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How a £5 punt on the football spiralled into a habit that got out of control

‘There’s always a queue of schoolkids waiting to use those gaming machines’

By Gráinne Brinkley

A WEST Belfast student who overcame a serious gambling addiction has said teenagers as young as 15 are now hooked on punting. The 20-year-old, who spoke to the Andersonstown News anonymously this week about his gambling problem in order to highlight the issue, said more needs to be done in local schools, sports clubs and youth groups to warn teenagers about the dangers of all types of gambling.

“It began when I was 17 when I started going into the bookies with a crowd of friends,” said Ciarán (not his real name), who hasn’t gambled since November last year. “At the start it was just £5 football bets for the weekend.  Then we discovered the machines and started putting more and more money into that. Games like roulette and one called ‘Jacks or Better’ – that’s the game we all got addicted to.”

Ciarán and his friends soon found that any money they had was going straight into the bookies’ gambling machines and the need for more money became a pressing issue.

“You were borrowing money off your parents, off your friends and just putting it in,” he said. “It came to a point where you just couldn’t get it back. You were always chasing it. Whenever I was doing it I always felt great about myself and at the start I always seemed to be winning.  That drew me into playing them again and again, but then I started losing and losing and so I was starting to play catch-up. At least one of our group always won money on the day so you were borrowing money off them to play and having to give it back to them if you won, so you were never really getting any money yourself.”

Ciarán soon found that his addiction was taking over so much that other areas of his life began to suffer.

“I had been heavily involved in football and hurling and I started to miss training just to go down and play the machines with my friends,” he explained. “Then I started going on my own if my friends weren’t there.  I had a part-time job and started to miss days just to go to the bookies.  Even when I was at work, there’s a bookies beside where I work so in my lunch break I would go over to it and put in whatever wages I had earned. If I had free classes I would leave school early and go to the bookies instead of straight home.”

Ciarán said it’s hard to give an estimate of how much money he lost over the three years of his addiction. “I just put in anything I had,” he said.

“If I had £200 one day then that would go in,” he said. “When I got my student loan for the first time I spent it within two weeks. Once that was gone I actually went and got an overdraft off the bank.  It all went into that one game.  I sort of knew myself that I was going too far, but at the same time I did not want to come out of it.  I tried twice to stop and lasted two months and then three months.  But I was with the group of friends, peer pressure would take over and I would start playing again.”

His lowest point came when he took money out of his mother’s bank account to feed his habit.

“When I had to pay for something for school my mummy gave me her bank card and instead I used it on gambling,” he said. “That’s when she found out about it, when she went to her bank and there was nothing in her account. I had to tell her I had been gambling and I felt that nothing could get any lower than that. That’s when I said I wanted to change.”

Ciarán’s parents reached out to a family member who put their son in contact with the Dunlewey Substance Advice Centre on the Stewartstown Road.

“I started going one day a week for eight weeks to talk about things,” he explained. “The counsellor spoke about putting more stuff into your day instead of taking it out.  My club was also involved in an Ulster Championship so that kept me occupied as I was always training.”

However, the hardest thing Ciarán had to do to overcome his addiction was to break away from the close-knit group of friends that he had known for years.

“The counsellor said it would be hard but that I had to do it if I wanted to help myself,” he said. “I still talk to them on the odd occasion but I wouldn’t really hang about with them. At the start they didn’t realise that I had to do this, but when I sat down and talked to them about it they understood.”

Ciarán said he feared for the growing number of young people in West Belfast that are spending their free time in bookmakers.

“I coach an under-16s team and there’s a few boys there that have started to become trapped in it already,” he explained. “They’re only under-16s so they shouldn’t even be allowed in the bookies. But at the same time it’s probably hard for bookies to keep on top of this. According to my friends, the amount of 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds they see going into bookmakers is very high – that’s how they spend their Saturday nights now. They say there’s always a queue for the machines that I was on.”

Now back playing an active part in his GAA club and immersed in his university studies, Ciarán said he feels he can never go into a bookmakers again.

“I know I could do just a wee football bet, but I wouldn’t even try that as there’s always that fear of being lured back into the machines,” he said. “You can’t sit and drink or do drugs all day without someone noticing you eventually, but you can gamble all day if you have the money and no-one would notice.  That’s what makes gambling worse, I think.”


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