“Every club has boys playing poker in the back of a bus or plane to an away game, betting £100 or £200,” Steven Caulker tells The Athletic. “I was 19 when I was at Swansea City and we had a big gambling culture. We would go into casinos and play online in our (hotel) rooms.
“I remember sharing a room with someone who had been gambling. He had won, gone to bed and left me with his account. I said ‘I will transfer you £1,000 tomorrow’. By the time he woke up, the £25,000 in his account had gone.”
The former Liverpool and England defender Caulker’s anecdote is just one example of football’s relationship with gambling. It has been brought back into sharp focus after Brentford striker Ivan Toney — who placed 29 bets on clubs he was either registered with or on loan to — received an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine from the Football Association for breaching its rules around betting on the sport.
But how much of a gambling culture exists within football? The Athletic has spoken to a range of people to uncover what goes on inside dressing rooms.
Our special report details:
- An obsession with horse-racing
- Players openly betting on football matches
- Betting is a “form of escape” from football
- Banning gambling-firm logos from team shirt fronts is like “putting a plaster on a broken leg”
- Poker and other card games remain rife at the back of team buses
- Players even place bets on who will win a match on the FIFA video game.
In 2014, the FA introduced a blanket ban for players and coaches in England from gambling on football worldwide. This includes betting on results, transfers, managers getting hired or fired, and passing on inside information to others who use it to place wagers. The purpose of these rules is to uphold the sport’s integrity and prevent players from spot-fixing, such as betting on themselves to be booked. They are allowed to bet on other sports and visit casinos.
Caulker is a recovering gambling addict.
The 31-year-old, who also played for clubs including Tottenham Hotspur and Queens Park Rangers, and ended this season with Wigan Athletic in the Championship, says he was “consumed” by it at the beginning of his career. Caulker was just a teenager in Spurs’ academy when he first started visiting bookmakers’ high-street outlets. After stepping up into a first-team environment during loan spells at Yeovil Town, Bristol City and Swansea, he quickly discovered he was not alone.
When he lost that Swansea team-mate a substantial amount of money the night before a game, he woke up “mentally drained and stressed.” He repaid the lost sum, but there have been other occasions where he came close to not being able to. Caulker went to rehab for the first time when he was 19 through the Sporting Chance Clinic but left after a week.
“The naivety of me thought I could be cured — that is not the case,” he says. “When I was around 22, at QPR, I lost £250,000 in one night. The casinos told Les Ferdinand (the club’s director of football) I was gambling way out of my depth. Les said, ‘I didn’t want to call you before (a match with) Arsenal, but how the fuck did you play that game?’.
“When I was at Liverpool (in the 2015-16 season), it was out of control. I would drink to forget my gambling woes and when I was drunk I would gamble and blackout. It was a cycle. The levels I took myself to as a gambler were insane. It wasn’t just a bad habit — it was life-threatening.”
Caulker says card games on team buses at away matches “rarely get out of control” and it is the “boys who gamble in secret that are the heavy hitters”. However, Nedum Onuoha — who was a team-mate of Caulker’s at QPR — thinks senior players set a bad example by gambling large amounts.
“They are supposed to be role models,” Onuoha says. “How many times would a normal person get on the bus and not be intrigued by the card game they’re playing at the back for hours? You look forward (from your seat), and the manager says it’s fine. You see the highs, the lows and there’s lots of emotion. The jokes about one player losing £100 and someone else losing £10,000. You cannot escape it. Why would you completely disregard that when it seems like the norm?
“If you’re young, you might be at the stage where you can’t afford to play that game, but you’re still intrigued to play, which is the real danger. Then there’s a side game that goes on and people are spending money playing FIFA against each other. All of a sudden, that’s the culture at the club for people to gamble.”
Scott Davies is player/manager at Slough Town of National League South, English football’s sixth tier. Davies started his career in nearby Reading’s academy and played for Crawley Town and Oxford United too. The now 35-year-old estimates he lost around £250,000, almost his entire income over a nine-year period, plus £50,000 of his parents’ money due to gambling addiction.
