A game of two halves - and quite a few pints

Compared with the boozing players of old, Teddy Sheringham is a novice. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Online
IMAGINE the scene. George Best sprawls naked on his hotel bed. A small fortune in casino winnings is strewn on the bedside table. As Miss World emerges from the bathroom to join him, there is a knock on the door: room service with the champagne. Surveying the scene, the porter shakes his head. "George," he says plaintively. "Where did it all go wrong?"

The moral panic which greeted the revelations about Paul Gascoigne's latest drinking spree and Teddy Sheringham's presence in a Portuguese night-club until dawn must have brought knowing smiles from Best and other survivors from the Bingeing Sixties. By their standards, or lack of them, Gazza and his fellow guzzlers are mere novices.

Jimmy Greaves, a contemporary of Best's and arguably the English game's finest post-war striker, was the first high-profile player to admit to being an alcoholic. In 1979, he published a book, This One's On Me, in which he blamed the win-at-all-costs mentality.

According to Greaves, players were so stoked up for games that they needed a heavy after-match session to bring them "down to earth". His addiction started with pints. But even then, 20 years ago, he had noticed a set hooked on spirits springing up.

Yet with one conspicuous exception, when he and Bobby Moore were caught out on the town before a West Ham match at Blackpool, Greaves's habit was not a public issue until he made it one. Best had more trouble keeping his problems private, though he performed for a decade at the top level before his form suffered.

In time, he would turn his lifestyle to financial advantage on the after- dinner circuit. "I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars," he sighed. "The rest I just squandered." Joking aside, the drinking led to a world-class talent being dumped by Bournemouth and Hibernian.

Among Best's contemporaries, the gifted Alan Hudson made no secret of his liking for liquid refreshment. When the current England player, Tony Adams, confessed his alcoholism - soon to be followed by Paul Merson - Hudson suggested in a newspaper column that the Arsenal captain was not in Bobby Moore's class as a defender or a drinker.

Despite having the King's Road on his doorstep, Hudson decamped from Chelsea to Stoke in the 1970s. His manager there, Tony Waddington, was famous for indulging players provided they performed. It was said locally that they "trained" in a night-club called Jollees.

Excess was not confined to the big names. The long-haired, wild-eyed Robin Friday, of Reading and Cardiff, spent one New Year's Eve drunkenly dancing on pub tables. The next morning, marked by Bobby Moore, he scored twice.

In those days, Scottish football was synonymous with bravado fuelled by "the bevvy". Before the 1974 World Cup, winger Jimmy Johnstone was found at sea in a rowing boat in a self-confessed "drunken stupor". When he was rescued he was singing "Sailing".

A year later, after winning in Denmark, several of the Scotland team, including the captain, Billy Bremner, went on a club crawl. It ended after a player threw a rum and coke in a barmaid's face and the police were called. Bremner and the rest of the "Copenhagen Five" were banned from representing their country again.

Scandal also followed Scotland to Argentina in 1978, when Willie Johnston was sent home after testing positive for a banned substance. And at the 1990 finals in Italy, Mo Johnston reportedly led colleagues in search of "birdz 'n' booze". Of another Scot, Frank McAvennie, it was said that "his tipple was nipple".

Almost single-handedly, Duncan Ferguson, Everton's former Rangers striker, has carried on the ignoble tradition. "Duncan Disorderly" already had a record for assault when he was sent to Barlinnie prison for giving an opponent a "Glasgow kiss". On arriving on Merseyside, he was soon arrested on a drink-driving charge.

Despite the Scots' lack of scoring power, Ferguson asked to be left out of the squad for the World Cup. Scotland's present team is almost Cliff Richard-clean by comparison with their predecessors.

Keith Gillespie, Best's fellow Northern Irishman, is another modern player who has gained notoriety. He was recently alleged to have "fought" Alan Shearer outside a bar and has a reputation for gambling, often wagering four-figure sums.

Stan Bowles is probably football's most infamous friend of the bookies. He joined Queen's Park Rangers to be near White City dog track. One manager lamented: "If only Stan could pass a betting shop like he can pass a ball."

While there is no British drug casualty of Diego Maradona's standing, a spate of cases involving "recreational" drugs has arisen during the 1990s. A number, curiously, have involved young Charlton Athletic players, although Shane Nicholson was sacked by West Bromwich last month after failing tests.

There is, however, a parallel tendency of players obsessed with fitness and diet. In the Scottish squad, a group led by Monaco's John Collins is known as "the Gym Club".

Among their forerunners in the 1930s was the Blackpool and Northern Ireland player Peter Doherty, who once recalled how he and a team-mate were teased by the other players. "They used to chant: 'They don't drink, they don't smoke, they don't go out with women. What do they live for?' There was a one-word answer to that - football."