Football’s Drinking Culture: A Tale of Two Halves

There’s a silent revolution underway in British football’s perennial drinking culture. We’ve heard so much in recent years about drunken footballers that what’s happening now might seem impossible or ridiculous: but alcohol is leaving the pitch. On the terraces – no, make that “on the stands”, as the terraces are gone – on the stands, drinking has only just arrived.

These days, practically every player at every top club is teetotal for most of the year. Significant numbers of players at the top four clubs will never drink, not even on holiday or during the (ever shorter) close season. It’s a new development, which only really started at the end of the last century with the arrival of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. (We can assume, I think, that Roy Keane’s autobiography has done for the legend about Alex Ferguson ending the drinking culture at Manchester United). Wenger closed the players’ bar at Highbury – a little piece of architectural vandalism in the interests of a renewed sporting culture. He told his players that they were athletes, and must eat and drink as such. That all of this was revolutionary says more about British football than it does about Wenger. Football is the only sport in which he could be seen as a dietary groundbreaker, and the UK the only country.

The flow of lurid footballer drinking stories has slowed to a trickle, and those no longer written about top England stars. Ten years ago, men like Tony Adams and Paul Merson who were at the very top of the profession could conduct a career and keep terrible drink and drug problems on the go simultaneously. Now, Jermaine Pennant is seen as a loose cannon on the back of two such incidents – Football365 described him yesterday as drinking in the last chance saloon, without any trace of irony.

Yet what was true of footballers in the days when Jimmy Greaves, in his late twenties, was passing every afternoon in a friendly pub, is still true now. They’re very young men, very fit, well-off, with huge amounts of free time on their hands. Drink, and drugs, are off the menu, and some have given that as the reason for the spate of sexual scandals that have filled the gap left by the departure of drinking. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, what you do?……

All of this coincides with a steep increase in drinking outside of professional football. Drinking per capita is in gradual decline in Germany and France: in the UK, it’s climbing at some 5% per year. (I’d appreciate some comment on that: the National Statistics are hard to read on this subject, I suspect deliberately). The usual explanation – footballers can’t keep up to Premiership standards while drinking – is probably the correct one. But it asks some interesting questions. If we exclude the kind of footballer who drinks, are we excluding talent in favour of people who can cope with the pressure without drinking but who lack that vital spark? Why can footballers turn their back on drink at the very moment that their fans are seriously upping their intake?

Part of the problem in talking about drinking is that the “common sense” view of it was formed before the Second World War. People who’ll now abuse Freud from a distance still buy into the alcohol belief system of a small number of religious businessmen in prohibition America. Alcoholism is a disease against which the sufferer is powerless.. 12 step therapies.. hitting absolute bottom..these are still, to this day, the dominant ideologies. They are at the heart of Tony Adams’ Second Chance Clinic. They are eighty years old.

My personal view is that alcoholism doesn’t exist – but excessive drinking does. Excessive drinking has a number of inter-related causes. Some form of underlying bad feeling in the sufferer – usually of an anxious nature. The fact that drink is absolutely superb at damping down anxious feelings (it then replaces them with all of the consequences of loss of inhibition, but at the time drinking starts, it’s getting rid of the anxiety that is the main thing). The fact that the best cure for a severe hangover is more drink (the home-made spirits drunk by prisoners in Colditz produced such severe hangovers that a number of men preferred to remain intoxicated for the duration than face the morning after, ever). The fact that extended drinking almost always brings a form of depression in its wake, added to the way drink is superb at providing a temporary escape from said depression. Occam’s Razor: there is no need to invoke any kind of disease model to explain drinking. Drinking is a compulsive disorder, different only from other such in that it has a momentum of its own. Deal with the underlying anxiety, and you’ll deal with the compulsion, and you’ll deal with the drinking. Except – like the vast majority of people, drinkers aren’t very liable to accept any kind of scenario that contains hints of mental illness, such is the stigma attached to even the minor neuroses that drive drinking. And the minority who do, have to stay sober long enough for a treatment programme to have any effect – but they are being treated so that they can stay sober – so it’s Catch 22.

Sports psychology, as it exists today, a stolid and over-complicated discipline to be exerted on a largely unintellectual target group, has a dark secret: the winners it sets out to create are not ordinary people. Gold medallists, winners, tend to be unpleasant, selfish, driven, moody individuals with cruel streaks and weak moral codes. That’s a huge generalisation, and there are a host of counter-examples. Suffice it to say that sport at the top is not dominated by the balanced, unmiserable people I hope to see leave my consulting rooms after treatment.

Living with a winner’s personality is unpleasant for those in the vicinity – but it’s not a great deal of fun for the winner themselves. Without drink, without recreational drugs, such people have to carry the burdens of themselves without the escape routes open to ordinary people with similar difficulties.

So my question – which was, does the removal of great British outlets such as drink militate against British sportspeople with the benefit and burden of a winner’s mentality, pushing them down their sport? Is an advantage being handed to players from cultures with non-alcoholic means of dealing with strong negative emotions – French, Italian, Spanish, South American cultures? (Argentina’s youth culture is vibrant and almost entirely teetotal).

