In the latest of our popular Footballers' Lives series, Ards defender Michael Ruddy opens up about overcoming personal demons and his bid to make daughter Zelena proud.
Q. Where did your football career begin?
A. I started when I was about five-years-old at Greenisland. We knocked a ball around on a Saturday, and other boys who were there included my good mate Matthew Snoddy, who is now at Crusaders; Ross Glendinning, who is at Ballymena United; Josh Carson at Coleraine and Daniel Kelly at Glentoran. We had a lot of talented boys but we were often going away on trials. I went to Colchester United and they asked me to come back but then their youth academy went bust.
Q. In your teenage years, you developed a gambling addiction. Is that difficult to talk about now?
A. I don't shy away from the issue. For me, it's better getting things off your chest and hopefully people will respect me for it. It's not taken seriously here by the Government or treated as an illness which is sad. I've been in changing rooms and there's gambling going on. My addiction was the roulette machine in betting shops and online gambling. It reaches the point where the numbers don't mean anything and you're not thinking about money. I started football betting when I was 17 and then moved onto the roulette machines. It gripped me and I got that desire for a quick hit - that adrenalin rush. Instead of waiting 90 minutes for a football bet, you got an instant rush. It took over my life but it took me a few years to acknowledge I had an addiction. Whether I had one pound or a million pounds I had to gamble it until it was all gone. I lost all value in money and it became dangerous, reckless behaviour.
Q. Did the gambling affect your football?
A. If you have a bad day and go to play football, you aren't going to be in the best frame of mind. In my time at Ballymena United it had an impact, particularly when I wasn't in the team. If I had lost a lot of money it might have affected my focus and concentration. They were dark days but I did try to help myself. It was no secret I attended Gamblers' Anonymous but I didn't break any rules.
Q. How are you feeling today?
A. I'm in the best frame of mind that I have been in for a long time and hopefully it shows on the pitch with Ards. I'll be 25 going into next season and want to play well in my prime years.
Q. Do you still gamble?
A. No, I need to go cold turkey but I still go to Gamblers' Anonymous and I tend to go there in the off season when I have more free time. You need to go regularly for that programme to work. There you can talk about your problems and relate to other people. Ards put me in touch with a counsellor who has really helped me. I had counselling before but it didn't work. This time I am learning more about myself. Anyone who gambles doesn't profit and I lost a lot of money.
Q. Matthew Snoddy talked about his gambling history on a BBC documentary about Crusaders. Have you been able to help each other?
A. We used to gamble together and when Matthew went up Carnmoney Hill thinking about taking his own life, I found him after a few of us went looking for him. I'm not going to judge him as I've been there too. We've been friends for a long time and I had a gut feeling he went there. I knew the path he would probably take and he was an emotional wreck, looking at a photo of his son. I sat with him for a while and we ended up coming down. I wasn't shocked at what happened, if anything it felt quite normal, as weird as that sounds.
Q. Matthew became a Christian and his faith has helped him move on from his troubled past. Have you travelled the same road?
A. He's found and chosen that path. I don't feel that's for me. Everyone has their own way of going through life.
Q. Have your family been supportive through the hard days?
A. I've been on a waiting list for Dunlewey Addiction Services but the truth is if I hadn't had the right support from family I could be six feet under waiting for help. The thought of suicide and not wanting to be here was in my life as depression took hold. My mum and dad, Graeme and Andrea, and younger sister Jessica are my close family, and I have a young daughter now called Zelena. I've got her name tattooed on my arm and she will be two-years-old on June 3. But I've had to deal with a lot including a relationship breakdown, the unexpected arrival of a daughter and then fighting gambling demons too. My girlfriend Kirsty is brilliant with Zelena. I probably don't realise how lucky I am because I have had strong backing from family throughout my football and other issues in my life. My grandparents follow my career closely and they are great as well.
Q. Has football been a release for you in the sense that it has taken your mind off dark thoughts?
A. It takes up a lot of time so you are not sitting around bored. A number of high profile players like former Northern Ireland international Keith Gillespie have shared their stories about gambling and it can help other people. It annoys me that there are not enough places for people to access help. Gambling advertising is everywhere but what if you have a problem with it? Where do you go? It's not just gambling... people have mental health problems and they need help but I've felt that gambling is the worst addiction you can have. I would also say that, although there isn't enough help for those who have a gambling addiction, it's also down to the individual to want to change their behaviour. People must have a desire to stop what they are doing.
Q. Has Matthew been a big help as you have travelled this journey together?
A. We can relate to each other. It takes another gambler to truly understand what you are going through. You can understand a little bit about it but never the whole story. I was diagnosed with depression as well and took medication for that.
Q. In your lowest moments, did you find yourself in a similar position to Matthew in that you thought about taking your own life?
