John Hartson, ex-Celtic striker, opens up on gambling that nearly ruined his life

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Former Celtic striker John Hartson has admitted he was on the highway to Hell after becoming a gambling addict, with the Welshman claiming that, had he not managed to kick the habit, he would be either dead or in prison by now.

Fortunately for the amiable 43-year-old, he suffered neither of those fates.

John Hartson at the Ladbrokes responsible gambling launch. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

John Hartson at the Ladbrokes responsible gambling launch. Picture: Ross Parker/SNS

Rather, since he first sought help on 5 October, 2011 (“my mother’s birthday,” he confided), he has launched a successful career as a pundit on radio, TV and newspapers.

That has given him a platform and a profile which he intends to use to benefit others.

Some might question the wisdom of him getting into bed with bookmakers for philanthropic reasons, but Hartson has no doubts that he has made the right choice.

“All they can do is try to put the message out there that, if people are gambling irresponsibly, there are ways to tackle it,” he said. “If people don’t want to listen, that’s down to them.

“Ladbrokes, as a company, have to be seen to be doing something to help people not get out of control. Everything that Ladbrokes do, generally, gets negativity but not everyone becomes an addict.

“My dad goes to the racing twice a year and spends what he can afford. He’s not an addict. If I told him not to bet, he would say: ‘Who are you to tell me not to gamble? I’ll do what I want. I am in control of my gambling’.

But saying no did not come naturally to Hartson. “My ex-wife, my parents, my managers, my team-mates couldn’t stop me gambling because I didn’t want to stop,” he said.

“If there are players like that, then it’s up to them. They have to get into that place themselves. But for me it was about hitting rock bottom and it was not a very nice place to be.

“I let my gambling get out of control and it really, really got a grip of me. I had a situation where I’d just come out of hospital a few years earlier and I was gambling heavily. 
Eventually, my [second] wife had had enough. She said she thought the world of me and loved me but that she couldn’t hang around any more and watch me go through what I was going through.

“That was rock bottom for me, to think that my wife and kids were leaving me.

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“Sarah packed her bags and said she was going up to her parents because she could no longer live like this. That was maybe the 20th warning I got, but it was that moment when I saw her bags were packed and her flights were booked.

“I’ve heard it said since that a lot of people need to hit rock bottom before they can come out of it and that was my lowest point. Now I’m involved in this campaign to help stop people getting into the same situation I was in. 
“If people don’t want to gamble responsibly, then that’s down to them – I’m not a miracle worker. I can only speak of my own experiences and send out a positive message. 
“Ladbrokes get a lot of criticism but this is a positive move by them to try and put things in place to help people recognise the signs before they reach a stage where there is no return because they’re already an addict.”

Hartson began punting as a teenager at Arsenal, where a combination of spare cash and even more spare time helped propel him to the bookies.

“I punted heavily for years,” he said. “I’m now seven years clean and I know I wouldn’t have been able to build the house I’ve just built in Edinburgh if I was still gambling.

“I wouldn’t be able to drive the car I drive. I’d be away from my missus and would have a terrible relationship with my children.

“I can’t even imagine where I’d be now, to be quite honest, if I hadn’t have got myself straight and sorted it out. I would’ve either been dead or in jail.”

Hartson does not anticipate becoming a repeat offender but he also recognises his limits.

“I have totally erased gambling from my mind,” he said. “I don’t go to bookmakers, I don’t go to racetracks, I have been asked by talkSport to co-host the Alan Brazil show at Cheltenham.

“However, I don’t want to put myself into an environment where there are potential dangers all around me and 200,000 people there, every one of them betting.

“The doors that have opened for me in the last seven years have been great. I’ve been phoned up by Premier League managers in Scotland and England asking me to help their players; we all know some of the obvious ones.

“It makes me feel like people are trusting me and believing in me. But all I can do is talk to these players and offer to take the boy to a Gamblers’ Anonymous meeting. Then the rest is down to him.”

John Hartson was speaking to publicise SPFL sponsors Ladbrokes’ The Backing Responsible Gambling campaign.