During the first lockdown last year, ex-footballer Paul Merson took the deposit he and his wife had saved for a new home and blew it on gambling. It was just part of a lifelong cycle of boom-to-bust for the former Arsenal and England star, as he explained while fighting tears in Paul Merson: Football, Gambling & Me.
This moving and engaging documentary laid bare the widespread misery caused by compulsive gambling. It was also a reminder that footballers are Britain’s new social conscience. From Ian Wright talking about domestic violence to Rio Ferdinand discussing grief, men who are useful at kicking a ball have become the mirrors in which the country sees reflections of itself.
In Merson’s case, the image gazing back was shocking. He had, by his own estimation, blown some £7m since becoming hooked on gambling while playing cards as a teenager.
If the sums were astronomical, Merson’s heartbreaking story of addiction was by no means unique. One person a day dies from a gambling-related suicide, it was revealed.
Blame was laid at the door of betting firms who prey on vulnerable individuals with impulse control issues. Sixty per cent of betting company profits come from problem gamblers or those at risk of becoming problem gamblers, said the founder of the lobby group Clean Up Gambling, Matt Zarb-Cousin.
Destructive gamblers aren’t, in other words, a tiny, tragic minority. They are the business model for an industry that has used technology to take gambling out of the high street and put it on everybody’s smartphone.
Merson, now 53, was searingly honest. He broke down when a pal from his Arsenal days, Wes Reid, recalled how, even as a 16-year-old apprentice, Merson had displayed signs of compulsiveness.
To this day his brain goes haywire when tempted with gambling, researchers at Cambridge and at Imperial College London discovered. Presented with images of family life and beautiful natural scenery, Merson’s grey matter stayed inert. Change the slide to a rolling dice or roulette wheel and it was fireworks.
What was most striking was how helpless Merson felt. Squandering that deposit – he, his wife and their three children continue to live in rented accommodation – had left him crippled with self-hate. Which was what had encouraged Merson to quit. But he continued to struggle, admitting he found the repetitive nature of everyday life a chore.
His biggest worry was whether he had the willpower to remain on the straight and narrow. “This is it,” he said, his face crumpled in distress. “This is last chance saloon.” The film was honest enough to acknowledge the possibility that he could relapse and that the tragic tale might yet have another unhappy twist.
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