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Dublin: 3°C Friday 14 May 2021

‘I was at rock bottom and a friend got me a job in a supermarket. I got the call to say that I failed the drugs test’

Craig Walsh has rebuilt his career and returned to League of Ireland football after a gambling addiction saw his life spiral out of control in 2015

Walsh returned to the League of Ireland this month, over three years after making his last appearance in Ireland's top division.
Walsh returned to the League of Ireland this month, over three years after making his last appearance in Ireland's top division.
Image: Craig Walsh

CRAIG WALSH’S DAYS at Shelbourne FC came to an abrupt end on 5 September 2015.

A former Irish underage star, things hadn’t been right both on and off the pitch for a long time. It all fell apart for Walsh after a 0-0 stalemate with Cabinteely in Tolka Park that Saturday evening.

“On the Friday, I went into training and realised that I was playing,” he tells The42.

“It was in my mind whether to play or not, but Shels were trying to push back in for promotion.

“I played and after the game I was pulled in by the drug testers and I knew straight away.

“I said to one of the lads in the dressing room,‘I’m bollocksed here,’ I said.

“They were like: ‘What do you mean?’

“‘I’m bollocksed, these have me by the bollocks here.’

“They had me, basically. I didn’t know what to do, do I run out of Tolka Park or what do I do?

“That was it, I couldn’t refuse to do it because obviously you’d be banned straight away.

“About three or four weeks later, in the meantime I had left my job at the bookies, That’s when I realised what had happened and what was ahead.

“I had no job. I was at rock bottom and a friend of mine got me a job in a supermarket . I found out then, I got the call to say that I failed the drugs test,” he explains.

Walsh had tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine.

He was subsequently banned from all footballing activity for two years but it would later be reduced to a year upon appeal in 2016.

A first failed drug test wasn’t the problem. There were much deeper issues that Walsh needed to resolve.

But that would not be the end of the road. A gambling addiction and a drunken mistake would not define his career.

At the age of seven, Walsh’s aunt brought him to training at Lourdes Celtic in Crumlin. By the age of 13 he was in demand and offered trials with Liverpool but chose instead to stay at home and move to Cherry Orchard, the Ballyfermot breeding ground for such international stars as Keith Fahey and Andy Reid.

His rise was so profound that he broke onto the international scene at U17 level after garnering a reputation as one of Ireland’s brightest schoolboy talents. He soon attracted offers from clubs such as West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland and Manchester United. A different opportunity would capture his imagination, however.

Craig Walsh A 17-year-old Walsh in action for Ireland's U17 side in 2009. Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

In summer 2009, he received a call from Cherry Orchard to attend the Dublin trials for an upcoming Sky One reality TV show called ‘Football’s Next Star’.

The show would see 10 finalists flown to Italy to compete for a professional contract with Inter Milan over the course of two months. Walsh was offered trials and impressed. He would later go far in the competition and finish third.

But almost nine years later, Walsh explains why it wasn’t as glamorous as one would think.

“I spent the guts of 10 weeks living on Lake Como training with Inter Milan and sometimes training with the academy team.

“People tend to think that it was made out to be this big football show and this great chance to go and play with Inter Milan, but people don’t realise that it was more of a ‘Big Brother’ kind of thing.

“We weren’t allowed our phones and they said that they’d give our phones back but they never did. There was no access to the internet, we had nothing. A 10-minute phone call every day to back home. That was all we had.”

Walsh Walsh reached the finale of the reality show, narrowly missing out on winning a contract with Inter Milan. Source: Sky One

He put his career in Ireland on hold for the Italian dream. Missing out on a potential deal with West Brom is something Walsh has almost come to regret.

“Looking back, I was offered a contract there and I never took it. I was never too keen on it. I had been at West Brom previous to that and they made me an offer.

“If I hadn’t the Inter Milan thing at the time, I probably would have signed for West Brom because it was a decent enough offer. I ended up thinking of the bigger picture of Italy and Jose Mourinho – all the superstars.”

