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Matthew Etherington: I blew 1.5m on gambling and kept my shame a secret

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16 Feb 2010 11:04:19

Matthew Etherington: I blew 1.5m on gambling and kept my shame a secret

Hitting a brick wall: Matthew Etherington was in a 'bad, bad way' but therapy plus a move to Stoke have given him a new lease of life The memories, sad and bad, come thick and fast for MatthewEtherington. He recalls his West Ham days when he would get on the teamcoach and by journey's end he would have gambled away that week's£20,000 wages. He remembers matches, too, but not for their results or his performances. Instead, he shakes his head at the times when the first thing hewould do after getting out of the shower would be to turn on his mobilephone to check how the horses he had backed had run. 'Looking back on it now, how can you prepare for a game when you areplaying cards on the bus with lots of money changing hands?' he says.'It was silly.' As for those match-day horses, 'I wasn't even watching them run. That's how stupid it was.' Thankfully for Etherington, he also remembers what he calls his 'defining day'. It is the fateful moment that addicts can always remember - those,that is, who are lucky enough to stop drinking, using drugs or gamblingbefore their illness plays out its sickening endgame. 'It was September 27 last year,' he says, with understandableemotion in his voice as we talk in a discreet corner of a Birminghamhotel about the time he finally came to realise how much he had damagedhimself, his family and his footballing career through betting. Etherington had arrived home from training with his current club, Stoke City, to find his parents, Julie and Peter, sat round his kitchentable along with his sister, Hayley, and partner, Stephanie.   Etherington given pay rise by Stoke to combat £800,000 gambling debtsMatthew Etherington: 'Addiction will always be a part of my life'Rejuvenated Etherington vows to give his all after banishing the demonsI've nothing to prove to Zola, insists Stoke's former Hammer Etherington Worry was etched on their faces. Remorse is etched on his now as he replays the scene in his mind's eye. They had known for a long time about his gambling but they did not know the extent. Indeed, his habit had been known in the game for a while, although none could guess at the damage. At one point, his debt reached £800,000, although part of that sum is now being disputed by his lawyers. Floored: Etherington was punting away his £20,000-a-week wages at West Ham Etherington reckons, however, that he has lost about £1.5million on greyhounds, horses and poker. 'They asked me to lay everything on the table and I did,' he says. 'They were all crying and I was emotional as well. They said, "We want to help you". 'I had become very withdrawn, not the person my family knew. When you are a gambler, you are in another world, not really listening. You're thinking about your next bet. 'It does go on in football but it is hard to tell with some people. With an alcoholic or drug addict you can look at them and say, "You are not well" but with a gambler it is harder. I was a loner, didn't tell anyone my business. Most people didn't have a clue about the debt I was in. 'That day, it hit home how much I had upset them. I realised what I had done to everyone in life I love the most. I realised this had to be it. If it wasn't, then the next step for me was a gutter somewhere.' His family were stunned by the detail, as most people would be. But staff at Sporting Chance, the treatment centre set up by former Arsenal and England captain Tony Adams and to which Etherington would go secretly just a few weeks later, were unsurprised. They understand the mentality of sportsmen and women with addictions and behavioural issues, as well as the modern Premier League where players have the time and opportunity to squander vast sums at young ages. They also believe there are more high-profile players out there with gambling issues that are undermining their careers. They, like Etherington, are in need of help. Not having had a bet since his time at the Sporting Chance centre in Surrey last October, he is now in the form of his life on the left wing for Stoke. His name is being mentioned for a potential England call-up with the World Cup in the offing. These days, his mother takes care of his accounts while he concentrates on earning the money to pay off the gas, electricity and tax bills that once piled up unopened.  Owning up: Matthew Etherington comes clean about his addiction 'It's a bit degrading for a 28-year-old but that's what it's come to,' he admits. 'Since I stopped [gambling], my form has got better and better and I don't think it's a coincidence. I don't have a burden on my shoulder. I am not thinking about gambling every day. 'I am feeling as fit and strong as I have ever felt. I have had negative Press in the last few years so for people to be talking about my football and me having a chance of getting in the England squad is very pleasing.' Most importantly, he has recaptured the freedom of the boy who grew up in Cornwall just wanting to play football. Etherington stood out in the footballing backwater of Falmouth and Truro and was picked up by Peterborough United. His father, a butcher, and his hairdresser mother moved the family to Cambridgeshire when their son was 12 to give him the best chance of making it as a professional. He did. After a Football League debut at just 15 years and 262 days, he played in an outstanding team that reached the FA Youth Cup semifinal and Peterborough manager Barry Fry, ever the dealer, persuaded Tottenham to pay what would add up to £2m for Etherington and the other top youngster at London Road, Simon Davies. Soon the pair were billeted at a hotel just off the M25 at Waltham Abbey and Etherington, then 18, traces the roots of his gambling - the chase for the buzz, the freedom from tedium and loneliness - back to that time. Long shot: Now enjoying a new lease of life at Stoke, Etherington's form has put him in the frame for place in the England team 'I was bored out of my mind,' he says. 'Simon and I were sick of the sight of each other. I remember one night looking in the evening paper and there was a dog card for Walthamstow. I had nothing to do. I thought I would go along. I didn't see any harm in it. I actually enjoyed it.' At first he would lose only £30 or £40 and thought little of it. But from once a month, it became once a week. He even bought greyhounds, although it was still just a hobby. 