Paul Merson nailed it - lengthy gambling bans for Newcastle United and Brentford stars are 'a disgrace'

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Former Arsenal player Paul Merson has struggled with addiction all his life - so his message on the bans given to players like Ivan Toney and Sandro Tonali should be heeded.

Paul Merson knows more than most about the impact that gambling addiction can have – so when he suggests that the recent lengthy bans for Ivan Toney and Sandro Tonali for breaches of betting regulations were “a disgrace,” it’s an opinion which should be taken very seriously.

The issue has been thrown back into the spotlight once more with West Ham United midfield Lucas Paquetá under investigation by the FA and FIFA for alleged gambling breaches. The Brazilian midfielder denies the allegations, and no date has been set for a decision to be announced. If found guilty, he could become the fourth Premier League player punished in the last year, alongside Toney, Tonali, and Nottingham Forest full-back Harry Toffolo, who was handed a suspended five-month ban.

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Merson struggled with gambling and alcohol addictions for much of his life, including for most of his professional career, and has admitted to feeling suicidal before receiving treatment. The lessons he has learned from his own battles and subsequent recovery give us an insight into how players with such issues should be treated – and he feels that excluding them is not the right road to go down.

"People have no respect for the gambling addiction," he told the Sacked In The Morning podcast. "To give people 10-month bans for an addiction that is ravaging football, with sponsorships all over the shirts... They needed help and I don't think 'help' is giving them 10-month bans.

"We underestimate this addiction. We need to show it some respect and not, 'oh, show a bit of willpower'. I would say to the people who make these rules up and ban people, 'next time you get diarrhoea, try and stop that with willpower'."

A rather graphic description but one which makes a very truthful point – gambling addiction is an illness, not a personal shortcoming, and there are very real doubts over whether football’s governing bodies are doing enough to help players with treatment rather than simply punishing them and leaving the rest up to chance.

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Brentford striker Toney was handed an eight-month ban and a £50,000 fine in May 2023 after admitting to 232 breaches of the FA’s gambling rules, which included bets made against his own clubs while he was on loan at Wigan Athletic and Scunthorpe United in 2017 and 2018. An independent commission rejected the FA’s call for a 15-month ban after hearing evidence that Toney had “a clear history of gambling addiction.”

Toney received treatment, but it was not provided by the FA. Instead, he was forced to remain at home and banned from training with his club as well as from taking part on match days. He has since spoken about the mental health issues he dealt with in that period, describing it as “a bit of a rollercoaster” in an interview with Sky Sports.

“In the first place, personally I didn't watch football for a while, for a month and a bit. There was a stage where I fell out of love with football, a bit. But then football is all that I know really. Playing football from a young age, it's what I'm used to…. Missing the game for a while and not being around my team-mates was tough.

“Before you know it, you're getting heavy and putting on weight. You're not doing the right things and getting bad habits. The first week or two, I just thought, ‘forget it’, I will just chill and then when I'm back I'll be ready to go. But the people around me made sure it wasn't the case.”

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Tonali, whose ban was handed down by FIFA and the FIGC rather than by the FA as the offences involved did not take place while he was in England, has been allowed to continue training with Newcastle United, but Toney was excluded from working with his team-mates for four months, although he has praised them for keeping in touch and helping to lift his spirits.

It may be necessary to have bans and fines in place in order to discourage players from gambling on matches, but help must be offered too. As it stands, players seeking treatment for addiction have to go through independent organisations like Sporting Chance, a rehabilitation clinic set up by Merson’s former team-mate Tony Adams, rather than receiving it directly from the FA – despite the fact that Merson believes it is still a substantial issue within the game.

"It's big in football, it's a hidden addiction because it's a hard one for managers to get hold of," the former Arsenal and Middlesbrough midfielder said. "It's easy to hide. If a player comes in who's been out drinking 'til four o'clock in the morning, you know. But if they drop 200 grand at a casino or betting, you never know until it's too late.

"Talking to Tony [Adams] about Sporting Chance, it's gone from 70-30 in terms of drinking over gambling to the other way round - it's 70% gambling and 30% drinking. That tells you it's a massive thing. With gambling, clubs think, 'well, it's not harming them really - it's not going to affect their game'. But it will affect their game more than drink.”

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Meanwhile, the FA has continued to allow club shirts and sponsorship hoardings to be slathered with adverts for gambling firms and the EFL has SkyBet as its primary sponsor. To ban players for gambling while openly taking money from the industry provides mixed messaging at best, and the lack of support from English football’s governing body for addicts within the game further implies that the issue is not being taken seriously.

England manager Gareth Southgate has been another critic of the FA’s response to Toney’s situation.

“What bothers me is we've got to look after people,” Southgate told the media in May last year. “He's injured at the moment, what does he do about getting fit? How do we give him some structure over the next few months that he can develop himself or be a better person at the end of it or have experiences that he might not experience?

“I don't like the idea that we just leave somebody so they are not allowed to be a part of the football community. I don't think that's how we should work, I don't think that's how the best rehabilitation programmes would work.”

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Southgate is surely right – it’s hard to imagine clinical professionals recommending that gambling addicts be isolated and effectively told to seek help on their own. The FA could and should help to provide support for recovering addicts by working with clinics like Sporting Chance to get players into treatment programmes, and it could change its rules to ensure that players are permitted to stay involved with their colleagues. It seems hard to imagine how training bans can possibly provide any benefits – but it’s easy to see how they could prove to be deleterious to the mental health of the players punished.

Toney is now back playing, and has described himself as healthy and mentally well, but other players may not be so fortunate. Gambling addicts need help, support and compassion, and if it is necessary to ban them from playing football to provide a deterrent, that doesn’t mean that offenders should be exiled from the game altogether. The sport should gather round such players, not exclude them altogether.

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