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.