Matty Russell believes he has sold himself short as a professional sportsman as he opens up for the first time about alcohol and gambling problems that have blighted his rugby career.
The Toulouse winger has laid bare his battle in an exclusive interview with Love Rugby League, as he continues to try and correct “mistakes in the past that have come back to haunt me”.
Russell is hoping to represent Scotland at a third World Cup this autumn. He is speaking out in the hope that it helps other young sportsmen and women from avoiding the same pitfalls of a life in elite sport.
Russell is coming to terms with his third relegation in a row with three different teams, but right now the winger believes he is in the best shape of his life – fresh from the gym as we record the Love Rugby League Podcast, and a far cry from his darkest days at Warrington which he now describes as rock bottom.
“My problems were just being on nights out, being a bit drunk, causing a bit of bother,” he admitted.
“In the early years it was all fun and games, it was the party scene in Warrington in the nightclubs and it didn’t seem a problem.
“Sometimes I would come in training a bit dusty and even with the gambling it started as fun, players going into the bookies to put a few bets on. That was never bad. But with my injuries in 2015 that started me being more depressed, watching the lads when I couldn’t play. I was on painkillers from the operations, the gambling increased and then in 2016 I got real bad.”
From the Gold Coast to Warrington
Russell found himself at Warrington in 2014 having spent a year in Australia with Gold Coast Titans where he never played.
He had started his journey at Wigan, making two appearances for a club he wishes he had stayed with.
“I was in the first team but never really got to experience what it was like to be a proper first teamer and learn professionalism,” Russell said.
Injuries sent Matty Russell into a dark hole in 2016
He had hit the ground running on the field with the Wolves, before a succession of injuries in 2015 sent him into a dark hole that carried through to the following year.
“I had something to prove (in 2016) because I didn’t play a lot the year before,” Russell exlained.
“I really dug in, we won the league and I got to play in the two finals. My performances were good and I got to play in the World Cup again, but even then I had stopped doing a lot of things.
“We won most weekends so I thought I could have a beer here, beer there, I can eat what I want. I remember I went to Thailand after the 2016 Four Nations with Scotland. I put some pictures on Instagram and the lads said ‘you look chubby, you look fat’. For me I didn’t see it. But I was so unfit for the start of 2017.
“We were getting booed off the pitch that year and being called all sorts. I wasn’t doing my extras at training. I was living off takeaways, I was drinking, but I still couldn’t see how bad it had got. Steve Price came in as coach and basically just tried to sort me out.
“He came in and tested me, but that is when I hit the worst. A player just came in and said ‘Matty needs help, he’s not right’. My mate put me on to someone and that was the start of the process of recovery. I’m not perfect, I have hiccups and have had messes after this, but that was the rock bottom.”
A fresh start with Toronto Wolfpack
Russell left Warrington for Toronto in 2018, much for personal reasons as professional ones. He needed to get away and start again.
“I loved it at Toronto and to get away from the bubble I was in where the same people ring you and use you,” he said.
But even with a fresh start, and despite making inroads with his social drinking, the gambling problems intensified in his first season with the Wolfpack.
The team has a weekend off the week before the Million Pound Game against London at the end of the 2018 season. Russell placed a £1,000 treble bet and won, yielding a windfall of almost £50,000. He went away to New York on his own, spending freely, and successfully gambling the pot up towards £90,000. He then lost the lot.
Matty Russell: I knew it was time to change
With such a big promotion decider just days away, Russell felt unable to talk about what he had done. He kept his problems hidden away, played in the game and suffered a narrow defeat. It took him over two months to start sleeping again.
Thankfully for Russell that was the lightbulb moment for change.
Players at the Wolfpack were not being paid as the club slipped into a financial abyss, and in the background the winger had mounting problems of his own making, as the world then became gripped by the Covid pandemic.
“I have an addictive personality with most things so during lockdown I just put it all into my fitness,” he said.
“Through Covid I would be on the field at 8am on my own or with Stef Ratchford once that was allowed. It is the fittest I’ve ever been. It made me realise how chubby I was at Warrington and that I’ve been selling myself short for years.
“I learned a lot from being on my own in lockdown. Even when not being paid by Toronto it was the happiest I’ve been in myself.
“I still had gambling debts and things that needed paying off when I was not being paid. I’ve still not been paid (from Toronto) and I’ve still got some debts now but they have nearly gone. With Toronto sometimes at night I wouldn’t sleep but it has toughened me up for later in life.”
Life is a work in progress
In telling his story Russell repeatedly refers to a work in progress. His recovery is ongoing, and as much as he is now flying again on the field there are still slip ups off it.
He has though learned some valuable lessons about both life and league.
Life is about supporting others through tough battles, and charities such as Rugby League Cares, Sporting Chance and State of Mind Sport now play a vital role with players in this regard.
“Reflecting now I wish I’d had someone to put their arm around me a bit more because I didn’t realise what a state I had got myself in,” he admits.
And in recovery, Russell has learned that the way the sport has evolved, you simply cannot get away with such a lifestyle anymore at the top level.
“The best players are all the fittest ones in the team like James Roby, so there is no chance I could get away with that now in a top team,” he said.
“Luckily now I work on myself. If I had my time again that is something I am pretty disappointed with.
“You live and learn”
“Sometimes clubs might look at me and say he is a quality player but how is he doing off the field? So that has come back to bite me on the arse a few times.
“My agent will tell me a top club is really keen on me. I just take it with a pinch of salt now as I know what is going to come after it. They will ask ‘what’s he like now, what’s he up to?’.
“I’m not perfect now but I’m 100 times better than I was. If I was back in that Warrington team in the shape I’m in now I think I’d carve it up.”