ARMAGH GAA legend, Oisin McConville delivered a hard-hitting, insightful talk to Derry students about his personal struggle with gambling and how his addiction left him contemplating suicide.
McConville, a two-times GAA All-Star winner, was a guest of the Ryan McBride Foundation at the Long Tower Youth Club on Friday morning where he explained how gambling had tarnished his outstanding football career.
Unable to mourn the death of his father due to his compulsive gambling, he openly admits begging, borrowing and even stealing from his family to feed his habit.
As he was introduced to the attendance, which included pupils from St Columb’s College, St Mary’s College, Lumen Christi, St Joseph’s Boys’ School and St Cecilia’s College, highlights of his remarkable career were shown on the projector.
One particular highlight was his memorable goal against Kerry in the 2002 All-Ireland Final as Armagh went on to lift the Sam Maguire when McConville was at the height of his addiction.
However, while his teammates and the entire county celebrated that historic win, McConville told how he couldn’t wait to get off the pitch and hurry into the changing room to check how the horse he bet on had fared.
“I missed a penalty in the first half but I scored a goal in the second half and we went on to win the game. I got the majority of the headlines in the paper the next morning which was absolutely brilliant,” he recalled.
“It was brilliant because it deflected away from the person I was. It deflected away from my compulsive gambling. I was a liar, a manipulator, a cheater - I was all of those things.”
It was an incredible insight into the dangers and pulls of addiction and, as a sporting hero, McConville’s story captured the attention.
The highly decorated Crossmaglen Rangers forward, who also won seven Ulster Championships with the Orchard County, explains how his life has now gone full circle.
From a path of loneliness at the height of his problems, to enlightenment when he finally went in for treatment for his addiction. And finally to a feeling of fulfilment as he now shares his personal story with people up and down the country in the hope of helping others avoid the many traps of addiction.
“I always felt I was one win away from solving all my problems,” he explained. “It wasn’t just my financial problems, because through my addiction I lost all my self respect and all integrity. Relationships, friendships, family members - all of those things were taken away from me because of my addiction.”
While there were certain stages in his life when he realised he needed help and tried to turn away from his problems, McConville said he was always just one bet away from losing everything as his life spiralled out of control.
When his father passed away after a short battle with cancer, McConville explained how his gambling addiction had taken such a hold on him, he couldn’t grieve properly and was unable to share his emotions.
“When I scored that goal in 2002 the first thing I did when I got back into the changing room was check my phone to check to see if the horse I backed came in,” he said. “It was the only thing I was interested in. I could not wait to get off the field. That’s how tarnished my sports career was because of the way I gambled.
“My father was diagnosed with cancer and was given five months to live and he spent the majority of that time in hospital in Newry. During that time I didn’t go to see my father.
“The reason I didn’t go to see my father was because anything revolving around my father at that time was full of emotion. The second thing was I didn’t have time to see my father because I had to feed my addiction. I wanted to gamble every single minute of every single day.
“Directly after the (All Ireland semi-final against Meath in 1999) I was to told to get my stuff, don’t get changed and my first reaction was my father. So we got into the car at Croke Park and got a Garda escort directly to the border and drove into Newry and my father passed away.
“It was the first time I said to myself it had to stop. I was going to walk into that room and tell my father I loved him. I had never told him that before. I went through that mantra in my head; ‘I’m never gambling again’; ‘I’m going to get myself sorted and get the help I need’.
“I walked into the room and my father was sitting there on the bed and I did the thing I always did, I clammed up. I didn’t tell my father I loved him and that was my last opportunity. My father died on the Wednesday. He was buried on the Saturday and the only thing I could think about that day was where my next bet was coming from. I didn’t cry at my father’s funeral or mourn my father’s death.
“I started gambling again on the Sunday. At that stage I would do anything to get the money to have a bet. Absolutely anything. Morals and values all went out the window from that point. It was spiralling out of control.”
When he went for an operation on a back injury in 2003, he flew to Luton where he spent £500 in the bookies while he waited for his flight the next morning. Left without enough for a taxi fare he found himself walking eight miles to the airport and it was at this point he contemplated thoughts of ending his life.
“I started shaking uncontrollably. I put £15 on a horse and it got beat and I started shaking again. I didn’t have enough money for the taxi to the airport. So I set my alarm for 3a.m. and walked eight and half mile from the hotel to the airport the next morning. For the first time ever I contemplated suicide.
And any large vehicle that passed I thought I’ll jump in front of this. The strange thing about my emotions was the overriding feeling I had was embarrassment. I was ashamed.
“I started that mantra again. ‘I’m never gambling again’ and I meant it this time. Twenty minutes later I was in a bookies in Dundalk.”
After his successful recovery some years later, McConville returned to the playing field and claims he felt ‘fitter and faster than ever.
“It was like being born again,” he said. “Complete redemption.”
With a wife and three kids he knows there’s much more to lose now. His last bet was on October 12th 2005.
While he knows it could take just one bet to start the whole chain of events again, McConville uses his time to preach about the dangers, desperation and ‘insanity’ of gambling.
And given that gambling is so accessible nowadays and goes hand in hand with sport, one of Ireland’s most decorated players, now an addiction councillor, is on a crusade to help those who find themselves battling with similar demons.
"In the age of smartphones and the internet it's so much more accessible than it ever has been. It's effecting a whole different demographic and the fact you can gamble on so many things in so many ways now makes it more of a problem."
McConville urges anyone struggling with addiction to get the necessary help.
"Make sure you tap into the right services. It doesn't cost anything to go to Gamblers Anonymous. Visit your GP and tell them what's going on. That's how things move along really quickly from there"
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