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Gambling can drag you into a horrible, lonely place... Barton needs help, says ex-addict Oisin

 

By John Campbell

Armagh legend Oisin McConville clearly recalls his county's only All-Ireland title win to date when they famously beat Kerry in 2002.

And not necessarily because of the penalty he missed, the all-important goal which he subsequently scored or indeed the coveted medal that came his way after a series of earlier Championship disappointments.

Few in the packed Croke Park crowd knew then that Oisin produced his stellar display against a background of crippling debt, a consequence of his then uncontrollable gambling addiction.

Thus when Burnley's Joey Barton, 34, no stranger to controversy in the past, was handed a potentially career-ending 18-month ban by the FA this week for serious gambling offences which occurred over a period of time, he was not to know it but a kindred spirit from the GAA heartland of Crossmaglen empathised with the "horrible, lonely place" in which he found himself.

Barton's suspension resulted from 35 breaches of the FA rule which prohibits players from betting on the outcome of games.

McConville, now a highly-respected addiction counsellor, may indeed empathise with Barton's plight but does not necessarily altogether sympathise with his situation.

"It is invariably sad when indeed anyone and particularly someone who enjoys the trappings of a high-profile sporting career becomes a victim of addiction," stated McConville.

"It can be hell upon earth, there is no other way of putting it. You can find yourself in a horrible, lonely place with nowhere to turn and I have no doubt that Joey Barton would have endured intense mental agony in recent times."

McConville, who battled his own addiction demons for years before finally turning the corner "a better person", as he himself puts it, does not hesitate to put Barton's woes in perspective.

"The whole scope of Joey Barton's gambling problems make for terrible reading and underlines the extent of his agony and yet at the same time it has to be stated that the FA and the Professional Footballers' Association have always been unequivocal in their stance against players betting on matches," pointed out McConville.

"I fully understand that when a person is consumed to the extent that Barton evidently was then they would bet on two flies going up a wall yet the PFA in particular have gone to great lengths to take every possible step to make sure that players are made fully aware of the dangers that an addiction to gambling can cause to every facet of a player's being."

And having personally delivered talks at clubs at different levels of the game and indeed helped many players on an individual basis, McConville now puts the threat which gambling poses to football in particular into a very stark perspective.

"I noted when I went to some clubs it was maybe the reserve players or the, shall we say, less well-known players who were in the audience. It actually concerned me from time to time that better-known players whom I might have expected to see were not there despite the best efforts of the PFA to reach out to as many people as they could," stated McConville.

It is only in comparatively recent times that the Gaelic Athletic Association has begun to get to grips with what McConville refers to as "the scourge of addictive gambling".

"It is not rife in the GAA thank goodness but on Joey Barton's own admission, the kind of money which Premiership players in particular make renders it easy for them to indulge their passion, although when that passion morphs into an addiction then it can become a frightening life-changing experience and that's not exaggerating," insisted McConville.

"The scourge of addictive gambling brings unbelievable pressure and depression.

"Footballers are full-time athletes, they have a certain amount of down time and that allows them to pursue their own activities but when they cross the line into the darker areas of life that's when the problems begin, not just for them but for their families, friends and colleagues.

"More often than not it is only the victim himself or herself who can take the first step out of the gambling morass. Once this is done, meaningful help can be provided as was the case with me when I benefited enormously from the Cuan Mhuire charitable body which is there to help people cope with addictions. I came out a better person as a result of this."

Now he is urging Barton to embrace help and to challenge himself to resume his career in football in whatever capacity that might be made available to him.

"I think it is important at this juncture that Joey accepts he is powerless over his addiction and waves that white flag," said McConville.

"It's vitally important that he is viewed as someone who craves help rather than someone who shuns assistance. Those of us who have endured the trauma that he has gone through and the utter hopelessness we have felt have, of necessity, to rely on others to help to get us into a better place."

And McConville, who admits "with some sadness" that his services as a counsellor are very much in demand on various fronts just now, acknowledges that in an ever-changing society and "in the sporting sphere" in particular, problems relating to addictions are surfacing much more frequently.

"Just as there is greater awareness now of deaths through suicide, there is a widely-held belief that addictions can often have particularly tragic consequences and it's with some sadness I have to admit that I'm busy as a counsellor," said McConville.

"I have read Joey Barton's statement which outlines what he has been through and where he is at just now and for me this is essentially a cry for help.

"I would be prepared to meet up with him myself if I thought it would be of any help. When it comes to giving a helping hand to someone in his desperate situation, no one even thinks of personal gain.

"I know that people think that being a superstar footballer is akin to having the life of Riley but I know only too well also that many players are masking real anguish every time they go out onto the pitch.

"I did it myself and I wouldn't wish it on anyone else."

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