The Gambler

Cathal Coyle goes all in with the story of Gaelic star Oisín McConville

‘All comes down to today, and either, we heal as a team or we’re gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play… on this team we fight for that inch.’
- Tony D’Amato, Any Given Sunday

A frank account of life as a gambling addict and the personal devastation it causes is provided by Crossmaglen Rangers and Armagh Gaelic Football star Oisín McConville in The Gambler, one of the latest sporting biographies to hit the shelves.

What sets this apart is that it is not simply about games won and lost, but how a surplus of time, money and local notoriety isn’t always a good result.

What is most striking about the tone of the book is the frankness and often deprecating honesty with which McConville depicts his experiences. The biography is organised into eight chapters, each devoted to a day of the week beginning on a Monday and ending on the following Monday.

He charts the week by attending a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and driving home reminisces about the past: achievements in his career, his influences, disappointments and tells the odd good yarn or two about players, managers, not to mention the bus driver to the Armagh team.

The style works well and is peppered with quotations from significant cultural references such as the legendary Any Given Sunday movie, which has inspired many Gaelic Football teams during this decade.

The central tenet of Any Given Sunday (D’Amato’s motivational speech about fighting for inches during the game) is a recurring theme in The Gambler and served as one of the inspirations during Armagh’s pomp years.

This alliance of motivational parlance and intensive training sessions in the Spanish base of La Manga proved to be a winning formula for McConville and the Armagh Gaelic Football team, and helped to guide the team towards the pinnacle of Sam Maguire success in September 2002.

'The Gambler - Oisin McConville's Story', published by Mainstream PublishingThe absolute commitment and dedication shown by inter-county Gaelic Footballers often falls into the obsessive category, and through vivid examples in the book such as the ‘training grid’ manoeuvre the reader gets a remarkable insight into the lengths players and teams will go to in the modern era to achieve success.

It was fascinating how teams such as Armagh set the benchmark for others to follow during this decade through ruthless training methods to provide an edge over the competition:

‘It was three on three in a square beating the life out of each other. It was ferocious… when Cathal Short went down injured, Boylan was having none of it. He turned to a couple of them, told them to get Short off the pitch and leave him behind the goals.’

The Gambler is, at times, a simple morality tale about the dangers of thinking one is invincible. McConville admits to growing up in a protective environment and one where his football prowess led to him being almost ‘untouchable’ in his native village.

Celebrated successes at club and county level for Armagh and Crossmaglen combined with a dangerous proclivity for fluttering wages and loans on horse racing (and the subsequent losses which ensued) led to a disastrous downward spiral for the footballer, and he estimated that somewhere in the region of £120,000 was squandered.

The stunning realisation of his actual losses and intervention from family members culminated in a 6 month stay in the Cuan Mhuire rehabilitation and treatment centre in Athenry.

Co-written by sports journalist Ewan MacKenna, The Gambler touches on important issues for young athletes, like selfishness and extreme dedication to a sporting cause. However the focus is on the compelling attraction of gambling.

The seeds were sown at an early stage when as a teenage boarding pupil in Armagh; McConville frittered his pocket money away on bets with his classmates for the sheer craic of it. In later years, the habit was used as a foil to replicate the buzz off the field that the football star felt on it for club and county.

While Gaelic Football acted as a great escape route from the mundane realities of daily life, he had too much time on his hands to indulge his gambling habit. Tragic tales of gambling losses are rife throughout Ireland, so perhaps this book will create a greater comprehension of the condition given the graphic examples of McConville’s addiction:

‘I could find myself some days just driving to some arsehole suburb of Dublin. You could walk into a bookies anywhere in the country and find me there, holed up for the day. I didn’t want to be known because of the shame and I didn’t want to be interrupted because I was on a mission and I couldn’t do that in my home town.’

As his club Crossmaglen Rangers celebrated three All Ireland titles from 1997 to 2000, McConville admits there were local begrudgers towards this success just as he had been himself when unable to make the Armagh senior team, albeit an unsuccessful one.

The rumour and innuendo which infiltrates small towns can be lethal and as McConville acknowledges, one local journalist’s indulgence in the dangerous game of Chinese whispers wrongly led to the belief that the Armagh forward’s demons were of the alcoholic variety.

In recognising the hurt other people’s rumours caused him, he accepted his share of the blame for their progression and having reached rock bottom in 2006 he initially sought help from his brother Seán.

The Armagh legend doesn’t retreat from criticising a number of his former managers and other managers, most notably Tommy Lyons. Details of the rivalry with neighbouring Tyrone made media headlines on the books release - alleged colourful language from a number of Tyrone players towards McConville during key games led to the McConville’s declaration of hatred towards Tyrone in the book.

The admission of this antipathy will not come as a major shock to many GAA followers as there has always been a degree of hostility between players on either side, although the close friendship with Tyrone player Colin Holmes was a notable exception to this. Ironically, it was also a Tyrone person who helped in the early stages of his rehabilitation process from the addiction to gambling.

There are some glaring factual inaccuracies which inevitably the local print media latched onto at the time of the book’s release and represents its only blemish.

It was alleged that certain Tyrone players exchanged unpleasant verbals with McConville during a National Football League game in 2002 when it was verified that this game didn’t take place until the following season.

Other inexplicable errors, for instance, include the former Armagh player Justin McNulty being called ‘Joseph’ when recalling a past Ulster Championship game.

This doesn’t, though, diminish a valuable contribution from one of the leading Gaelic Footballer stars of the last decade. The Gambler is a must for any reader who like a good warts-and-all biography, in the same style as Paul McGrath’s Back From The Brink.

The Gambler is both a detailed insight into the commitment and dedication not only to get to the top of a chosen sport, but also to overcome a terrible addiction. The candid account of the loneliness which engulfs gambling addicts is also a very powerful feature of the book, and adds to the enduring credibility of what is a brave chronicle of a dual life.

The Gambler (Mainstream Publishing) is available now, priced £10.79