Davies has been clean for eight years and now also works for EPIC Risk Management, an organisation that visits clubs and schools to educate people about the effects of gambling-related harm.
“When I was a young pro coming through at Aldershot, every afternoon a group of around eight of us would go to the cafe, the bookmakers and then the snooker hall,” Davies says. “We would all be betting.
“A lot of us were young players living away from home — we had a lot of spare time and cash and were hanging around with a couple of lads coming to the end of their careers. You want to listen to their stories and learn from them, but the way they lived their life, with drinking and gambling, was quite negative.
“You start to do it and think this is what it takes to be a footballer. We were like little sheep that followed them. When I was at Yeovil, I remember going to Ladbrokes every day for a month, getting back to my hotel and crashing, thinking, ‘What have I done?’.”
Apart from poker and card games, Onuoha says some players “get really excited” betting on horse racing. Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has a passion for racing and three of the horses he owns competed at the famous Cheltenham Festival in March. Ex-Spurs and West Ham boss Harry Redknapp is another fan of the sport, while current and former top players Wayne Rooney, Michael Owen and Sergio Ramos own horses.
Private bookmakers who offer “special rates” would get “mentioned all the time,” according to Onuoha. “It’s that feeling of exclusivity which made people like it,” he says. “It’s a trap. They’re not doing it as a favour, they want to take your money.”
Frank Nouble started his career in Chelsea’s academy, then joined West Ham when he was 17. The striker has become more exposed to gambling in the last few years while playing in the lower divisions where it is less hidden.
“I’ve been to the races three or four times and it’s always been with a football team,” Nouble, who ended this season at Torquay United in the fifth-tier National League, says. “I didn’t understand what 2-to-1 (betting odds) meant, but my team-mates are betting on every race and explaining things to me. You go into the changing room the following week and they’re continuing to bet on different events.
“It’s year-round. They know which horses are running where and what the jockeys are doing. It’s like they have got their own Sky Sports News on their phones, updating them as to who is in form. It must be like another job to them. People at this level are betting £100 and £200 per race and I’m thinking, ‘That’s a lot of money’. I don’t look down on them, I just know if it’s in the wrong hands a lot of things could be at risk.”
Nouble witnessed how dangerous gambling addictions can be at one previous club when a team-mate had to ask for financial help.
“He was a young lad and the club had to control his money during the month because he lost it,” Nouble says. “A few of us older players found out and tried to help him block gambling apps on his phone. We chipped in a bit of money and said, ‘We will be here for you, but you need to learn from this. Next time you could have a family and people around you might not want to help’.
“As far as I’m aware, he has not gambled since — that moment hit home and hurt because I really got on with that player.”
Krystian Pearce has made more than 400 appearances for clubs across the EFL and non-League, including Torquay, Peterborough United and Notts County. The 33-year-old Barbados international, who now plays for this season’s National League North play-off final winners Kidderminster Harriers, has witnessed gambling’s influence up close too.
“The first time I experienced it was when I was out on loan,” Pearce tells The Athletic. “The manager made us all put £10 in a pot for a sweepstake. I thought, ‘I don’t actually want to be involved in this, but you’re taking money out of my pocket to put on a horse that I have no knowledge of. Surely this is wrong and shouldn’t be allowed?’.
“The manager said, ‘Everyone has got to do it. It’s not gambling, it’s just a bit of fun with the boys’, and brushed it off. There was no debate. I spoke to the captain and he said the same.
“The horse fell at the first fence.
“Gambling was never going to be something I took up, but that could have started the whole sequence off.
“I can see how it can become a vicious cycle, especially when young players haven’t come from a lot of money. All of a sudden, after earning £100 a week as a scholar, you’re on £2,000 or £3,000 a week and you’re thinking, ‘What do I do with this money?’. If you haven’t had that education to manage your money, you end up being wasteful and doing things you shouldn’t be doing.”
