Drinking Cultures and British Footballers

Is there still a drinking culture in British football? I thought that had begun to fade away, driven out by shame and Arsene Wenger and Tony Adams’ courageous refusal to hide.

Nicky Campbell, writing in the Guardian, thinks not. And thinks he knows why. He’s on the right lines:

I was astonished by something Gordon Strachan came out with earlier this season about drinking and team building. After Celtic beat Copenhagen the wee man said: “People talk about how you make team spirit – is it golf days or going out drinking together? That doesn’t count. When you drink, you just tell lies to each other anyway and talk rubbish. Nights like that, when you are in the dressing room together, that is what builds up team spirit.” This was so against the grain of Scottish football lore it left me speechless.


The refusal to show vulnerability or fragility is an access-all-areas pass to the testosterone-powered world of professional football. A quote leapt out of a recent Mike Newell interview and landed slap in my little black book. The Luton manager said: “I do have a sensitive side when I am with my wife and five children but I don’t want people to see that when I’m working.”

That’s all to easy to mock when it isn’t you. In my job, needless to say, I’m not in the least worried by displays of emotion or the admission of feelings. But many, most, of the men I work with are, and although the emotional block is sometimes comic by dint of its universality, people have a right to start from where they are.

Anyway, drinking.

Drinking – why people drink too much, and how they might be helped to stop if they want to – is the holy grail of therapy. Thus far, none of the existing solutions, from any therapeutic or other background, amounts to more than exhortations to the drinker to stop.

There is no agreement on what drinking actually amounts to – is it a disease, called alcoholism? Is it another form of compulsive behaviour (in my view, the most promising avenue)? Is it a moral affair to do with self discipline and regard for others? Is it as superstition and football see it, a matter of “fighting your demons”?

Part of the trouble in “treating” it, whatever it really is, lies in what you might call the insight paradox. Drinking starts off as a means of managing emotions – to see off a blue mood, or to calm nerves, or to get up a bit of dutch courage. If it’s only on the odd occasion, that’s fine. If it’s every single day, then it’s obvious that the individual’s real emotions and feelings are already and to whatever extent unbearable or intolerable.

If you’re a British male, then the likelihood is that you already regard some of your emotional life as suspect and untrustworthy:

We all need someone to talk to on a deeper level. Recently Kay (Peter Kay of the Sporting Chance Clinic) has worked with one leading player who has been the subject of some vile terrace abuse. Peter asked him if it hurt. “Water off a duck’s back” was the initial reply. In time came the truth: “It fucking hurts, desperately.”

So, feelings we can’t manage without the help of a drink, and the reluctance to admit to those feelings anyway.. not the most promising starting point for an attempt to change things for the better, is it?

It gets worse. There are the physical and mental consequences of drinking to pile on top of that. Daily drinking clouds the mind – obviously – and makes you feel physically unwell. With your judgement clouded, and that sour feeling in the stomach, it’s all too easy to see the solution in another bout of drinking. It’ll work, of course, if only for a brief period.

Throw on top of that the guilt, loss of self-trust, shame and other consequences in terms of employment and relationships, all of which follow on from drinking. And remember that we were already having problems tolerating our feelings before all of this started – but now those feelings are much worse, and getting worse all the time.

Did I mention that the chemical effect of constant drinking induces a kind of artificial depression?

I hope that shows just how hard the problem is to crack. Not from the therapist’s point of view, although it is hard. From the individual’s. In this I part company for once from Anthony Daniels’ take on drug use: I don’t regard drinkers as weak or self-indulgent or just doing it for fun. (I do have opinions about the kind of person who would say that, and observe that it’s often the same kind of person who regards himself or herself as the plain-speaking commonsense voice of the silent hardworking majority, the salt of the earth, etc. but who really just can’t accept that it takes all sorts). The feelings that launch a drinking career are the common property of mankind.

Although Premiership clubs are now very strict about diet and fitness, the attitude towards emotions amongst footballers remains. And will remain. This is not about to change, nor am I going to be the one to say that it should. The world’s been hard enough on the traditional male role in the last forty years.

