Former Irish League striker ‘destroyed’ by gambling addiction now offering help to others at risk
Jamie Smith was a promising young striker when, at 16, he walked into a bookies and placed his first football bet.
Seven years later, Smith was left “destroyed emotionally, financially, mentally and physically” after six-figure losses and two failed suicide attempts.
Now, approaching his seven-month anniversary in recovery, Smith wants to increase education and awareness among future generations.
Although clear that he is neither anti-gambling nor assigning blame beyond his own addiction, Smith is adamant society overall - and the football world in particular - must offer greater support for what he deems ‘problem gamblers’.
Smith’s development on the pitch as a teenager featured trophy success with Portadown Youth, victory at the Milk Cup over Liverpool in County Armagh colours and opportunities with Glenavon, Banbridge Town, Annagh United and Dollingstown - running parallel with a growing addiction off the pitch.
Steeped in the game from childhood thanks to his father (Dean), uncle (Andy) and grandfather (Raymond) connected in multiple ways to the Irish League, Smith ultimately fell out of love with football as gambling took over all aspects of his life.
“It reached the point I was making excuses not to play games or go to training as my first thought was I could be betting on football or horse racing instead,” said Smith. “I would make excuses during team talks to nip into the toilets and check racing or ask people in the crowd during games about the football scores.
“So, absolutely, my gambling stopped me kicking on and making the most of chances in football.
“I walked into a bookies at around 16 years old, put a bet on no questions asked and, worst of all, won, so remember rushing back into town that night to collect my money.
“I’m aware I have an addictive personality and had a fascination with betting from an early age, thinking back how even at 12 or 13 it baffled me people found it so hard to just pick teams that would win games.
“I’d been around football from a boy because of my family so know how much talk goes on about gambling within football teams.
“I blame myself and realise for most it’s not an issue but we need to do more to identify those at risk early on and provide a support system in advance.
“Gambling did not become a problem for me because of football but there was an aspect of using betting to seem a big lad and help me feel accepted as a young player within a changing room full of adults, established players.
“It’s such a big part of the football world around changing rooms and it’s important to say I realise 99 per cent of people can put a bet on and not have a problem.
“But you only have to look at the adverts on television since the return of football from lockdown to see how normalised sports betting has become in everyday life.
“That’s something I’m trying to highlight to increase education among the next generation, especially young footballers walking into first-team changing rooms who may, like me, be vulnerable to something developing into a problem.”
Smith has established a Twitter account (@Prob_GamNI) designed to raise awareness of the dangers of problem gambling.
Having celebrated a 24th birthday this month, Smith can recall his landmark 18th as another example of addiction taking hold.
“I sat up the night I turned 18 waiting literally for the clock to go past midnight so I was finally eligible for online gambling and immediately set up a number of online accounts,” said Smith, who estimates a six-figure loss over his seven years. “That’s my big memory from turning 18.
“Following that first bet at 16 I was going into the bookies after school and, at around six foot tall and out of uniform, could get away with it.
“I certainly wasn’t shy back then about talking about the bets and winnings and, at one point, was convinced I could even make it as a professional gambler.
“Football bets eventually stopped giving me that quick fix, with 90 minutes too long between results, so I moved on to horse racing for returns within minutes and then discovered the greyhounds got me what I needed even sooner.
“Back then I could blow £100 every 20 seconds on the machines as well.
“I was living with my parents but working part-time jobs from an early age so always had disposable income and it became a badge of honour to deceive my family about what was going on.
“I messed up my education because of skipping school due to spending all day in the bookies as I got older so left without anything beyond GCSEs but ended up in a sales job at 19 that was bonus-related.
“I could always talk and was bringing in over £40,000 per year but still living at home and telling my girlfriend Holly and parents I was on minimum wage.
“My gambling was the biggest motivation to success in sales but even with regular £4,000 bonuses I was simply blowing those then taking out payday loans at ridiculous interest rates.
“As well as a compulsive gambler I turned into a compulsive liar but was getting a buzz off the secrecy and spinning so many different stories to the people in my life.
“From the outside no-one could tell what was going on and I had so many faces to fool people.”
Even when Holly accidentally discovered his secret life and suddenly those closest became aware of the problem, any shame expressed at that stage was simply another lie.
