Football falls into blind panic at the whiff of a spliff

SIDELINES
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The Independent Online
There seemed, among the administrators and managers of the game, to be a widespread surprise when Paul Merson was revealed by the Mirror last year to be almost single-handedly supporting the economy of Colombia. Alan Smith, the amiable and honest manager of Crystal Palace, went on Alan Green's Radio 5 show to suggest that Merson's was an isolated case; his, as it were, line was that footballers simply weren't at it.

Which made it more than a little unfortunate that the next Premiership player revealed to have an active acquaintance with illegal pharmaceuticals played for Alan Smith. Chris Armstrong had sufficient traces of cannabis lingering in his system to fail the random dope test, drawn up by the Football Association, the Professional Footballers' Association and the Sports Council, which was conducted after training one morning in January. The manner in which the news was broken was instructive. The FA assured Palace that if Armstrong was suspended by the club, pending assessment and counselling, his name would remain a confidence. Ron Noades, owner of Palace, was subsequently furious that the story was leaked, and his mood may not have been improved when his manager, Smith, seemed unwilling, when pressed by newsmen, to give an unequivocal denial of Armstrong's failure.

The whiff of panic at the juxtaposition in a headline of the words football and drugs was not unexpected. Drugs? Many in football really haven't got a clue.

In athletics, they know all about drugs: athletes take substances with long names to improve their performance. Not to make them run faster, but as short cuts, to help them tolerate the pain of training.

Footballers, on the other hand, spend a deal of their free time taking large quantities of something which an athlete stuffed to the biceps in illegal testosterone would never touch because of the manner in which it impairs performance: alcohol. No serious athlete drinks. Linford Christie, for instance, has not touched a drop for about 10 years; he is even careful about how much tea he consumes. Yet British football is tolerant of massive booze consumption. Had Chris Armstrong turned up for training nursing a monster hangover he would have been giggled at as a bit of lad.

It doesn't take a degree in medicine to suggest that, as a method of relaxing from the pressures of the game, Armstrong's was the more sensible. A quiet toke is considerably less detrimental to health than 10 pints of lager; at worst it will make its user very hungry about 3am. Oh, and a touch forgetful.

Yet Armstrong was treated in much the same poor-lad-gone-off-the-rails manner as Paul Merson, who had a real career-threatening problem. Why exactly is counselling necessary for someone with minute traces of cannabis in their system? Football's clueless inability to differentiate between the benevolent and the malevolent does not augur well for how it will deal with an increasing problem.

In the past five years, the kind of pubs and clubs that footballers tend to frequent have become a recreational drug consumers' paradise. In the fun pub just down the road from Highbury that I visited recently there was a bustling pharmaceutical market: you could buy Ecstasy in the corridor, cocaine in the urinals, and if you wanted heroin, you went into the cubicles, where a dealer sat ready to help. Grass was so openly on sale, it changed hands out in the bar.

Young footballers, with plenty of readies, are just the kind of soft targets these dealers salivate about. Yet most managers, most administrators, are clueless about the temptations because they simply did not exist in their day.

Fans, on the other hand, seem far more aware. No transfer can now take place without conspiracy theorists spreading dark rumours about clubs off-loading coke-heads. Indeed, since nine other, as yet unnamed, players failed the nationwide drugs trawl which netted Armstrong, sudden absences from the first team will now be explained in the stands as drugs related.

This may be because fans, unlike administrators, know about drugs; they share the same habitats, perhaps even the same suppliers, as the players.

Certainly, despite Armstrong's suspension, there was something lingering in the air at Selhurst Park on Tuesday night. During the game between Wimbledon and Manchester United, a United fan behind me was driven to fury every time Andy Cole got the ball. "You're lazy, you, get involved, get to work. Waste of money, Cole, you are, a waste of bloody money." Three days after Cole had scored five, the supporter had obviously been taking too much of the old memory-impairing funny stuff. Which was perhaps what had happened to Armstrong: after all, he forgot how to put the ball in the net several months ago.

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