Footballers' Lives with Matthew Snoddy: A gambling addiction nearly killed me but God saved my life and I owe Him everything, now I want to help other people on a similar journey
Crues ace Matthew Snoddy on how Tranmere woe made him more determined, breaking through aged 17, why he nearly ended it all, and his faith.
Q: How did your career start?
A: The first boys club I signed for as a 10-year-old was Greenisland Boys. I fell in love with the game and it's amazing how many top players came through that club including Craig Cathcart and the two Evans boys, Jonny and Corry. I played with Josh Carson, Ross Glendinning, Michael Ruddy, Thomas Robinson, Daniel Kelly, William Bingham and Jonny Cosgrove. I was captain, winning Player of the Year awards.
Q: Was there a chance to play across the water?
A: I had trials at Tranmere when Kenny Shiels was at their Academy. The club had financial issues and nothing developed. Kenny then lost his job and he later advised me to join Crusaders. I had agreed to sign for Linfield but Kenny thought I would have a better chance of making the first team quicker at the Crues. My old coach at Greenisland, Mark Sweeney, got the Crues Under-18 job and he and Jeff Spiers convinced me to join. I played with two of Jeff's nephews at Greenisland and he knew me well.
Q: How did you feel coming back from Tranmere?
A: I was absolutely devastated. I was dreaming 'this is the life I am going to live' and then the full-time dream is over. But it never damaged my motivation. If anything, it increased my desire to do well. I've always had that determination to prove people wrong. I can remember being left out of a Milk Cup team and the manager said, 'Don't think it's all over, some players left out can still go on and have a career in the Irish League'. I did that while some of the players selected didn't. People said I was too small. I don't look back with regrets but I do think the Irish League is underrated. I see players coming back home and they can't cope with the intensity of it. The Irish League is a good education for players. Yes, I was disappointed to come home but I've always been a fighter and self-motivated. No one pushed me, including my parents.
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Q: What were the early days like at Crusaders?
A: I can remember seeing Stephen Baxter in the old tunnel and there was myself, Michael Ruddy and William Bingham who had signed. I was a confident kid and I remember Stephen saying he wanted to see us established in the first team within five years. I said to him, 'Stephen, I want to be there within two years' and he probably thought I was a bit over-confident but I made my first-team debut at 17. I'm glad I came through in that era with players like Davy Rainey, Michael Halliday, Paul Leeman and Colin Coates because I learned so much. Now young players are protected but I got the rough treatment. I got booted in training but it was important experience.
Q: Do you think if you had gone to Linfield your career might not have taken off in the same way?
A: I have that thought all the time. I could never have featured and ended up playing at a lower level. At one point at Crusaders I did think about leaving. I was in the reserves and impatient. It was a frustrating time and I went to see Mark Sweeney. I told him I was going to Linfield but he talked me round. He said, 'Settle down, your time will come, just stay patient'. Two weeks after that conversation I made my first-team debut and yet I was so close to leaving. It's thanks to Mark I'm at Crusaders.
Q: What has been your best moment in football?
A: In my first season as a 17-year-old we got to the League Cup final, Irish Cup final and Setanta Cup final. I've since learned it's very tough to get into finals, maybe I took it for granted. The one outstanding memory was the Setanta Cup victory. It was amazing and the celebrations included an open top bus from the Park Avenue Hotel to the Shore Road. It took me an hour to walk from the bus to get to Seaview because everyone wanted to grab me and kiss me! It was surreal and I took a penalty in the shoot-out as we beat Derry City. Why was a 18-year-old putting his name forward to take a penalty? That was me… fearless.
Q: Was your worst moment losing the league title at Ballymena?
A: That was a gut-wrenching experience. Myself, Craig McClean, Jordan Forsythe and Andy Mitchell just went for a drive afterwards and went to McDonald's as we didn't want to go home. No one, including Stephen Baxter, spoke after the game. It was hard to take but the shoe was on the other foot a year later.