After the show, he became almost like a celebrity of sorts within Irish footballing circles. By January 2010, he was snapped up by Shamrock Rovers, signing on his 18th birthday. It appeared that Walsh’s budding career was about to blossom, but it would never come to fruition in Tallaght.

His breakthrough came when he was sent out on loan to Longford Town midway through the season.  Walsh made over 20 appearances for Tony Cousins’ side in his first full season, but early on in his second, he broke his metatarsal and never re-established himself before he was eventually released.

The way he was let go left a bitter taste in the then 20-year-old’s mouth.

“I wasn’t told I was released,” he says.

“They didn’t even let me know I was being released, Tony never let me know. We had a bit of a disagreement (during the season); I felt that I had gotten myself back fit and I should have been playing.”

In January 2013, he signed for UCD and enjoyed a successful year, but his time in Belfield wouldn’t last long. Manager Martin Russell left the Students, and Walsh would soon follow him out the door with a move to Bohemians, where he enjoyed perhaps the most successful period of his career in 2014.

Stephen McPhail and Craig Walsh Walsh (left) challenge's Shamrock Rovers' Stephen McPhail in 2014. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Walsh starred in midfield for Bohemians and was man of the match in both Dublin derbies against Shamrock Rovers. At the season’s end, his future was thrown into doubt once more when new manager Keith Long told him that his contract would not be renewed.

At 23, he signed for Shelbourne in the First Division. His once budding career was stalling and given his situation off the pitch, it’s easy to understand why.

Things were beginning to take a downwards spiral.

“Things weren’t going well for me off the pitch. I was after getting a job in the head office of a bookmakers firm. This is when I started struggling with gambling.

“So that was what you would say: a kick in the bollocks.”

Walsh began to gamble regularly, often using his wages in a bid to increase his income. His addiction grew bigger when he began working in the industry.

He never told anybody. His friends, his family and his teammates knew nothing. By the summer, he was rapidly falling out of love with the game.

“My head wasn’t in the right place and I was kind of fooling myself. I probably should have seeked to get help at the time, but I didn’t.

“I think it did (affect my game), before that I wasn’t really mad into gambling. I’d have a bet and some weeks I wouldn’t but it wouldn’t affect my football.

“It’s only when I went to the bookies firm that I realised ‘I’m in the know here. I might get a few tips or a big call coming in’.

“You’re thinking to yourself ‘I’ll try and get one step ahead of them here’ by getting a job in the place.

“I felt that halfway through the season, things hadn’t kickstarted and we weren’t really going well. Personally, my head wasn’t in it.

“I said to my Da: ‘Look, I need to take a step away from football’, and this would have been around June or July and he said to just stick it out.

“(I was) out of the Shels team at the time. The last year I had been playing Premier Division football and playing in the Dublin derby. You’re doubting yourself.

“I found myself constantly thinking about gambling. How am I going to gamble?” he says.

The evening of 1 September 2015, it reached boiling point. After gambling away €1,500, some of which his friends’ money, it all escalated’.

At his lowest, he was offered cocaine after a night of heavy drinking to escape his demons. He took it. The one and only time he has ever used the drug.

Just two nights later, he was in action for Shelbourne and was taken aside by anti-doping officials.

“In the September then – it happened,” he remembers.

“I probably should have pulled out of the squad, knowing I wasn’t right and knowing what I was after doing on the Thursday.

“I played and I wasn’t expecting to play.

“That Thursday, I went on a binge and just hit rock bottom.

“I didn’t know what to do with myself, I had lost all my wages and all the money that I had. I found myself drinking more than I’d normally have.

“I isolated myself from everyone. I was dodging phone calls and turned my phone off.

“Unfortunately, it happened. I took cocaine and that’s where it happened for me. It was my own fault but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind after everything that happened that day.

“You’re more embarrassed to speak out about it because you don’t know what help is there and you don’t know what way people are going to react. It was more so the embarrassment of it.”

Richie Towell and Craig Walsh At Shelbourne FC, things began to take a turn for the worst off the pitch for Walsh. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Walsh was provisionally banned for two years on 5 September; it would be the last game that he would play for Shelbourne FC.

