've gone from gambling every day on pretty much every race to an occasional bet – a £20 treble on a Wednesday and a £20 bet on a Saturday."

What's that old saying, something that you can't be half-pregnant?

The words McCarron might be better off seeking solace come from another Northern Ireland players' recent autobiography, Paul McVeigh's 'The Stupid Footballer Is Dead'.

"Although football is a pastime that gives pleasure to millions," maintains McVeigh within, "its importance should not be compared with the harsher realities of life."

Reality for some, is having to deal with crippling addictions that can rob you of your pride, dignity, your moral code, your personality and of your desire to do what you know in your heart is the correct thing. For some, reality sucks and they will try to escape it through whatever means.

The Gaelic Player's Association have a counselling service helpline, and after depression, gambling is the biggest problem affecting inter-county players. Almost a third of their calls concern this issue.

Oisín McConville was the first GAA figure to go public with a gambling problem when he laid himself bare in his harrowing autobiography 'The Gambler'. While the world looked on in awe at a man who had scored the decisive goal in an All-Ireland final and entered forever into the folklore of the GAA, in his personal life he was drowning.

After getting a handle on his problem he has gone on to help others and in the game of life, McConville won everything back.

Even since he tackled his issues, the gambling industry has exploded. So has our access to worldwide sport.

The lives of GAA players have become saturated in sport with little mental release and too much pressure to perform what should be considered an enjoyable pastime.

With satellite television, sport never ends. Gamblers can sit through the night throwing money on Australian horse racing or Argentinian soccer.

When we flick on to watch soccer even on terrestrial television, Ray Winstone pops up in Cockney geeza format, offering us odds at half-time, imploring us to "Have a bang on that" like it's a cosy little crackpipe with your name on it.

Now picture the typical GAA player, on a coach on the way to a match, facing a three-hour journey. The banter and craic on the trip has largely been replaced by men sitting in isolation hunched over i-Pads or wearing giant ear phones.

Your phone is sitting idle with a bookmakers app on the homescreen. With nothing to do but waste time, the temptation to lay a few bets must be incredible for those consumed by sports culture.

Nobody sees this man in the bookies. The man behind the counter in the bookies can't have a quiet word in the ear of someone responsible who might provide some guidance. His car is never parked outside.

It is a secret game, a private shame and we will never know if someone is in real trouble until it is too late.

The country is full of those that enjoy seeing another man down and in times like these we are reminded of the George Bernard Shaw quote, 'Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always get another Irishman to turn him.'

A few weeks ago, I asked Cathal if he would give up his Saturday in order to take a coaching session at Brewster Park as part of a charity event.

He accepted straight away without question. He turned up and was brilliant with the kids, who were delighted to be guided by a player they watch marking the best forwards in the game.

It may take time, but McCarron should be allowed to recover from a slip and a relapse into old habits. Time will heal everything else and he will be reassured that Mickey Harte (left) is offering support.

Above all else, the GAA do not practise abandonment.

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