Of all the contrasts that will be exposed when Notts County, that oldest of institutions, arrive today at Eastlands, home of a club with a sense of ambition and vanity renewed by a surge of almost limitless wealth, the deepest contradiction will be held within the knowledge of Alex Rae. As County's assistant manager, the possibilities of this FA Cup replay against Manchester City animate his imagination, but for all that football consumes him, one part of his life remains separated, and immune.
A recovering alcoholic who has been sober since 26 October 1998 – a date that remains central to his sense of identity because it was when he vowed to stop drinking – Rae is the founder of Second Chance, an addiction recovery programme. He set it up in Possil, a hard, impoverished area of Glasgow, after returning to the city of his birth when he signed for Rangers in 2004 and discovering the kind of treatment he benefited from was not available.
When Rae struck the bottom of his own distress after years of prolonged drinking and sought professional help, his club, Sunderland, and the Professional Footballers' Association arranged for him to receive treatment at The Priory. He used to binge, drinking heavily on Sundays and Mondays, but as the sessions began to move further into the week, and he began to admit to his sense of depression, Rae asked for help. In Glasgow, he discovered that most sufferers could only turn to maintenance programmes, where their addictions are controlled.
A believer in abstinence, Rae established Second Chance, raising money through football contacts and dinners. Now able to treat up to 15 patients a time, they are financially supported by Glasgow Addiction Services, although their funding application is up for renewal."It's the best thing I've ever done," Rae says. "You see someone coming through the door and their life is shattered, physically they look a mess, then some are able to graduate after three months and they're as strong as me, they look brilliant, their hygiene, their clothing, they're back into housing and employment. Glasgow needs a lot more places like this, because there are so many people whose lives are wasting away in front of them."
He talks passionately but without delivering a sermon. At 41, and with an enduring career that has involved a spell as the Dundee manager, then coach at MK Dons before moving to join Paul Ince at Notts County last October, Rae is comfortable with his immersion in the game. He has maintained his links with Second Chance because it is a way of making sense of his own experiences.
Rae was 28 when he addressed his problems, and was still fit enough last season to make a handful of appearances for MK Dons. He filled any empty spaces left by his sobriety with reading, chess and an interest in meditation, psychology and religion. Mostly, though, he feels compelled to offer somebody else the same chance that he received. "I was fortunate," he says. "These programmes are very common in the south-east of England and it's really sad because every time I go to visit one of these places, they are full of Scotsmen. I'm just trying to help someone else, because if someone wasn't there to help me, I don't know where I'd be now."
Having knocked Sunderland out of the FA Cup, and drawn 1-1 with City at Meadow Lane, County have a sense of expectation about today's tie. The players would have to work for four years to earn the same as Yaya Touré does in a week, but the likes of Lee Hughes, Craig Westcarr and Alan Gow are experienced, and confident enough, to express themselves. "You usually only get one crack at the big teams," Rae says. "If we did manage to pull it off, it would be one of the all-time giantkilling results, so we're looking forward to it."
Rae will be engrossed in the occasion, and will continue to surrender to the game that has been so central to him. But there will always be other, more significant, concerns in his life. He recalls the day he took a friend, George, to one of his last games as Dundee manager, and the coffee they shared afterwards.
"Alex, see when you look back son, you'll have all these great memories from football," George said. "But what you've done with this [Second Chance] project, it's life-changing, it has a ripple effect on friends and families. That will be your legacy,not the football."
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