H aving spent long enough watching me being outjumped and outfought by centre-halves in every game, manager Mark McGhee summoned me to his training ground office one day. He was not alone, and had a simple message for me: "We're gonna get really scientific with you."
The man in his office was the newly appointed fitness coach who would take me for individual strength and conditioning sessions each afternoon and I was booked to see a nutritionist the following day. I was tall, scrawny and relatively weak for the position I was occupying in the team. It would no longer be acceptable.
The nutritionist took samples of my hair to examine, and I was told to weigh and record everything I ate for a week. On the basis of both findings, I was given a specific diet of pills and food supplements which would need to be taken every day. Eight pills with breakfast, a different eight with lunch and a further six after dinner. On many days I would replace my regular meal with a sachet of powder which, once added to water, would have all the nutritional benefits I needed. It was the most disciplined regime I ever experienced.
That was what I was told to do and I didn't once question it. If the club gives you something to take, you assume you should take it. The following year, my diet was tweaked slightly. I asked why one set of pills was no longer to be taken. The reply was a little concerning. "Oh yeah, that was on the banned list all along. Didn't realise it. Never mind." Given that players are totally liable for any substance that is found in their system at any time, it was a stroke of good fortune that I wasn't tested that year.
Kolo Toure is facing a decision which will most likely result in a lengthy ban from football on account of something very similar. Though he has yet to publicly speak on the issue, it is believed the banned substance found in his A sample was the result of him taking a slimming pill which belonged to his wife. Many have laughed off the idea that an athlete in full training would use such a pill, but from my experience -- which was over ten years ago now -- the advantages of taking such assistance is obvious. They work, and you play better as a result.
I had never before reached such a level of fitness and strength. My energy levels were at an all-time high, my body-fat percentages an all-time low. There were pills to prepare us for each game, others to give us a boost at half-time, and there were special drinks made up to help us recover. Such was our commitment to the new regime, we even took what were described as 'liver support pills' before our Christmas party that season. Nothing was left to chance. We finished fourth in the first division that year because of it.
Toure's situation is still unclear because of the silence of everyone involved, but the club and his manager have publicly supported him. They will be without him today against Reading in their FA Cup quarter-final, and they can expect to be without him for a lot longer.
His decision to take a substance without the prior consent of the club medical staff was stupid and reckless at best. At its worst, of course, is the possibility that he did so without the permission of his doctor because he knew the substance to be banned. He will never come out and admit as much if it were true, so the slimming pills story may be here to stay.
After one particularly successful afternoon against Crystal Palace, McGhee called me into his office once again. We had won 3-1 at Selhurst Park, and he wanted to speak to me privately. Reflecting on the performance, he had this to say: "Sads, I'm gonna ask you this: Are you taking something you shouldn't be?" I didn't know exactly what kind of substance to which he was referring but I told him straight out that I wasn't.
Little did we both know at the time that I actually was.