Managing players, managing addiction

Roscommon hurling manager Justin Campbell on how he overcame his own addictions – and is now helping others
Warns match-fixing in GAA is imminent

Justin Campbell is the softly spoken Kiltormer man who has been the manager of the Roscommon senior hurling team for the past two years.

  Justin Campbell has a very interesting story to tell. He was one of the best young hurlers in the country in his day. He won an All-Ireland club title in 1992 and was on the Galway team which lost the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final in 1993. However at the pinnacle of his hurling career Justin became addicted to alcohol. He was treated at the time and recovered, going on to  work in Kilkenny for many years in the only dedicated residential centre in the country that treats young people suffering from addiction.

  Now Justin is an addiction counsellor who has some startling views with regard to young people and addiction. Justin is also one of the people who are spearheading the Health and Wellbeing Initiative in the GAA and he has serious warnings about the huge rise in gambling among young GAA players.

  Justin Campbell has lived in the Derrylahan area of South Roscommon for many years, with his wife Geraldine and two children, Kaitlyn (10) and Joey (5). He was one of the best young hurlers in the country at one stage and hurling was always in his blood – but there was tragedy in his young life as well.

  “Hurling was always a major part of my life growing up. In Kiltormer, Conor Hayes was our hero. We had a great team in the early 90’s, we won the All-Ireland club title in 1992 and I was named ‘man of the match’ in the final. I was on the Galway senior team at that stage too and I came on as a sub in the All-Ireland final in 1993 when Kilkenny beat us, so I was going well at that stage. I played club hurling for many years and I also played intermediate for Galway and we won an All-Ireland at that grade.

  “I worked as a sales rep that time and I also worked in England and the USA. I took over a pub in Kiltormer when I was playing hurling,” Justin recalled.

  Justin fell victim to alcohol addiction in his 20s, but there was extreme tragedy in his personal life which was a major factor in his decision to seek solace in alcohol.

  “I had a lot of tragedy in my personal life. My father died when I was 11 and my mother died when I was 14. I went to boarding school in Garbally…it was tough for us in the family. I remember that I was in London operating a jackhammer when I was 17 years old and it was hard going because I was small and light and it was very heavy work. Then later on I was drinking heavily and I had to go for treatment when I was 26. A lot of my problems were linked to loss and grief, which was probably understandable. Alcohol was a painkiller for me. I often wondered how we all survived as a family because it was like being hit by a bomb.”

  At the height of his drinking, Justin was actually running the pub in Kiltormer. Thankfully, he was able to overcome his alcohol-related issues.

  “I went to the Rutland Centre for treatment and I found that very good and I recovered well after that.”

  After subsequently working in various jobs Justin got into addiction counselling in 2005.

  “I started the addiction counselling work in 2005. I worked in Harristown House in Castlerea (it later closed down). I worked in the Aislinn Centre in Kilkenny. It’s the only residential treatment centre for addiction in Ireland for 15 to 21 year olds and the demand for their services is phenomenal. There is a huge waiting list to get in. There are 12 beds there but we could do with at least five or six more centres like that around the country. I worked there until November 2013.

  “I loved the work but it was a long commute down to Kilkenny. I took a chance and went out on my own after that and I work mainly from home. I do a lot of work with the GAA and I’m one of the people who run the Health and Wellbeing Committee.”

   Justin says that he meets young people on a daily basis who have serious problems with addiction to alcohol, drugs and gambling. He says that the gambling problem is exploding at the moment and is a huge issue with young people now.

  “Addiction is a major problem and in the GAA I have a feeling that we are pushing our young players too hard. I think we are reaching the limits of what they can take. If they get injured or lose their form are we adding to their stress levels? That’s a major question.”

  There have been many news reports about major young GAA figures who have come out in the past few years to admit that they were addicted to gambling, and the GPA have also admitted that there is a huge a growing problem with gambling and young people. It’s something that Justin has noticed too.

  He has some shocking things to say about the way gambling has grown in rural Ireland.

  “I am saying this for certain, gambling will be at epidemic levels in the next 5 to 10 years. It is absolutely huge now as it is. I have been highlighting this in the local media in recent months. We now have the major bookmaking firms running betting on colleges hurling and football matches involving 15, 16 and 17-year-olds and the worrying thing is that many of these young players are betting on themselves. I would say that you should have to be at least 18 to have a bet (legally). The teachers in these schools are appalled at this latest turn of events. The betting firms are trying to make money on kids who are trying to do their best playing football and hurling. It is wrong.

  “I was talking to a prominent member of a local club who were recently performing at All-Ireland level and all the players had themselves backed to win their match. They were beaten and I have no doubt whatsoever that the betting affected their performance. The way gambling is going at the moment, the day when there will be match-fixing in the GAA is not far away. Online gambling is massive. 77% of the betting companies’ turnover comes from online betting now, so young people can bet 24 hours a day from their mobile phone, which is frightening.”

  So what about drugs? Are they a major problem among rural young people?

  “Drugs are not near as big a problem as gambling or alcohol. But there is recreational use at weekends and when players might not be training, and at the end of the year. There will always be experimentation. The key to all these things is to try and keep young people away from drugs, alcohol and gambling, because the research shows that there is less likelihood of them developing a problem if they are not doing these things when they are very young.”

  Everyone in Ireland knows that we have a huge problem with our relationship with alcohol. So, from Justin’s experience, is it just as bad as ever now?

  “What we find now is that young people tend to cut loose at weekends or (in the case of people playing sport) when they are not training. The big change now is that a lot of young people drink only for the effect that it will have on them. Very few want to drink socially. A lot of young people want to be out of their minds with drink. A lot of young people say to me ‘we had a great night last night but I can’t remember it’, so there are huge dangers in that kind of behaviour when people are not in control of what they are doing. That is high-risk stuff. In the GAA when the season is over a lot of young lads reckon that for three months they can let their hair down and problems can develop with binge drinking during that time. Nowadays binge drinking is definitely a problem. A lot of young people just want to get bombed out of their minds and that’s a big change in what happened in the past.”

  So in general what does Justin think of where we stand now with regard to addiction and counselling? Justin says that the huge rise in gambling addiction is the biggest change he has seen.

   “Gambling is now a huge and growing problem and I see the same traits in a lot of people who have addictions whether it’s drink, gambling or drugs. It can be very emotional for people. I see a lot of people who have addictions have anger and resentment issues and that goes for not only young people, but older people too – and frequently there are problems with relationships at home.”

  Justin is on the road all the time giving talks to groups around the country.

  “I go to schools and colleges and give talks and I go around the country to GAA clubs. The Health and Wellbeing Committee is going a while but our aim is to have a Health and Wellbeing officer in every club in the country as soon as possible. That person’s role would be to watch out for signs of addiction and to have the knowledge of the help that is available. The last thing we want is for young people to be suffering without help. We are training tutors to go out to the clubs all over the country and it is something that we are developing. It’s not confined to the GAA either – it’s a community-based initiative as well. The slogan is ‘It’s ok to be not ok’.

  “We also want to develop a situation where GAA coaches are able to spot the signs of problems with their players. Maybe their football or hurling is not as good as it was or as it should be and we think that coaches and team managers should be able to spot the telltale signs and chat to the player in question and maybe organise some help for them.”

  Justin is available to chat about addiction to any school, college or community group.

  “I have a website – – and I would chat to anyone to try and help them or get them help. Frequently it is not the addicted person that contacts me, it’s a relative or friend who is worried. And anyone can contact me in complete confidence. My telephone number is 086-8840469.”