The glamour is in the game, not necessarily the lifestyle

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The Independent Online
An editor for whom I worked once came up with the idea of a weekly column about the social activities of sporting heroes. "We want all the gossip," he said. "Who's drinking too much, who's cheating on his wife. The playboys, the gamblers."

It came to nothing. After an exploratory trawl through places of nocturnal entertainment, the reporter realised that his notes involved only a handful of people. Thinking particularly about footballers, the truth then, as now, is that for every one who hit the town, 200 were pushing trolleys around supermarkets.

Modern affluence blurs the fact that footballers in the main are quite ordinary people. This is hard to convey, because newspapers and television unfailingly promote the notion of a glamorous existence. The glamour is the game, not necessarily the lifestyle.

That random alcohol tests are being introduced following the admission of a serious drink problem by the Arsenal and England captain, Tony Adams, may have led to the impression that booze is a modern phenomenon in British football.

For no reason beyond vague curiosity about recent events, I have thought about this in the context of personal experience. As a teenage professional player, I was required to take daily a foul mixture of vitamins and glucose for body-building purposes. An old player stated bluntly that there was more good in a glass of Guinness. Taking his word for it, I ended up drunk and in front of the manager, a stern man who fined me two pounds 10 shillings, a quarter of what I was picking up weekly.

It did not surprise me to discover that footballers took a drink. My father and his four brothers, all professional players, two of them Welsh internationals, were keen on it. In their case, and that of many players at that time, it had something to do with having worked in the pits, but in any case, it seemed part of the culture.

Before Roy Paul went on to make a name for himself as captain of Manchester City, playing many times for Wales, he turned out for the then Swansea Town under an extraordinary figure, Billy McCandless, who bore a marked resemblance to Benito Mussolini. Once, at a board meeting, it was brought to McCandless' gruff attention that Paul was in the habit of going to a bar on the eve of home matches. "When they can all play as well as Roy, they can all go drinking on Fridays," McCandless retorted. This did not do Paul much good because, by his own admission, he eventually ended up with a serious problem.

Many of the players who comprised Tottenham Hotspur's famed Double-winning team 35 years ago were pretty special too when they felt the need for refuelling. Alcohol never passed Danny Blanchflower's lips, but the rest made up for him. Of an international who joined the team shortly afterwards, it was joked that if Scotland ever had a drinking team, he would be the coach.

At the time, or perhaps a little earlier, I cannot remember exactly, there was a small drinking club in the West End of London known as the Madelaine. It was run by one Sulky Gowers, who sang well enough to make occasional appearances on television. Sulky moved on the fringes of London's underworld and brokered big-match tickets for the players. When it was time to close, the drums rolled and Sulky would sing his version of the national anthem: "Now take that Princess Margaret, she married Armstrong- Jones, why don't they give a yiddisher boy a chance..."

Some serious drinking was done there by footballers and at the Astor, a different proposition because it was frequented by front-line villains. Another popular haunt was a club in Charing Cross Road owned jointly for a spell by Malcolm Allison before he formed a terrific alliance with Joe Mercer at Manchester City. Behind the bar you would find one of Arsenal's finest inside-forwards and one time captain, the lovable Jimmy Logie.

Despite the present alarms about drink and drugs in football, it occurs to me that nothing much has changed. Certainly not the free time that is available.

When Jimmy Johnstone was dancing along the right wing for Celtic, an attempt was made to describe a day in his life. "I go in for training," Johnstone said, "have a bite to eat afterwards, then play snooker."

"What then?"

"I just hang aboot [sic]," he replied.

Thinking back to the sweet, long ago, that, it seems, is the problem.