Q: You've had to deal with personal issues, including a gambling addiction, in your life. How has football helped you cope with everything?
A: My personality and approach to life has changed a lot in the last two years. Football doesn't mean as much to me anymore. It used to be life or death. Football was an obsession, almost like a god to me. It determined my mood and behaviour around friends and family. Football was an adrenaline rush and buzz. My mind was clear when I played, it was a good release. Strangely, when I was playing so well, we won the league and I got Young Player of the Year, I was at my lowest in my life. On the pitch I was flying but a gambling addiction was spiralling out of control. I can remember going to the bookies at 9am on a Saturday morning before a game with no food or water in me and driving down to Seaview at the last minute having lost between £400 to £500. My head was in the gutter, it was awful preparation but I was still able to play well. Once I played I forgot the stress and worry associated with gambling. I've always had that natural fitness, I could run all day. Football was a coping mechanism.
Q: Do you ever think where you would be if you didn't have football in your life?
A: One hundred per cent, I probably wouldn't be here. I was suicidal for a very long time when I couldn't see any point to life. From the age of 17 I always had deep questions about life. The gambling took hold of my life and generated fear, anxiety and depression. It started off as a sociable thing but once you're hooked and you get that buzz the addiction gets worse. Eventually I reached a crossroads where I had to decide do I take my own life or sort myself out?
Q: Could you talk to anyone about your gambling?
A: I think deep down my family knew I had some sort of an addiction because I was always borrowing money but I was a compulsive liar and could get out of situations. I made up silly excuses and was very good at convincing people I wasn't in the bookies all day. I convinced myself I didn't have an addiction. The truth is when you have a serious addiction you need to seek help because it can ruin your life. My mum Tina knew I had a problem but I said I could stop it. Even gamblers were saying to me, 'Why are you here, get out of it before it's too late'. There's a line you can't cross and if you can't control that line you have an addiction.
Q: Is gambling a serious problem in football?
A: It seems to go hand in hand with football. I see loads of people with addictions. I could give you 20 to 30 names and the players probably don't realise it themselves. I've had conversations with people and been able to advise. With gambling there's no physical symptoms.
Q: Did you work out how much you lost?
A: It's scary. I've earned a lot in my career but it went quickly. I just wanted the buzz of being in the bookies and then the online gambling was really bad.
Q: Did you feel terrible about lying to your family?
A: I did, and that's where my faith kicks in. I know God has forgiven me and that gives me peace. What God has done with my family since I have been saved is unbelievable. When I was saved I had my brother David with me. The seed was first planted in my head by Michael Halliday, who was at Crusaders. We went to Christians in Sport with Russell Bowers, who has been a massive help, and it was during the start of my addiction. I began searching for answers but Michael left the Crues and my life spiralled out of control.
Q: Tell us about your lowest point.
A: I can remember the day well. We were on the bus coming back from a game on the north coast and I owed my family money. Credit cards were maxed out, loans had been taken and I had nowhere to turn. I didn't speak to anyone but I had my wage packet and I said to myself, 'I'm going to the bookies and if I don't win I'm taking my own life'. I didn't want anyone to help me, I genuinely wanted to do it. It wasn't a cry for help, I wanted to do it. I lost the money, got into my car and was crying my eyes out. I drove to the bottom of Carnmoney Hill and it was raining. I ran up the hill and looked over the edge. I thought about my whole life, the pain I had caused and how much a mess it had become. I was building up my courage to jump and knew if I did that I wouldn't survive. I stepped back 10 paces and got the stance ready to sprint. Then the phone went in my pocket and lit up with a picture of my son Jensen. Suddenly the guilt hit me… how could you be so selfish and leave your son without a father? Are you just going to give up? You've never done that in your life before, you're going to fight this. I wiped away the tears and I know it was God giving me the strength to pull through. That saved my life and I decided I wasn't going to live a lie anymore. I went home to my mum and dad, dropped to my knees in tears and told them I need serious, professional help. My mum was shaking like a leaf, pulled out the Yellow Pages and phoned Gamblers Anonymous. I poured my heart out and a guy said to me, 'You'll need to come to terms with the fact this addiction will never leave you, it will always be there. We will give you the tools to help you stay away from it'. I thought, 'What sort of hope is that? I'm not a bad person, what have I done to deserve this addiction that will never leave me?' To a certain extent he was right. I didn't gamble for nine months but it was a constant fight for me. It was a real struggle every day but David got saved and then I felt God was coming back into my life. I was reluctant to go to services until I heard the former Cliftonville player Conor Downey was speaking at Abbots Cross Congregational and I knew my life had led me to this point. I could relate to everything Conor said and I started to pray. I was absolutely petrified but I knew I needed saved. I told John Weir, who was taking the mission, everything. John said I was designed in a way so I can't be complete and that only God can fill that void. It hit me like a steam train and I surrendered my life to God. I got up off my knees and felt my heart and soul had changed. I have changed so much it is unbelievable. I can help and encourage people now.