Toney is not the first player to breach the FA’s rules around betting on football.
In April 2017, Joey Barton, then with Burnley, was banned for 18 months for placing 1,260 bets on matches, including at least five in which he played. Barton had the suspension reduced to 13 months on appeal later that year.
In October 2021, Andi Thanoj and Jay Rollins were playing for non-League side Boston United when they were suspended by the FA for misconduct in relation to betting. Thanoj was charged with placing 319 bets on matches over a six-year period and was eventually fined £950 and given a five-month suspension. Rollins was charged with making 438 bets between September 2015 and February 2020. He received a £500 fine and a one-month ban.
Players don’t have to bet themselves to get in trouble. England and now-Newcastle United full-back Kieran Trippier was banned for 10 weeks in January 2021 and fined £70,000 for telling friends to “lump” money on him moving from Tottenham to Atletico Madrid during the 2019 summer transfer window. A deal that went through in the July.
One professional footballer who has had a decade in the English game is prepared to talk about players betting on matches on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships.
“You get guys who will bet on anything,” he tells The Athletic. “They know they are breaking the rules because every club gets (a talk) from the FA at the start of every season. I’ve heard it so many times I could recite what they say. I’m always amazed to see people play with fire by taking the risk of betting on football. It blows my mind because of the consequences if you get caught, but it happens a lot.
“They use friends’ accounts or VPNs to disguise what they are doing or try to get away with it. If that makes them invisible, then what can anyone do? But it’s baffling because anyone who does it knows they are risking their career. It’s a compulsion or an addiction because it’s not as if there aren’t other things to bet on.”
Toney’s situation is a cautionary tale. The Brentford forward scored 20 goals in 33 Premier League appearances this season and made his England debut against Ukraine in March. He would have attracted transfer interest from bigger clubs this summer, but any possibility of a move has been jeopardised by his lengthy suspension.
This is clearly not a unique problem within football, though, so what is the best solution?
“The only way (to deter people) is to have sanctions which put the fear of God into people,” the player quoted above adds. “Make the punishments so severe that nobody will dream of taking the risk. You’ll always have exceptions because addictions are difficult and complicated, but if you knew betting on football would get you a one or two-year ban, players would worry. Nothing else is going to act as a deterrent.”
Nouble believes a different approach is needed. “I don’t think it should be a punishable offence,” he says. “There will probably be lots of players gambling on football games they are not involved in, using their partner’s name or a family member’s; doing silly things because they’re young, free, have time on their hands and live alone. What can we do to help them? If anything, they are harming themselves.”
Toney’s ban means he cannot play for Brentford again until 2024. As part of his punishment, which was imposed by an independent regulatory commission, he is not even allowed to train with his club until September.
Marc Williams works with Scott Davies for EPIC. Williams made nearly 100 appearances for Wrexham and now plays Llandudno in the second tier of the Welsh pyramid.
“Toney is going to have to get support,” says Williams, who was addicted to playing online roulette while out injured earlier in his career. “He has been taken away from the game he loves, that camaraderie with the lads, the goalscoring feeling. The vulnerability is already there as athletes. They are six times more likely to have a problem with gambling because of the environment and pressures they face (according to a study released in January).”
“If someone had said, ‘You can’t play football’ at my worst point, I would have thought my life is not worth living,” Davies says. “My mental health was already in a dark place, but that is my whole social life, finances, well-being and motivation gone.”
Davies feels it is important to draw a distinction between players who have a betting addiction and those who are “being ignorant, thinking you can break the rules”.
“If someone doesn’t have a problem with gambling and they choose to place bets (on football), you’ve made the wrong decision,” he says. “If you’ve got an addiction and are craving doing it, we need to work with that person to get them back into a good place.
“I always get asked, ‘Why, as a footballer, can I not bet on the World Cup final?’. I get what they are saying, but I understand why the FA made it a blanket ban as it is easier to manage.”
