Comment - Wayne Rooney fallout proves that drinking and football is always a toxic mix
ll hail the heroes of the golden age of drinking in British football when, to quote Jürgen Klopp, you could sup like a devil and still turn it on of a Saturday afternoon – probably because all the lads on the opposite side had been just as legless as you were on the nights in question.
British football and booze, a complex rites of passage for the men who play the game even now, in 2016, with more sports scientists around the place than they had substitutes back in the old days. How much is acceptable? How much is too much? Such a confusing proposition, and no wonder there are those, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Jordan Henderson, who keep it simple and abstain altogether.
As for the wider game, there are times when its relationship with booze has been semi-official. There was the Bell’s Scotch Whisky manager of the month, regularly won by Klopp’s predecessor, Bob Paisley. The Carling Cup.
The FA Cup brought to you by Budweiser. Carlsberg on Wimbledon’s shirt in the 1988 FA Cup final, later to migrate to the club they defeated that day, Liverpool. Chang beer at Everton. Tennent’s at the Old Firm. Jose Mourinho proffering a rooftop bottle of Heineken. Cheers!
If the Wayne Rooney saga has shown anything it is that footballers’ awkward relationship with alcohol has never been resolved. No one has ever seemed to know where the limit lies and why Gareth Southgate’s first act as the new England manager will be to decide whether his captain overstepped the mark last Saturday night or was simply getting sloshed in line with Football Association guidelines.
It would be helpful if there was an appendix to the England DNA document that covered it but, ultimately, it will be up to Southgate as to which side of the line Rooney’s judgment fell on his night out last weekend.
A flick through the chapters of the memoirs of our major players over recent years will tell you that at some point they had to make a serious decision about alcohol. The successful managed to see the sensible route or benefited from a stern intervention but, for most of them, it was not as if they were getting a great deal of useful guidance from senior team-mates.
In his 2008 autobiography, Jamie Carragher recalled how Gerard Houllier told him his career “was an alcohol-related accident waiting to happen”. Carragher’s approach was fairly rudimentary: no booze in the house and none during the week of a match but nevertheless, he said, “when I hit the ale it’s not for the taste of it, it’s to wind down and get bladdered”.
Meanwhile over at West Ham, Rio Ferdinand had been introduced to the drinking school at the back of the first-team coach and, if you did not like the taste of alcohol, there was always the cigarettes. “Some of the players were the worst influence a young lad could ever have,” Ferdinand wrote of the West Ham team of the late 1990s, “Smoking, drinking, gambling, clubbing – they did it all.”
Ferdinand recalled the West Ham team drinking all the way to Manchester on a Friday ahead of a Saturday game against City and “Ian Bishop was so pissed he fell off the bus” even though the midfielder in question was playing the next day. Harry Redknapp had lost his sense of smell in that serious car crash of 1990, Ferdinand reckoned, allowing much of the boozing to go on, so to speak, right under their manager’s nose.
Before Euro ’96, Gary Neville and his brother, Phil, benefited from some of the best advice of their careers from David Platt when he warned the Nevilles, Nicky Butt and Jason Wilcox that the evening’s squad night-out in Hong Kong was “not one for the young lads”. “A quick appointment in the infamous dentist’s chair having vodka poured down my throat would have finished me off for days,” Neville recalled. “But I wished I’d been there to enjoy it.”
For all three of them, there was an awakening at different stages of their career. Neville imagined Sir Alex Ferguson’s reaction and chose to stay out of it. Ferdinand was amused by the hedonism, but made a secret pact with his friend, Frank Lampard, not to join in with the drinking. Carragher took Houllier’s advice and cut back on the nights out.
In each case, however, the prevailing culture was not one what you might describe as healthy towards young players trying to make the right decisions about their careers. It was most likely good fun, with the lino floor of the team coach sticky with beer and ring pulls being furtively lifted, but you could hardly say that this great tradition bequeathed to them by that generation of footballers who drank like devils was conducive to optimum performance.
No one would deny it has changed now and that Rooney, at 31, is entitled to a drink or two when the time is right and his 15-year career demonstrates that, by and large, he has resisted the temptations that might have ruined him as a footballer. But what a conflicted relationship British football has with booze, given that enduring belief in some quarters that no team can be fully bonded until they have had a night out when everyone was blotto.
Even in the summer BBC documentary on Euro ‘96, the stories of Paul Gascoigne’s legendary boozing were told with a chuckle that faded sharply when we cut to the pictures of what he looks like now. Manchester United fans sing of arguably their greatest player that “when I die and they lay me to rest I’m going to go on the p--- with Georgie Best”, even though that is what killed Best.
How many more drinks? One for the road, or back to you hotel room now? When is enough, enough? It is British football’s eternal question and no one would envy the decision that Southgate has to make on Rooney who, if he was trolleyed at 5am, was just reviving an ignoble tradition. Other than to say that those massive boozers of the past remembered in story and song have nothing to say on the matter to the modern generation other than to stand as a warning.