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Player gambles on his phoneBBC Three

This footballer lost over £200,000 to gambling. Now he helps others who are struggling

Ex-player Scott Davies explains how the lifestyle of being a professional footballer led him to serious gambling addiction and, in the end, feeling suicidal

An image of Ciaran Varley
Ciaran Varley

Scott Davies was, at one point, training with Reading’s first team in the Premier League. By his late twenties, he had lost over £200,000 to gambling, was left without a club contract, and was having suicidal thoughts. Over that period, he dropped down the through the Championship, League Two into the Southern League Premier Division. 

Now 30, he hasn’t put a bet on since 2015, and he is using his experience of addiction to help other athletes who may be struggling with gambling-related issues. He says it’s the most rewarding thing he’s been involved in.

Scott shared his story with us. 

I started gambling when I was 16, around the time I moved out of my parents’ house in Aylesbury to live in digs in Reading, playing with the youth team. I was earning £50 a week. That was when I started going into bookmakers, hoping to double my money. No one would really ask questions and I didn’t tell them my age. I’d always walk out with an empty pocket. I’d get paid first thing on a Wednesday morning, and my wages would have gone by the end of the day.  

At 17, I was training with the first team at Reading. I couldn’t afford to pay for the bus home from training, so I’d be walking three miles home every day, which took its toll. Apart from anything else, it wasn’t really consistent with the idea that I should be resting after training. I think all that got to me a bit. 

I was also a bit of a jack-the-lad around the training ground at that time. My manager, Steve Coppell, used to refer to me as being quite "giddy", and he told me I needed to grow up. 

Around Christmas 2006, I had just signed my professional contract with the club, when I was assaulted in town and my jaw was broken. The manager pulled me into his office and told me that he didn’t want to see me for the next year, and that I was being sent out on loan to Aldershot Town at the end of the season. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about going from Reading, who were in the Premier League, to playing in the Conference.

It was at Aldershot that I started playing poker at the back of the team bus. I just wanted to be among the banter really. I think I was just charity for the other lads – I would never leave the bus with any money. I was on £400 a week, on my first professional contract, but it was all going on poker.

This was when I’d say my gambling became a serious addiction, because that’s when I started thinking about gambling every day, rather than maybe once a week. 

By the end of the season, I owed £2,000 to a teammate. That’s when I first coughed up to my parents. They gave me the money to pay and just said it could never happen again. I swore on everyone’s life that I’d stop. The truth is, though, I wouldn’t stop for anybody at the time. 

'My parents took my bank card off me'

I think that success on the field that year papered over the cracks off the field. We’d won the league and I was doing well. During my time with Aldershot, I scored 25 goals in 56 games, largely from midfield. In the same year, though, I had had a car written off and got three red cards. I was a bit of a nightmare teen. 

At the end of that season, I was rewarded with a new contract, which meant my wages went from £400 per week to £1,800 per week. At the time, I was living at home and I didn’t pay rent. I just started gambling more. I was going to bookies to gamble on roulette and horses, but also football, which is obviously banned by the FA.

I’d be getting wages of about £6,000 a month, and I would have run out of it all in about five or six days. My parents decided to take my bank card off me. They were were funding me to get to training, which was about £15-20 per day. That went on for a couple of years. I would have lost my professional status earlier otherwise.

I was still gambling the whole time. Because my parents had control of my bank card, I’d just go into the bank branch and withdraw as much as I could each time. 

I think the influx of money was a problem for me, but it was also the time I had on my hands. I’d be finished by 12:30 every day. Everyone else is still in work until 6pm or 7pm. What else do you do?

A lot of the other lads were into computer games or golf – that was how they got their buzz. I tried golf, but it just didn’t give me the same buzz that gambling did. I think a lot of the other lads found it much easier to be in their own company after training, whereas I needed to be stimulated all the time. Team-mates used to joke around about me having ADHD, because I was always 100 miles an hour. I couldn’t sit still. I was high on life, but there were a lot of lows that people didn’t see. 

