Tales of addiction that leave scar on the beautiful game

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The Independent Online

Football and gambling go way back – back to the game's roots. But in the internet age of 24-hour betting, in a society where government endorses it and in an era of unprecedented wages, gambling has become the silent, corrosive force that threatens the sport.

Football and betting are not new bedfellows. In the Seventies, Stan Bowles found it harder to pass a ball than bookie's. In the Sixties, Sheffield Wenesday's David "Bronco" Layne, Peter Swann and Tony Kay were jailed for match-fixing. In 1913, a parliamentary inquiry concluded that betting "remained a menace to football".

The difference now is that the driver is the desperation of players suffering gambling addictions as betting is glamorised. Four Premiership clubs have betting companies as shirt sponsors. Every club has an affiliated "betting partner", with website links.

Big-name players, including England internationals, gamble large sums, quite legally, and with no suggestion that they are doing anything other than spending relatively affordable portions of their massive wages. Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and members of the Chelsea squad (who reportedly bet £500,000 in two hours at Cheltenham races in 2006) are among them. That is their prerogative. The flip side is a long list of players publicly confirmed as problem gamblers – star names include West Ham's Matthew Etherington, the former Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen, and Roy Carroll, once of Manchester United, now at Derby County.

Lesser-known players include the former Scotland Under-21 international Grant Brebner and Mark Badman of non-league Chippenham Town. Last year, Badman, like dozens of other players, spent 26 days in residential care at Sporting Chance in Hampshire. He said it saved his life.

These names represent just a fraction of football's gambling problem. Expert delegates at a seminar this week outlined how players can get into trouble.

Gary Armstrong, a sports sociologist, spoke of a "winner-loser" culture, of "obsession", and "daily risk-taking" (from a tackle in training upwards). He has spent time at clubs to study the "occupational culture" of football, and says: "I could not believe the tedium of being a professional footballer." Hours are spent killing time, or in "rites of passage" card schools.

Developing that theme, Chris Mordue, Sporting Chance's director of training and education, said the clinic had seen instances of "up to £60,000 changing hands between players on the way to a game". The internet has led to scenarios such as "curtains closed, three laptops, two mobile phones, and all that while a player was injured". Another delegate, who advises 400 footballers on communications technology, described as "absolutely frightening" the fact that 300 of them use laptops for gambling.

Yet amid these abstract figures, it is the individual human stories of misery that ram home the problem. The seminar heard three, including that of Warren Aspinall, 40, who retired in 2000 after a career that included spells at Everton and Aston Villa. His gambling began as a young player. The low point saw him blow his £1,800 monthly pay from his post-football job at Sainsbury's in a few hours.

He drank his last £20, then sat on a train track in the dark. He said only at the last moment did he think: "What the fuck are you doing? You have beautiful kids at home." He stood up as the train sounded its horn. It nicked him as he stepped clear.

Close to tears, he told the seminar: "I rang the PFA [players' union] and said 'I've just tried to commit suicide. Please help me.'" Encouraged by his fiancée, Karen, he has recently completed a course of residential treatment.

The seminar focused not just widespread gambling in society – which is reflected in football – but on whose responsibility it is to deal with the consequences. GamCare, the national charity that helps problem gamblers, believes "the polluters should pay"; that gambling companies should fund help for problem gamblers in general. The Premier League's view is the same.

Sporting Chance has a relationship with one betting firm, Goldchip Gaming, a favourite with footballers. Peter Kay, Sporting Chance's chief executive, declined financial support from the company. "But they asked asked us to train their staff in spotting potential problematic gamblers, and how to support them," says Mr Kay. "This firm has steered a client of theirs our way. He has received support and counselling already. This is good practice and shows a proactive way the gaming industry can work."

But preventive education remains a cloudy issue. The PFA funds a lot of work, not all with specialist-agency input. And the Premier League is currently deciding whether to endorse an initiative called the Players' Programme, already in place at Manchester United, which would provide programmes in association with Sporting Chance.

As things stand, the League has no uniform, expert-based system of education for clubs. It privately concedes that it needs it, and is involved in a tender process to get it. The League argues that until now, it has helped via measures such as PFA funding. One recovering addict at the seminar said: "There was nothing like [extensive education] on gambling and stuff in my day." He is in his twenties.