It would be the ultimate irony if the modern England team, made up of relatively calm, quiet, clean-living young men possessed of strong technical skills, was to fail because it didn’t have the “extra gear”, the spark possessed in the past by the likes of Adams and co., just because the nature of British culture is such that you can’t get rid of drink without .. is it throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Because, after ten years of Labour in power, ten years of economic stability and growth, ten years of Britain being a relatively safe and settled place that’s no longer obsessed with national decline, that is confident in the face of Europe and the Far East… the population who have achieved all of this are drinking more, and more, and more.

To some extent, that’s because they can afford it. Good alcohol hasn’t changed much in supermarket price terms since 1990 – which means, in effect, that it’s getting cheaper at a time when incomes have risen. But the rise in consumption is about more than just price; lots of things are cheaper nowadays. Something else is going on. Something that’s more than just marketing (drink advertising is more restricted, not less, than a generation ago).

It’s often said that the British have always been drinkers – which is true. Football has always been close to the pub. British temperance was a purely middle-class phenomenon, unlike similar movements abroad. But that’s just cosmetic bandaging. We haven’t always been drinkers like this, and what’s going on now is the reversal of a long trend of declining drinking.

Before 1850, people drank because sources of clean water were few and far between, and that remained the case across much of the country well into the twentieth century. The popularity of tea has much the same kind of background to it. Once the water supply could be relied upon, it was no longer actually necessary to drink beer – and the long decline began, helped by the gradual easing of the experience of manual labour. (Watch the Mitchell/Kenyon films of Edwardian industrial England closely, and you’ll spot little stands at the factory gates, dispensing pints to desperately tired, desperately thirsty, desperate men).

Why are we drinking more now? I don’t honestly know. The closest thing to an explanation I have is Michael Marmot’s: creeping growth in all kinds of inequality in society is creating stress on the very cusp of our awareness, and we increase our drinking to damp it down (his version is infinitely more interesting and sophisticated, however).

I don’t see top footballers as part of that not-quite-awareness of inequality – their incomes are so huge as to become comical and nonsensical, unimaginable. For the record, I’m not convinced that celebrity culture has much to do with this, either – those who want that kind of thing have always wanted that kind of thing since the early Hollywood days, and the rest – the bulk of purchasers of Heat et al – indulge in it to laugh and mock.

It’s all much more subtle than that, more subtle even than the gradual pulling apart one can see in the statistics of national income. And the answer to my second question – why footballers can turn their back on drink when the rest of society is taking in more and more – isn’t part of all that.

The answer’s not one I hold terribly sacred to myself, and I’ll happily revise it. Not everyone needs to drink – the more balanced, calmer individuals have resources of their own to deal with the slings and arrows, and don’t have quite so much emotion to handle. Driving drink out of top football has created a bias towards such people – the top British players are more likely to be the calmer, quieter types – the Owens, the Campbells, the Defoes, the Downings. And what that might be doing, in the context of a growing British drinking culture, is excluding the men who have that extra, not always attractive, winner’s gear. You’ll see them in this season’s FA Cup playing for the feisty lower-league teams, pushing Premiership clubs all the way until their lesser fitness begins to tell.

Postscript: much of the above is tendentious, I know, so I’m positively inviting disagreement, alternate interpretations/scenarios, facts contradictory to my thesis etc. All welcome.

14 Replies to “Football’s Drinking Culture: A Tale of Two Halves”

  1. I guess that you may be wrong about “creeping growth in all kinds of inequality in society is creating stress”. I suspect that a hierarchical society suffers from less anxiety (at the cost, no doubt, of more frustration). I was struck a few years ago by a remark from a University admissions tutor: she could no longer tell educated adolescents from uneducated ones. The former no longer had the interests that once distinguished the educated; everyone was now interested only in pop, celebrities and football. Concerning marketing, note that the youngsters don’t booze on adult drinks – proper beer, for instance – but on sweet stuff contrived to appeal to the immature. It’s all part, I suppose, of the infantalisation of society.

  2. I’d have to say, read Dr Marmot’s book – I haven’t been specific enough in what I’m referring to there, which is entirely my fault.

    I concur entirely with your presentation of the infantilisation of society. The problem with current popular culture, and I include football in that, is that it leaves nothing to mature towards – just a perpetuated adolescence followed by shocking old age.

  3. On drinking lots of stats here – says small rise from 1980s to 2000 for men and a large one for women, but a slight decline since (though I think since is just to 2002 so not necessarily a trend)

    You say:

    Football is the only sport in which he could be seen as a dietary groundbreaker, and the UK the only country.

    What about cricket?

  4. Matt, please would you email me the link to those stats? I’d like to have a long look at them at my leisure…

    What about the cricket? I’m not sure, just got in, but it was looking very positive yesterday at stumps.

