Saturday 18 November 2017

Stephen Hunt: Copper Face Jacks and crowd surfing - Why having a drink is not a problem if you time it right

England's Wayne Rooney has been making headlines off the pitch this week. Picture: PA Wire
England's Wayne Rooney has been making headlines off the pitch this week. Picture: PA Wire
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

I was thrilled on Thursday when Jurgen Klopp defended Wayne Rooney about having a drink, because I think it was an important reminder that players are human - and I'll give you an example of just how human.

When I made my home debut for Ireland, I ended up in Copper Face Jacks, and wasn't too far off crowd-surfing by the end. I get a little bit embarrassed looking back at it now, but by no means do I regret that night out, or drinks like that.

I had just played my first game for my country, in front of an Irish crowd, and that after eight years of trying and working hard to get to that stage. I had very often sacrificed nights out to get there so now I wanted to go out, to celebrate the occasion with family and friends, to release a bit of the emotion.

Now, given everything that's happened in Rooney's career over the past few weeks, think of the emotion he's been feeling the last while. He probably needed the release so, to criticise him now, it's hard not to think there's an element of the typical English media about it.

I was watching Sky Sports news earlier this week, and they were doing the goody-two-shoes job. Kevin Campbell and Tony Gale were having a pop at him, 'He shouldn't be doing that, it's wrong . . .' Then Klopp came on and it was like he was the only human being left in the Premier League.

Don't forget this is one of the new ultra-fitness managers, but here he was talking about how he was filling his players' glasses at the Christmas party and - rightly - talking about the timing of when you have a drink. It made me almost more in love with Klopp because he doesn't jump to the beat. He was human, and we're in danger of losing that.

As Klopp also alluded to, this is probably the most professional generation of players we've ever seen. Drinking alcohol is almost non-existent.

My career actually started in a drinking culture, and finished in a non-drinking culture, so I've seen it all. I've seen the Tuesday afternoon sessions, that I never got involved in, and I've seen the Saturday nights - that I occasionally got involved in. Nowadays, I know some young players I look after as a representative, and you wouldn't be able to get them out. They just want to be the best they can be. It's brilliant they're dedicated, but I think you have to have a bit of a life too. Otherwise, what is the point of it all?

Jack McGrath after the win in Chicago
Jack McGrath after win in Chicago

I bet the rugby players had a great time after beating New Zealand in Chicago, with nothing written about them, and that's how it should be. You play sport to create memories, so when you do create memories, you should enjoy it.

There is an important performance point here too.

I don't drink very often, and rarely did as a player, but when I knew I needed a mental break, I would. Your mind would tell when you needed a drink or not, but it was your conscience that was the real deciding factor. If I didn't regret it, I knew it was OK to drink, and the key was that I'd often feel better for it. It was just such a relaxer, the sudden freedom of being able to live normally.

And that's the thing. Alcohol obviously has physically damaging effects, but the mental effect of one session - and that unwinding - could often be more beneficial in the long run.

If there was ever a bit of tension in my game, and I then had a night out with the lads when I thought I needed it, I would always train well on the Monday. My body might have briefly been in a worse state, but my mental state would have been better. A night out for the lads, in good company, is good for everyone.

Now from that perspective, imagine Rooney. He's lost his place for club and country in the last few months. He's had his entire game questioned, and his future at this level.

But he hasn't sulked, or spat his dummy out, or tweeted anything stupid. He's got his head down and worked hard. He's also a family man, looking after his kids all the time.

So suddenly, with no competitive game in seven days, he has the chance to unwind a bit. It's not like he went to The Belfry nightclub either. In fact, for all the talk about someone else's wedding, he probably would have enjoyed talking to normal people and having a bit of fun instead of being enclosed in the hotel.

There's another point there, that goes the other way. I've been in the company of big professionals, and they've just blanked fans. I could never do it and was always surprised when they did but, with this story, you could understand why. The public doing this sort of thing is an issue too.

That's probably taken away some of the good of the relaxation for Rooney.

Jurgen Klopp guided his Liverpool side to a goalless draw at Southampton.
Jurgen Klopp spoke sense about Rooney's night on the drink

I felt sympathy for him. Compare it to Klopp's own country, Germany. They seem to get the balance right. You often see pictures of their internationals with a beer in their hand, especially at Oktoberfest, but no-one criticises. It's the right time.

And that timing is key. The crucial point here is that you can't do it regularly. The mental benefit works because you only do it rarely, because it's that change from the routine.

I have seen players that have done drink, and it catches up with them.

They get slower. They put on weight. Their mental strength leaves them. They're not thinking straight, or make the wrong decision, and it brings all sorts of problems.

Some players can get away with regular Saturday nights, but it also depends how badly they're drinking. This isn't the 1990s or early 2000s, when players did drink, and everyone's body fat was up. You're not going to have any chance of catching Hector Bellerin at Arsenal if you're drinking regularly.

But that's the other side of it: this isn't the '90s or early 2000s.

Most players are so ripped, that one rare night on the rip won't make a difference, and can be beneficial.

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