We must find middle ground with attitude to alcohol
There is a happy medium between prohibition and a damaging drink culture, writes David James
Published 01/01/2012 | 05:00
It's one of the first dates you look for on the fixture list at the start of the season -- where will you be spending New Year's Eve? For most of us footballers, even if we're not playing on January 1, a typical new year celebration amounts to a night in with the family, slinking off early to bed and hoping the kids don't keep you up with too much noise.
This year Bristol City won't be playing until Tuesday, but we're still honour-bound by the 72-hour no-alcohol rule, which includes not even being on licensed premises such as restaurants.
It was all so different at the start of my career. Back then the abstinence period was just 48 hours and it wasn't uncommon for players to believe you could still be a world-beater on the pitch following a night out of drinking. I remember one New Year's Eve when I was at Liverpool a number of us threw a party and, to a man, everyone joined in with the festive spirit, putting away plenty of drinks. We were playing Norwich just over 48 hours later -- so we weren't technically infringing the alcohol ban -- but still, it was hardly the best preparation for a game. Even so, we won 4-0 and felt on top of the world.
You could never get away with that sort of thing now, though; with sports science advances constantly monitoring players' fitness levels, the level of professionalism is much higher.
For most of us, that is. Some players don't need a New Year's Eve as an excuse to go out drinking, and when I look back at the teams I've played for over the years there has been a clear correlation between poor performance on the pitch and an ingrained drinking culture at the club.
It's never been a case of one player drinking on his own, it's always a group of players and that has a negative influence on the whole team. At one club I played for there would be a gathering of half a dozen or more players for a mad drinking session every week. Week after week that went on -- it was no surprise that we didn't do well that year, only narrowly avoiding relegation. The main culprits also happened to form the nucleus of the team. At those clubs the ethos was any opportunity for a piss-up. It may not have been the night before a game but it still interfered with preparation. The reason we get days off in the week is to rest and repair, but if you spend a day off recovering from a hangover, then you are hardly preparing appropriately.
English managers, on the whole, tend to be great advocates of team bonding through alcohol consumption. I recall one of my managers actually yelling at the foreign players who didn't go out and get drunk because, he said, they were being disloyal to the rest of the team.
Another used to routinely go on a boozy night out -- with the chairman and the coaching staff -- the night before a game. I had a huge argument about it at the time because I felt strongly that a manager should also follow the abstinence rule.
How was he going to steer the dressing-room if he was struggling with a hangover the next day? It seemed clear to me that it should be one rule for everyone involved in getting a result for the team.
The increase in foreign players in the English game has certainly made a difference to attitudes here. That's not to say that foreign players don't get drunk -- there are a few who like the English mentality -- but generally speaking I find that they are significantly less enthusiastic about alcohol and going out to clubs.
It does amuse me, though, that we seem to need these teetotal rules in English football, while in Europe having a glass of wine before a game is seen as civilised. I remember Steve McManaman describing how the whole Real Madrid team would sit down for a meal and enjoy a glass of wine
together the night before a match. If English players did that there would be mayhem. In our culture, drinking to excess -- drunkenness -- always seems to be the end result.
Perhaps I have a national bias, but I don't entirely disagree with the view that a bit of alcohol helps with team bonding. Just as it is at office Christmas parties, having a drink does give you the opportunity to talk to your colleagues in a more in-depth way that goes beyond: "How's your bad knee?" The problem we have in England is not knowing when to stop; it's too easy to get drawn into carrying on the party at a pub or club.
Which is all valuable experience on my journey towards becoming a manager. I've certainly seen what not to do when it comes to players and alcohol, having worked under managers whose sole guidance has been: "I trust you to do the right thing." Well, that's a green light to some people, and if they have even an ounce of influence on their team-mates then before you know it half the team's out on the lash.
I'm not saying you have to be a tyrant to be a successful manager, you just have to be clear about what is acceptable and what is not.
Sunday Indo Sport