Tony Adams, the Arsenal captain and recovering alcoholic, has been asked to spearhead a drive against professional and personal indiscipline that has been dealing shattering blows to the image of football over the last few weeks.
Adams and other high-profile players, like Paul Gascoigne and Paul Merson, whose careers have been damaged by alcohol abuse, will tour clubs across the country urging young players to avoid their past mistakes and help restore the good name of the deeply troubled national game. This educational initiative is also backed by the promise of much stronger discipline, including the agreement of the Professional Footballers' Association that in serious cases the agreed limit on fining players – two weeks' wages – will be lifted.
The PFA chief executive, Gordon Taylor, and John Barnwell, of the League Managers Association, met for four hours yesterday and agreed on a crisis agenda to be placed before leaders of the Football Association, the Premiership and the Nationwide League at a summit meeting to be held within the next two weeks.
On a day when John Terry and Jody Morris of Chelsea and Des Byrne of Wimbledon pleaded not guilty at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court on charges of affray and causing actual bodily harm in a nightclub incident last week, Taylor and Barnwell accepted that dramatic action is necessary if the game's reputation, sullied on and off the field in the few last weeks by indiscipline, evidence of a rampant drink culture, and the re-appearance of hooliganism and racism on the terraces, is not to deteriorate further.
Taylor's concession on the limits of punishment handed out to erring players is, however, accompanied by a strong demand for managers and clubs to take more responsibility for the misbehaviour of their players – and a call to the FA to deduct points from clubs with bad disciplinary records. He said: "It is no good clubs asking us to lift the limit on fines, and then playing those players as if nothing had happened. What kind of signal does that send? We all know the managers who are quick enough to spot the mistakes of referees and misconduct by players on the other side but are completely blind when it comes to offences by their own players.
"We accept our responsibilities but it is time that the clubs and the managers also did so. I believe in the principle that governs industrial law, that there should be a scale of punishment and a series of warnings. When those warnings have not been acted upon, when there is no real improvement in the record of clubs, points should be deducted – and serious fines imposed. We cannot go on having Premiership clubs fined trivial amounts like £5,000, and having those fines suspended. It is time for a much tougher approach to problems which are dragging the game down."
Taylor also complains that the game's Scholarship plan, in which young players are bound to attend further education for at least 12 hours a week, during which they are taught the value of good diet and the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, is operated too loosely. "We find that when young players make it to the first team their attendance at further education tends to slide away. We accept the arguments for deterrent, and that is why we have agreed to a more elastic policy on fining, but we also know that the prisons are filled with criminals who haven't been deterred.
"Education is surely the way we'll get the best results in the end and I'm particularly happy that Tony Adams has agreed to help us. From his own painful experiences, Tony is deeply aware of the problem and he has worked to set up a clinic to fight the problem within the game. Now he's got the chance to do further work on the problem in a very valuable way."
Adams was imprisoned after a crashing a car while drunk – a searing experience which led him to re-assess his lifestyle and inspired his widely acclaimed bestseller Addicted. Both Gascoigne and Merson have attended de-tox and rehabilitation clinics in their battles with abuse problems, and the football authorities could hardly find more dramatic examples of potentially brilliant careers thrown dangerously off course.
"What is needed more than anything," Taylor says, "is an understanding that the image of the game is not going to be improved until people in the game stop passing the buck. At the PFA we have been forced to look our responsibilities, and we accept that we have a central role now.
"But the clubs also carry heavy responsibility. If players accept that they have a duty to provide an example to young people, clubs also have to see that they are ultimately responsible for the discipline of the players who represent them on the field. In the past managers have come to us asking for our agreement that they fine players for playing badly, and that's obviously not on. Brian Clough once wanted to fine Kenny Burns two weeks' wages for passing the ball across the face of his own goal late in the game, and we had to say: 'Come off it, Cloughie'.
"But then nobody needed to tell him about the responsibility of a manager in imposing discipline in all aspects of the professional's life. That's why his teams had a great disciplinary record... and so much success."
By contrast, Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, last week pointed out that his team's title challenge has improved with a worsening of their disciplinary record, with the implication that a little pragmatism could make a virtue out of footballing vice. Another title contender, Leeds United's David O'Leary, recently wrote in a Sunday newspaper serialisation of his book Leeds United on Trial that his players Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate had lied to him and "disgraced us all", and then offers the players new contracts and better terms.
Such contradictions will be energetically played upon by the PFA even as they agree that it is time to accept that in football the scale of punishment should more properly fit the crime. As they do so, Adams will tell the players it is time they took a serious look at the damage they are doing to the game – and themselves.Reuse content