Q: You can bring hope and comfort to people by sharing your story. Does that give you satisfaction?
A: It's what drives me. Football doesn't drive me. I'll never lose that competitiveness but I don't take it home. I'm conscious I'm representing Christ and I know my purpose. I've no interest in what I personally achieve. The motivation to gamble has been completely replaced by the motivation to help other people. Nothing will get in the way of my walk with God now.
Q: How can we tackle gambling in football?
A: Other than Gamblers Anonymous, a lot of people might not have the courage to speak out. There's always a lot of worries about people bad-mouthing you or broadcasting your problems. Maybe I can help and I have that passion. I have spoken to players and can offer them hope. It's important to be open and honest, you must accept you have a problem and be willing to listen.
Q: There's a lot of gambling advertising and sponsorship in football. Crusaders have Toals on their shirts. How do you feel about that?
A: It doesn't concern me and I haven't given it a lot of thought. I would prefer it not to be there but I appreciate clubs need the funding. I have to respect that other people will take a different view.
Q: As a father, do you also feel a need to be a good role model for your boys?
A: I've two boys, Jensen is five and Jude is one and a half. They are my world. I'm separated from the boys' mum and it has been a tough time but I have to accept God has a plan for me. I don't see the boys every day but time with them is precious and we enjoy making memories. I won't let them gamble, I feel strongly about that because it can suck anyone in. My dad Bobby was angry when I was growing up. He had issues including post traumatic stress disorder as a former serviceman but God has had a huge impact on my family because my mum, dad, two out of four sisters, two brothers-in-law, a niece, cousin, best friend and uncle have come to faith in the space of two years. My dad used to mock my faith but I've witnessed him transform into a different human being. He was an alcoholic and not a nice person but now he has been saved. I cried my eyes out when he asked God into his heart. He stopped swearing and poured drink down the sink, the anger left him too. Now I'll see him reading his Bible and it's hard to comprehend the change. I've seen evidence that God is real. My mum was a Christian who got married and had my two sisters and my brother. At the age of 21 my mum's ex-husband told her, 'Tina, my God's calling me home'. He said he had a vision in his dream and was suffering headaches. Two weeks after that he suffered a brain haemorrhage at the age of 21. My mum blamed God and drifted away from the church but she prayed every night for God to save her kids and God has answered her prayers. Before a game against Linfield this season I was singing gospel songs and my mum heard the song 'It is well with my soul'. I heard someone shout 'Matthew come here quickly'. My mum, who was with my dad, said, 'It's not well with my soul' and I prayed with her. I encouraged her to let God into her heart and 33 years of heartache came flying out. Those experiences with my mum and dad are the best and most memorable. I know God stopped me going to the match early and through that song my mum found God again. If my mum's ex-husband had not died I wouldn't be sitting here today. It was God's plan and I owe my life to Him.
If you, or anyone close to you, is affected by any issues in this article, please contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Gamblers Anonymous on 02890249185