Niall McNamee’s long journey back from gambling addiction
Offaly forward reached depths of despair – but the toughest road was the one to recovery
Offaly’s go-to forward Niall McName will line out for his 13th championship this summer. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
On the night that Offaly beat Antrim in their final Division Four match six weeks ago, management happily let off the handbrake and the squad went out to sink a few to a league well played.
Niall McNamee doesn’t drink any more. He quit for a while after being in treatment for his gambling addiction, then went back on it for a while and then quit again. No big deal either way.
On this night out anyway, the mood was chipper with everyone. They’d nailed down their second promotion from Division Four in three seasons and nobody was in any doubt they were going to make this one stick. McNamee sat in amongst it, the elder statesman at just 29. Loving it.
At the table behind him, a few of the squad started talking golf with the Masters starting the following week and Shane Lowry in the field. As with almost any group of men in their 20s, they began to kick around names of players to back in the tournament. Beside him, midfielder Niall Smith turned around to throw in his no-lose suggestion only to turn back and see McNamee sitting there in front of him.
“He froze!” laughs McNamee. “Sure it was nothing to me at all. I know people can have a social bet – my problem was I couldn’t stop once I started. But it’s no problem for me to be around that kind of chat, no way.
“Anyway, he turned back to the lads and just put his head in his hands and they all broke their shite laughing at him. I just leaned over his shoulder and slagged them, ‘Lads, ye’re going down a slippery slope there . . .’”
He is three-and-a-half years without a bet. His losses were public – valley of the squinting windows stuff to begin, a come-clean interview in the Irish Independent after it all unravelled. At his wits’ end, he owed €80,000 around the place. His life now is a happy one, built back up brick by half-brick.
“Recovery is difficult,” he says. “Like, you think gambling is hard! Once you go into recovery, you have to start dealing with yourself. You have to go through all the things that you did and the people that you hurt. You have to work through the emotional turmoil of trying to make amends to people.
“Even just trying to live a normal life without the crutch you used to have. Something bad happens and my reaction in the past was to go to the bookies. I could spend a couple of hours in there and not have to deal with whatever else was going on. Whereas now when something bad happens, you have to deal with it and talk about it. That can be the hardest thing in the world.”
Tonight in Tullamore, McNamee lines out for his 13th championship. Through everything, through addiction, through treatment, through recovery, he never hid. In his whole intercounty career, he’s missed just one championship game – a qualifier against London in the middle of his Leaving Cert. But otherwise, he’s been ever-present.
He played minor, under-21 and senior championship for Offaly in the same year. In the beginning, times weren’t bad at all. Laois pipped them after a replay in 2003 and went on to win Leinster. Westmeath took them by a point the following year and did the same. They made a Leinster final themselves in 2006 and McNamee ended the year with an All Star nomination. In the social strata of the championship from year to year, Offaly were solid middle class.
And in McNamee, they had someone who could allow them notions and aspirations. If they could just get him the ball, if they could just get him help, then maybe they could aim that little bit higher. He was the leader of their attack while still only 20, the future from long before it. Yet all the while, his grip on sanity slipped ever away.
The addict sees life, far more of it than the rest of us, through eyes that widen less readily as the years tick by. McNamee was in a meeting with an alcoholic one night and the poor guy was fixated on this pub in Dublin he couldn’t walk past. He wanted to get better, he wanted life to feel like more than the hopelessly tangled knot it had become. But this pub was there, always there. And he couldn’t pass it without going in.
“So somebody said to him, ‘Why don’t you use the number 16 bus as your higher power?’ The lad looked at him and went, ‘What do you mean?’ And yer man goes, ‘Well, the 16 goes past that pub every day of the week, dozens of times a day. Make that your higher power.’ And so he did.”
He tells the story not for the laugh, although he chuckles at the recollection. It’s more to convey a sense of the unreality of it all. Gambling was a frenzied, untethered thing for him. The notion of betting on a soccer match or a golf tournament never appealed because you had to wait too long to find out if you’d won or not. Why wait four days when a dog race lasts less than a minute?
