When I watched Scott Davies playing for Oxford United back in 2014, it looked like he was living the dream. What was really going on in his life, though, was more like a nightmare.
Aylesbury-born Davies discovered his talent for football as a child and was on the books at Watford and Wycombe Wanderers before being signed by Reading in 2002.
He came through the ranks with the Royals as a dynamic midfielder with a good eye for a pass. He was briefly mentored by the highly-thought of now-Leicester City boss Brendan Rodgers before breaking into the first team for a few games in 2009 after several loan spells elsewhere.
“It was a massive eye-opener training under a manager who, for me, is one of the best in the world. Even back then, he was different to other managers I had, ” says Davies.
From the outside looking in, it would seem he had the world at his feet. But, unbeknown to anybody else, he was going through a hellish gambling addiction that would soon overwhelm him and do long-lasting damage to his football career.
The downward spiral
From an early age, Davies had a competitive edge that made him crave success away from the pitch as well as on it, and that led him to the local betting shops.
“I was watching the ball go round on the screen at night and the room would be spinning.”
“I started gambling at 16 years old. I used to go into the bookmakers, never really got ID’d and was earning money for the first time. I was only on an apprenticeship, earning £50 week, but I was losing that within 15 or 20 minutes of getting paid,” says the 31-year-old.
“It completely got hold of me and then over the next few years, my football started to do really well. I scored 25 goals in my first 50, 60 games so was rewarded with a new contract where I went from £18,000 to £130,000 a year. I never got any life skills on how to look after money, and my bets just became bigger.”
Before he knew it, Davies’ debts started to pile up and he was beginning to struggle to find money for bills. Something that started as innocent fun was starting to become an issue affecting his life both on and off the pitch.
“I just couldn’t put my phone down. It was a necessity to stay up and gamble rather than get sleep and relax before a tough session every morning,” he recalls.
“There were times when I was playing the roulette machine so often, I was watching the ball go round on the screen at night and the room would be spinning. I would lean out the side of my bed and be sick because of the motion sickness.
“I used to bet on Hungarian handball or horse racing in Chile at four o’clock in the morning. I’d bet on badminton, table tennis; whatever would keep me stimulated throughout the night, I’d bet on it.”
After leaving Reading in 2011, Davies attempted to revive his career at Crawley Town and Oxford. But by 2015, his gambling had spiralled out of control and he’d dropped into non-league with Dunstable Town after being let go by Chris Wilder’s Oxford a year earlier.
“I felt so worthless that I didn’t actually want to be here anymore.”
With his football dream in tatters, Davies was teetering on the edge of disaster.
“By that time I’d lost my career, I’d lost a quarter of a million pounds and spent about £50,000 of my parents’ money also,” the Bucks-born footballer explains.
“I got to the state of mind where I was suffering from depression, I wasn’t enjoying football. It wasn’t important to me anymore because I didn’t have a nice lifestyle off the pitch that enabled me to enjoy playing.
“In the end, I felt so worthless that I didn’t actually want to be here anymore because I had nothing to live for. It was a case of needing to sort things out before I ended up dead, I guess. “
Davies, by his admission, was a “closed book” and it was only until it really hit home just how much his addiction was affecting, not just him, but the people around him, when he took the first steps towards recovery.
“I was in the bookies one day and it all hit home when I turned round at the door and saw my mum in floods of tears, crying her eyes out. I looked at her and she looked so weak and vulnerable and for the first time in my life I thought ‘I can’t put her through this anymore’.
“I used to find her on the computer in the middle of the night googling how to help people with gambling addictions. It just wasn’t a nice place to be and my mum’s state of mind was probably just as bad as mine. I’ve got the best parents in the world and to put them through it wasn’t fair.”
Davies checked himself into a rehabilitation clinic in 2015, opened up about his issues and, as of now, is four-and-a-half years without a bet. He encourages others in a similar position to do the same.
“Speak to someone. It’s quite scary, but not many people have a safe space to turn to and have that person who can listen and doesn’t judge. I had that for the first time when I checked into rehab,” the ex-Reading trainee recalls.
“I had a guy there who was an ex-footballer and a gambling addict. I was like ‘hallejuah, you understand me’. I’d say get it off your shoulders because a problem shared is a problem halved; that’s an expression that I live by and think it’s so true.”
Davies is using experience as a way of helping others avoid the same mistakes and now works with Epic Risk Management, a gambling harm-minimisation consultancy.
“I became the public speaker for the rehab clinic that I went to. They asked me if I’d be interested in going round and telling my story. I didn’t realise that I had a knack for it,” he says.
“I was then approached by Paul Buck, who is the CEO of Epic Risk Management. He just asked me if I wanted to run the new project that we’ve got and, for me, it’s been an absolute blessing. I feel like I’ve got the best job in the world.”
Davies is striving to educate players, both young and more experienced, on the perils and long-term consequences of gambling, and still thinks there’s a lot more work that can be done.
“Something I always say at all the clubs I go and talk to, if you have a problem with your groin or hamstring or you roll your ankle, who do you go and see? Straight away they say the physio.
“Then I say if you’ve got a problem with something that’s going on in your mind, who do you go and speak to? And they look puzzled. It’s just something we need to take the attached stigma away from.
“There is a lot of work going on by betting companies [to prevent addiction], but it is just the start of a very long road. Hopefully a successful one.”
Image credits: Epic Risk Management (@epicpgc). Follow Scott on Twitter.