It's a game of two halves, three pints of lager and four tequilas

Phil Shaw reflects on footballers' spirits - the ones found stacked behind the nightclub bar
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The Independent Online
The man from Loaded magazine had asked Saint and Greavsie to name the biggest influence on their careers. "Bill Shankly" was the reply from Ian St John citing his old manager at Liverpool. Jimmy Greaves was equally ready with his answer: "Vladimir Smirnoff."

For devotees of the bible of laddishness, his response no doubt provided a laugh over the lagers. After all, if anyone ever beats alcoholism, Greaves seems to have managed it. Arguably the greatest goal-scorer English football has known, he is off the bottle and on the box.

Behind the titters, though, there lies a deeper-rooted problem. Far from being a one-off or, like George Best, a ruddy-faced relic of a boozier bygone era, Greaves has begun to look like the tip of the Carlsberg.

On Saturday, Tony Adams, who captained England during Euro 96, followed his Arsenal colleague Paul Merson by admitting his addiction. The image of an emotional Adams splashed across the papers was followed yesterday by an announcement that the Football Association is to conduct random breathalyser tests on every player in the professional game.

As moral panics go, it is hardly new. Barely three months have passed since the same papers reported a "binge" by England players on the flight from Hong Kong. When three of the squad were spotted in a night-club after the draw with Switzerland, The Sun's headline screamed: "England aces back on the booze.

Paul Gascoigne, inevitably the centre of the Hong Kong accusations, made his point after scoring against Scotland. Lying on the Wembley turf, he allowed the England team to shower him with Lucozade, a self-mocking re- creation of the Tequila-fuelled "dentist's chair" episode in the Far East.

Gazza's indignation might have attracted greater sympathy had he not previously been involved in incidents in nightspots where he sought refreshment with his friend "Five Bellies". Graham Taylor, when England manager, talked euphemistically about Gascoigne's need to "re-fuel". As his club doctor at Lazio, in Rome, said: "Beer is intrinsic to Paul's diet ... in moderation it's OK."

Jimmy Hill, in a previous incarnation as leader of the players' union, claimed 35 years ago that moderation was observed: "Quite a few footballers can knock back a pint or two, but none are alcoholics."

Nowadays, the link between football and alcohol is institutionalised. After every match the combatants raise a glass in the players' bar. In their leisure time, those not inclined to play golf have been known to spend some of their burgeoning salaries on slaking a thirst.

Several teams sport the names of brewers on their shirts, replicas of which are worn by children down to pre-school age. And the question: "Will you be having a few drinks to celebrate?" is part of the ritual of the post-match interview.

At least that is the case in this country. British players joining Continental teams, especially in Italy and Spain, have found that the lifestyle they grew up with was abhorred in their new culture.

Greaves traced the advent of heavy drinking among players back to the cynical, win-at-all-costs football of the Sixties (whether it is coincidence or not, the abolition of the maximum wage had given them unprecedented spending power). "It helped relieve the pressure," he said in the book This One's On Me.

Spurs' drinking school comprised mainly "pint-sinkers", Greaves recalled. Thirty years on they are downing spirits as Ron Atkinson noted when he said that there were several players who would like one competition re- named the Vodka and Coca Cola Cup.

Atkinson had problems during his managership of Aston Villa with Paul McGrath, a shy Irishman who drank to become gregarious. Among McGrath's contemporaries at Manchester United, Bryan Robson's self-confessed lager consumption was legendary. But Robson, also an England captain, was not an alcoholic, and invariably led the way in training the morning after a skinful.

McGrath now abstains, having found happiness in a second marriage. Others have been less fortunate, Best being the most obvious example. It was said, only half in jest, that the introduction of all-day drinking in Scotland had led him to join Hibernian as his career went into free-fall.

The experts do not agree. Dr Richard Budgett, pressed about the intake of Gazza and company, warned that even two to three pints in an evening was "enough to cause problems [with rehydration]". The same day, Dr Ron Maugham argued that "a few beers" aided rehydration. Both experts work for the British Olympic team.