Drugs In Sport: The long road to recovery

After years of abuse and a close call, Shane Nicholson was finally caught. Now, while rebuilding his career, the defender is also rebuilding his life.

SHANE NICHOLSON came into the small, oak-panelled bar at Chesterfield's Recreation Ground after training and said: "I need a bloody drink." The 28-year defender, six months down the long road to recovery from 12 years of alcoholism and drug addiction, walked straight past the bar and into the adjoining kitchen. "I hope there's something in here," he said, and opened the fridge. He took out a bottle, eased off the cap and downed the contents in one. "I needed that," he said, wiping milk from his mouth.

This time last year (and in many years past) it was not milk but alcohol Nicholson was downing. More often than not it would be preceded and followed by a variety of narcotics.

"I always thought I needed a drink or drugs to be confident to chat to people," he said. "Most weekends I was going and out and using drugs. I tried ecstasy, speed, cocaine, most things really. Booze was the worst drug of them all. I put my family through hell. I put everyone I lived with through hell."

The pattern of abuse started as 16-year-old with Lincoln, carried on through years at Derby and West Bromwich Albion, and ended only in February this year, when he got caught. Having failed a previous test last November - and avoided punishment by saying his drink had been spiked - the Football Association had decided to target-test him, meaning that at any time, in any place, a tester could arrive and ask for a sample.

"It was the most horrible feeling I've ever had in my life," said Nicholson, describing the day two FA officials walked on to the training field at West Brom. "Training seemed to suddenly go into slow motion. I thought `How am I going to tell my missus? How am I going to tell my mum? I'm about to lose everything'." Instead of taking the test, Nicholson absconded (regarded as serious as a failed test) and set in train the process that ultimately set him on the path to receiving help.

Of footballers responding to The Independent's survey of drug use in British sport, 22 per cent said they had used cannabis, nine per cent ecstasy, seven per cent cocaine and two per cent amphetamines. Of all sports in the survey, football had the highest number of respondents (nine per cent) calling for drugs regulations to be relaxed. "There is too much concern over recreational drugs," wrote one player who had used cannabis and cocaine. "Footballers should only be punished for recreational drug use if under the influence on the field," wrote another.

"We have a drugs testing system regarded as being the most advanced in the world," an FA spokesman said yesterday. Brendon Batson, the deputy chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said both the PFA and the FA are doing all in their power to combat recreational drug use in football.

Drug awareness programmes are in place in all academies, counselling and rehab are offered to those with problems - around 14 have been treated at clinics in the past three years - and clubs are encouraged to take action to help, rather than punish, those who offend. "There's an attraction [footballers have] to drugs," said Batson. "Young men, money in their pockets. They're in the entertainment business. They've got to be careful who they hang around with."

Shane Nicholson agrees only partially that footballers are especially susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse. "If I was a factory worker I would have done it as well," he said. "In fact if I'd been a factory worker I'd've been dead by now."

He was sacked by West Brom, banned for life by the FA (the ban was lifted when Chesterfield offered him a one-year contract in the summer) and made to undergo mandatory treatment for six weeks at the Marchwood Priory clinic in Hampshire. "That [discipline system] saved me from death," he said. Of the PFA's assistance, which included paying his mortgage while he was in the clinic he said: "I couldn't have asked for any more help."

In the past four years, 26 drugs tests on players have revealed "problem" results. Prominent cases such as Roger Stanislaus's sacking by Leyton Orient for using cocaine, Chris Armstrong's cannabis use when a Crystal Palace player and Lee Bowyer's cannabis use when at Charlton, all in 1995, have been well-publicised.

Others, due to being "medically confidential" in nature, have not. Of these, an FA spokesman said, no players were involved in formal disciplinary action, but were sent for "clinical assessment". And then there have been the three most high profile cases - Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Paul Gascoigne - none of whom were caught by tests, but all of whose cases demonstrated the effects of succumbing to temptation, whether through pressure or natural inclination.

"Even when I got to the clinic I thought I had no problem," said Nicholson. After being introduced to the 12-steps programme, however, he began to confront his problems. "You blame yourself. My father had died two years before. What would he think of his son being out in a drying-out clinic? It's a mental home basically. What the hell was he going to think of me now?"

Nicholson spent six weeks from April to June in the clinic, finished the course, and is now back in the game, trying to secure a regular place in Chesterfield's squad. "I'd like to not be an alcoholic and a drug addict but I am and I'll deal with it," he said. "I can only tell people what's happened to me. I can only say don't be afraid to ask for help. I'm proud of what I've done in dealing with my problems."

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