When I was in rehab for gambling, a counsellor asked why I did it. I said that maybe it was boredom. Their response was that there’s actually no such thing as boredom – it’s just a mixture of emotions, including anger, upset, agitation, and other things. So the gambling was probably covering something else.

Roulette machineBBC Three

Losing £30,000 in three weeks

After I got my signing on fee at Reading, my parents took me looking for houses. They’d put £30,000 aside into an indirect savings account for me to do that, and I promised my parents that I’d look after it because I was desperate to buy a house. The reality was, though, that I’d gambled it all away. We were going into show homes and talking to the agents about which carpet to choose and, the whole time, I knew that I didn’t have the money.

After we got home, I just broke down in tears and had to tell my parents what I’d done. My mum couldn’t believe it – the money had all been there three weeks ago. I’d done the whole £30,000 in that time. That was a big wake-up call.

After that, I was back on loan at Aldershot Town for a second season. I did really well – I scored 14 goals from midfield, at 20 years old. There was some interest from big clubs – with talk of fees of half a million pounds.

I don’t know how concrete those figures were, obviously, but when you hear about these things, you just want them to materialise. I think that affected my moods. I was a broken man off the pitch.

At the end of that season, I went back to Reading, having scored a few goals. Brendan Rodgers was my manager. I started in a few of the pre-season friendlies and did well, including scoring against Chelsea. I got man-of-the-match in the first two home games of season. 

That was when I started to think I’d made it. I was living in a bubble. I’d be seeing people with my name on their shirt, and I remember just thinking, ‘This is my day now, I’ve made it'. It was difficult to manage, to be honest, as a young man. Very difficult.

'Betting was why I got up in the morning'

No one at Reading knew I was gambling, because that had all been done at Aldershot during the two years previously, but I used to go straight from training to the bookmakers.

One day, after training, I was rushing out to get to the bookies and it got noted. The manager pulled me into his office the next day and said, ‘Listen, I know you’ve done brilliantly this pre-season – you’ve been our best player - but I need you to be more applied’. He said he wanted to see me turning up first thing in the morning for training and staying back afterwards to put in the extra work too.

That just wasn’t possible for me at the time. Betting was why I got up in the morning. Football was just getting in the way of that. I couldn’t control it. 

After that first offence, I got pulled aside by Brendan Rodgers for driving out of training too early again. I made up a lie about going to the dentist. Rodgers just said to me, ‘Prove it’, and gave me his phone to call the dentist. I couldn’t. I just sat there like a child, unable to talk. He said, ‘You’re lying to me, son'. After that day, I never played another game for Reading. I was hoping to get back into the squad before then, but it just never materialised.

No matter how bad my gambling got, I couldn’t ask for help. As a footballer, you just want people to think you’ve got a few quid in your pocket, you drive a nice car, you can go out and nick a few girls. You want to keep that exterior looking strong and shiny. I still see that with young lads who I talk to today.

Had I wanted to talk to someone, I could have. There is a welfare officer at every club, but I kept quiet because I didn’t want people to think that I wasn’t totally concentrated on football. I didn’t want it to get back to the manager, really.

After Reading, I went on loan to Wycombe Wanderers. I played against Leeds and, after the match, I got a call from a scout there. They were interested in taking me on loan. It was a choice between me and Adam Clayton to get signed. I was obviously very excited. 

I remember seeing on Sky Sports that Leeds had signed Clayton. I was absolutely gutted. That day, I went and blew £7,000 on gambling, which is probably the most I’d lost in one day. It was £5,000 of my own money and £2,000 that I’d managed to get out on credit cards. My head had just completely fallen off my shoulders. 

I would always find a reason to bet, though. Sometimes you might put a bet on to make you feel a bit better after a loss, or sometimes you feel on top of the world after a win, so you think, 'Yeah, I’ll go put a bet on'. 