A. Before and after the incident with Matthew, I've been in that situation. On two occasions suicidal thoughts entered my mind. It was hard to commit to anything because I faced debts. In terms of the worst day of my life, I've probably had two or three.
Q. Are you in a completely different place now?
A. Mentally yes, I'm feeling better than ever since my teenage years. I'm in a good place. I've had gambling debts cleared and I want to go forward without taking medication. I have everything going for me. I have a daughter, a lovely girlfriend, the best family, a half decent job as a welder and am playing football at the highest level in the country.
Q. Can you say 100 per cent that you're not going back to those gambling days?
A. No, I can't do that. It's with you for life and all you can do is arrest it, day by day. If I was to say 'I'll never do this again' it will feel like I'm telling you lies. I don't want to do it but I've had an addiction. This is a different stage of my life though and there's no reason why I can't stay away from the gambling.
Q. In February 2016 former Carrick Rangers defender Gareth McKeown was fined £1,000 and banned for the rest of the season for a breach of the Irish FA betting rules. Did that punishment surprise you?
A. No, I think they were making an example of him and wanted to crack down on it. I can appreciate that message going out.
Q. Do you believe there are other Irish League players going through what you experienced?
A. One hundred per cent. I probably know a few in the Premiership who have gambling issues. They have an addiction but they aren't doing anything about it. People don't realise they have a problem.
Q. Should football do more to help anyone suffering an addiction?
A. Much of that boils down to the player being prepared to open up. Some are in denial and some maybe haven't got the courage to admit they are powerless over their gambling. I know there is no easy fix but all you see are betting shops and advertisements, not places offering you help. Everywhere you go gambling is staring you in the face but hopefully players like Northern Ireland's Kyle Lafferty and (former Celtic striker) John Hartson talking about it can help. I don't believe there is shame in it but it's a serious illness. Some people will ask me why did I do it but there's no point in me trying to explain, they won't understand.
Q. Last month the GAA banned sponsorship from betting companies. Do you feel football should go down that road?
A. Fair play to them, it's not an issue restricted to one sport but I don't have a strong view on that. It might make a small difference but a gambler will find a way to gamble. It won't make the problem go away and gambling advertising will continue to exist.
Q. Has your girlfriend Kirsty been a big support?
A. Yes, when she was younger she lost her mother to cancer. She can understand what I have been through and she's great with my daughter. You have stresses in life... I was out for a while with a broken toe and I don't like sitting around frustrated.
Q. Is there any particular advice which has stuck with you?
A. My uncle Warren was in the army and he had some hard stuff to deal with. He talked about putting brick walls around him and every now and again having a quick look at the trouble out there in life as a reminder of what you are faced with after making a decision to go there. Have a quick look and then put the walls up again. That sticks in my head because I need those walls not to make a mistake.
Q. What have been the best days of your life?
A. There's two... seeing Zelena for the first time and holding her, that was a surreal experience. In football it was making my debut for Ballymena United. I was at Crusaders but they let me go and that was hard to take, but I've had disappointments before like being told I would miss out on the County Antrim Milk Cup team. I would have a desire to prove people wrong. Glenn Ferguson was the manager at United and the first game of the season was against Linfield who had just won the league. I made my debut and we beat them 2-0. Spike gave me a special mention on my debut, saying it looked like I had played there for years and it was a proud moment to have a legend like him praise me. It gave me a lot of confidence. He gave me a chance in the Irish League and I will always be grateful to him for that.
Q. Who is the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. In my early Irish League years Michael Carvill impressed me, while Paul Heatley and Gavin Whyte are now on fire. David Cushley, when he was at Ballymena, was either brilliant or terrible, there was no inbetween.
Q. Can you recall any amusing stories in your career?
A. While at Ballymena we had a night out in Letterkenny. The next morning Spike had us down training but half the boys hadn't been to sleep. Gavin Taggart started to do a warm up but he couldn't run. He said: 'Lads I'm struggling here, my bum is really sore'. He ended up having piles and on the bus home he had to sit on a rubber ring. Needless to say the banter was flowing.
Q. What are your hopes for the future, on and off the pitch?
A. The way I feel physically and mentally I can only see myself improving. My daughter is too young to realise what I've been through but she will pick up on things eventually and I don't want her to see me do wrong things. I want to compete at the top of the league, win trophies and play in Europe. I want something to show for my time in the Irish League. It's an ambition of mine to win everything. I'd love to reach a Cup final and walk out with Zelena as a mascot in my arms. After what I have been through, that would mean everything to me. I want those memories... happy ones.
* If you are affected by any issues in this article, contact the Samaritans free on 116123 or Lifeline on 080 8808 8000.