English game in state of denial

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The Independent Football

Compared to weightlifting, swimming, athletics or jockeys in horse racing, positive drug tests in British football are as scarce as hens' teeth. Not one Premiership player has ever been caught with a performance-enhancing drug in his system - but the evidence from Germany, Italy and Spain suggests it is only a matter of time.

Leading players in each of those countries have failed tests, and during his time with Arsenal, the Chelsea and France midfielder Emmanuel Petit warned that the sheer number and intensity of matches was pushing players towards banned stimulants. "Something is going to have to give," Petit said. "We'll all have to take drugs to survive. I know that some players already do."

Petit's claim soon received what appeared to be high-level substantiation. Nandrolone, an anabolic steroid, was detected in several Dutch internationals, including Jaap Stam, the former Manchester United defender, and the midfielder Edgar Davids, although the players, who both play in Italy's Serie A, protested their innocence.

During the 1960s, when, according to a hit song, England swung like a pendulum do, alcohol was the recreational drug of choice among players. The post-match "session" was looked upon as a normal, even healthy, release from the tensions of the game.

The pint-swilling and vodka-quaffing addictions of Jimmy Greaves and George Best, among others, are well chronicled. Greaves, when pressed to name the biggest influence on his career, replied: "Vladimir Smirnoff."

However, in his autobiography, the former Manchester United and Northern Ireland goalkeeper Harry Gregg claimed that stimulants such as "speed" - amphetamine dexadrin - were also in use.

This year Gregg told a BBC1 documentary, "Real Story", that he did not know his "pep pills" were even classed as a narcotic. There were no anti-doping laws within the game at the time.

The same programme, in collaboration with the Professional Footballers' Association and the University of Leicester, polled 700 players about drug use. Nearly 50 per cent said they knew a team-mate who used recreational drugs, a finding which ran contrary to a detection rate of 46 from 6,500 tests and indicated that the sport might be in denial.

If true, the high-profile cases of Mark Bosnich, Paul Merson and Lee Bowyer are the tip of a pharmaceutical iceberg. Bosnich, the former Chelsea and Australia goalkeeper, tested positive for cocaine last year and received a nine-month suspension in April.

The 32-year-old, who was good enough to be signed twice by Manchester United, originally claimed his drink was spiked in a nightclub. He lost his appeal and has admitted to a habit that cost him £3,000 a week.

Merson, the former Arsenal and England player, tearfully confessed to a range of addictions. They included recreational drugs, drink and gambling. At 35, he is still performing outstandingly for Walsall.

Bowyer tested positive for marijuana in a random test when he was an 18-year-old playing for Charlton. He was banned from England's Under-18 squad but overcame that setback - and his later trial for the assault of an Asian youth in Leeds - to play at full international level.

In Britain, Paul Gascoigne is the biggest name to admit to an addiction, checking into the Priory Clinic to "detox" himself. Gazza's problems with "the bevvy" pale, however, next to those of Diego Maradona, the Argentinian once hailed as a player to rival Pele.

Maradona got himself "clean" in time to play in the 1994 World Cup. But during the first phase, he tested positive for a cocktail of illicit substances, was thrown out of the tournament amid protests of innocence and skulduggery by rival countries, and is still grappling with his demons.

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