“At that first point I told my family after Holly saw some information on my phone but I wasn’t genuine and for months it was basically going through the motions to simply buy time until I won enough trust back to be able to sneak away again and gamble,” said Smith. “Holly took control of my finances, I went to Gamblers’ Anonymous and was telling everyone how much I loved recovery but, in truth, I was counting down.
“I managed to stockpile cash so I could go into the bookies at the end of each week with about £200, so the stakes were dramatically reduced but it hits a point when the size of the bet isn’t as important as the sensation.
“Online betting eventually just became numbers in a digital account, the figures didn’t mean anything,” said Smith. “Ultimately, I reached a point I was addicted to the chase... just looking more chances to lose money.
“I put £12,000 on a single roulette spin at one point, plus had £40,000 in an online account and blew it over 12 days around the Cheltenham race festival.
“For years I loved everything about spending hours and hours in the bookies, I loved the smell of the place and even something daft like the free coffee.
“Then I started to realise it was running my day-to-day life, that everything felt on auto-pilot and my decision-making became more and more erratic.
“I became paranoid and would drive 40 minutes away from my home to visit bookies as I started to think everyone local was looking at me and judging when I walked down the street.
“I ended up unable to even visit the hairdressers and started drinking heavily, eating as much rubbish as I could shove down my throat and sitting up all hours gaming.”
Smith now identifies that behaviour as representative of the mental health problems linked directly to his gambling which reached a low point late last year with two failed suicide attempts across a few days.
“Early last year I started to understand how much control betting had over everything and was struggling to hide the problem,” he said. “I was arguing more and more with everyone and making excuses to avoid visiting family and friends as I was convinced people didn’t like me.
“I was gambling daily and couldn’t stop myself plus also becoming more and more reclusive and detached from normal life.
“Everything built up to a point last December when I started thinking about taking my own life.
“I took time off work and went visiting my family knowing the plan was to later go into the woods and commit suicide.
“I looked in the mirror before leaving the house and was feeling content, with the plan to drive to Armagh to a spot I’d picked out knowing I wouldn’t be found for days.
“It was a cold and dark night and raining and, unusually, our dogs started barking in the yard so I ended up bringing them along.
“In the end, that stopped me that night as all I could think about in the woods was how the dogs wouldn’t survive or be found, so I drove back home and put on an act that everything was normal.
“I was back in the bookies the next morning.
“The trip to the woods was on a Tuesday then on the Friday I went into a bookies with £15 after not eating lunch all week to save the money.
“The plan was to bet a tenner and keep the fiver for food.
“I lost the first bet and started writing out the slip for the fiver when suddenly everything changed, I began to shake in the bookies and seven years of emotion hit me physically.
“One of the staff members came over to check on me and suggested getting some fresh air, I walked out and hid in a toilet in Victoria Square for an hour washed in guilt over what I had done to the people I love.
“The next night my plan was to drink myself into oblivion and hope to drive off the road and crash, I was so selfish and didn’t think about anyone else.
“I went off the road outside Loughgall and ended up with nothing really worse than bruising and a few slight injuries.
“Afterwards I was only thinking about how I couldn’t even kill myself in the woods and then failed again in the car.
“But when Holly drove me out to revisit the scene I was standing in that field in Loughgall and realised I needed to change and make the most of the chance I’d somehow been given.
“I finally reached a point I was sick of constantly feeling emotionally and physically sick.
“I went back and was open with everyone in my family and wanted everything to come out.
“I returned to Gamblers’ Anonymous in Lurgan and started working on my recovery in a genuine way for the first time.
“Although that Christmas was the worst of my life because of the shame, it was an important part of my early recovery and now I’m seven months into the process.”
Smith views gambling as “the hidden illness” due to the anonymity it can afford addicts.
“I’m passionate about raising awareness of the problem areas for those most vulnerable, even with the systems in place I think even more should be done to regulate the industry and football in terms of protection,” said Smith. “I love football again and can now sit and watch a match on television without thinking about putting a bet on.
“I come from a normal background and my addiction took hold and destroyed me in every way at one point.
“I’m involved in a few potential campaigns now but, really, the thinking behind the Twitter account was simply to reach out and hope to connect with one person having trouble.
“I know there’s so much work still to come and that I will live with the consequences for the rest of my life, the guilt and regret emotionally and then recovering from the financial damage.
“I owe my girlfriend and family so much, as well as my work, and am in a good place now.”
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