'I enjoyed the sport, apart from the gambling on it, and I had a fondness for the dogs and cared about their welfare,' he says. 'If it had stayed at 30 or 40 quid, I wouldn't have bothered, just gone home and not chased it. You never like losing but I didn't have the compulsion that I needed to win that money back. That came later on.' His career at White Hart Lane stalled under Glenn Hoddle and after a move to West Ham, newly relegated, he revelled in the Championship. He was the club's player of the year and West Ham won the playoffs to return to the Premier League in his second season. He had another good year as West Ham reached the FA Cup final, losing to Liverpool, but the gambling had been getting worse. 'I was gambling in all forms, playing poker on the internet or in schools, but it was basically the dogs and horses, going into betting shops, betting online. Not football, because there are a lot of rules and it was becoming known that I had a problem and I didn't want to go down that road. Cards on the table: Alan Pardew stopped the gambling culture among the players at Upton Park If there was a European Championship or a World Cup, I would do it then. 'There were card schools at West Ham and it did get a little bit out of hand. People were taking three, four, five grand on the bus with them. When that was gone, you were borrowing more. You could win 20 grand or lose 20 grand on a single journey, which is ludicrous. Then some would play in their rooms. It wouldn't just stop on the bus. 'It can't be good for team morale. Any normal human being, if you are losing a lot of money, you are not going to be happy about it and you are going to resent the person taking it off you. 'You could be going out on to a pitch knowing that your win bonus or appearance money that day is more or less down the drain because you have lost it already. Alan Pardew [then the manager] stopped it, which he was right to do.' It did not stop Etherington, however. His form dipped, his bets grew bigger, indulged by the bookies. 'There are certain bookmakers who will give you good credit knowing you earn a good wage. You can be betting telephone numbers,' he says. 'My wages were gone every month and I was on good money, about £20,000 a week. It was taking over my life.' Match-day rituals became obsessive, starting at home in Chigwell. 'I would place the bets in the morning - first thing I would do, either on the internet or going into a bookies. Instead of getting my head right for the game, I was thinking, "Right, what horse am I going to back today?". 'After the game, as soon as I got out of the shower, I would turn on my phone and get the results. I wasn't even watching the horse run. That's how stupid it was. 'There would be afternoons when I would go into a bookies with a couple of grand and I would lose it and be gutted. I was full of shame and guilt and would hate myself. But within five minutes, that had gone and I would think, "Right, where am I going to get the money for the next bet?". I knew it was going to spiral out of control but I was still doing it.' Issues were surfacing in his marriage to wife Claire, made worse by the gambling she knew about, and when they had a daughter, Seani, he tried to do the right thing. He went to Sporting Chance in February 2007. He was not ready, however.  Problems: Tony Adams helped set up the Sporting Chance clinic 'I had a great week and came out thinking I was fixed and didn't need anything else,' he recalls. 'I didn't continue therapy and within six to nine months I was gambling again. They always say when you relapse, it gets worse. And it did. 'I was in a bar with friends watching football. I still had debts and I was getting phone calls regarding them. It wasn't the death threats that were reported but I was getting pressure from people I owed money to, on to me all the time. I was thinking, "I am not getting anywhere here. What is this all about?". 'I just walked round the corner to a bookies and had a bet.' West Ham agreed to make Etherington a loan, reported to be £300,000, as long as he got help. But he was still not ready. Instead, with his marriage breaking up, he wanted a fresh start and Stoke City offered a new home. 'I managed to pay off some debt but there was still some outstanding, about £800,000,' he says. 'But I lost more than that in all. About £1.5million. Definitely.' Etherington did well enough, laying on and scoring a couple of goals, but he knew that he was capable of much more. More to come: Etherington now feels he's beaten his gambling addiction There was still the odd bet but by now he was close to reaching the rock bottom that he says 'you need before you [can] get yourself better'. He admits: 'The damage was done. I was drowning but I no longer had the money to gamble. It was all gone. I had gone through a divorce and was left with nothing every month. It got to the point where I didn't want to bet any more. I was sick to the teeth of it. It had got the better of me. It chewed me up and spat me out. I was in a bad, bad way.' He needed to change the misery of simply not gambling into gratitude for a life without it. It came on that day last September, reinforced by another week with Sporting Chance. 'I genuinely feel that something just clicked,' he says. 'I understand the illness now and have to go to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, which I do twice a week in Birmingham.' Recently, however, he received an email from a bookmaker that spooked him. It said that he still had money in an account he thought had been shut down. He called his mother and girlfriend, who told him to ring the company. 'They said I had money in my account,' he says. 'That was me as a gambler - I didn't know if I was winning or losing. I could have easily not told anyone about it and thought, "Here's an opportunity to gamble some money that nobody knows about". I like to think I had beaten a demon there.' He knows there will be others, however. 'The illness will always be there and I know it is waiting for me to get complacent and thinking, "I am on top of this". 'If I have just one more bet, I could ruin the rest of my life. And I just don't want to do that.'  Etherington given pay rise by Stoke to combat £800,000 gambling debtsMatthew Etherington: 'Addiction will always be a part of my life'Rejuvenated Etherington vows to give his all after banishing the demonsI've nothing to prove to Zola, insists Stoke's former Hammer Etherington


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