Football: Needle games are cause for concern

Despite their widespread use, says Glenn Moore, little is known about long-term effects of performance enhancers on players
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The Independent Online
NEARLY 60 years after Wolverhampton Wanderers claimed to have reached the FA Cup Final because of "monkey gland" injections, football is again getting the needle about jabs.

During the World Cup Glenn Hoddle authorised performance-enhancing injections on England players. At least a dozen were involved, including Paul Ince and Gary Neville, who were among several players who received them just three hours before the Argentina game. It was not a secret, Hoddle mentions it three times in his infamous diary, and it was not illegal; no England player failed a dope test nor was likely to. However, it did raise eyebrows and, yesterday, Alex Ferguson went public about his disquiet. The Manchester United manager said he was worried about the long-term effects on players of both the jabs and Hoddle's promotion of the controversial food supplement Creatine.

"At United we use more traditional methods to get results," he said. "Chemicals can become addictive. You are putting things in the body that are not normally there. You wonder about the long-term effects."

There are a variety of issues here. Few members of the public are happy about anything involving needles but injections, especially of painkillers and anti-inflammatory agents, are part of a footballer's daily life. Tony Adams, for example, has them regularly and even received one in his knee on the pitch before extra-time in the European Championship quarter-final with Spain.

There is also the current media campaign against Hoddle, which means the story has generated more headlines than it might in other circumstances, and Ferguson's own reservations about Arsene Wenger, who introduced Creatine - which is legal but banned by several American sports - into the Arsenal diet.

Gianluca Vialli, another Creatine aficionado, admits it can cause problems if wrongly administered. "If you use the wrong dosage you will put on fat and build no muscle," he said.

Dr Jan Rougier, who controlled England's World Cup diet and drug programme for Hoddle, appears to know what he is doing. The Frenchman, who has also worked for Milan and Arsenal, said he injected magnesium and the vitamins C, E and B6. Being soluble, water-based vitamins these would not clog up the body in the way fat-based vitamins do, which may alleviate some of Ferguson's worries that they might enable the body to work beyond its natural limits. They were, Rougier said, "antioxidants which help the body recover from effort more quickly. They protect the muscles, not harm the body. This treatment has been used in the US for a decade and the statistics show athletes finish their career in better shape for it."

If so, all well and good, even if one doctor I spoke to yesterday thought administering by needle, instead of orally, was bizarre and unnecessary. But medical science constantly moves on and what we believe now can turn out to be mistaken. Ferguson is right to be vigilant. He takes the implicit duty of care his position involves seriously. He will also be aware of the tragic example of Allan McGraw.

"Quick draw" McGraw performed prodigious feats in front of goal for the Scottish club Morton (now Greenock Morton) in the early Sixties and still holds the club record for league goals in a season - 58 in 1963- 64. He suffered several knee injuries and by his mid-20s was having cortisone injections every week. Being young and naive he thought nothing of it, even when a different doctor treated him every time. He did not know that cortisone was already regarded as suspect, and nobody told him.

Now it is recognised that more than one cortisone jab, in the same place, in a lifetime can be dangerous. But it is too late for McGraw, whose knees after more than 16 operations are as scarred as a skating rink's surface. Though still in his 50s he is on his fourth artificial joint, walks with crutches and survives with the aid of super-strength painkillers.

So, while Rougier appears to know what he is doing - and if he does prolong players' careers with no side-effects, what he is doing is good - Ferguson is right to be wary. While Wolves' "monkey gland" treatment turned out to involve nothing more sinister than inoculations against the common cold there is good reason to be cautious about chemical advances in players' preparation.