Former Chelsea and Barcelona forward Eidur Gudjohnsen lost £400,000 in five months of gambling at one stage in his career. Gudjohnsen started betting when he was struggling with injury at Chelsea, while his family were back home in Iceland.
In 2004, Gudjohnsen said, “When I had that huge win I had a feeling of elation, which I can only compare to the rush of scoring a goal.”
That is something Caulker can relate to.
“The euphoria of playing football is hard to match,” he says. “When I was younger, I was chasing that high. If I was losing a game 2-1 and the referee says, ‘Do you want an extra 10 minutes?’, I’m going to take it because I want to win. So if you’re losing in a casino and hear, ‘Do you want an extra £10?’, I’m taking that extra £10 because it’s that competitive side of me.
“If I didn’t have this side of me, I’m not sure I would have made it as a professional footballer. That drive and mentality to never give up after being rejected five or six times as a youngster helped me, but I never knew how to manage it. People refer to it as that beast or demon inside of them, it has a lot of good sides but if I can’t control it then the saying is ‘it’s a gift and a curse’.”
Footballers have a lot of restrictions on their lives. They have to keep their bodies in the best possible shape, which means eating junk food and drinking alcohol are prohibited — Davies recalls having his blood and urine tested every day when he was with Reading. Players are left with a limited number of options to relax and unwind. Smartphones have completely changed the way the gambling industry operates as they allow people to bet huge amounts of money without leaving home.
“If you’re a young lad, you don’t want to be caught going out having fun drinking and talking to girls,” Nouble says. “Gambling is something you can do at home — it’s accessible and easy.
“There is so much money in football now that everyone seems to think the second you turn professional you’re a millionaire — you are nowhere near it. I find it hard to hear people say, ‘They have no excuses, they should never go broke, or they should never do that’. It’s a lie. It’s so hard to maintain the great mental frame and decision-making at such a young age when you’ve got money that you’ve never had.”
Caulker says gambling was his “form of escape”. “To the outer eye, we are living the dream, but internally so many of us are living far from it,” he says. “We are sitting in hotels all day with time on our hands, and players relieve themselves of that pressure by having a bet. I would train in the morning, come home around 2pm, eat, and go straight to the casino and stay there until the money ran out.
“People often look at players and just say that they are cheats, but I see the correlation between sex addiction, alcoholism, gambling addiction, overeating or overtraining — more research needs to be done into it.”
Williams used gambling as a coping mechanism after breaking the fifth metatarsal in the same foot twice. “Everyday Saturday afternoon, you get scrutinised for your performance,” he says. “I struggled with criticism on fans’ forums and abuse on the terraces. I felt safe going into the gambling world.
“It started out sociable, as all the lads would do it. It was fun, which it can be when it’s the right person. Then I isolated myself and it was just me and my mobile phone. It ruined my life and career.”
What cannot be ignored is how prevalent gambling sponsors are within football.
Eight of the 20 current Premier League clubs have gambling firms as the main sponsor on the chests of their shirts — Toney’s Brentford kit have Hollywood Bets as theirs — and the EFL, the three divisions of 72 clubs below the Premier League, has a long-term partnership with SkyBet. Media outlets, including The Athletic, have gambling adverts on their content too.
If you force young people to endorse addictive products, don’t be surprised if they use them. pic.twitter.com/U5ONQIrnvP
— The Big Step (@the_bigstep) March 1, 2023
“Boredom, free time, decent money coming in each week… they’re all reasons, but don’t forget betting advertising is everywhere in football,” the player speaking to us on condition of anonymity says. “You’ll see players flick open apps on their phones in the dressing room after full-time or on the coach to check other scores. Those apps are always loaded with betting content: odds, offers, metrics, one or two clicks to start gambling.”
In April, the Premier League announced it will ban betting companies’ logos from the fronts of its clubs’ shirts. The rule will not come into effect until the 2026-27 season, though, and even when it does, such firms advertising via sleeve sponsorships and pitchside advertising hoardings will still be allowed.
