Belfast Telegraph

Gambling: 'My wife found out we'd no money in the bank and my Da called me for a showdown - on way to the house I stopped to do a bet'


He's a straight-talking and committed ambulance officer who's dedicated the last 14 years of his career to trying to save members of the public, but John McPoland has admitted that his own life was almost shattered by a gambling addiction that started with a schoolboy bet on the Grand National and almost ended in a family meltdown.

John, who's the high-profile media and communications manager for the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, opened his heart last night about his obsession in a frank, no-holds-barred interview with BBC Radio Ulster presenter Vinny Hurrell.

For John, who's used to talking to the media about accidents and modern-day crises faced by the Ambulance Service, it was a sometimes painful reflection on the darker days in his own past.

And he said that without the intervention of his parents, his wife and close friends, his life could have completely fallen apart.

John said he discovered gambling at the age of 16, adding: "I placed my first bet on the Grand National in 1974 or 1975. It was 2/6 or twelve-and-a-half pence. And it won. I can't deny that I idolised money and I thought this was a dead easy way to get money. I went down every Saturday to the bookies and then it was every day.

"In school I became a bookie. I remember when the FA Cup Final was on me and this other boy couldn't see Man United losing against Southampton."

So confident were the two boys, that he offered generous odds against a Southampton win, but John's pal took cold feet and pulled out of the betting partnership.

John said: "Southampton beat United 1-0 and I didn't have a penny to pay anyone. I owed £13.50."

His answer - perhaps inevitably - was to go to the bookies and a bet won him £26, which allowed him to settle his debts.

"I thought I was king for the day," said John. The next day he was taking more bets from his schoolmates.

John said he "scraped through" his examinations at school without working too hard and gained a place at St Joseph's Training College.

But that's where things started to go from bad to worse. "I met boys from the country who loved their oul drink and gambling," said John. He was soon joining card schools and he started missing classes before "his day of reckoning" came after gambling "took over too much" of his life.

He failed his exams and was told he would have to leave college. Which he knew would disappoint his parents.

John explained: "People said I was my father's blue-eye, but I don't really accept that because there were nine of us and I was in the middle. But I could see the hurt in his eyes."

John took a job as a bricklayer on a building site before he got a job in an office in the Housing Executive in 1979 where he stayed for 11 years - "the worst years of my life".

The problems revolved around John's workload - there was too little of it, he said, adding: "After three days my line manager came to me and said: 'Slow down; you have just done a month's work'."

John said he had to learn how to spread out a few days' work over a month. "And I became conditioned like everyone else to doing that."

But John, who was in his 20s, said that his idle hands made for the devil's work - his gambling.

He went into work in the mornings and got the newspaper to decide on his horse racing bets for the day.

"At lunchtime I went round to the bookies and I couldn't wait to go back round there. It impacted on everything in my life, including my sport and my work as a youth leader."

Ironically, he was also volunteering with the Samaritans, but he was unable to help himself.

"Gambling was a bit like a cancer. It eats into every aspect of your life. But I couldn't see it," said John, who'd got married but was struggling to pay off his mortgage.

He tried to keep his gambling problems from his wife, but he said she eventually discovered the truth.

"It all blew up. She found out we didn't have the money in the bank that we were supposed to have and she went and told my Da.

"He summoned me up to the house and on the way I stopped off at the bookies to have a bet."

John tried to soft-soap his father by saying that he didn't have a problem and that he only liked "a wee bet".

But he said that in reality there were nights he couldn't sleep, thinking about what he had done to people close to him and to others from whom he was borrowing money.

"It was a nightmare. The only way out for me, as a gambler, was to gamble sensibly and win," he said, acknowledging that was what all gamblers told themselves about the "elusive win". However, John's father finally told him that he wasn't going to let him destroy his wife's life, and his son vowed to do something about his gambling.

He told Hurrell: "I thought that would be the end of it, but he was too wise. He had already made contact with a group and he put me in touch with them.

"I had to go in to phone the guy there and then.

"He was waiting for the call and that was the first night that I sat talking to someone who knew what I was going through.

"I'm not ashamed to admit it - I cried like a baby."

And that was the beginning of the end of John's gambling.

"It was 1987 when I got married. It was 1988 when I had my last bet," said John, who added that he still lived with the problem every day.

He also said he was deeply concerned about the high numbers of young people who are taking their own lives here.

"Down through the years I have listened to people who have come to our group and they talk about how close they were to suicide and everything else.

"They need to know there are people there to help them."

In his own youth, sport was important to John, who played Gaelic football in west Belfast and was once on the bench for the Antrim county side in a game against Cavan at Breffni Park, where he thought he was about to hit the big time.

"The manager said 'John get stripped' and I got up, but there was another John who got stripped and he got playing," added John, who was mercilessly ribbed by his colleagues among the substitutes, including his own brother.

His late father Hugh was once a referee and chairman of the GAA in Antrim and John's proudest moment came when his father presented him with clubman and player of the year awards for his club.

John said: "They're the only trophies I have from my Gaelic football career that I still have and they are very dear to me because my father is no longer with us and he was a massive influence on my life.

"He instilled in us a lot of values and it broke my heart sometimes, the way I let him down." Long after John had beaten his gambling demons and when his father was dying in 2004, he asked him quietly: "Daddy you know the way you've always looked after me here, promise me you'll look after me when you're up there."

The response wasn't what John had been expecting.

"He just turned his head round and he said to me: 'What the f*** have you done now?'"

Belfast Telegraph

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