Suffice it to say that the teak-hardness that I see in top sportspeople in general is going to generate fallout in the form of people who will use drinking to avoid dealing with what they are really feeling. Were that reluctance to feel to change, there’d be negative fallout of a different kind – there’s no emotional nirvana out there, no set of “emotionally healthy attitudes” that one should adopt and so make everything come out right.

It’s as much as we can do to make sure that people have somewhere to go, here in our emotionally-private culture, to get the heavy things off their chest.

In The Glory Game, Hunter Davies took the emotional temperature of the Spurs dressing room of the early ’70s and found it dominated by worry and anxiety. For most players, the real fun of the game was over, left behind in their teens, and playing had become a peculiar, pressurized, unstable kind of job. For all of them, well paid as they were even then, the future was deeply uncertain and loomed rather than beckoned.

For all the millions players can earn now, I doubt that’s changed a great deal. Any millionaire will tell you that the power of money to take away worry is greatly exaggerated. And people habituate quickly to whatever income they have.

For the “right” person – perhaps someone with compulsive tendencies as part of their core personality – that kind of fear and anxiety and uncertainty is the perfect launching pad for a career as a drinker. There’s nothing inevitable about it, but I hope I’ve shown that once it’s underway, the whole thing has a momentum all of its own.

That drink can serve to bury feelings will mean that the drinker themselves won’t be conscious of the escapist side to booze. They won’t necessarily know what the feelings are or were originally that were so hard to cope with alone.

Often, they won’t even come across as the kind of person who might ever have needed to do that:


The title was drinking cultures, and of course, young footballers are now required to pass through late adolescence, the early twenties, the mid twenties, the late twenties, the early thirties, sober. It wasn’t asked of me, and it probably wasn’t asked of you.

All of this in a country that takes a perverse pride in drunkenness. I don’t know about you, but I tire, I really do, of the way journalists trot out the old saws about Hogarth and port-drinking parliamentarians and the observations of foreign travellers in restoration England and what have you as evidence that we have always drunk and always will. It’s junk history. Our drinking patterns have changed often and extremely over the last few centuries. Where are all the gin shops now? Where the Temperance Halls? Both once part of our culture, both long gone. Where now the abstemious middle classes, dry parishes; where, indeed, the traditional pubs? And why, if we’re so much the big drinkers of Europe, does France have a bigger problem with drink-related disease? Is it their cafe culture?

Where we are now is a place where people are drinking more every year, and shifting that drinking away from traditional ales and even lagers towards wine and alcopops. If this is the continuation of a tradition, then why so much more, and why now, and why is it this tradition amongst all the others that is so immutable?

I’m ending on a question, not for the first time. That’s appropriate to drinking, which isn’t a subject that’s yielded many answers over the years. When you consider that the oldest consistent form of therapy in the UK is actually AA (psychoanalysis is much changed from the 1930s – AA is almost exactly the same) and that AA hasn’t been significantly improved on for all that meetings lose far more people than they save –

4 Replies to “Drinking Cultures and British Footballers”

  1. I remember a close friend – we were about 20 – getting drunk at Hogmanay, and his father’s contempt when I delivered him home. Can’t you hold your drink?

    The proposition that you should find out how much you can hold and then drink no more than that seems quaint in retrospect.

  2. You might be interested to know in this context that it’s pretty much settled history that Prohibition worked. In the sense that it led to a big reduction in the overall consumption of alcohol and an equally big reduction in the incidence of liver disease and similar complaints in the USA, which vastly more than outweighed the high-profile casualties of poor-quality moonshine (which was itself relatively uncommon – it is not like it is particularly difficult to distill alcohol).

  3. Thanks, Paul, but the question is already out of date for me: I’ve just been shown a raft of twin studies that suggests a stronger genetic component to drinking than I’d previously suspected or felt likely. The question was hinting at the impossibility of solving the drinking problem, evidenced by the sheer lack of movement in treatment over the course of eighty years.

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