How Britain's 'Brainiest Footballer' turned away from drink and rescued his career

Clarke Carlisle went 'on the piss for months', threatening his career and his life. The Leeds defender talks to Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

Thirteen months and counting. The time since Clarke Carlisle last drank alcohol keeps growing along with his reputation as a born-again defender with Leeds United. Now the player who was crowned Britain's Brainiest Footballer can reflect on the "comic irony" of something so brainless jeopardising everything he holds precious.

On a personal level, the addiction threatened Carlisle's relationship with his five-year-old daughter, Francesca. It also saddened loving parents who always took pride in his academic and sporting achievements.

Professionally, barely a year after playing for England Under-21 with John Terry, Alan Smith, Paul Robinson and Ashley Cole, he faced the prospect of being ostracised as an unreliable drunk.

To meet Carlisle today is to encounter an intelligent, open and determined 25-year-old rather than the man who "went on the piss for months" at Queen's Park Rangers. His rehabilitation is continuing, appropriately, at a club that is also reinventing itself after hitting rock-bottom.

If New Leeds have not taken the Coca-Cola Championship by storm, it is not for want of effort by Carlisle and his defensive colleagues. Going into Saturday's match at Brighton they boast the division's joint best goals-against record, having conceded just nine in 13 matches.

Stopping strikers, he says, is what he was "born to do", a belief that once disappeared like the gallon of lager he would consume the night before reporting for training at QPR. When his plight became public, it shocked those who knew him as a high flier at school in his native Preston; the boy who gained five A stars and five As in his GCSEs and was rated possible Oxbridge material.

He chose football with nearby Blackpool, though Gerry Francis soon took him to QPR after glowing scouting reports from Iain Dowie. Dowie was once a rocket scientist, or at least an aerospace engineer. When Carlisle damaged cruciate ligaments in a challenge with Fulham's Rufus Brevett, the self-confessed Countdown and Weakest Link addict initially used the time on his hands to study for a TV show called Britain's Brainiest Footballer.

Carol Vorderman was the presenter, while one rival was Leyton Orient's Andy Harris, a Mensa member. Human biology was Carlisle's specialist subject. "I didn't set out to disprove the idea that footballers are thick, which is a sweeping, unfair generalisation. I saw it as a bit of fun.

"The quiz came down from 12 contestants to six to three and then the final. I got a nice trophy but can't pretend I've taken the title seriously. The best part was at Northampton when I went to sit with the QPR fans. They started singing 'Carlisle is a genius' [to the tune of "Go West"] - a brilliant, funny moment."

There was nothing amusing about the fate that soon gripped him. "During that lay-off, my drinking escalated. A lot of it was born of frustration; I was hanging around when I needed to be active, and idle hands do the devil's work. Soon I was drinking heavily, at home and in bars. I drank almost every day for six months. Then I started getting fit again and didn't touch it for seven months. But as the season progressed, I regressed and the quantities became ridiculous."

Wasn't Ian Holloway, by then the QPR manager, suspicious? "You think you can cover it up, maybe with chewing-gum, but that's self-delusion. Some of the lads and the gaffer had words. I kidded myself that as long as I did my job at the weekend, people would turn a blind eye."

Matters came to a head after Carlisle turned up in a "shocking state" for a trip to Colchester. Holloway sent him home. "I sat watching the TV videprinter to see how they were getting on. Suddenly I thought: 'This is stupid. You should be playing'. That was the moment of clarity. My life has been on a huge upward curve ever since."

Four weeks in the Sporting Chance clinic, founded by Tony Adams ("a gracious and inspirational man"), helped him put his behaviour in perspective. "There was a comic irony about this so-called bright footballer getting out of his brain. You can be the cleverest, most literate person in the world and still lack common sense. A large percentage of abusers, whether it's drink or drugs, are high achievers. It usually happens when you feel unfulfilled."

Carlisle returned to the Rangers side last season and helped them win promotion to the "new" Championship before deciding he needed to return to the North for family reasons. "Being near Francesca [who lives with her mother in Preston] was very important. I wanted to be a good father to her. For instance, I can pick her up from school now, which I couldn't do in London. To be brutally honest, when I was drinking, I'd rather have been in the pub than sacrifice that time."

He also wanted be a better son. "Ironically, my dad is a rehab counsellor. He helped me fantastically. My parents are God-fearing, Christian people and they pray for me daily, which I'm so grateful for. When I think about it now, I can separate myself into two different people, pre- and post-alcohol. I'm really enjoying my lifestyle now and the person I am."

The move to cash-strapped, relegated Leeds has contributed to his new lease of life. "Granted, we're going through a period of turmoil. But this is a massive club with amazing support. The challenge is to help restore it to its rightful place."

Early results under Kevin Blackwell have been patchy, yet there were signs in Tuesday's draw at second-placed Reading that a squad that had to be constructed from scratch is beginning to gel.

During the break for international matches, the players went out drinking together. Bonding though boozing is practised at many clubs, but would seem to present a problem to a recovering alcoholic. Not so, says Carlisle. "It helps to produce team spirit, and I just drink Coke or Red Bull. For me to set myself apart from the lads would be silly. Three months into abstaining, I couldn't go near a pub. But with the strength I've gained, and the support network I have around me, I feel comfortable with it."

Once he drove those who cared for him to distraction. Now he drives the drinkers home. In his own place, alongside the trophy he won as football's quiz king, stand two huge bottles of champagne, man-of-the-match awards from Elland Road.

"There's no temptation," Carlisle laughs. "I put them on the shelf and look at them with pride. It's about self-discipline. My passion for football, and what playing does for me, is a feeling I can't get anywhere else."