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Monday, October 12, 1998 Published at 18:43 GMT 19:43 UK

Sport: Football

Football's drink problem

Merson and Gascoigne are not alone in the world of footballing alcoholics

The news that Paul Gascoigne has been admitted to a "drying-out" clinic in a bid to conquer his alcohol problems has surprised few in the world of football.

But this says as much about Gazza's high-profile lifestyle as it does about the relationship between professional footballers and the bottle.

Alcohol has always played a central role in the game.

And reports of the problems that the players have suffered are becoming more and more frequent.

[ image: Malcolm McDonald, like Gascoigne, is in a clinic]
Malcolm McDonald, like Gascoigne, is in a clinic
On Saturday, the day before news of Gascoigne's latest problem broke, it emerged that Malcolm McDonald - the man who still holds the all-time England scoring record of five goals in a match - was also in a detoxifying clinic.

According to reports, the 48-year-old former Newcastle and Arsenal centre-forward had been found in a comatose state, surrounded by empty whisky bottles, in a bed and breakfast in the North East of England.

The Professional Footballers' Association is meeting the clinic's 325-a-day costs on McDonald's behalf and chief executive Gordon Taylor said: "The lad has had a very bad time with his health. He was away on a bender when he was taken to hospital."

Radio 5 Live's Ian Pannell analyses football's drink problem.
The stories of footballing alcoholics are legion. Some of the greatest players the game has ever seen - from Jimmy Greaves and George Best to Gascoigne and Tony Adams - have battled with the bottle.

But why is it that so many supreme sporting stars of the past and present have struggled with such a destructive social problem?

'Big bucks and boredom'

The life of a professional footballer, where fame and adulation are thrust on impressionable young men, carries with it particular pressures.

[ image: England striker Jimmy Greaves overcame alcoholism]
England striker Jimmy Greaves overcame alcoholism
Top players are given enormous amounts of money and, apart from a few hours of training every day, there is little to fill their time.

This combination of excessive wealth and boredom can prove a dangerous mix.

Addictions to drink and gambling are often the result - especially, according to UMIST psychologist Professor Carey Cooper, when British clubs do so little to prevent it.

"Quite a lot of football players have this problem," Prof Cooper explained. "They are young lads, they get very, very big bucks at a very young age and their private lives are exposed to the media.

[ image: Best (right) celebrates with a drink after a game]
Best (right) celebrates with a drink after a game
"And frequently they are not cossetted, helped or supported in that regard by the clubs - whereas if you go to other countries like Italy, a lot of the clubs treat the kids as part of a family."

Paul Merson, like his former Arsenal team-mate Adams, revealed that the pressures of his lifestyle caused a spiral into addiction, resulting in gambling debts estimated at more than 500,000.

The fame game

Ever since Best became sport's first true sex symbol, footballers' lives have resembled those of pop stars.

[ image: Stan Bowles: QPR star struggled with his addictions]
Stan Bowles: QPR star struggled with his addictions
In the 1970s gifted players like Alan Hudson, Rodney Marsh and Frank Worthington were as renowned for their colourful lives off the pitch as they were for their efforts on it.

Another of that group of brilliant '70s mavericks, Stan Bowles of QPR and Nottingham Forest, admitted his own up-and-down career was affected by his nocturnal habits.

Bowles revealed that when he appeared on the cult BBC TV show Superstars, which pitted sportsmen of all fields against each other, he sat up until 1am the night before smoking cigars and drinking pints of lager, wine and large brandies.

The next day his athletic efforts resulted in just seven points - the lowest mark the programme had ever seen.

All at the bar after the game

One reason alcoholism seems so prevalent in football, unlike so many other athletic endeavours, is that is a team sport with an ingrained culture of social drinking.

[ image: Reformed alcoholic Paul McGrath 'needed Dutch courage']
Reformed alcoholic Paul McGrath 'needed Dutch courage'
Managers and coaches have been known to encourage drinking sessions in a bid to instil a collective spirit that they hope will transfer to the pitch.

And even when they disapprove of such activities they still seem to accept it as an intrinsic part of the game.

Last year Wolves boss Mark McGhee was so unimpressed with his side's lacklustre efforts on the park that he asked the players to cut their drinking down. "If they have four or five beers on a Saturday night, they should have three or four instead," he said.

He did not, however, order them to quit drinking altogether.

Footballers operate in a macho world, where heavy drinking has always been accepted, if not glorified.

Paul McGrath - a brilliant defender for Manchester United, Aston Villa and the Republic of Ireland - blamed his own descent into alcoholism on the desire of a young Irishman to fit in with his team-mates.

"I suppose when I came over here to play football I wasn't a good mixer," he said. "Drink gave me a bit of Dutch courage."

Someone once joked that Paul Gascoigne was not fit to lace George Best's drinks.

Not only was he a lesser player, the argument went, he also could not match the Belfast Boy for drinking prowess.

This, it seems, is the problem for the sport.

As long as footballers, supporters and the media celebrate heavy drinking, alcohol will continue to hit the headlines.

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