MARC WILLIAMS learnt the hard way but the former Wrexham and Chester striker is now playing his part by raising awareness levels to help prevent footballers become addicted to gambling.

Williams came through the youth ranks at The Racecourse and made his first team debut in 2006 when the club was in the Football League.

But after leaving the Reds in 2011, Williams’ personal life and professional football career were both hit hard by gambling harm.

Five years to the day since his last bet, with his addiction issues behind him and Wrexham flying high in League Two, Williams returned to his old stomping ground earlier this month to deliver an awareness session to Phil Parkinson’s first team squad, as part of EPIC’s ongoing arrangement to provide safer gambling education to players at every EFL club.

Williams, whose most productive season was in 2008-9 - Wrexham’s first in non-league after suffering relegation - when he finished second top scorer with 18 goals, was filmed on his visit by EPIC Risk Management.

The 35-year-old said: “Wrexham Football Club was a big part of my journey as a footballer and my life of 15 years, not only through the academy but becoming a professional footballer at the age of 17.

“To be back here is different emotions.

“It’s nice to be back in terms of what we are doing and raising that vital awareness for the players but deep down inside, a little bit sad as well in the sense that it brings back all those memories and moments, and you just wish you could go back.”

After speaking with the Wrexham players, Williams, who has also played for Chester, Kidderminster, Llandudno, Aberystwyth and is currently with Caernarfon, said: “They reacted well to the session. Lots of nice feedback at the end.

“Out of all the sessions, it felt that emotion with it.

“I almost felt like I was going back in time and that’s where I tried to raise that awareness to the group to enjoy what they’ve got, especially with where the club’s going; buy into it and enjoy it because it’s a hell of an opportunity.”

Reds’ centre-back Aaron Hayden took on board what Williams said.

“I feel it’s more engaging when they’re actually telling their story instead of just showing you things from a case study,” said Hayden.

“He mentioned his daughter and how he’s come out the other side.

“You connect with him more emotionally and it’s good to see that he’s come out the other end as well so other lads that may be in the bad spiral can see that they can improve and come out of the loop.”

Meanwhile, EFL chairman Rick Parry has defended football’s right to benefit from responsible betting sponsorship and accepts there are no “magic answers” to eradicating addiction issues among players.

The sport’s relationship with gambling has been in the spotlight again recently after a 10-month ban was imposed on Newcastle midfielder Sandro Tonali by the Italian Football Federation late last month.

The player, who is suffering from a gambling addiction according to his agent, is also being investigated over possible breaches of betting rules in England by the Football Association.

The Big Step campaign, part of the Gambling With Lives charity, said the player deserved “empathy and support” rather than a heavy sanction, adding: “Sending someone addicted to gambling into this environment is like sending an alcoholic to work in a pub. If you force young footballers to endorse addictive products then don’t be surprised if they use them.”

Parry, whose organisation signed a new deal with Sky Bet as its title sponsor in June through to 2029, told the PA news agency that betting companies had made “billions” of pounds out of sport since the introduction of the Gambling Act in 2005 and added: “It’s only fair that there is a way of channelling some of that revenue into sport.

“So enabling sport to negotiate marketing agreements to get a share of the billions that are flowing in is something I have no difficulty with whatsoever as a concept.

“We’ve commissioned research, we’ve looked extensively and we haven’t seen any evidence that sponsorship leads to an increase in gambling or gambling harm.

“The values of gambling in England have been fairly steady across the decades and there is no direct correlation between sponsorship and gambling harm.

“Nobody wants gambling harm, nobody wants players to become addicted, or indeed non-players. But it is two different issues that tend to get conflated in terms of what we are doing with players and indeed with the non players.”

The EFL’s partnership with Sky Bet was singled out for praise in the Government’s white paper on gambling reform published in April as an example of the sort of socially responsible agreement sports should strive for.

Since 2018, Sky Bet funding has supported the EPIC Risk Awareness programme which has provided education to players and staff at all 72 EFL clubs. The programme has reached 2,200 players and staff over the past two years.