Saturday 17 February 2018

Forces of nature cannot break free of alcohol's tight marking

Dion Fanning

I met a woman a few months ago who was employed in the addiction industry in America. She wasn't of addictive tendency herself but she had read all the studies, seen all the reports and had a lot of ideas on how the world could be a better place and how we all could be better people.

One of the nuggets of information she provided was the startling claim that studies now show that if you get to the age of 18 without drinking, you have a zero per cent chance of developing problems with alcohol or, to put it more starkly, becoming an alcoholic. Even by the American standard.

I was pretty stunned by this piece of information which I'm sure is the product of the finest research and the result of some excellent peer-reviewed papers.

However, I would suggest that if you get to the age of 18 without drinking it's probably because you're not an alcoholic in the first place. This would tend to skew the findings a little.

The late developers are another problem but the woman explained that away as a statistical kink. The figures were overwhelming: hang on until you're 18 and you'll be fine.

Presumably the idea is that the under 18s receive the benefit of some excellent alcohol awareness lectures. They are told that if they can manage to avoid it until their 18th birthday, like those of us who took the pledge on our Confirmation day, then a lifetime of splendour awaits (although I hope they do better than I did and don't break the pledge on the afternoon they take it).

Obviously there are those who will benefit from a little alcohol education and there are those who won't. I was lectured by some of the finest minds in the alcohol education business as a teenager but none of it could compete with the feeling that if Keith Richards and William Burroughs thought it was a good idea, it probably was. More importantly, it seemed to work.

This is the problem for all those trying to educate. They have all the facts and figures on their side. They can point to the health benefits and the dividend that comes from being at less risk of spending your Saturdays in A and E or doing 3 to 5 in Mountjoy. There is one piece of information they don't have on their side: for a short time at least, alcohol does exactly what those who take it expect it to do.

I thought of this American woman and her impressive studies last week when Fabio Capello decided to comment on Andy Carroll's drinking habit which was simplified into a "play more football, drink less beer" headline.

These undoubtedly are Carroll's intentions and it certainly wasn't helpful of Capello to go public on the topic, even if Carroll's first Liverpool press conference included the ominous line that he was going to drink "at the right time".

There have been some worrying signs in Carroll's career. His judgement in selecting the right time and distinguishing it from the wrong time appears to be somewhat diminished.

Capello, like many Europeans, resembles an American in the addiction industry in one sense: when he looks at the drinking habits of the English, obviously he would include the Irish if he had any interest in them, he just sees a nation of problem drinkers. Carroll's problems may be in the past, just a youthful indulgence that many have experienced, or it may be deep-rooted.

Carroll, like Wayne Rooney, like Stephen Ireland, will have grown up in a world where they witnessed men escaping through the neck of a bottle. That they have found another way of escaping that world is one staggering achievement. It is a real escape too. An even greater achievement would be if they had been untouched by the world in which they grew up.

These are deep problems that go beyond Carroll and will not be solved by drinking at the right time.

Most of the top managers in England have avoided dealing with them by signing fewer English players. This allows England's problems to be somebody else's to deal with, usually the England manager's. Capello has found Carroll in his in-tray and, for £6 million a year, he is expected to comment on something which commenting on will not improve.

English football has changed for the most part while English society, like Irish society, has not.

Carroll, too, is part of another battle. England want to take him and Jack Wilshere to the under 21 European Championships this summer. One of the reasons for doing so is said to be to educate English players who become restless and bored when they're abroad.

Again a couple of weeks this summer isn't going to fix a deep cultural antipathy to being placed outside their comfort zone. English football is an insular world where Jermaine Pennant can assume an Alan Wicker-style authority when speaking about foreign lands. They have been conditioned to think there is something to fear. When they get there, whether it is to holiday or to play football, they stay in their tribe, frightened that their fears might come true. On the football field, they usually do.

Men like Carroll and Rooney are told they are professional athletes but that makes a startlingly wrong assumption about them: they have not chosen a profession. They are forces of nature, men of their community who have escaped their community but remain part of it.

In all the analysis of Rooney and his problems over the past year, nobody wondered why a man -- a professional athlete -- would need to drink a glass of beer while watching his team play at lunchtime as Rooney did last year. He knew he couldn't do it, as his attempts not to be spotted made clear, but he did it all the same.

For many, this was probably a drink at the right time, just a refreshing accompaniment to an afternoon watching football.

They might be right. Rooney and Carroll are honest footballers who know how to behave most of the time. But the pressure to behave in a way which goes against all their ancestral forces is a mighty pressure. The desire to release it is their struggle. It is endless and won't be solved by eating more broccoli. And it certainly won't be relieved by a few words from Fabio Capello.

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