|FA Cup first qualifying round|
|Date: 6-8 September Coverage: Thatcham Town v Salisbury live on the Red Button and on the BBC Sport website from 12:30 BST on 7 September|
When Martin Pilkington scored the winning goal in an FA Cup tie in 2013, he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
As his Ashton United team-mates celebrated the unlikely 1-0 victory at AFC Fylde courtesy of the striker’s second-minute effort, Pilkington was rueing the fact his goal had cost him £100.
Pilkington, who now plays for Buxton having just returned from a ban, had placed a bet of £50 on his own team to lose and the money he stood to win amounted to almost 50% of his £220 weekly wage with the seventh-tier club.
A few months later in 2014, new Football Association rules came into force banning players from the top eight tiers of the English game from betting on any football matches around the world.
By then, Pilkington was in the grip of a gambling addiction. Between 2014 and 2016, he placed 831 football-related bets while still playing for Ashton United.
After an FA investigation, he was banned from playing for four years in 2016, the final 12 months suspended.
Having now served his ban, the recovering gambling addict returns to FA Cup action this Saturday with his new club Buxton away to West Midlands side Romulus in the first qualifying round.
In a candid interview, Pilkington opens up about his addiction, betting against his own team, the dark thoughts that consumed him after his ban – and how he is now rebuilding his life playing in a league sponsored by an online gambling company.
“Gambling addiction is 100% harmful,” said Pilkington, 31. “Football is everything to me and when I was told I wasn’t allowed to play, I was depressed. I had dark thoughts.
“If young players can learn from my story, I’d rather help.”
- BBC to show Thatcham Town v Salisbury in first qualifying round
- Does football have a gambling problem?
‘You get sucked in’
At the peak of his addiction, Manchester-born Pilkington held accounts with seven online betting companies while turning out for part-time Ashton United in the Northern Premier League.
“The FA asked me who I bet with,” he added. “The question should have been: Who didn’t I bet with? I used to bet with everyone.”
Of the 831 bets he placed in breach of FA rules, 48 involved matches featuring his own team of which 16 were on them to lose – Pilkington played in six of those 16 games.
The FA report into his case stated “at no time was there any suspicion of match-fixing”.
Explaining why he bet on his own team to lose, Pilkington said: “If I ever thought we had a tough game, I’d stick the other team in my accumulator.
“Regarding the FA Cup tie with AFC Fylde, it was win-win because we’d get a bonus if we won so I thought if we lost then at least I’ve won some money.
“I think the £100 I would have won if we’d lost was more than the win bonus we received.
“When I told my team-mates I had bet on us to lose in a game I scored the winning goal, they laughed.
“I work for my uncle fitting floors. We’re sub-contractors and it’s unpredictable in terms of how busy we are, so I used to spend days chasing money.
“Playing football was my main income.”
Having placed his first bet as a 15-year-old, Pilkington was gambling up to £250 each Saturday at the height of his addiction, although he says he never got into serious debt.
“I’d have a couple of bets in the early 12:30 game. Then I was at it until 10pm because there were always a couple of late Spanish games,” he added.
“I did it all online. Because I wasn’t getting cash out of my pocket, it was easy to lose track of how much I was spending. Whenever I looked at my account it was always down to the bare bones.
“It was definitely an addiction. You just get sucked in.”
The day my world crashed
Having scored 70 goals in 153 appearances for Ashton United, Pilkington was attracting interest from non-league rivals Salford City and AFC Fylde when his football-related betting spree was uncovered by the FA.
After suspicions were raised at the amount of money placed on Ashton’s home game to Rushall Olympic in April 2015, the FA’s dedicated integrity team sprang into action.
United had already qualified for the promotion play-offs and speculation was rife in the Ashton camp that a number of players would be rested against Rushall before a semi-final with local rivals Curzon Ashton three days later.
Pilkington did not feature as Rushall ran out 2-1 winners but several members of Ashton United’s squad were investigated.
The FA report stated that Pilkington’s uncle placed two bets on the game, with an initial stake of £200 returning winnings of £875.
Pilkington said: “My uncle and I are always talking football. I had no idea what the team was going to be until an hour before kick-off.
“The game was flagged up by someone saying that it was going be fixed, which the FA ruled out after seeing Highlights.”
Nevertheless, English football’s governing body were on to Pilkington – and his gambling habit was about to be exposed.
Describing the moment he was first made aware of the FA’s investigation, Pilkington said: “I was working on a job when the manager phoned me.
“He said the FA had turned up at training and were questioning players about betting. I wasn’t there because of work commitments and I thought at first he was joking.
“When it became clear he wasn’t, I knew I was in trouble because of all the bets on my accounts. I wasn’t hiding anything – the accounts were all in my name.
“I started to panic.”
‘Like being thrown in trash’
Pilkington admitted to breaching betting regulations and requested a personal hearing which was scheduled to be held at Wembley Stadium.
However Pilkington, who the hearing heard was living in poverty and struggling to gain access to his daughter, could not afford to travel to London.
Instead, the two-hour hearing was held in a Manchester hotel around 10 miles from Hurst Cross, Ashton United’s ground.
The player admitted to being aware of FA rules about gambling and signing a form regarding betting, but told the hearing he had not fully read the document.
Pilkington also revealed at the hearing he was seeking help for his addiction and had attended Gamblers Anonymous, which provides support meetings for problem gamblers.
“I was naive,” he explained. “I never cheated. When I’m on the pitch, I play 100% to win.”
Pilkington was sent home while the panel considered its decision and it was left to Paul Phillips, his manager at Ashton, to inform him of the length of the ban.
“When I first heard it was four years, I thought it was a wind-up,” said Pilkington.
“At first I wasn’t that bothered but as time went on, it hit me hard. I found myself betting more and drinking more.
“There was no help. It was like being thrown out in the trash.
“I’d played football since the age of five. I’d worked my way up from a pub team to the seventh tier of English football.
“Just before the ban, there were clubs watching me. I was scoring a lot of goals and I was in my prime.
“After the ban, it dawned on me that my dream of being a professional was over.
“I massively regret what I did.”
When contacted by BBC Sport about rules preventing players betting in football, the FA said it was committed to ensuring the integrity of football in England at all levels is maintained.
In conjunction with the Professional Footballers’ Association and leagues, players are made aware of their obligations through regular club visits, educational films, literature and apps.
“I still think more can be done to help players – particularly those at part-time clubs who do not earn very much,” added Pilkington.
“I did it to try to get more money. I don’t blame the FA. I was caught and I held my hands up.”
At the time of this interview, Pilkington is struggling with a calf injury which has limited his appearances for his new club.
Buxton are managed by Pilkington’s former Ashton boss Phillips, who had no hesitation re-signing the player – despite his ban and being out of the game since 2016.
“The lad has learned his lesson and deserves a second chance like everyone else,” said Phillips, who spoke in support of Pilkington at the players’ FA hearing.
Pilkington’s new club play in the Northern Premier League, which is sponsored by an online betting company. The irony is not lost on Pilkington.
“I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t used their services in the past,” he added.
“My advice to any young players reading this is to stay away from gambling. It really isn’t worth it.”
If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, advice and support can be accessed here.