Real problem is that booze and football go hand-in-hand

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Whenever alcohol is lamented as a problem in football, the phrase of choice is the “drinking culture”, which suggests that it is something endemic and germane to the game. Which it is; in fact alcohol seeps out of every pore in English football.

Harry Redknapp identified its corrosive effect on young players yesterday, but who would be surprised that footballers drink when booze and the alcohol industry is so omnipresent in our game? The Carling Cup; Carlsberg on Liverpool shirts until last season; the concourses of stadiums full of fans supping from plastic glasses; the beery roar of the crowd and that great staple of the English Saturday afternoon: the pub and the game.

Even Redknapp’s club Spurs closed their first big shirt sponsorship deal with the brewery Holsten. There was a time when Chelsea had Coors on their shirt; Leeds had Whyte and Mackay and Newcastle had the Blue Star brewery. Everton are still sponsored by Chang beer.

So, before we rush to blame the players for their toxic refuelling habits, let’s not forget that the football establishment has been happy to take the shilling off the alcohol industry.

English football is never going to defeat the grip that the demon drink has on the game when it is so central to the whole matchday experience. We might educate its players to drink more moderately, but in a country as drink-sodden as England, the current generation do well to stay as sober as they do.

The problem for footballers, including Wayne Rooney, is unlike the rest of us the simple pleasures of a couple of drinks are prohibited for them.

Although this may come as a surprise to many, the elite players who compete in the Premier League and Europe most weeks are extremely abstemious. They have to be. But when they see a window in the schedule, they tend to do one month’s drinking in one night.

In his autobiography Jamie Carragher was open about his approach to alcohol. He wrote that he never kept drink in his house.

Not for him, like most of the population, a modest glass of wine before bed. On the rare occasions he drank, he did so at the pub and if he was going to the pub he was going to do it properly. It was either no booze at all or a skinful.

Carragher’s approach pretty much summed up the attitude of a lot of modern British footballers.

There is one member of this summer’s England World Cup squad — who shall remain nameless — who has been photographed a few times staggering around outside nightclubs and is infamous for getting paralytic on a couple of pints. The binge drinking of football has meant he has never built up the usual tolerance.

Arsene Wenger once said that, if he had to pick one of the two, he would rather his players smoked than drank, such was alcohol’s debilitating effect.

The Arsenal manager’s attitude towards drink has always seemed to be too rigidly abstemious. Given that Usain Bolt admits to a taste for Guinness, that must mean drink cannot have an entirely destructive effect on professional athletes.

It is unrealistic to expect English footballers to stay sober their whole careers living in such a boozy environment, in a sport suffused with alcohol.

As they get older and wiser, as in the case of Ryan Giggs, players tend to become virtually teetotal to prolong their careers. But in a country where drink is a rite of passage for most teenagers, why should we expect young footballers to be any different?

Equally, we lionise those players of yesteryear who could come straight from a Friday night out to play on a Saturday afternoon.

The tales of George Best and Jimmy Greaves’ exploits are enduringly popular. Rooney has nothing like the problems of those two or, thank goodness, Paul Gascoigne.


Source: The Irish Independent, 10/09/10
Journalist: Sam Wallace