Stanislaus puts FA system to test

Simon O'Hagan says the likelihood of drug-taking footballers being caught is slim
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The Independent Online
IF A victory could be claimed in the case of Roger Stanislaus, the Leyton Orient defender who was caught taking cocaine last November and last Thursday was banned for a year, then it is a fairly hollow one. No sympathy should be spared a proven cheat, but the fact is that given the way the Fooball Association conducts drug testing, Stanislaus was extraordinarily unlucky to find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.

While on the one hand this episode could be seen as a vindication of football's methods of combating drug abuse, on the other you could argue that it merely highlights the inadequacy of a system which allows most players to go through their careers without ever being required to urinate to order.

Drug testing in football only began three-and-a-half years ago. In each of the first two seasons - 1992-93 and 1993-94 - only post-match tests were carried out, and only 20 games were targeted, with two players from each side being tested, and then only for performance-enhancing drugs. Outside these parameters, there was still enormous scope for drug use even if the results suggested the game was generally clean. From a total of 160 tests, the positives amounted to two cold cures.

In 1994-95 the programme went further. For the first time, social drugs - cannabis and cocaine - were tested for, and some big catches turned up, notably Chris Armstrong, then of Crystal Palace. The number of tests increased from 80 to 272, of which 226 were carried out at training sessions, where testers had not previously ventured. From all tests, 12 positives resulted - eight for cannabis, two for cold cures and two for amphetamines.

More tests will always uncover more wrongdoing, but in the context of the number of footballers who could, in theory, be tested, the amount of testing remains so small that as one senior FA man said last week, "what chance have you got of catching somebody?"

The potential number of testable footballers - including juniors at centres of excellence, women, semi-professionals, apprentices and youth-team players - is 15,000. So on the face of it there was a 55-1 chance of being tested last season, as there is in 1995-96 when tests are again expected to number 300. But the likelihood of being caught is much smaller than that when you consider that even those who are tested are only coming under scrutiny on one day out of a possible 365.

Alan Hodson, the administrator of the FA's doping control unit, admitted that "we've not been doing it long enough to know whether we've got a measured approach to the problem" and while the FA believes that the strength of the deterrent lies in the randomness of the testing, statistically speaking drug-taking footballers are virtually safe from detection when compared with their counterparts in athletics.

In 1995 there were 659 drug tests carried out on British athletes. Although the potential number who could be tested is similar to football - around 15,000 when the recreational club runner is included - the concentration is on the sport's top tier of 650 competitors. An international athlete stands to be tested many times a season.

The sort of performance- enhancers that might tempt an athlete are, of course, of less interest to a footballer. But social drugs are a different matter, and everyone agrees that as they feature more in society, so they do in football, where the acquisition of fame and money by men too young to know how to deal with them adds up to a dangerous cocktail in itself. Rumours abound of the private habits of some Premiership stars, and Sports Council figures showed that in 1995-6, across all sports, drug-test failures are up 15 per cent.

The FA does target-test - ie it will act on a tip-off from a club - but footballers who have come across testing are few. "I've only once seen somebody called, so perhaps the system is a bit slipshod," said Iain Dowie, the West Ham striker and a regular in the Premiership since drug-testing began.

The test Dowie remembered involved the goalkeeper Dave Beasant when they were both playing for Southampton at Chelsea. "They stop you literally as you walk off the pitch," Beasant said. "You're taken off to a room and you're not even allowed to send a message to anybody outside. The hardest part is actually producing the urine sample. You're pretty dehydrated."

The efficiency of the testing - carried out by the Sports Council on the FA's behalf - is not in question, only the extent of it. Hodson points to the expense involved - pounds 150,000 for the FA's drugs education programme and another pounds 230 for each test - but that finds little sympathy with Barry Hearn, the chairman of the club which will now seek to disown Stanislaus.

"It wouldn't do the FA any harm to take away any lingering doubt by upping the number of samples to the point where you test an entire team at one go, and every team is tested every season," he said. "It's a huge game generating huge sums of money. Sometimes you have to spend a bit."