All too often, we hear talk about how easy life is for footballers. Fans find it hard to believe that although a hefty pay packet comes at the end of the month, footballers don’t always find financial security or a path to happiness.
Take former West Ham fans’ favourite Matthew Etherington as an example. By all accounts, he’s a really nice guy and was a pivotal part of the Hammers squad, but for him, gambling was an unhealthy pastime that got him into trouble off the fi eld during his playing days.
His refreshing honesty following his troubles is something rare, and it gave a great insight into the mind of a footballer who doesn’t find the excitement of playing once a week enough to fulfill his life. ‘It’s not just football, it’s rife in this country,’ said Etherington in an interview with Th e Times, ‘but the way the game has gone, fitness-wise, you can’t really get away with drinking. Not like in the old days. You can’t do drugs, obviously. Th e next vice aft er that is gambling.
‘Players have a lot of time on their hands, you’re fi nely-tuned and sometimes you want to recreate that buzz of playing. Th at’s how you get hooked.’ Th at’s the other side of the beautiful game. It’s the spare time and perhaps even the thoughts of what happens when it’s all over that can send even the most fi nancially sound brain into overdrive, something that Etherington knows all too well. What did his gambling addiction do for his private life and relationships, as well as his career?
It’s something we rarely think about; as fans the personal lives, away from the cameras. He continued: ‘I lost loads of friendships over it. Some of them I’ve rekindled now, thankfully, but most people who knew me will testify that I wasn’t the nicest person in the world. I wasn’t horrible in the sense that I’d do horrible things, but . . . how can I put it? I was very selfish. All gamblers are selfish. I used to hide everything.
The competitive streak in modern players can leave a sour taste in daily life if not handled properly, and can lead to a spectacular fall from grace. Perhaps going from the high of winning on a Saturday to the low of losing money to gambling on a Sunday is all too much to face for some.
‘I’m the worst loser in the world; I play a board game aft er Sunday dinner and it drives my wife mad how competitive I am. With gambling, it was about getting that win. I couldn’t admit defeat. I thought I could beat it, even when I got into debt. It was never going to happen.’ The results of such an addiction can be devastating for players and their families, and although fans may never think of players running into debt, it’s all too easy a pattern to slip into for even top earners.
Unfortunately for Matty, the horrors of debt became a reality after he refused to give up his habit. ‘I was devoid of any responsibility,’ he said. ‘When a bill came through the letterbox, I’d put it in the bin. Nobody knocked at my door, but people used to turn up at West Ham’s training ground, bookies from Romford dogs. “Oh hi, yeah I’ll see you tonight!”
‘I had the gift of the gab. But I wouldn’t turn up. I’d go to a different track. They’d come back the next day, but as a gambler you become a great liar. Ultimately, that’s what I was.’ And it wasn’t just blowing large amounts of money with friends that was the West Ham star’s downfall. He added: ‘My family would ask questions, but I’d bat them away. It got to the point where I’d blown all my wages, down to betting 5ps, 10ps and 50ps, trying to win thousands back. That was the moment I finally wised up. Ridiculous. What was I doing?’ Fortunately for Etherington, he sought help eventually.
That’s not to say it was easy for him to come to terms with his addiction, but it had affected his on and off-field life badly enough to force him to come to a stop. He isn’t the first footballer to fall into a less than ideal situation such as this and he won’t be the last. He’s brave enough to talk about it and raise awareness for other sportspeople who could easily fall into the same habits as he did.
It’s also important for fans to understand that footballers are only human and their financial situations don’t make them invincible to such addictions and lifestyle struggles. The thrills of Premier League football can be huge, but it’s the downtime and competitive natures that can lead players, past and present, down the wrong paths in life.