James Lawton: Saturday afternoon heroes who end up as Saturday night drunks

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Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate were not the only high-profile footballers in the dock this week. Indeed, long before the jurors reached their verdicts, for some observers a wider judgement was to be made on fast-track, Ferrari-driving stars who seem to do their most vigorous work not on the training field but in late-nights bars and discos.

The Saturday afternoon heroes had become the Saturday night fall-about drunks. If not worse.

Evidence that Bowyer and Woodgate and their friends had been loading up on a devastating cocktail mixture of vodka and white rum during their evening out in Leeds was confirmation for many that the young English footballer had run out of control. He, unlike his foreign counterpart – so it was argued – is neither intellectually nor culturally equipped to live comfortably under the scrutiny that comes with fame and rewards now soaring towards £100,000 a week.

Some argue that such a blanket label is unfair on a vast majority of dedicated professionals, but the background of the Leeds players' case is just one example of behaviour that would be considered shocking in continental football circles, where players tend to have no more than a glass of wine with their evening meal.

Here, even as the jury deliberated, the name of the new Leeds superstar, Robbie Fowler, who has just moved from Liverpool for £11m, was finding its way on to a police station blotter. Fowler, who just two weeks ago spoke of his delight at getting a new start with the Yorkshire club, and a better chance of impressing England's Swedish coach, Sven Goran Eriksson – another foreigner shocked by the culture of drinking in the English game – was arrested near midnight after an argument with a photographer. Fowler was allowed to leave, two hours later, without being charged, but an ostensibly petty matter came with disastrous timing for the image of the game.

Fowler, one of England's most gifted players, has twice been involved in late-night fracas. On both occasions he was found to be innocent of criminal behaviour, but his judgement in being out and about in drinking establishments at such late hours was seen by some as catastrophic.

Fowler's misadventure this week follows a stream of similar gaffes by fellow professionals. Steven Gerrard, a national hero after his contribution to England's 5-1 World Cup qualifying victory over Germany in Munich, had to apologise publicly to Eriksson a few weeks later after being reported for late-night drinking on the eve of joining the England squad. Kieron Dyer of Newcastle was sent home by his club for "unprofessional behaviour" while on duty abroad. And Chelsea players, including another young England hopeful Frank Lampard, were disciplined after a drinking spree that outraged guests at a Heathrow hotel.

The drinking excesses laid bare by the Bowyer-Woodgate trial were part of a familiar story, but now it was being told against a background of wealth that could not have been dreamt of by the ageing hell-raiser George Best. When Best was jailed for drunken violence, he famously muttered, "I suppose that f**** the knighthood". Also damaged was the idea of the super-fit, ultra-dedicated professional athlete.

But is the public right to conclude that the English professional footballer is unable to meet the demands on probity created by his new wealth and celebrity? Yes, at least in the sense that the English pro thinks nothing of going "down the pub", or to a nightclub, despite the fact that there is often someone present who will tip off a tabloid newspaper about a "booze scandal".

Some former pros believe the behaviour of footballers is not much different from any other section of society. The difference is that everyone knows who they are, and how much they earn. John Giles, who played for Leeds in the Sixties and Seventies, said: "What's happening today, I think, is a result of much greater celebrity ... When you think of the behaviour of those Thatcherite stockbrokers and the lager louts, I think it is possible to point too strong a finger at footballers. In any walk of life, you are going to get some people who can't stop going over the top."

Another former player pointed defensively to the growing tendency for indiscretions to be exposed."Times have changed pretty dramatically," he said. "Fifty years ago West Ham's centre half and captain Dick Walker used to have a pint before the game at Upton Park. Religiously, he would get off the bus and go into the Boleyn Castle pub and have his pint. It never occurred to anyone to get on the phone and tell the News of the World that the captain of West Ham was on the booze before a big game. But just let David Beckham or Ryan Giggs try it."

This sounds like a report from another world, which in a sense it is, but the trouble is that no one has told some of Walker's heirs. They may no longer need to ride the bus but slipping into a crowded pub is no longer an agreeable option. Football insists it is no different from the rest of society, but society says that just isn't so. Footballers are richer than ever before but there is a price to pay. They have to be citizens above suspicion and, most important of all, they have to sober.