'Gambling in football at epidemic levels but managers support it'

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The Independent Online

Gambling has reached "almost epidemic levels" within football, according to the man in charge of Britain's foremost treatment centre for sportsmen with addictive illnesses. "I'm not scared of using the word 'epidemic'," Peter Kay, the chief executive of the Sporting Chance charity, told The Independent. "Gambling is the largest addiction within football... It is an accepted, tolerated form of relaxation for players which is not only condoned by clubs and managers, but supported."

Sporting Chance was founded by Tony Adams in the wake of the former Arsenal and England captain's battle with alcoholism. Kay's words carry particular resonance in light of Wayne Rooney's alleged gambling debts of £700,000, and following reports that other top-flight players bet up to £200,000 on single matches.

Kay's inside knowledge has led him to the "epidemic" conclusion, and he knows that players at some of England's biggest clubs are battling gambling addictions while their clubs ignore the issue. Last year he wrote to the 20 Premiership clubs offering seminars on addiction, at no cost to the clubs. Eleven clubs failed to respond, eight accepted the offer, and one club - one of England's biggest clubs - wrote back to decline. The manager wrote that he "did not feel that there was any need at present" for Sporting Chance's work at his club.

"So why is it that I could name you two players at [that club] who are in serious trouble with their gambling?" Kay said. "And why is that two players at that club have indirectly sought help from our charity? It's a fact." The club was not Manchester United.

Sporting Chance deals with a large proportion of the footballers in Britain who struggle with addictions, whether through alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex. Players are routinely directed there by the Football Association after failed drugs tests, or by clubs if concerns arise about other problems. The Professional Footballers' Association also steers players with problems to Sporting Chance, which also offers regular clinics away from its Hampshire base. The PFA and the FA are Sporting Chance's major financial backers.

The charity has helped numerous players with addiction problems or other behavioural issues, the majority anonymously. High-profile clients who have acknowledged Sporting Chance's help in recent times include Adrian Mutu (after cocaine use), Joey Barton (because of anger management problems) and Noel Whelan (for an alcohol problem).

Kay says that gambling problems are widespread, but mostly secret. "Gambling is an unspoken addiction. It doesn't manifest itself physically, outwardly, although it certainly does in performance on the pitch, and mentally," he said.

While gambling is a growing problem, and there is still evidence of an alcohol culture within football, especially at lower levels, Kay said that, in his experience, the use of illegal drugs by players is minimal. "Drug use in football, people with serious problems, is very limited in my opinion," he said.

He added that in most of the drugs cases he has dealt with in football, including Mutu's, they seemed to arise because of susceptibility to temptation via alcohol use first.

The Independent's wide-ranging survey of players in the English game found that 26.5 per cent of professionals, across all divisions, believe that football has any problem at all with recreational drug use by players. The figure was lowest in the Premiership (18.5 per cent), but increased down the divisions, to 24 per cent in the Championship, 26 per cent in League One and 37 per cent in League Two.

When asked about performance-enhancing drugs, 84 per cent of all players said football had no problems at all. This rose as high as 88 per cent in the Championship. A huge majority of players (93 per cent) said they were fully aware of the doping laws, procedures and sanctions, while six per cent admitted they were not. One per cent did not answer that question.

Kay believes that the higher up the league ladder a player progresses, the less chance he will use recreational drugs, because there is an increased need to be disciplined and maintain high performance levels. He also said that alcohol seemed to be more prevalent further down the leagues, and that he believes "there will be a link" between that relative prevalence and the survey's findings on drugs.

"In the case of say Mutu, it was front page, it got highlighted, it was all 'Overpaid footballers blah blah blah'. But the [drugs] cases are actually few and far between. I would say the majority of the cases that we've seen would be alcohol-related. By that I mean that one of the beauties of alcohol - a lovely, sedative drug - is that you tend to lose your inhibitions, you feel looser... Unfortunately one of the things it also does is it takes away your ability to make the right decision. And quite often we find that players who've got extremely drunk and then been offered drugs have not got that automatic 'no' button inside them, and there are countless stories of players who have done things or said things or got themselves into situations that they would never, ever, ever, under normal circumstances, have got themselves into."

Kay, like all the Sporting Chance staff who are directly involved with clients, is a recovering addict. His own problems included alcohol, a variety of drugs, and gambling. Sporting Chance offers a broad range of programmes and help to sportspeople with addictions.

Some clients attend "outpost" clinics, for example in London, where there are twice-weekly assessment sessions and players can also go for psychotherapy or "aftercare". The most intensive programmes are run at Sporting Chance's HQ in Liphook, where up to four clients at a time undergo programmes lasting between a week and a month.

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