Gambling was adrenaline. Get it in, get it on, get it back, go again. He won six grand in a casino in Melbourne one night, went and bought himself a steak dinner, dropped a huge tip and headed for home. Ten feet from the door, his eye was caught by a roulette table and he sat down for one last go before bedtime. Lost the six grand. Went to the cash machine, took out another grand. Lost that too. Had to ring home in shame for money.
I’d go mad
“I’ve been very lucky. All the help I’ve got and treatment I’ve got has been great for me. I know myself now. I know what it takes for me to feel well. Before, I hadn’t a clue. I just buried all the stuff. I’d pick something out like a county final two months away and focus fully on it. And for those two months, I wouldn’t gamble and I would be a pleasure to live with. But the day after the county final, I’d have nothing to focus on and I’d go mad. I’d do whatever I had to do.
“I see it in people who are in recovery now. They give up the drink and go to the gym three times a week. And I say, ‘Yeah, that’s brilliant.’ But I know well that two months later, the three times a week is down to one or maybe none and the form is bad and the emotions that are going on inside them haven’t been dealt with. If it isn’t dealt with, it will never go away.”
Somehow, it never really impinged on his football. There was a Leinster club match one year that has stuck with him ever since but it was the exception.
“This really hurt me. I don’t think I’ve ever said this to anyone before. Nobody knew about my gambling at the time as far as I was concerned. I was in a bad way but I was keeping it secret I thought. We had a penalty about 10 minutes into the game and as I was lining it up, one of their lads walked past me and said, ‘What price are you for first goal?’ That really hurt me. I carried that for months afterwards. For years, actually. My mind was going mad. How the fuck did he know? Who’s talking about me? What’s going on?”
He missed the penalty but scored the rebound. Otherwise though, life outside the whitewash disappeared when he laced up his boots.
“Football was a complete escape for me. I often tell the story of a county semi-final we played and I was gone mad with the gambling at the time. I didn’t know what I was doing. I hadn’t a bob and I owed about 20 grand. My life was up in a heap and I didn’t know what to do with myself. My mind was fried.
“We were going for four in a row and we played Shamrocks in the semi-final. I had a great game, scored 3-3, but we lost. Later on, we went for a few pints and I had to borrow €50 off the barman to get through the night. A supporter came over to me at one point and put his arm around me and said, ‘I never saw a player as upset about losing a match as you were today.’ He had seen me in floods of tears.
“And yeah, I was upset at losing the match but it was the whole emotion of the state of my life with the gambling that got to me. When I had football, I was fine. I could put it all to one side. But even at half-time that day, I couldn’t think of the game. I was sitting in the dressingroom in a state wondering how I was going to pay all this money back. My mind was melted. But then we went back out on the field and it went away, just like that.”
Digging a tunnel out the other side of it all is the hardest thing he’ll ever do. By contrast, winning a game in the Leinster Championship ought to be a piece of cake and yet here he sits, without one since 2007. For all the drudgery and all the beatings though, he could never be without it.
“It’s enjoyable. Even after last year, which went so badly that when it was over it was just a relief to go back and play with the club. It was just a nightmare. Management weren’t happy, players weren’t happy. You just got the sense that this thing was about fulfilling fixtures and not a lot more. When it gets to that stage, you wonder is it worth it. I strongly remember going home last year when it was over and not being sure if I would come back this time.
“But even after that, you can’t just walk away from it. I didn’t go back straight away with Offaly because we took a break after the club made the Leinster final. But even the first night that they were playing an O’Byrne Cup game, I was there with the phone every two minutes checking the score. The heart knows what it wants. If I was to go away and not play, I just wouldn’t be happy. The heart wouldn’t let me do that.
“And anyway, I would be strongly of the opinion that you can’t waste what you’re good at. What are you here for? Why would you not fulfil the promise of what you’re good at? To me, that’s criminal. Playing intercounty football is how you honour that talent. I’d be big believer in purpose.”
How well it has served him through fights hard won. Both in the past and still to come.