After playing for Wycombe, I was released from Reading and I signed for Crawley Town. In my experience now working with young players who’ve suffered with addiction, I often find that it’s people who’ve dropped down a few leagues and take pay cuts that suffer the most. It’s when the money dries out, that’s when it really starts to be a problem.

I’m earning more money now then I did in League Two, but there’s still a massive image for players in that league that a lot of lads feel like they have to live up to. You might be getting £700 a week, which is decent money, but it's not what you might imagine for a footballer.

Player in locker room on phoneBBC Three

It was at Crawley Town that I started betting on my own matches. At half-time, I’d come into the changing room, take my phone out of my tracksuit bottoms, and, as soon as the the manager had finished his team talk, I’d put it down my shorts and go sit in a cubicle to put bets on the second half. It was just to make the game more exciting.

If we were winning 1-0, I might put a few hundred quid on the other team to win. Or I might put on a bet for us to win 2-0. Either way, it would kind of help manage the result of the game. If we lost, but my bet came through, I’d kind of be on an even keel, if that makes sense.

At one point in my career, winning three points just became irrelevant to me. It wasn’t satisfying me.

Gambling is so prevalent in football, but it’s so difficult to police it. People will put bets on in their family’s name or their friend’s name. And, in terms of the punishment, that’s so hard to judge too. If I’d been banned when I was really addicted, I’m not sure that would have helped me. That would have been an extra problem, because, then, I’m an addict and I’ve been banned. But not every footballer who bets on games is an addict. Someone may have betted once, or they may be doing it habitually. I think it would take a lot of investigation around each individual case, which is why, at the moment, there’s the blanket ban.

'I crashed my car once because I was watching a horse race'

Whilst I was playing for Crawley, I’d check into hotels in the town most nights, just to stay out of the way of my home town, because people there knew that I bet. I’d pay about £50 a night for a hotel, so it was costing me a few hundred quid a week just to be able to bet in peace. 

I’ve bet a lot on my phone too, and I think that the rise in gambling apps and smartphones has been an absolute disaster. When you’re on coaches, travelling to away games, you want to fill the time. Gambling seemed like the most exciting option.

When I’d drive home from Crawley, that used to take about an hour and a half, which felt like too long for me to go without that buzz, so I used to look at my phone. I actually crashed my car once because I was watching a horse race on my phone.

I went from Crawley Town to Oxford United, and my mental health really deteriorated. I was living by myself and betting a lot on my own matches. I’d go to bed on Thursday evening, and I wouldn’t sleep until it was time for Saturday’s game. That whole time, I’d just be gambling on my phone and drinking massive amounts of energy drinks to keep me going. For me, at the time, gambling was better than sleeping.

I’d be betting on all sorts - football matches and basketball matches all around the world, Thai under-17 women’s matches – all kinds. I didn’t have a clue about some of these games or leagues that I was putting money on.

I think, when I was younger, my ability helped me get through, but, as I got older and I was playing against young lads who'd had the proper 8-10 hours sleep, whereas I might have had less than an hour, the cracks started to show. People would ask me if I was okay, because I didn’t look well, but I just used to come up with excuses. As far as I knew at the time, no one in the club knew about my gambling.

At the end of the season I was released by Oxford United. I had actually done well for the manager, and he said it was the hardest decision he ever had to make, but he needed a striker. I didn’t have a club and there were no calls coming in. I started to panic, because I didn’t have any back-up plan in terms of what I’d do for work. I spoke to my agent, and he told me he’d been informed by managers and players about my gambling. 

My agent was actually really remorseful when he found out. He just wished I’d said something earlier. At that point, he couldn’t help me much more. 

Around that time, Dunstable Town called up to say that they wanted to take a look at me. It meant dropping down a few leagues. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder about that, but I had to take it. At Dunstable, I was paid cash in hand. When I had access to cash, I was a nightmare. Anything I got, I’d try to multiply by ten. A lot of it went straight through a roulette machine. 

