Soccer culture: Footballers' lives

Excessive drinking and football go together like George and Best. But today's young, rich players are a league apart from their wayward team-mates of seasons past. They are making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and the stories are getting nastier and more frequent. Chris Maume reports
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The Independent Online

Can you name the Sixties football god who was once caught out on the tiles in Blackpool the night before an FA Cup tie? George Best, surely. But Georgie's a Belfast boy, and the god in question was also nearly sent home by Alf Ramsey after leading an escape party from an England team hotel.

Step forward, slightly unsteadily, national hero and enthusiastic drinker Bobby Moore.

Nothing much was made of those incidents. Today, Sky News would be on 24-hour Bobbywatch, while the papers would once again drag football from the back pages to the front. And the internet's facility for spreading unsubstantiated rumour has added a dimension to the frenzy surrounding events alleged to have taken place in a London hotel last weekend.

There have been other changes too, of course: however much drink was taken, nobody of Moore's generation would have relieved themselves in the VIP area of a West End nightclub, as a young Australian footballer called Hayden Foxe once did. Or in a hotel lobby, as the winger Keith Gillespie once did. They would never have been fined two weeks' wages for offending American guests in a hotel near Heathrow by stripping, swearing and vomiting, as four Chelsea players were - Jody Morris, Frank Lampard, Eidur Gudjohnsen and John Terry, to name names. The date was 12 September 2001, and the Americans were stranded because of flight cancellations from the terrorist attacks the day before.

Morris and Terry were at it again during the nightclub incident that led to the charges of affray from which they were subsequently cleared. Morris was heard to scream at a bouncer, "Do you know how much we earn? Do you know who we are? We could have you sacked."

Moore and his contemporaries, some of whom left him way behind in the race to the bar and nearest party, were not the first footballers to play hard on and off the pitch. Billy Meredith, perhaps professional football's first star - he was born in 1874 - looked around him and saw too many of his fellow professionals boozing and gambling. But he came from a Welsh Methodist family - not that it stopped him offering money to opponents to throw games.

But in comparison with the excesses to come, footballers were models of virtue for decades. The notion that a pint and a flutter were the vices of choice may be sentimental but is essentially true. The maximum wage saw to that. The relationship between football and drink first became serious in the decade that gets blamed for everything.

The ending of the maximum wage in 1960 created a leisured class of young men with plenty of money and free afternoons. Every club had its hard core. In Manchester, George Best of United and Mike Summerbee of City were the joint ringleaders. In London there was Peter Osgood leading expeditions down the Kings Road.

The received wisdom was that extended drinking sessions were essential for team bonding, and some managers have encouraged them. For Republic of Ireland internationals under Jack Charlton they were virtually compulsory. As long as the performances were there, a footballer's social life was his own business.

Best paved the way for mavericks such as Stan Bowles and his gambling addiction, Alan Hudson, who switched between brandy days and vodka days, and Frank Worthington, the Elvis-worshipping dandy who failed a medical to join Liverpool because of high blood pressure. The way he tells it, they sent him to Spain to rest and get it down. When he came back, it was higher.

It took a jail sentence for Tony Adams after he drunkenly drove into a wall to bring home the size of the game's problems. His subsequent declaration of his alcoholism, and Paul Merson's well-documented fight against his demons - not to mention Paul Gascoigne's entire adult life - have been only the most public manifestations of what happens when fit and confident young men are given money and time on their hands.

So nowadays, we expect footballers to make fools of themselves, and in recent times Christmas has proved particularly painful. Last year, among others, three Celtic players spent the night in police cells after taking on a photographer and some bouncers at the club party, while two players from Sheffield Wednesday were also hauled off after trouble broke out at their do.

Several clubs had thought ahead and cancelled Christmas after bad experiences the year before: Robbie Fowler, then of Leeds, had been arrested in full army gear after a scuffle and released without charge. A few years earlier, when he was at Chelsea, Vinnie Jones took charge of festivities and organised a dwarf-throwing contest.

The glamour clubs do not monopolise the misbehaviour. In the recent book The Keeper of Dreams, the German goalkeeper Lars Leese, who spent a year at Barnsley in the Premiership, recalls the Christmas party climaxing in some of the players having sex on stage with the strippers. He also reports seeing groupies leaving the training ground in obvious states of dishevelment, proving that the television series Footballers' Wives, which featured the Earls Park captain being serviced in the club car park, is not necessarily fiction.

That footballers should consume alcohol then do things they later regret can hardly be surprising. We are a nation awash in drink. There is scarcely a social occasion that does not routinely merit a snifter or two; lads of all ages love tales of drunken exploits; demonstrating the capacity to consume huge quantities of alcohol forms one of our society's central rites of passage (though keeping it down does not). How would most of these young men spend their leisure time were they not professional footballers? Buying cheaper drinks.

Continental imports in the 1990s such as Gianluca Vialli and Gianfranco Zola, steeped in the puritan values Italy imposes on its footballers, suffered drinking culture shock as they realised the extent to which alcohol still had a grip on British football. (Let us not forget the Scots and their own traditions of hell-raising.)

A lot depends on what the manager is prepared to permit. When Alex Ferguson took over from Ron Atkinson at Manchester United in 1986, one of his first tasks was to dismantle the drinking school that convened round Bryan Robson.

Talented players such as Norman Whiteside, the Northern Irish prodigy led astray at an early age, and Paul McGrath, the gifted defender who needed no leading astray, were sacrificed. Robson, who worked twice as hard in training after a heavy session the night before, was too valuable to let go, and stayed. Ferguson may have been on the warpath, but he has always known how to make allowances for the right player.

United players have not exactly been teetotal since Ferguson's crackdown - Roy Keane, for one, has seen to that. But booze no longer rules the dressing room. It seems, then, that perhaps the manager is the key. When Bobby Moore and his fellow escapees got back to their hotel rooms, their passports were on their pillows. As it turned out, they had only been for a quiet meal at a nearby restaurant. But still, it didn't happen again.

The agent

John Smith's agency First Artists represents 70 Premiership footballers.

Any person who is paid a lot of money, who is a high-energy, fit young man, who's not unattractive, is going to be tempted by all sorts of things. Some are more restrained than others. They are people who want to get the most out of life. Some are fantastic, some overstep the mark. But clubs need to take more responsibility for their players. They take these guys at a young age and school them in the school of football. But they haven't schooled them in the school of life. They need to do more to educate them.

The ex-player

Peter Osgood was a Chelsea and England striker in the 1960s and 1970s.

Things have completely changed since my day. The players are like film stars now. They can't even go out for a meal without having a photo taken when they leave the restaurant. They can't do anything without it getting in the papers. When I was at Chelsea, we used to go out on the Kings Road after a game and it never got near the papers - we'd have no trouble from anyone. But if these guys are going to earn that sort of money, they'll have to cope with the trouble. They're in a high-profile job earning a lot of money - and unfortunately there will be consequences. It's very hard for them - they're young lads growing up in the public eye.