To many, the Cheltenham festival is a momentous period on the sporting calendar. Crowds erupt through the doors of bookmakers; the buzz is electric and it seems like almost the whole country has placed a bet. One man who won’t be placing a bet, however, is Oisín McConville.
On the eve of Cheltenham’s first race, the former legendary Armagh gaelic footballer gave a passionate speech about his gambling story. The speech was given at the University of Limerick, as part of their Mental Health and wellbeing campaign.
The story of Oisín McConville’s gambling addiction isn’t a new one, having released a book about the topic in 2007 called The Gambler. These days, the public are aware of the problems that demonised the Crossmaglen man’s life for many years, influenced by the death of his father in 1999.
Now, McConville works as an addiction counsellor, often attending events to discuss his story in an attempt to guide others away from the path he followed.
In a short yet fitting hour-long story, he summed up his addiction in great detail, providing an insight to the debts it caused, the beg/borrow/steal attitude that he had, the loan sharks that he owed money to and the grief he caused his family. One story of interest was his account of events leading up to the Ulster final of 2002.
“I remember going into a particular game with Armagh, it was an Ulster final in 2002. On the way down the road, I got a text message saying “Watch your back today” and that was because I borrowed money off a loan shark, who I should have never borrowed money off.
“I knew if it caught up with me he would break my legs. But that was a chance I was willing to take.
“When I got that money, that 8,000 pound, I was full sure I was going to put that on a horse, win 20,000, give him his eight back plus his interest and still have that ten for myself.
“That was the way I lived. That’s how I thought and football was my escape from this.”
After the empowering speech, McConville opened the floor to questions and one question put to the Armagh native was “How are you feeling with Cheltenham coming up?”, to which he replied:
“First of all, the thing about Cheltenham. Cheltenham didn’t really bother me. I would have been as happy having a bet at Wolverhampton or Southwell. That could be on a Tuesday morning at 12 o clock.
“The Cheltenham thing I suppose is that it’s absolutely everywhere – front pages, back pages, middle pages. So, I wouldn’t buy a paper this week. I wouldn’t put myself in a situation that is going to put me in jeopardy.
“I obviously have a huge amount of understanding at home. I usually end up going away somewhere for a day, or a couple of days.”
The former All-Ireland winner described the lengths that he goes through to avoid the festival’s gossip.
“Tomorrow, I wouldn’t switch on the telly or read a paper. I’d just make sure to try my best to keep away from it.
“Even coming down the road today, even mainstream radio it’s all about Cheltenham pull-outs. But I would stick on a podcast, even today coming down, I put on one about hurling and I don’t even know that much about hurling.
“When I was gambling, Cheltenham was just another race I could bet on. I never built it up when I was gambling, but the excitement around was huge. And today, that’s something I have to make sure to keep away from.”
Although he marks that as the years have gone on, it has become easier, he also understands that he cannot keep hiding from the difficulties it entails:
“I can’t hide away from it either. I can’t spend my life running from it. I believe, hand on heart that I’ll never have a bet again. Never mind Cheltenham.
“When I came out of treatment, Cheltenham was probably on maybe six weeks after that. If I could have dug myself a bunker and jumped into it for four or five days, I would have done that because I was really scared. I didn’t want to hear about it.
“As the years have gone on, it’s got easier. I don’t move in those circles anymore now; I don’t think about it thankfully”
Since his birthday in 2005, McConville has resisted temptations to make another bet. Certainly, this is a great insight into McConville’s life and how the problems of addiction fail to go away, even 12 years down the line.
Jason Redmond, Pundit Arena