In hindsight, Walsh’s ban is almost the best thing that could have happened to him, certainly for his well-being. It was all in the open, he didn’t need to hide it from the world and could face what had pushed him to the brink.

He sought out help, he fought his addiction and came to terms with how it had impacted his life. The Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland had a major hand in his recovery.

“The PFAI were there for me. Stephen (McGuinness) made things feel a lot better and made the situation feel a lot better than it was. He spoke with me, went through everything with me.”

He picked himself up. He appealed the ban, providing evidence of his mental state, his addiction and why he did what he did. He just wanted to play football again.

In July 2016, his ban was reduced to a year and Walsh would be allowed to play from September that year. He was back in the right direction, signing for Inchicore Athletic.

“I said ‘Look, I’m going to start at the bottom and I’m going to work my way back up and I’m going to sign for Inchicore once my ban is up.’

“I got back in and I was flying. I was starting to love my football again.

“I just had that buzz again.

“I was getting up at 6 in the morning to have a jog – things that I hadn’t done before. I had a clear mind and I knew what I wanted.”

After almost a year in Inchicore, it was time for Walsh to take the next step, but the League of Ireland was too big of a leap at that time. Joining Crumlin United in the Leinster Senior League was the perfect choice.

In May, Walsh fulfilled a lifelong dream by playing with the Irish Amateur team against England after a successful season. Walsh would take home an Irish cap, a highlight of his career.

“I found myself then in the Irish amateur team to play against the England team which for me and my family was an amazing achievement.

“I had been capped at youth level and that was one of the ones where you know you’re never going to get a senior cap, realistically.”

Image from iOS (1) Walsh received an official cap from the FAI for his appearance in green. Source: Craig Walsh

His performances for both Crumlin United and Ireland didn’t go unnoticed. A call from a familiar figure from his past on 10 June would ultimately bring that chapter in his career to a close.

Five days later, he was playing League of Ireland football again, after impressing in a trial at Bray Wanderers.

“Martin Russell just rang me last weekend, he rang me on the Sunday.

“Playing with Bray last Tuesday, I looked sharp and he offered me a deal – a deal that suited us both. I took the deal at Bray.

“I signed on Wednesday and played Waterford City on the Friday, so it was a bit of a baptism of fire.

“For myself personally, it was a long road that, last Friday, kind of came to an end and all of a sudden I’m starting.”

Reflecting on the last number of years, Walsh feels that he didn’t receive adequate support from the FAI after his failed drug test.

“I haven’t actually seen anything with the FAI yet in regards to helping lads with anything like that.

“There should be something from the FAI.

“I never had a call from the FAI to see how my mental health was or how I had been affected by this. I was kind of left on my own to deal with this – only for the PFAI who have done unbelievable work, I’m grateful for it.”

(The42 contacted the FAI for comment but had not received a response at the time of publication.) 

Walsh also feels that something must be done to combat a growing culture of gambling in sports and that more support should be available for players suffering with their mental health.

“You see the FAI sponsored by Ladbrokes. At the time of my hearing, their main betting partner was Ladbrokes.

“It just seems to be swept under the carpet a lot of the time. I know the GPA have done a lot of work in regards to that and the PFAI do but at the same time there’s only so much that they can do.

“I was working 40 hours a week in a job and my mind was all over the place and at the same time dealing with going to counselling for gambling addiction.

“The PFAI helped me with it but I had deal with it all myself. Family and friends are the ones that helped me through it.”

Image from iOS (2) Walsh pictured with his grandparents. He received massive support from his friends and family in his recovery from a gambling addiction. Source: Craig Walsh

From trials with England’s best clubs, becoming a TV star, suffering several setbacks, his fight against a gambling addiction and to his return to Ireland’s Premier Division.

There is a lot to learn from his story for anybody who finds themselves in a similar situation.

“My advice would be to have a step back and have a look at yourself and have a good think about it.

“If it is a thing where a young lad is struggling with gambling from an early age, if they think they need help then speak to their parents about it.

“If you think you’re struggling, go speak to somebody about it. There’s a lot of help there.”

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