  5. The data here also suggests no major trend since 1998, though women’s drinking seemed to rise ’til about 2001/2002 and then fall, but it’s a self-reporting survey, which wrt alcohol consumption must be considered a bit unreliable

    It seems to me insofar as there has been an increase, three things explain it – 1) the real fall in the cost of alcohol; 2) the realisation by the trade that getting more women into your pubs drinking gets more men; 3) the trend towards drinking wine, and drinking wine as if it is beer strength. I’ve not been to another country where they serve wine in 275ml glasses, or at least fill it up to that level. I think All-Bar-One used to do a 350ml glass (with the line “buy two and we’ll throw the rest of the bottle in” – ie all 50ml of it).

  6. I think it was the Hogshead Chain who pioneered that very British approach to wine..

    Drink does on the whole appear to be fairly price inelastic; we’re already at price levels in the south of England that make duty-dodging economically worthwhile.

    Talking “professionally” for a moment, I’m one of those whom people find themselves “reporting” their intake, and my estimate is that they are off by at least half. The fact is that it’s just very hard to keep track of consumption of food, let alone alcohol, and the retreat of standard measures (e.g. 500ml cans vs. pint glasses, and the 1001 sizes of wine glass) makes keeping track harder still. I tend to tell people not to worry until they’re taking on board more than one bottle of wine per day, or unless they are drinking before lunchtime. That’s a fairly pre-War approach, I know, but the recommended daily limits are now so out of touch of what people are actually doing – even what they are saying they are doing – as to be useless.

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by recent warnings of a cirrhosis outbreak either. Cirrhosis tends to be what happens when you are drinking and stop eating properly – when you are taking on such a proportion of your calorific intake from drink that you aren’t getting vital vitamins, minerals, fats etc.

    Mind you, I was wrong about the change in opening hours – I expected a large and immediate uptick in crime, and one never came.

  7. No uptick? I witnessed a huge brawl outside a pub at ca midnight a fortnight ago. I didn’t report it and I don’t know whether anyone else did. Aren’t we increasingly inured to these things?

    As for drinking figures, I’d want to analyse them by age. We find ourselves drinking much less than we did 30 years ago: there’s no plan to it, we just do. And as for self-reported data: bin the lot. Worthless.

  8. Well, one scrum doesn’t make a summer, even in Cambridge. I spent part of my 22nd birthday trying to extricate myself from the biggest knife fight I’ve ever seen, and that was in Carfax. Rescued by police dogs. I wonder how those involved in both incidents would report their drinking?

  9. My first link did give figures for unit consumption by age – it rises from 21.5 weekly units at 16-24, to 18.7 by 25-44, 17.5 by 45-64 and 10.7 at 64 . Of course some of this decline will be to do with the fact that people used to drink less, not just they drink less as they get older.

    By income is reasonably interesting – it rises with every stage of income, from 8.8 units below £200 a week to 15.6 units above £1000 a week (household, 2002).

    Personally I still feel bitter about the licence hours extension. We were promised then in 1997 when I was 22, and hence prime drinking age. Again in 2001, when I could stilll stay up for a late one. Now they’ve finally got around to doing it I think I’ve only taken advantage of it once.

  10. On the self-reporting I think the government guidelines, at least as shown in the the poster in the Royal Free hospital I read last year, still go along with the fiction that a glass of wine is 125ml and it is from a cold part of Germany that stopped producing wine in the 1980s, as it is 9%.

    This gives you the 1 unit = 1 glass of wine. A pretty normal 275ml Australian red from Hogshead at 14.5% is about 4 units. I often wondered how much drinki-driving this led to.

    I went to an English vineyard over the weekend and their wine is 10%, so perhaps an appeal to patriotism might rescue us.

  11. 125ml and 9%: two quite delusional figures. According to the growers at Denbies vineyard, hotter weather is allowing them to produce stronger wines – I believe their still-rather-ropey blended red is hovering at the 11% mark.

    I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 125ml glass, except at wine tastings. I certainly don’t own any.

    Whilst the pint and half pint remain constant measures in use in pubs, the situation with beer cans is more fluid and militates against keeping tabs (ha!) on your intake. Originally, cans of beer came in 10oz and 12oz sizes (10oz being half a pint). You can still buy half-pint cans of stella, which are labelled as 284ml. But the new bottled ciders come in 500ml form, as do more and more standard cans – not including “one third free” offers, which are larger still.

  12. The winery I went to was in Gloucestershire, where I think 10% is about as hot as it gets. This year apparently it’s been the hottest season on record (despite cold May) so I suspect they’ll produce a 15% variant for the Hogshead market.

    The other quite astonishing thing in some pubs is the price of wine. One ropey chain, which I’m not quite sure of the name but it runs the Green Man in Berwick Street and the Crown & Anchor nr Euston (I only know those two as I have been in them) has Jacob’s Creek at £5.99 a bottle, which can’t be far off the off-licence price. The Hogshead in Marlow, Bucks, when I popped in there a few months ago had “All wine £5”.

  13. Actually I’m being a bit sniffy about alcohol content. I thought the place’s wine (Three Choirs) was perfectly pleasant, but I also thought ‘this could do with a bit more alcohol’.

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