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Derry All-Ireland Winner Cried 'Tears Of Relief' After Being Jailed

Derry All-Ireland Winner Cried 'Tears Of Relief' After Being Jailed
By PJ Browne

On the prison bus after leaving Antrim Court in May 2016, Johnny McGurk felt relief more than anxiety after he was sentenced to 10 months in jail.

The former Derry footballer, who had been an accountant with a construction company, pleaded guilty to stealing £572,206 from his employer to feed a gambling addiction.

23 years earlier, McGurk had been Man of the Match as Derry defeated Cork to win their only All-Ireland football title. He also won an All-Ireland club title with Lavey in 1991.

McGurk began gambling in school and his habit escalated while attending university, but after his academic performance began to dip due to the time he was spending in the bookies, he stopped betting.

However, after retiring from football, the habit returned.

"I had parked something many years ago that was to be the undoing of me," McGurk says in his episode of TG4 series Laochra Gael which airs February 17th at 9:30pm.

"Gambling from my university days was sufficiently set aside throughout the days of football. I had interests to keep me going. I had a young family.

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"I really believe the thrill of GAA was missing in my life. Gambling came back into my life, and took over.

"I worked as an accountant. Things were good. I was earning decent money. I suppose in early 2006 I had started to gamble a bit heavier again.

"Myself and my ex-wife had savings. It escalated quite quickly. I remember losing a fair sum of money in July 2006, and unfortunately, things moved very quickly at that stage where Ì was gambling for three or four months at a time. It accumulated an amount of 60-something-thousand. I lost it within one evening when I lost one football bet. That's the sort of behaviour a gambler can achieve when an addiction completely takes over their life.

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"It went on for five years. You live in an inner bubble where you are living your life physically, but mentally you are nowhere near where you think you are. It's a complete life on loneliness. Unfortunately, you keep going back to it, and I did.

"People won't understand how you can feel that there's a way out by gambling more, but I couldn't control that. That's the way I unfortunately allowed my life to advance and escalate throughout those years. I kept chasing the money, pointlessly. It's easy to look back on it that way now but I could see no other way out.

"Over five years, it culminated in over £500,000 of debt. I was going to say that I took it, but I stole it. It got the better of me.

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2 September 2018; Johnny McGurk of the Derry 1993 All-Ireland winning team who were honoured prior to the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

"Fortunately for myself and my employers, late in 2011, they discovered the fact that I had been stealing money to fund this addiction. The company brought me in and sacked me.

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"I went home to face the facts, and face what had happened. You have fooled the people that mean the most to you. You have to face those people first, which was very difficult to face my wife and my family. They were heartbreaking times for the children, and my family."

The addiction resulted in the breakup of McGurk's marriage. Five years after he was sacked, McGurk was sentenced to 30 months, 10 in prison and 20 on licence.

"I left Antrim court on the back of a prison bus," he says.

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"I cried tears. They were more tears of relief. I felt in my mind that was the first day of a new life more than anything else."

McGurk's partner, Helen O'Neill, recalls that "his entire time in prison, he was worrying about me and the boys".

"The night I came home from his court case, and I was sitting in the house completely devastated, the phone rang and someone asked if I could take a call from HMP Maghaberry," she says.

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"I was thinking, 'Oh my God, is he going to be OK?' He came onto the phone and he was like, 'This is it Helen. This is the start of it. This is nearly over'.

"I got off the phone and I actually laughed, and though, 'John McGurk is the only person that could put a positive spin on your first night in prison'."

Once released, McGurk struggled to adapt. Finding work as an accountant was unlikely.

"I found it difficult to relate to my friends around the parish, and my family as easily as I'd done years back," he says.

"I did miss the routine system that I was in, in prison. I struggled early on to get back into society.

"10 years is a long time in anyone's life to go through hardship and pain. I suppose that might sound bad in terms of I caused more pain to other people, but there is pain in what you do. I struggled with that for long periods."

He did eventually find employment, and also started coaching underage teams with Lavey.

18 July 1993; Donegal's James McHugh, left, and Derry's Johnny McGurk shake hands after the final whistle. Ulster Senior Football Championship Final, Derry v Donegal, St. Tighearnach's Park, Clones, Co. Monaghan. Picture credit; Ray McManus / SPORTSFILE

"Even after the gambling, they welcomed me straight back into coaching," says McGurk

"I've been there ever since, which is basically 10 years of underage coaching.

"I feel like I made great and grave mistakes, and I will never lose the pain or the remorse for what I caused for people, particularly my employers and my family.

"I do believe that there's a message there for people who are gambling, that there is a better day, that you need to seek help, and you need to ask for help. I have probably been as far down as anybody can be. And yet, I'm still here to tell my story.

"I've been given another chance, particularly by my family. Realistically, I have to leave the past behind. I have to move forward. I will move forward.

"I think I have a lot to give in terms of family, and to people that may have problems, that maybe want to talk to me, that maybe want to over things. I believe the future is bright."

If you have been affected by the themes touched upon in this article, you can visit Problemgambling.ie for advice

5 April 1998; Johnny McGurk of Derry in action against Colm McManamon of Mayo during the Church & General National Football League quarter-final match between Derry and Mayo at Pairc Markievicz in Sligo. Photo by David Maher/Sportsfile

See Also: Shane McGuigan Locked Himself In The Toilet After Derry Lost To Donegal

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