A game in denial on serious addictions

A safe haven in Hampshire offers players a sporting chance when they want to beat alcohol, drugs and gambling, writes Nick Harris
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The Independent Football

Ignorance, not malice, is the root cause of football's failure to wean the industry off alcohol, gambling and sometimes drugs, says Peter Kay, the chief executive of Sporting Chance, as he sits in his small office in Hampshire, a stone's throw from Crouch House, the home away from home where troubled sportsmen lodge during treatment programmes.

Kay tells the story of a player who came to Sporting Chance because of alcoholism. At away games, when access to booze was restricted, the player did not drink, and suffered severe withdrawal.

"The manager's way of dealing with that player's alcoholism was to make sure that the physio took a bottle of brandy to every away game," Kay says. "The player was given a large glass of brandy before each game to stave off the withdrawals, and a large glass at half-time, and then it was never mentioned apart from that. No one ever pulled him aside and said, 'Hey, let's have a chat'. It's the truth, and that's football. This is within the last few years. Never once did the manager come up to that player and offer help.

"That manager wasn't a bad man, he was just ignorant. Perhaps he'd been in a similar situation himself and he knew what the answer was, short-term."

Kay adds: "At the highest level, alcohol is very much less part of most players' diets. It's still prevalent, but the usage is less... The lower in the divisions you go, the more prevalent alcohol is, because it's easier to get away with."

Excessive alcohol intake led Adrian Mutu to taking cocaine, Kay says. "He got pissed. He woke up with a prostitute. And he'd taken coke. He can hardly remember the first time he took coke... There was a situation where he had got so far, so deep, in the sense that he was doing something wrong anyway - naked on a bed with a girl who wasn't his wife, in a heightened arousal state in many, many ways - and the defence mechanism was beyond saying no then."

Mutu was one of Kay's more high-profile clients of recent times. Another was Joey Barton, who attended a "five-day intensive behavioural, anger management programme" after some public bad behaviour led to senior figures at Manchester City questioning his future.

"The programme would be very much aimed at the likes of Joey," Kay says. "Someone who has been getting into trouble with losing their temper, through fighting, through aggression, basically through bad behaviour, and wants to have a look at it in a safe environment, or maybe doesn't want to have a look at it, but has to."

Kay cannot sing Barton's praises highly enough. Barton did not come in for alcohol-related treatment but stopped drinking anyway after his stay last year, and has since worked with Kay on education initiatives.

"It frustrates me to read some of the [criticism] that's written about him by people who've never met the man, nor taken the bother to explore who he is or what he stands for." He cited a day when the midfielder used a day off to drive to Cumbria, "bared his soul" in a talk at a school, stayed for hours signing autographs - and then took a lashing the next day in the press about his contract.

Sporting Chance's work will only truly be gauged in a decade or more, says Kay, who likens an acknowledgement of addiction as akin to the widespread acceptance, over many decades, that smoking is bad for the health. "What we know now is that if we see or hear from one kid, one player, one manager, one physio, who says, 'I heard that seminar and it rang bells', then it's been a success."

Kay says that in "simplistic terms, people come to us when they're sick and tired of being tired... It takes immense fortitude and strength of character to actually pick up the phone and say, 'I'm in trouble'. Every single message in an addict's brain is telling him, 'Don't ask for help. You can deal with this. Don't admit you've got a problem'."

A core part of every programme is physical activity. "When someone gets into active addiction of any type, one of the first disciplines that goes is their physical well-being. And usually that same discipline of maintaining physical well-being is what staved off the addiction coming to its full fruition. The programme is very much based around Tony [Adams], and about what would have helped him that wasn't there when he put his hand up and asked for help."

Kay heaps credit on those who fund his work, mainly the Professional Footballers' Association, which commits at least £100,000 a year, and the Football Association, with £50,000. "Gordon Taylor said he'd support us and the man has been true to his word," Kay said. "Without the PFA, goodness knows where some of these footballers would have ended up." Kay adds that Alan Hodson, from the FA's medical department, and Barry Bright, who heads the disciplinary committee, "have often been lone voices in supporting us and supporting these people through procedures".

"And they should be commended for foresight in not just slapping on bans and saying, 'Don't do it again', but, 'Here's the ban, and if you want to, here's some support in knowing why you did it'."

Five footballers and their addictions

Tony Adams

The former England defender served two months in jail for drink-driving in 1990 and admitted to being an alcoholic in 1996. He sought treatment, and his autobiography, Addicted, was published in 1998. In 2000 he set up the Sporting Chance Clinic - "a place of hope and trust" for athletes with drink, drug or gambling addictions.

Paul Gascoigne

The gifted midfielder started seeking treatment for drink problems in 1998 while at Middlesbrough. In his autobiography, Gazza, My Story, he wrote: "Alcoholics, when they're desperate, will drink any old shit." In December 2005 he was sacked as Kettering's manager as "a result of 37 incidents", some of them allegedly drink-related.

Paul McGrath

A centre-back with a notoriety for drinking during his stints at Manchester United and Aston Villa, his struggles gathered pace once he had retired. "I drink for black-out," he said in 2000. He spent six weeks at the Rutland Clinic, Dublin, that year but was sent home from the World Cup in 2002 by the BBC for being drunk on the outbound flight.

Christian Roberts

Swindon Town's 26-year-old Welsh striker recently admitted having had drink problems for more than a year and consuming up to 15 pints a day. "I'd go out for three or four days at a time, moving on, sleeping anywhere," he said. He spent 28 days in rehab before returning for the first team in March. "It has been a long journey."

Adrian Mutu

Chelsea signed the Romania striker in August 2003 but he was sacked 14 months later for testing positive for cocaine. He was given a seven-month ban by Fifa and underwent rehabilitation. "Any player tempted to take drugs ... will lose everything: club, national team, family," he said in 2004. Mutu was signed by Juventus last year.

The three questions we asked

Do you think football has any problem with recreational drug use by players?


Prem 18.5%/78%/3.5%

Champ 24%/75%/1%

League 1 26%/73%/1%

League 2 37%/62%/1%

All players 26.5% 72% 1.5%

Do you think football has any problem with performance-enhancing drug use by players?

Prem 13%/85%/2%

Champ 11%/88%/1%

League 1 13%/84%/3%

League 2 19%/80%/1%

All players 14%/84%/2%

Are you fully aware of the regulations and procedures involved in drug-testing, and do you understand the sanctions you could face for any breaches of the doping laws?

Prem 95%/4%/1%

Champ 96%/3%/1%

League 1 91.5%/8.5%/0

League 2 90%/9%/1%

All players 93%/6%/1%