Caulker believes the move is “the first small step towards helping players and fans” but also describes it as “putting a plaster on a broken leg”.
“Every year we like to support World Mental Health Day, but it’s hypocritical because we don’t really support it when we are promoting the stuff that kills people. The sponsors are one side of it. We don’t advertise drugs, but people still take them. Look at the core issue: what is driving the players to do this?
“For someone to have sacrificed their whole life to become a footballer and take risks (by gambling), there’s something else driving that. But it would give a lot of players hope: ‘Actually, gambling is not OK and the clubs don’t support it, so if I did tell my manager maybe he would understand it more now’.”
Davies says the relationship between football and gambling companies is “complex”, but does not think it is the “sole problem”.
“It starts further back, in their childhood, with the environment they grew up in,” he says. “If you take betting companies out of football, they will find other sponsors, but it puts a lot of money into football, creates a better standard of playing in the Premier League and it filters down.”
When Caulker was struggling with his addiction, the advice he received fell into binary categories — “it was just about, ‘You need to stop’, or, ‘You can’t let it affect your performances’.”
Most clubs now employ psychologists so players can talk anonymously about any problems they are experiencing. The work of companies and charities, including EPIC, to educate players about gambling is vital too.
“We show vulnerability, and the stories we tell take the mask off,” Davies says. “A lot of players have said to me, ‘I’ve got a problem with gambling but I haven’t spoken to anyone about it. You’ve walked the same path as I have and I feel comfortable talking to you’. We don’t act like treatment providers because we’re not counsellors, but we offer advice. However, a lot of players are reluctant because they are scared of the words ‘psychologist’ or ‘rehab’.”
There is more support available to players than ever before, but Caulker still feels that things could be improved.
“I wouldn’t communicate with anybody about gambling because I knew the sums of money I was spending and the amount of time I was consumed by it was not normal,” says the now Sierra Leone international, who played once — and scored — for England in 2012. “I wouldn’t want to play with the boys on the back of the bus. It wasn’t high enough stakes to really get my juices flowing. It’s like if you are a heavy drinker, you’re not going to have a half pint — you want to go all in.
“Inside the clubs, much better communication is needed. Coaches need some sort of emotional intelligence course alongside their first aid. It is not a necessity, and that’s bizarre. ‘How does (the manager) know I’ve got a problem? Has he got qualifications? Has he been trained?’. No. As far as he is concerned, I’m just another guy who likes to bet.”
Davies has experienced both sides as he is making the transition from player to manager. He thinks the culture will “never change” and people will “always remain” reluctant to open up.
“I try and look out for every single player and changes in their behaviour,” Davies says. “But when Marc and I were playing and had issues with gambling, you don’t want to go (into the dressing room) and act quiet. You put on that mask, get through the day and go home. So it’s difficult for managers to see the truth of what’s going on because players are great at hiding their emotions.
“No one goes to their manager. Everyone wants to play on a Saturday and if you give them an inkling you’re struggling or have some sort of vulnerability, you know he’s not going to pick you to play in front of 10,000 or 20,000 people.
“If someone came up to me today and said, ‘Scott, I’m struggling. I’ve got problems with drugs, gambling, I can’t sleep at night. I can’t do this’, the first thing I would think is, ‘I’m going to support you through this’. But you probably aren’t going to pick that person for the next few weeks because you think they need help. That’s the brutality of it.”
“It is the hardest thing admitting you’ve got a problem and there is embarrassment over what potentially might be said about you,” Williams says. “Professional sports is so cut-throat. If you get dropped, pick up an injury or get loaned out, you are told to, ‘Man up and get on with it’.
“We want to change the stigma around gambling and make it where you can open up without the fear of getting dropped.”
Gamblers Anonymous https://www.gamblersanonymous.org.uk/
EPIC Risk Management https://www.epicriskmanagement.com/support
Be Gamble Aware https://begambleaware.org
Disclosure: The Athletic has a US-based partnership with a betting company
(Photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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