I used to bet in the bookies because I thought it would be safer to go to a shop to bet on football, where there wouldn’t be the same trail – other than a slip of paper. In the end, the guy in the bookies wouldn’t let me put a bet on and I ended up having a row with him. He said he was going to report me to FA. To be honest, I wouldn’t have stopped even for that. 

'That was the lowest point of my life'

The thing that did eventually make me stop gambling was my mum. I was in the same bookies a couple of weeks later and someone turned to me and said, ‘Is that your mum outside?’

She’d seen my car outside and she was at the door, and she said to me, ‘This has got to stop, Scott, you’re making me ill'. She was curled up on the floor at one point. My dad got in touch to tell me I was putting strain on their marriage.

She wasn’t sleeping at night. My dad used to find her downstairs in the middle of the night searching online for ways to help someone with addiction. After the incident with my mum, I went home and I didn’t sleep. I was lying in the dark for about 48 hours, and I started having suicidal thoughts. I went to my parents’ house and I told them I thought I was having a breakdown. I couldn’t get these thoughts out of my head.

We rang a 24-hour helpline that I was entitled to through Sporting Chance. I spoke to a counsellor called Julian. He invited me into the rehab clinic the next day for an assessment. The assessment is to decide whether you need counselling, which is one-to-one, or a 26-day rehab. That assessment was supposed to take 90 minutes, but five minutes in, Julian just said, ‘Yeah mate, you need to get in here for rehab’. 

I went into rehab on 6 July 2015. That was probably the lowest point of my life, but, in the end, it was also probably the most satisfying and rewarding thing I’ve ever done. I believe that it saved my life. I came out with an inner confidence that I’d be fine. My mum told me that day I came out of rehab was first time she felt like she had me back since I was a kid.

I just wasn’t myself during that whole time. I had ruined relationships. One of the things my counsellors at the rehab clinic got me to do was call up my old girlfriends and apologise for how I’d behaved in the past. 

It’s been three years and a couple of months now since I had a bet. I estimate that I’ve lost around £200,000 to £250,000 on gambling over the years.

Player receives counsellingBBC Three

After my recovery, Sporting Chance invited me to help them. When counsellors deliver seminars in different places, after that, they do what’s called 'A Player’s Story’. You have to have had a year of abstinence behind you in order to be able to deliver that, but, for me, after about six months, I was sure that I’d be fine. They invited me to tell my story at football clubs, from the Premier League, down to League Two. Following that, I started delivering them at conferences. Public speaking didn’t scare me. There’s nothing more satisfying than that work. It was paid, but I would have done it for free.

Now I work with an organisation called EPIC Risk Management delivering talks to clubs about problem gambling. I pass on my details and we invite the players to come forward anonymously if they’re struggling. We make a big point of that anonymity principle, because a lot of the young lads worry about things getting back to their manager. 

I tell the lads about some of my coping mechanisms and also refer them to help from places like Gamblers Anonymous or Gamble Aware. Not everyone agrees with all of my personal coping mechanisms, but they’re just what work for me.

For instance, Cheltenham Races used to be my favourite day out of the year. These days, I’ll watch it at home and I sit there with a pen and paper and write down all the bets I would have made. I start with an imaginary £1,000 and I just track how quickly it would take for me to lose all of that. That method wouldn’t work for everyone.

Every time I speak to a young lad struggling, it’s like looking in the mirror. I had one lad from a Premier League club recently just sobbing in my arms. He had a young family to support. To be honest, the most important thing I offer is someone to talk to. Sometimes you just want someone to pour your heart out to.

My mum always says to me, 'A problem shared is a problem halved', and that’s the thing that really resonates with me now.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, there's help and support available. There are also resources for emotional distress and debt

This article was originally published on 22 August 2018.

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